Streets Ahead is the column from London Walks' Pen and Daily Constitutional Special Correspondent David Tucker…
I’ve got a thing about them. Spent a year of my life in the embrace of a pretty special document: the manuscript of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Went over it comma by comma. Collated it – comma by comma – against the first published edition of the novel.
It’s hard work. Punishing to the eyes. You’re looking at a comma – well, three or four words – in the MS and then turning your head to look at, look for the same three words in the published edition. You’re looking for differences – a comma not there, a word in the manuscript that turns out to be a different word in the published edition.
Those changes enable you to see what Dickens was doing at “the proof stage.” Maybe explain that term. Dickens sent the manuscript off to the printer. The printer printed “proofs” from the manuscript. The proofs – and the MS – went back to Dickens. He went over the proofs. Corrected them. Changed them. Etc.
So doing what I did effectively meant I was looking over Dickens’ shoulder when he was attending to the proof stage. You’re right there. You can see his hand, his pen moving. Crossing out. Emending. Writing.
But, yeah, hard work. I find it hard enough to read my own handwriting. So you can imagine how taxing it is reading someone else’s. Especially a document that was written nearly 160 years ago.
Hard work. Took a year. Took a lot out of me.
But put more into me than it took out. (As Churchill used to say about whisky.)
It was a year well spent. (And that’s not to mention the manuscript discoveries I made that year – unearthing three manuscript fragments – the longest of them half a page long. Three pieces of manuscript, three passages that Charles Dickens had written that nobody had seen before. Nobody apart from him. And then me, in 1974. But that’s another story.)
The etymology of the word “document” is early 15c., "teaching, instruction," from Old French document (13c.) "lesson, written evidence," from Latin documentum "example, proof, lesson," in Medieval Latin "official written instrument," from docere "to show, teach, cause to know."). Meaning "something written that provides proof or evidence" is from early 18c.
Interestingly enough, it’s cognate with word “doctor.”
It’s curious to think about what documents were then. And what they are now.
A centuries old proclamation – “official written instrument” – on a parchment is priceless not least because of its rarity. In most cases it’s all by its lonesome, there’s only one of it. Ok, some documents did get copied – how else disseminate them? – but even in those cases there may be just two or three surviving copies. Out of just a very few “original” copies.
That Dickens manuscript – if that had caught fire and burned up before he got it to the printer – that’d have been it. No one else but Dickens – and maybe a family member or a servant sneaking a peek – would ever have seen it.
Similarly with the century-old documents I’m going to show you in Part 2 of this post.
Different story now.
Most “documents” today aren’t ink on paper. Aren’t handwritten.
Think – well, if you care to go there – of the un-airbrushed “document” of Kim Kardashian’s ample backside.
Millions saw it pretty much instanta. The going viral process – cancer cells metastasising like a solar explosion – was warp speed stuff. That one “document” – that image – replicating millions of times in a matter of minutes.
Ditto the response, the ancillary stuff. I don’t know if you want to call it healthy white blood cells rushing all over the place or radiation reactivity or whatever – but it was also at warp speed. A whole new diction – “I’m unfollowing her;” “Kim Kardashian fat shamed;” or, taking the other side, “Celebrate cellulite” – seeding the winds.
Like millions of bats coming out of caves.
And then the possessor of the world’s most air-brushed – and now un-air-brushed – derriere trying to take the cyber bullying by the horns, tweeting, at 11.22 pm, “Yup I’ve recently seen perspective is a bitch. I’ll work on taking good videos with better lighting &angles. Fuck you.”
Thought better of it and took it down a minute later.
Too late. A minute too late.
Another colony of bats loosed against, silhouetted, eclipsing a bad moon rising.
Now – and of course you should be asking – what’s this have to do with London Walks?
Well, er, all, er will be revealed next post. Some London documents, some London Walks documents heading your way.
Ink on paper documents.
The point being that some of those documents provide a flash of insight. Others, from that same period, are slow burners, muller-over-ers.
Curiously enough I think some of our 21st century ones – the KK brouhaha being a case in point – can be both.
Both. And in addition something else.
That something else is probably best summed up in the word cacophony.
Which literally means the sound of shit.
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