Monday, March 15, 2010

Falling in love with a city

"Sir, if you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of this city, you must not be satisfied with seeing its great streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts. It is not in the showy evolutions of buildings, but in the multiplicity of human habitations which are crowded together, that the wonderful immensity of London consists."

- from Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson


This is perhaps the second most famous quote from the good Dr. Johnson about his adopted home town. In it he perfectly captures the essence of the city that I came to know for the first time this past month.

So many cities wear greatness on their sleeves. New York and Chicago make impressive statements with their skyscrapers, Paris and Barcelona with their boulevards, St. Petersburg and Washington D.C. with their great open spaces. By contrast, London doesn't make broad gestures to get your attention, it sneaks up on you. There are actually many Londons, the city can't possibly be understood in one grand sweep, but a series of investigations. As such the city doesn't force itself on you, it lets itself be what you want it to be, while still remaining unabashedly London to the core.

Trips lately have been rather infrequent as family obligations have kept me happily grounded. But the opportunity to visit London was too good to pass up. It didn't take much arm twisting to convince my wife to join me. I've wanted to visit as long as I can remember and made several plans over the years as the number of guidebooks on my bookshelf can attest. It was not to be however until now.

Expectations and how they play out, are such an important part in one's impression of a new city. Nothing is more gratifying than discovering an unexpected treasure. Likewise there's nothing worse than having high expectations dashed. Frankly I had mixed expectations about London. Recommendations from friends couldn't have been higher, to a person everyone said what a great walking city it was. There is no better recommendation for a city to me than that.

On the other hand, I broke open one of the guidebooks that sat idly all those years whose author prided himself on being brutally honest (I'd call it just brutal) not only about London, but the whole of English culture. Everything about the city according to him, is about class and commerce, there is very little room in London for those without proper upbringing or resources. The architecture is second rate, the food terrible, the people are cold and withdrawn. Even the few noble historical events that the author cared to note came with a caveat. I concluded from the book's sheer negativity that it could only have been written by a native.

We also rented a few travel videos and quite honestly, seeing the Tower of London, the office towers in the Financial District and the Changing of the Guard ad nauseam, made London look stuffy and downright dowdy.

This is where the good Dr. Johnson's comments hit the nail squarely on the head. I can honestly say that I fell in love with London the moment I first laid eyes on it, driving in from the airport. I fell in love with the intimacy of the place, an enormous city that doesn't overwhelm you with its size. Not that eight million or so residents aren't out and about at any given moment, or that London isn't a sprawling city. But as Dr, Johnson suggests, every nook and cranny has something to offer, so one is never bored.

During that drive we were stuck in a terrific mid day traffic jam, stop and go traffic that was not unlike crosstown Manhattan's at rush hour. But I didn't mind it in the least. There was so much to take in, not the least was conversing with my two new friends, the chaps from the brokerage firm that accompanied my cargo and me to the center of town.

Eventually the "showy evolutions of buildings" appeared. We first passed the museums that were built for the Great Exposition of the 1850s, two great masses of high Victoriana, the Museum of Natural History and the Victoria and Albert Museum, the entrance of which is pictured here. They were buildings built with such confidence and exuberance, that a visitor from America such as myself could be excused for being wowed by the sight of them.

Next came the legendary Harrods, then Fortnum and Mason's, two stores that my mates suggested I bring my wife, (who would arrive the following day) after closing hours to avoid spending the entire per dium in one stop. Monuments of consumption but with a twist. Outside of F&M's, certainly one of the most elegant shops in the world, was a homeless man who was being tended to by store employees. From what I learned, he was a regular fixture there. One can imagine a comparable establishment anywhere else where he would have been discreetly ushered out of sight.

I was put up right in the heart of the city, just off Trafalgar Square. The first thing I did on my own was visit the public square that the author of my guidebook criticized severely for its lack of architectural cohesiveness. Perhaps, but what a collection of treasures, The Church of St. Martin in the Fields (home to its famous eponymous orchestra), the Admiralty Arch, Nelson's Column, the National Portrait Gallery (who paid for my trip thank you very much), and the indescribable National Gallery. It was from that great museum's porch that I was struck with my first view of the bell tower of Westminster Palace, home of the Houses of Parliament, known to all simply as Big Ben. Someone told me that in London, it's difficult to get one's bearings as the streets are so narrow and winding. But there it was, the city's most iconic landmark clear as day, big and beautiful, beckoning me, off in the distance, my first assumption to be shattered.

