Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Little Leisurely Idol-Worship in London

Ruth, this pose is for you

Monday evening, I flew in over London, listening to the mother behind me excitedly point out the London Eye to her child and trying to match the sights below to their enthusiasm. We ploughed through the clouds, and I wondered if swathes of empty space between heavy cloud cover always indicate an airport below. The sun set in watercolor splendor ahead of us, tinting the massive stretch of metallic city beneath us with mellow hues, and lighting up my first view of the Thames.

For the first minute in the airport, I delighted in being in an English-speaking country. What a conscious relief, to no longer have to strain to understand or ever feel outside of a conversation. Then I passed through customs and realized I couldn’t understand a single thing the people behind me were saying. British accents can be just as daunting as Bergensk.

We are our own totem pole
Throughout my trip, I stayed with British friends of mine from my year in seminary. It’s funny to see them with the same personalities, only five years more mature. One of the things I notice is the confidence they all have, confidence born of belonging securely to one place. They are so certain of their spot. They have not left their home to wander the world and seek their fortune. And the lucky buggers! I don’t think they quite grasp how awesome it is to have GROWN UP IN LONDON! They could literally walk around the city, Dickens in hand, and read the proper parts at the proper places.

Trafalgar Square
Tuesday I did a quick brush-through of the main parts of London. We skimmed the British museum (what an impressive mass of stolen goods! And how fortuitous (or un) that I should begin reading Said’s Orientalism over chag!), Covent Garden with its Easter Egg exhibit, Trafalgar square for a picnic lunch, dipped through the National Gallery (Elana: hey, that’s famous! Wait, that one’s famous too! –Yes, yes, Elana, they’re pretty much ALL famous. That’s why they’re in the National Gallery), saw St. James’s Park and Buckingham Palace, stopped in a Starbucks where OF COURSE I ran into and struck up a conversation in a guy wearing a Buckeyes hat who’d grown up in Columbus long ago, and ended at Westminster on a bridge over the Thames. Pretty much London with ADD, but a good overview of the whole.

St. Paul's
That night Talia took me up to Primrose Hill, above Regents Park, and we got to look out over the city. Humorously, its skyline is less impressive than New York’s. Because the height of buildings must be uniform, it presents less of a scramble of shapes and contours. Yet the distance it stretched out around us, far as the eye could see, was even more impressive.

Wednesday I headed out on my own to St. Paul’s Cathedral, for a literary walking tour through Shakespeare and Dickens’ London. The people I asked for directions were also on the tour, and funnily enough, were Midwesterners visiting their daughter who had been an English major, done a Fulbright ETA in Thailand, and was now studying Gender and Development in London. So yeah, we clicked. And raced each other to answer the questions the tour guide asked about
literature. It was a nice glimpse of what one of my options might look like a few years on. That incarnation of me seemed happy.

The Old Bailey
The tour was led by an adorable, sharp, peppy tiny woman. She reminded me of a cross between Mrs. Moskowitz, my high school history teacher, and Naomi Bilmes (Zev, you’re the only one who can get both of those references). We followed her obediently through Cheapside, past the Old Bailey, down little alleyways in which Shakespeare had drank and Dickens stepped, and threaded Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, and Bleak House through the streets with us. It was slightly disjointed, seeing as how there were 200 years between the two writers, and then another 200 hundred until us, but it was interesting to see the different Londons overlaid one atop the other.

After the tour, I wandered through London happily. From Chauncery Lane to Fleet Street to the Strand, with a stop at Lincoln’s Inn Fields for a picnic, and then further to St. James’s Park to sit and muse on the way in which the names I’ve heard and read forever actually exist. But the fowl quickly distracted me. There are enough exotic ducks and other birds in the park to keep one’s attention forever. And people.

In St. James's Park
Near me, a Jewish family in kippot and tzitzit, skirts and mitpachat, kneels to take a picture. A Muslim family in hijabs stops to watch and let them take it. A little girl feeds the ducks with curious solemnity, her eyes wide and mouth also slightly ajar, glance darting around with peculiar purpose. A fearless pigeon coos right under my bench, waiting for me to drop the crumbs of my Trader Joe’s bar. As if. More pigeons peck around, and their gentle cooing is multiplied by numbers into a rumble.

