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William Baeck: Writing & Photography


Ah, Little Venice

I’ve been to Venice, and I’ve been to Little Venice. Truth be told, Venezia is the greater, though Little Venice is the nicer. Arriving at mealtime in a side street off St. Marks to find fat bowls of calamari and iced limoncello in tiny tulip glasses tucked side by side on a long pine table, Gondoliers in their “Pirates of Penzance” summer stock revival uniforms singing opera as they slip among hidden water alleys, the stout columns of yellow and blue gilded renaissance buildings dipping into the Grand Canal like a row of Florida grandmothers sitting at pool’s edge with their legs dangling in, Venice is where cynics go to become romantics, and leave finding nothing to improve upon, except prices and drainage.

But Venice was 953 miles and 15 weeks of foreign language lessons away, while Little Venice was one block from our tube stop. And so I gladly swapped the High Renaissance for a double row of Victorian buildings—some still private houses, others apartmented—that flanked this section of Regent’s Canal, safely above the water.

Little Venice is the place where Regent’s Canal and Grand Union Canal meet next to the Warwick Avenue Tube stop. Robert Browning lazed gaudily here for a quarter century’s rest and dreams, from 1862 to 1867, and it was he who named this serene section of watercourse between bouts of poesy. In turn, history has named a coffin-shaped spit of land in the center of the triangular lake Browning’s Island, with the notion that he must have paddled out to it, to lay under willows composing stanzas and remembering his lost Elizabeth, whom jealous Fate had chosen to love him even better after death.

For me, Little Venice was the first of unexpected London, a London that didn’t match my urban conception of the city. After a dozen trips, I had compartmentalized London in my imagination: pavements grey and roadways black, monuments, museums, landmarks and parks, all available via the rectangles of city blocks, taxi cabs, double-decker buses, railways, and tube carriages. Being a tourist here was generally a matter of riding inside one rectangle along another rectangle to arrive at a third. Even nature usually came in 90-degree plots of land: most of the neighborhood parks were as straightsided as if they’d been ordered from Harrod’s, boxed, sent by parcel post, neatly unpacked upon arrival, and left there in front of everybody’s doorstep.

So you’ll understand that I didn’t have a mental pigeonhole for canals that slither and coil lazily through the city, disregarding any sense of geometry. Narrowboats lined either side of the canals, elongated matchboxes moored serenely along the cement walkway a dozen feet below street level.

It was just past noon, mostly their owners were away at work, and these little movable houses rested empty as the apartments above them. The Petunia had a fat row of red-potted yellow petunias arranged like beefeaters guarding its deck. Spiderlace curtains covered the porthole, and where they parted, allowed a glimpse of a well-doilyed interior.

The canals have been here a long time, part of the nation’s industrial revolution, when most of England’s roads weren’t yet much more than the medieval dirt tracks and the canal boats, often pulled by horses clopping before them along the walkways, were the best way to haul goods through the country.

These days, there were over 30,000 diesel-powered narrowboats still swimming the canals, though they were used for leisure, like water-bourne caravans, rather than commerce. A few times each hour, one of these unquiet barques passed by, the pop and bleat of its motor rising to the street as it sheeped its way along the water.

I never did get up the nerve to do more than wave. What I wanted to do was ask where and why they’re going. I wanted to yell, “Holloa! Are you moving from somewhere you don’t need to be to get to somewhere you don’t have to go?” How did a vehicle representing the Industrial Revolution’s need for fast and reliable transportation of goods become a symbol of the Information Age’s desire to move as slowly as possible with no real destination? I wonder, a century hence, will UPS trucks be our new leisure caravan? Perhaps then we can all dress in brown shorts and reflect on how pleasant it is not to be on time.

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