Before we left for London, my hair stylist asked me what my highlight of the trip would be. I was a bit taken back, as we hadn’t yet gone so it would be hard for me answer. However, as I now consider the question, I realized that what is most memorable, and what is most striking, is that we are HERE; the sheer thrill of walking down the street and seeing double-decker busses; Black London cabs; drivers on the wrong side of the street; beautiful, novel and historic architecture; upholstered seats in the Tube; the quite politeness of the people (in contrast to the bold, brassy look-at-me Americans); the daffy and striking names and use of language (the destination of the northern direction of the Piccadilly tube line [that name is, itself, a tickler]: Cockfosters—really! What about the children??); and most enchanting of all, hearing the lilting sing-song of British English being spoken in nearly every encounter.
Do you think it possible that a successful restaurant chain in the US would choose the name for their establishments, ‘Slug and Lettuce’? Of course not. What would possess someone to do this? Equally surprising, it works—at least here. And I love these; the first, a moving truck (or whatever a “Master Remover” is…) with the company slogan in the side—it is an aphorism of humorous wisdom, not compelling sales hype, at least it would not be in the US.
“Tell the Truth and Run”
The second, another large truck with an admirable, if puzzling, mission for a vehicle this size.
We have chosen to return to London rather than go to somewhere new and I now know why. Our favorite places, which we love, and are drawn to, are New York, London and Rome (and Paris). The reason is that they are the capitals of empires that have shaped Western history: Rome from 1st century BCE to the 16th century (via the Church); London from the 17th to the 20th century; (France in the 18-19 centuries); and the US in the 20th century. They are bursting with the art and architecture of empire; both what was plundered and what was created, housed in the great museums, and with deep historical markings woven into the fabric of everyday life. What I particularly enjoy, especially in London and Rome (because of the reach of their historical past), is walking down the street and encountering historical “mashups”. Here are several pics of what I mean:
A view from inside the British Museum of the column of Ramses II, 13th century BCE (Egypt being part of the British empire and the column taken from Napoleon), looking through a glass roof constructed at the beginning of the 21st century, looking through and out onto a 18th century building constructed in the model of ancient Greece and Rome to confer the imprimatur of EMPIRE.
A traffic stop in the London financial district with “Greek/Roman” buildings from the 18th century, stoplight/double-decker modern foreground, and striking 21st century glass buildings in the looming background (the “Shard” and the “Gerkin”), with cranes promising more.
Greenwich, a lovely town outside (but a part of) London, is the location of the Royal Observatory, a naval museum, and Greenwich Mean Time. This spot, longitudinal ground zero, marks where the shipwrecking navigational uncertainty of east-west seafaring was solved using astronomy and time keeping. It is also the resting place of the Cutty Sark, the last, greatest, and fastest clipper ship (see pic; it is moored on a pedestal).
It is sleek, elegant and shark-like, built in 1869—the culmination of human history of sailing, soon to be replaced by smoke, fire and iron. We saw the Turner painting, “The Fighting Temeraire” at the National Gallery that captures the moment of steel replacing sail; very evocative, and it will be on the British 20 Pound note in several years.
And finally, the visible effects of empire are to be encountered in the people: many dark-skinned people from the far reaches of the empire; the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, many speaking the Queens English. And many not. The first language of over half of Londoners is not English. The mashup is in the streets—in both the architecture and in those walking the streets.
The London skyline is a cultural Grand Canyon, where the strata of history is visible in the architectural layers; from the Tower of London to St. Paul’s to the Shard. The strata of the Empire is also visible in the people; from the Anglo-Saxons to the accented speech of the Scots and Irish (that hint at centuries of enmity, conflict and compromise); from to the brown faces of colonialism to the newly arrived EU members speaking many languages, seeking work (who, ironically, are the byproduct of Hitler’s failed attempt for racial purity). Unlike the architecture, however, the people are the living, breathing, dynamic presence of history that walk the streets, make love between the sheets, and shape what is said, sold, eaten, discussed, disputed, legislated.
“The past is not dead. In fact, it is not even past”—Faulkner.