I feel, as I wonder through London, that I must peg my thoughts to those of my authors, hanging them on the hat stands they’ve scattered through the city for me. But I’m also too much my own person, even “in the middle of St James’s Park on a fine morning,” and the independence fits into Mrs. Dalloway’s story anyhow, so I can’t worry too much.

A young couple sits beside me on the bench, each clasping éclairs in their waiflike fists, each with a bit of neon yellow somewhere on them—for him it’s the lining of his hoodie, for her in the strip of tank top peeking out beneath her leather jacket. They break off crumbs for the flocking pigeons. Their language sounds Slavic, I think. I wish I could understand their muttered asides into each others’ ears.

A child stands up in his stroller, clasping a giant plastic crocodile. His parents stop, confer, and the child is off, waving his crocodile as he runs at the pigeons. Avian fortitude is not strong enough to withstand such an assault, and they scatter, every pigeon for himself. The wildly swinging crocodile hits another little boy on the head. He looks up, sad, wide-eyed, hands in his pockets as though he already knows this is what life has dealt him, and his parents lead him away in a language of their own, ignoring the crocodile-swinger’s parents’ effusive British apologies.

Westminster Abbey. It is very, very large, with vaulted ceilings and archways of rippled stone and curves of marble. It is ornate and has many arabesque flourishes, but it is not as simply beautiful as the Domkirk in Oslo. It is smaller than one would believe could fit all the storied pomp and greatness of England’s history. Indeed, they are running out of space, and memorials climb up the walls like creeper vines.
 Two priests confer near me. They say something about a group of young Asians who ought to remove their hats, and laugh. I can’t understand their accents very well, but I recoil from their laughter and move on, into the first tomb.

I write down the names on the plaques as I go. James Wolfe, Captain Cooke, King Edward (and his treasurer), Henry II, Eleanor of Castile, baronesses, admirals, the inventor of the penny postage system. Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Mary I, Henry VII, Oliver Cromwell (now in the RAF chapel with Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine). Mary Queen of Scots has her own little place, and Prince George of Denmark—how did they get him? We push and jostle and then take elaborate steps back so that we can read the epitaphs we’ve just been walking on. As we pass the most important tombs, I wonder why the coffins are in cages? And why do the cages have doors?

I am poking at the plush seats in the quire when a serene voice announces over a loudspeaker that Westminster Abbey is primarily a place for prayer, and so we pray on the hour. “Let us pray,” she says after a suitable pause of silence, “for countries in war and strife, such as Libya, Syria, and Bahrain.” She does not mention the US or the UK, who have troops out in large numbers fighting on other people’s soil. Theirs is not a war we wish to be reminded of.

The silence continues a bit, but, after all, these are only tourists, and they pop their gum and shift their souvenir bags and then continue on into the tombs.

St. Edward’s shrine is not open. It is too fragile. But through a gap in the stone, I can see a woman in black leaning in to an arched opening. Is she praying? I watch her for a second. For a moment too long. Just as I’m about to move on, she leans back out and moves to the next archway. She is cleaning.

The Northumberland vault has names listed from 1745 until 1988. Is it full now? Or can the next Duke of Northumberland come here and preview his grave?

A nice epitaph: “Here lies all that was mortal of John Paul Homans, Earl of Stafford.” Its optimism delights me. Then Anne of Cleves, Queen of England, and Jane Seymour, Richard II, Anne Neville.

Finally, I reach the Poet’s Corner. Dryden faces me in hoary dignity. I turn, and see Longfellow’s bust. Nice try, Brits. He’s ours. On the floor lie the greats: Browning (a small inscription informs us that Elizabeth Barrett is buried elsewhere), Tennyson, TS Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James, Auden, George Eliot, DH Lawrence, Trollope, and Byron, all clustered together. Over our heads stained glass windows proclaim the names of the controversial: Wilde, Robert Herrick, Gaskell, Marlow, and Francis Burney. A bust of Mathew Arnold high above, perched on the top of a wall, seems a last-minute addition, but the inscription makes up for it: “let but the light appear and thy transfigured walls be touched with flame.”

