Monday, 31 December 2018

White City


Several times in The Alexandria Quartet Lawrence Durrell describes Alexandria as the ‘white city’ as in this excerpt from the third volume Mountolive.

A sea-wind chaffered and tugged at the sea-limits of the estuary. Higher still roamed packages of smoking, blood-stained cloud throwing down a strange radiance into the streets and squares of the white city. Rain was a rare and brief winter phenomenon in Alexandria.

Ibrahim Abdel Meguid does the  same in his novel No One Sleeps in Alexandria.

In the evening he told Magd al-Din about the city where he had spent all that time, white Alexandria, where foreigners from all over the world and poor Egyptians from all over the land went.

Alexandria’s whiteness is in contrast to the dustiness of Cairo, a city blown by desert winds, shrouded in sand,  whereas Alexandria glistens with salt crystals from the evening breezes off the sea. 

Which made me think of other cities called white.  Tel Aviv for example and Nicosia which in Greek is called Lefkosia, literally the White Place.

But what about that part of my own city that I never think about at all nor do I ever go there?  That rundown area shoved up against Shepherd’s Bush and amputated from Holland Park and the heart of London by a motorway.  How did White City get its name?

Only recently, seeing a set of striking postcard scenes of the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition celebrating the new alliance between the countries did I understand. 

The 1908 Franco-British Exhibition.

The exhibition is indeed a fabulous white city.  And the name was further popularised when the Olympic Games were held next door in the same year.  The 1908 Olympics were meant to be held in Rome but the explosion of Vesuvius caused the Italians to direct their attention to the devastation round the Bay of Naples.  Runner-up London quickly stepped in, a running track was built, and the Olympics and the Franco-British Exhibition ran side by side at what was now indelibly called White City.

1908 White City Marathon.
The exhibition was torn down and the Olympic track given over to dog racing.  Then the motorway finished it off.  But not quite because the BBC built a hideous television studio there which I gather is now protected as a national treasure, and a vast shopping centre has been erected there.  I gather it is even quite trendy to live in White City these days.

BBC Television Studios.

Maybe I should jump on the 31 bus and take a look.