Sunday 14 October 2018

The Pleasures and Perils of Living Abroad - by Lesley Downer

My Idealed John Bullesses 
by Yoshio Makino 1912
London in 1900 was like New York today, a city where you craned your neck gazing up at the towering stone buildings while all around people rushed hither and thither, sleek and well-dressed, full of importance. At least that was how it seemed to a sensitive 33 year old Tokyoite called Natsume Soseki who arrived on October 28th that year. 

Tokyo too was prosperous and had its share of stone buildings, built largely by western architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright. But it was primarily a low rise city full of narrow streets of dark wooden houses with bamboo shutters and tiled roofs. London was not just huge - a ‘maze’, Soseki called it - but the heart of the greatest empire in the world, whereas Japan had only just had the insulting ‘unequal treaties’ with Britain and other western powers nullified. When the actress Sadayakko performed here, also in 1900, reviewers expressed amazement that someone ‘primitive’ (i.e. not European, let alone British) should seem perfectly sophisticated.
Fleet Street by James Valentine c 1890

Soseki (his first name and pen name) was a pre-eminent scholar of English literature and one of the first graduates of Tokyo Imperial University’s English Literature department. He had been sent to study for two years by the Japanese government, keen to learn as much as possible from the most powerful country in the world.

But he really didn’t want to go. For a start he had to leave his pregnant wife behind. He had a very small stipend and spent most of it on books, which didn’t leave much for rent. He stayed in a succession of shabby lodging houses - in Gower Street near the British Museum, Priory Road in West Hampstead, the ‘gloomy, squalid neighbourhood of the notorious slum Camberwell’, Tooting and lastly Clapham Common, the one place where he felt even remotely contented. 

Farewell photo before Soseki's departure
for London. Soseki is bottom right
From the start he was lonely and miserable. He hated the weather, the food and the tube, ‘the foulness of the air and the train’s swaying.’ He spent most of his time holed up in his room. The only English people he got to know were his landladies and their families.

When he did go out for a walk, he felt terribly self conscious about his smallness of stature. Everyone he met was ‘depressingly tall,’ he wrote. Once he saw an ‘unusually small person’ approaching and thought, ‘Eureka!’, then realised this person was still 2 inches taller than he was. Finally ‘a strangely complexioned Tom Thumb approaches, but now I realise this is my own image reflected in a mirror.’ In the park ‘herds of women walk around like horned lionesses with nets on their heads.’ He was struck by the fact that even tradesmen ‘are for the most part better dressed than many a high ranking official in Japan ... A butcher’s boy, when Sunday rolls around, will proudly put on his silk hat and frock coat.’

Behind his back he heard people referring to him as a ‘least-poor Chinese’, a very strange adjective, as he noted. He was also mistaken at the theatre for a Portuguese.

To improve his health his landlady suggested that he take up cycling so he set off for the horse riding area on Clapham Common where there would not be too many spectators. His efforts resulted in a series of comic mishaps with him nearly running down a policeman.
Soseki in 1912

Eventually he became so isolated and miserable that his landlady, doctor and fellow lodgers advised him to take a holiday. So he went to Scotland, where he made the discovery that British people didn’t go moon-viewing or appreciate moss and began to doubt whether the British were really worth the reverence in which they were held in Japan.

He did experience some kindnesses. A beefeater at the Tower of London went out of his way to show him a suit of Japanese armour, ‘presented to Charles II from Mongolia.’ He was in London when Queen Victoria died in January 1901 and his landlord lifted him onto his shoulders so that he could see the funeral cortege. 

Nevertheless all in all it was a miserable experience. ‘The two years I spent in London were the most unpleasant years in my life,’ he later wrote. ‘Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves. I understand the population of London is about five million. Frankly speaking, I felt as if I were a drop of water amid five million drops of oil.’
Plaque at 81 The Chase, Clapham

But in fact Soseki’s lonely years were the making of him. He wrote about them wryly and humorously in several early works and went on to become one of the most beloved Japanese novelists of all time, author of Kokoro, Botchan and I am a Cat, among many others.

Yoshio Makino in contrast adored London. A artist three years younger than Soseki, he arrived a few years before him, in 1897, though there is no evidence that their paths ever crossed.

Makino particularly loved the mist and fog of the English landscape. He wrote, ‘London in mist is far above my own ideal ... the colour and its effects are most wonderful. I think London without mists would be like a bride without a trousseau ... The London mist attracts me so that I do not feel that I could live any other place but London.’

He lived in London for 45 years, mainly in Kensington, and did many paintings - of the Thames, Earl’s Court Station, Sloane Square, all studies in mist; of Fulham Road with a church spire looming out of the gloom, pavements glittering on a rainy night, shadowy nightspots with crowds of women emerging from brightly lit houses into a dark street. 

He also admired British women and painted many pictures of them. He called them John Bullesses (after John Bull). ‘Some John Bullesses bury themselves into such thick fur overcoats in winter. You can hardly see their eyes; all other parts are covered with foxes’ tails, minks’ heads, seals’ back skin, a whole bird, snakeskin, etc. ... But when they get into a house and take off all those heavy wearing, such a light and charming butterfly comes out,’ he wrote.

Soseki’s stay came to an end in January 1903 but Makino stayed on till 1942 when he was reluctantly repatriated. He spent the rest of his life trying to get back to England.

Quotations from The Tower of London, Tales of Victorian London, by Natsume Soseki, translated and introduced by Damian Flanagan, the great enthusiast of and authority on Natsume Soseki. Published by Peter Owen, 2005.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback.

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All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating to see early 20th century London from the point of view of a Japanese - well, two of them. Poor Soseki, he does sound miserable!

Lesley Downer said...

Thanks, Sue! He was very famously very miserable!

Renae Lucas-Hall said...

I've always been a fan of Natsume Soseki but I never knew he lived in London for so long. It was really fascinating to read about his perception of London and Londoners. Your article was an absolute eye-opener. By the way, I loved your book 'The Shogun's Queen'. Anyone reading this comment should buy it asap. It's a wonderful read.

Lesley Downer said...

Thank you, Renae!