An American near me asks her son, “no women?” George Eliot, I tell her. Ah, she answers. No knowing how many of these here were actually women. I smile, and let her walk on with the comforting thought that Tennyson, Trollope, and James were perhaps all secretly their sisters.
The memorial to Shakespeare has the Romantics clustered around him on the wall. I take a seat near him, Wordsworth, Coleridge. Shelley and Keats are connected by a wreath. On the floor are interred actors and actresses who played the Shakespearean greats. Lawrence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft. On the wall above, Johnson, Southey, Austen, and the Brontes are memorialized. The Brontes marked in a row, and the words with courage to endure engraved under their names.

Shall I ask the crowds, “do these people matter to you? Do their graves? Or the engraved letters, marking shallow indentations on the floor, in which we’re meant to inscribe their greatness? For they are not even buried here, most of them, are they?”

In the move from royalty of blood to royalty of letters, the monuments grew less impressive. Protect Austen behind bars, place the Brontes up high so the crowds cannot scrabble at them. But, after all, as I place my foot on TS Eliot I read his words beneath me—the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living—and am much more impressed with his monument than with all the ornate gold of king thingummy. The poets write their own epitaphs.

Buckingham Palace
It’s the hour again, and time for another loudspeaker prayer. This one is for “those across the world who turn house into home and people into family.” Nicely said.

There are walks high along the walls, here. Places where the archways open up. I imagine the nuns and priests mischievously peeking out, perhaps dropping water balloons on groups of tourists and then ducking again beneath the pillars.

You, young man with a tuft of hair sticking up and jaws chewing incessantly in your narrow, serious face, you are standing on Samuel Johnson. What Westminster Abbey really ought to have is strings of coffins, suspended and twirling above us, and we must uncomfortably rear our heads back to read the inscriptions on their bottoms as we look up to survey the greats.

Oh, look—Kipling, Dickens, Hardy. Dickens didn’t want to be buried here. Three Chinese teenagers prop themselves up near me. One holds forth passionately on I don’t know what subject, but I feel sure I understand, anyways.

This is very much a chapel-cum-museum. What a mixture of the things humanity venerates. This corner violates the commandment, “thou shalt have no other gods besides Me” most venally. Strange to put the very things a man could fall into worshipping, in a cathedral meant to focus only on God. The monuments to mankind and history’s greatest would make Ayn Rand happy, not the pope.
The composers are also grouped together. I pass Handel, with trumpets around him, and think of Judgment Day before I realize it’s merely meant to be pleasant music.

The American teenager who read with bored gusto, “William Shakespeare” in a final voice, as though there was nothing more to say about him, sits with his back to the monument The rest of his covey follow and speak of the important facts of their lives, and I fume until I remember that I too am sitting and no doubt have my back to someone important. Who? Must check. Oh, no, just some medieval friezes uncovered by restoration. That’s okay.

A little girl plops down beside me with an American sigh. (Did you think sighs don’t have accents? They do.). Her mother heckles their guide to know, are the ashes really under there? The girl sighs again.

“Tired?” I ask.
St. James's Park

“Yes!” she answers. “We did the Tower of London before this.” Her little brother leans around her and adds, “that was looong.”

“But interesting!” she hastens to add, lest I think they’re not grateful for the chance to see London.

“Who’s your favorite author here?” I ask. She pauses a moment. “Oh, I don’t know. There are so many.”

“Shakespeare?” I suggest, nodding towards the statue of the man who’s rather awkwardly propping his elbow upon some heavy stone tomes, one leg casually crossing the other, model-style.

“Oh yes!” she says. “I love him!” Such enthusiasm is unexpected.
Rescuing Humpty Dumpty in Covent Garden

“Have you ever acted in one of his plays?” I try guessing at the source of her excitement.

“No, but I want to.” Definite wistfulness. Who is this kid?

“How old are you?” I restrain myself from adding “anyways” to the end of it.

“Ten.” What delightful precocity of enthusiasm. “Bye now,” she tells me as she obediently pulls up her brother and follows their inquisitive mother and poor guide over to Hardy. After a few minutes, I follow, and stumble upon Noel Coward, really buried in Jamaica. Beneath him, the phrase, A talent to amuse. Is that a terribly good, or simply terrible, epitaph? Well, I suppose only a few months ago I decided to make truth laugh, so perhaps we’ll leave it as positive.
My favorite statue at Trafalgar Square

Near the exit, by the refreshment stand, hangs the puzzling plaque: To the men and women of our race who labored to serve the people of the Sudan, this tablet was erected. 1960. Something in Latin beneath. Which race? Why “race”? What did they do?