Within a few blocks of the tower, I heard the familiar chime of the quarter hour, the Westminster Chimes. It was 12:45 and I knew that in 15 minutes I might have my one and only chance to hear Ben himself chiming the hour. One clang would be all that I would take home from that magnificent chunk of metal. The wait certainly was not time wasted. Big Ben has tolled on the hour virtually non stop for nearly 150 years. It has been heard in person by millions, billions perhaps courtesy of the BBC. All the Queens and Kings of England since Victoria have heard it. It was heard daily by Disraeli, by Lloyd George, and by Churchill. More than likely it was heard by Sir John Herschel and Charles Darwin, by Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf . It was heard by Charlie Chaplin and the Beatles. During the Blitz of 1940, German bombs landed within feet of it destroying the House of Commons, but were unable to silence it. It rang throughout the war. All the words I read, all the images I ever saw, all the dreams of London I ever had were summed up in that one brief moment. I had finally arrived.

The fact that I heard the tolling of Big Ben only once during my week in London is significant. London the world capital, the center of arguably the greatest empire the world has ever known, does not have a central focal point symbolizing that power. Unlike the U.S. Capitol or the Kremlin, Westminster Palace, the indelible symbol of its city and nation, does not reside in the heart of town. All roads do not lead to it. You have to seek it out. The same is true for the center of symbolic power, the Monarchy. Buckingham Palace is off the beaten path and can be easily avoided, something I did without much regret.

There are critics, including the author of my guidebook, (in this respect he compares London unfavorably to Chicago), who bemoan the fact that London never benefited from a central plan to tie all its pieces together. As a result, London today continues to feel like collection of small towns rather than a unified city. The West End is an exception. The architect John Nash is responsible for the plan of Regent Street and its environs, which date from the early 19th Century. He also designed all the buildings on the street from Piccadilly Circus up to and including All Souls Church. His commercial buildings were replaced at the turn of the 20th Century when department stores became fashionable and the original buildings were deemed obsolete. The buildings we see today were built between the late 1890s and mid 1920s in the Beaux Arts style, all to the same height and out of the same material, Portland stone. As such, Regent Street is reminiscent of the boulevards of Paris. Unlike its Parisian counterparts, Regent Street is laid out in a curve, one cannot see more than a few hundred meters at any point in either direction. The effect is dramatic and stunning. For my money this is certainly one of the most beautiful streets I have ever seen.

Yet Regent Street is an anomaly in London where most of the streets are irregular and buildings are built in an eclectic array of architectural styles and features. Personally I have no problem with this. Having lived my life in a city dominated by the Cartesian grid and fairly predictable architecture, London is a breath of fresh air.

While London is not at all a historic theme park as many cities have become, history is there for the taking. We happened upon the changing of the horseguard at Horse Guards Parade, opposite St. James Park from Buckingham Palace. A mounted police officer warned the assembled crowd about pick pockets, then gave us a little insight into the regiment of guards saddled in front of us. It turned out they were enlisted in the same regiment that defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. After making sure there were French tourists in the crowd, the officer relished the opportunity to deliver this information to them in their own language, in his strong East End accent.

Working in a museum means that I usually avoid the "busman's holiday" of singling out museums in other cities. But I was inspired as London has truly some of the greatest museums in the world which are virtually all free. Here are some of our highlights:
  • Housed in an enormous former power plant, the Tate Modern is the newest addition to the city's illustrious collection of institutions. As a converted building, the space has been adapted brilliantly. The Turbine Room, the cavernous temporary exhibition space that greets you as you enter is stark but breathtaking. The museum exhibits art from 1900 to the present, some of which for better or worse pushes the envelope of popular taste farther than most institutions on this side of the Atlantic.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, the aforementioned Victoria and Albert Museum is where the 19th Century remains gloriously alive. The V&A is affectionately dubbed "London's attic" as its enormous, eclectic collection of decorative arts is unapologetically displayed in a casual, non- pedantic style, contrary to modern curatorial practice.
  • The finest work of art in the National Portrait Gallery is arguably its earliest, a panel paining of King Henry VII by an unknown artist. The history of Great Britain can be found at this museum in life portraits of most of the people who currently inhabit the vaults of Westminster Abbey. But the museum is not simply a who's who of England, its contemporary galleries feature the works of outstanding artists working in the portrait genre.
  • The British Museum with its charm intact contrary to the song, has one of the greatest collections of art and artifacts produced by human civilization under one roof. Of course the rest of the world wants its stuff back, and the museum's vast collection exists as a monument to the time when the sun indeed never set on the British Empire.
  • Two visits barely scratched the surface of the National Gallery which is simply overwhelming in the number of masterpieces of painting from 1300 to 1900 in its collection. My very favorite painting, Van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait is part of the collection as well as many new favorites.
We missed many essential museums, the Cortauld Institute, the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms, Sir John Soane's Museum, to name but a few of the couple of hundred or so not to be missed.

While most of the museums of London are free, the churches are not, at least not the two most famous ones.

It is impossible for an American to comprehend the importance Westminster Abbey to the British people as we have nothing comparable to it. It is the place where every coronation has taken place since William the Conqueror's in 1066. It's the final resting place of royalty, as well as a pantheon of some of the most important individuals in English history. And it is, along with Canterbury Cathedral, the center of the Anglican faith.

