THE GREAT TALKATIVE peoples – such as the Greeks, or the French – according to that great talkative person, the Romanian philosopher EM Cioran, excel in the “technique of trifles”.
With his fourth book, Travis Elborough might be said to have perfected his already impressive trifling technique. The Bus We Loved: London’s Affair with the Routemaster (2005); The Long-player Goodbye: The Album from Vinyl to iPod and Back Again (2008); and Wish You Were Here: England on Sea (2010): the Elborough method is to salvage objects, places and ideas that have been overlooked or unconsidered, to layer them in a prose so tasty, so rich and so smooth that it resembles both custard and cream, and with a flick of his elegant wrist to serve them up before the public as the daintiest of dishes. In London Bridge in America he now adds nuts and cherries to this tipsy mix, by going fully transatlantic.
It tells three stories: that of the building of London Bridge in the 19th century; the story of its sale to a multimillionaire oil baron in the 1960s; and the long and complicated story of 20th-century British decline and American ascendancy. But there is much else here besides, including a nice debunking of the myth of Arthur Furguson, the infamous conman who seems not, in fact, to have existed at all, but who was long reputed to have sold Nelson’s Column, Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square to gullible and greedy Americans. Furguson turns out to be an imaginary figure representing Old World/New World anxieties and antipathies. At no point, Elborough is at pains to point out, were the American buyers of good old dull, granite-arched London Bridge under the impression they had bought the much more impressive and iconic Tower Bridge: this is just a Furguson-style fantasy. A book about ambitions and desires, London Bridge in America is also a book about deceptions and fears. In Elborough’s own words, it is a
work “as serpentine as the Thames, with many loops and eddies and possibly some high and low tides”. He hits low tide no more than a couple of times – in the long diversion about Thomas Paine’s bridge-building ambitions, for example, and in some of the more maddeningly meandering asides – but high tide comes in the extraordinary form of Robert P McCulloch, chainsaw entrepreneur and outboard-motor maker, who founded the city of Lake Havasu in the Arizonan desert in the early 1960s. McCulloch was the man who decided, along with his sidekick Corneilus Vanderbilt “Woody” Wood Jnr, theme park engineer and winner of the annual World’s Championship Chili Cookoff, that his new city needed a big landmark to put it on the map.
And City of London Corporation councillor and PR man Ivan “Frankie” Luckin persuaded them that the landmark they needed was London Bridge.