Then, again, a bit further on, “To commemorate all of the British race who served Malaya.” What is the “British race”? Does it now include plenty of Malaysians? As I drift down the cloisters, monuments to those who served the Crown in colonial territories, and in India, adorn the walls. Where America grovels apologetically for its cultural imperialism and the Macdonalds rearing their heads throughout the world, England celebrates its conquests in marble.

The stones beneath my feet are mostly rubbed out. I’m sure they must have been recorded somewhere, written down, to prove the truth of “Not marble nor these gilded monuments.” Nothing impresses one of mortality as the shuffling of feet that rub names off of this mortal coil.

The tomb of the Unknown Soldier is ringed in flowers. He’s from France, in 1920. What a risk they take in entombing someone here in the Cathedral. What if he were really a German in disguise? Or French? Or Jewish? A Communist?

The prime ministers chill to the left, but Churchill has prime real estate, front and center. Oddly, FDR sits on the wall near the exit, as well. I leave the Abbey as the hour tolls again.

I walk down to Picadilly Circus and up Regent Street to Oxford Circus, where I’m meeting Katie. The “circus” bits are aptly named. Such masses of humanity crushed together. We play in Hamley’s, a famous British toy store, and then go to St. Martin on the Fields, a church right on Trafalgar Square with a bar in its basement. Tonight is Jazz in the crypt, and we sit with two Finnish guys listening to a blend of flamenco and African beat.

Thursday I circled Hyde Park, strolling beside the Serpentine in quest of the fairies in Kensington Gardens. It was not how I’d imagined it as a child. Where were the flowers abuzz with bees and fairies? Where were the children cleverly crawling out of their prams? Still, the fountains were properly perfect, and I tucked the rest away into my imagination for safekeeping.

 As I walked past Buckingham Palace, I noticed I buzz. It was nearly 11:30, time for the changing of the guard. Though thoroughly unimpressed by grown men who can walk in step, I decided to stay and see it as I was on the spot. I’m glad I did; though the changing of the guard never really happened, I struck up an interesting conversation with an American mom and her kids, and a New Zealand couple on sabbatical. All of this speaking with Americans reminds me how I miss the easy assurance of the American child, the confident intelligence with which they reply to queries. They are raised proudly, curiously, a little brash yet with sensitivity.

I had some time, so I ducked into the National Portrait Gallery for a bit. Most of the faces you didn’t expect to look like that. Fletcher (Beaumont’s buddy), TS Eliot (such a hooked beak of a schnozz!), but Beatrix Potter and Lytton Strachey appeared exactly as expected. The docent marched around, her heels clicking out a metronome so the tourists know what pace to keep to as they tread the rounds between faces.

I met Sara in Leicester Square, where we gobbled down Haagen Daas and then went to see the show of The King’s Speech. It was very good, though rather too like the movie to be properly new. Good to see a British play in London—everything here is so royal, even the thinkers and writers and artists are recognized by royalty. All must have the stamp of the monarchy upon it. Then we drifted about Covent Garden, watching street performers and following Sara’s fashion sense into the shops.
In Covent Garden
On Friday I walked down the Thames walk in the early morning. I stopped opposite the Tower Bridge, leaning over the parapet and giving myself time to imagine Shakespearean characters and Elizabethan intrigues (what was that bloke’s name? Thomas of Essex? Wessex?) being dragged down the road into the Tower. A long way from Buckingham Palace and Westminster, through jeering crowds and leering drunks.

Two Spanish women approach and in rapid streams of Spanish ask me to take a picture. In equally quick English I ask whether they want bridge or tower or both in it. We speak quickly, neither understanding each other’s words but understanding completely and more of our selves shared than if we were to slowly halt and point. No need, then, to hesitate and translate—just let the full brunt of one’s self be felt and all will be understood.

Behind me, a young man sketches the Tower and Thames. I wonder if I will be part of the drawing. The walk along the Thames has grown much busier over this half hour. It is Good Friday, and sunny morning, too. I follow the walk, past Southwark Cathedral, through an open-air market, and hit the Globe. It is... shiny. I snap a quick photo and hurry on. It is not in any way important. Not like the Thames, most real, floating beside me. 

Temple Bar from Dickens!
The Tate Modern is just as modern as the Globe Theater. I’m interested in some of the photography, in a mirror titled “Untitled Painting” that an older lady, unaware of the significance, stops to smooth her hair before, and in a heavily ironic short on how art is destroyed by business. Getting into the spirit of it—were I to place a piece of artwork here, it would be a live stream of the visitors to the museum that visitors could adjust, fast forward, rewind, replay. When left alone, it would return to real time. I’d call it “Memory.”

I cross the bridge to the North Bank. As I pass St. Paul’s Cathedral, a woman rushes up to me. “Do you know what time it starts?” I look at her blankly. “Aren’t you here for the service?” Do I look that much like a British Christian? Or hopefully this year has simply given me an air of comfort and assurance, no matter what city I happen to be in.

John Stuart Mill himself
I wander through the streets again, accidentally stumbling on small treasures like Dr. Samuel Johnson’s house and a string of little parks beside the Thames. The London I’ve known hitherto has difficulty mapping onto this city. A plethora of checking lies before me. Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray... I must re-read them all. Re-envision. Now I’ve dwelt in the space, measured it out by footstep and shadow-slant.

I buy a box of strawberries and, marching past the Good Friday service on jumbo-tron in Trafalgar Square, see the National Gallery with intent, now. Then I wander into Bloomsbury. I sit on a bench in Bedford Square, eat my strawberries and squint at the history-heavy blue dots beside doors all around me. I wish I had time to find Gordon Square and Woolf, but instead I go back into the British Museum to fume that the Reading Room is closed off.

I spent the sedarim with Jordana, my roommate and chavruta from Orot, and her husband, Yair (doing a masters in nationalism, how fascinating), and her rollicking, outrageous, fun family. They all spoke at the same time, over and through and to each other, but when Danya, the youngest, or grandma, the oldest, tried to speak, a miraculous hush would settle and they’d be heard out before the chaos resumed.

The second was a 17-person seder, complete with humorous father asking everyone questions and mother stuffing us with a truly amazing quantity of dishes. An American friend of Yair’s came and after five minutes of speaking to her my mouth began to hurt. American women smile too much. I consciously decided to tone it down, and brought our enthusiastic politeness into calmer waters. The rest of pesach, we shul-hopped in the mornings, and napped and played rounds of board games in the afternoons. Times like that when I truly appreciate the beauty of a Jewish community and miss my own family.

After chag we ran out in a crazy rush to see Titanic in 3D. I’d never seen it in the theater before, and, well, wow. Only problem with Titanic in 3D—it’s annoying to keep pushing up your glasses so you can brush tears away.

Monday Jordana’s family had a day of pesach family fun planned, and let me tag along on a tour of the Jewish East End (betcha didn’t know that Brick Lane used to be mostly shmattah shops) and the Olympic Park, which we all agreed was going to be a colossal and showy waste of money. That night, we went out for kosher l’pesach fish n’ chips! Truly, what more could you want from culinary London? (I had Cadbury's pre-Pesach. Really got it all). 

 Tuesday Jord and I headed to the Tower of London for a proper bit of history. We saw the Crown Jewels, royal menagerie (not in real form), and ancient grafitti that mostly consisted of  prisoners’ trust in God. Very Count of Monte Cristo. Then, back to Heathrow airport, and home to Bergen for a day before Oslo for the rest of pesach. Goodbye, London. I’ll be seeing you again.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! You're such a terrifically busy sponge. Fantastic. I'd spent a semester of college in Florence and then traveled around Europe. In Italy, I kept a wretched journal filled with internal nonsense. Through Europe, I kept a sweet little book of watercolors, making myself comfortable somewhere and then just having fun with a paintbrush and guache and then labeling each page with the place and date. It was "in the moment" fun and really enjoyable but I have no meaningful record to share or that actually helps me remember. Good for you!