While there is no charge to visit the nave, you must enter it through the gift shop. There is a steep admission for the rest of the great church, which contains the high altar and most of the tombs, including Poet's Corner, where Chaucer, Robert Browning, and Samuel Johnson to name a few are buried. This posed an interesting observation, you can stand over the remains of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin for free in the nave but standing over Ben Johnson and Charles Dickens will set you back a rather steep fifteen pounds. Does this mean the English place a premium on the arts over science?

In this most profoundly British of places, it was astonishing to find in some very prominent spots, monuments to those who were not British. The most remarkable of these is a group of ten Twentieth Century Christian martyrs, assembled in the niches directly above the West Gate of the Abbey. The central figure in the group is Martin Luther King Jr. A complete list of the group along with their stories can be found here.

Christopher Wren's masterpiece St. Paul's Cathedral also has an admission fee (£12.50) although you can still worship there for no charge if you promise not to sightsee. There seems to be no limit to the number of folks willing to dish out the equivalent of about 20 bucks to see the Cathedral, but only a handful show up for the services, at least that was the case the Sunday we were there. There were about 100 worshipers (in a building that can seat perhaps 30,000) scattered under the great dome. We were treated to the sounds of the Cathedral's organ and its boys' and men's choirs echoing through the building. The small turnout combined with the address given by the Right Reverend Michael Colclough which mentioned the fact that only 2 percent of England's children currently receive Christian religious education does not bode well for the future of the Church of England in England. After the service we slowly made our way to the door, taking in as much as possible when an usher asked if we were planning to attend the next service. When we answered no she politely insisted that we leave immediately. Indeed, St. Paul's resembles a museum more than a church these days, unfortunately reminding me of the Russian cathedrals in Moscow and St. Petersburg that were converted in Soviet times to museums dedicated to the triumph of science over religion . (They have since been turned back into churches).

All that aside, St. Paul's holds a place of prominence in the hearts and minds of Londoners (as it indeed should for all of us) as its near miraculous survival of the German bombs during the Battle of Britain symbolizes the fierce dedication of the city's inhabitants to save their city, not to mention their country and civilization as we know it from Hitler's onslaught.

British theater is one of those must do experiences like going to the opera in Italy (which I didn't), or the ballet in Russia (which I did). Fortunately theater, unlike most things in London is surprisingly reasonable, and there are bargains to be had on top of that. Out of the plethora of choices we had at our disposal, we chose Twelfth Night performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the West End. Anyone who would expect this to be a rarefied, pretentious experience couldn't be more off. This was a bawdy performance of the Bard's comedy played for belly laughs. The wonderful thing to both of us was the audience which was diverse in age and ethnicity. Unlike in the States, it was not an up tight crowd in the least, everyone was there for a rollicking good time, no "Shakespeare is good for you" attitude to be found. The performance was as one would expect flawless and it was our most memorable experience out of many.

There is simply too much to see in London in one trip. The good news is that it hardly matters. If you go, feel free to plan as many things as possible, you will quickly realize that getting from place to place is as rewarding as arriving at your planned destination. Along the way you will find any number of diversions, a book shop, private ones still exist there by the score, or perhaps a pub, maybe a little alley to explore, or an architectural gem such as this one pictured, the beautiful interior of All Saints Church by William Butterfield.

And if you don't get to your particular destination, well, there is a famous expression that sums up the London experience as well as its people.

The phrase is "Keep calm and carry on." Today you can find it adorning tee shirts, posters, and handbags in souvenir shops all about town. We bought an enameled poster which now hangs in our kitchen. The expression seems to underlie the stereotypical "stiff upper lip" attitude of the English people, one can imagine a prickly English nanny admonishing a crying child with it. This seemingly innocuous phrase was coined for a poster that was printed in 1939 in preparation for war. Although the posters were never distributed, this phrase has become emblematic of the resolve of the people during an indescribably bleak period of their history. Winston Churchill predicted famously it would be their "finest hour".


Pearly Kings and Queen, East End
Of course one has to be careful with stereotypes. I've never been convinced for example that New Yorkers or Parisians are particularly rude, although I have encountered a few examples at times in my life. The same goes for the repressed, reserved, stiff upper lipped English, a character that I have yet to fully realize. Our reception in London, save perhaps for the occasion with the usher at the Cathedral, could not have been warmer. I truly can't think of a city where I have felt more at home, including at times my own city.

London doesn't impose itself on you. It is the most pliable city I have ever visited. No amount of preparation can adequately describe it, you simply have to be there. Paris looks and feels exactly like the pictures. Visit the Art Institute of Chicago and have look at Caillebotte's magnificent Rainy Day Paris, or any number of the other French Impressionist paintings, and you will be transported there. London is a different animal. No portfolio of images can capture the whole of it.

Music may be a better means to evoke London. An essential London soundtrack would have to be very eclectic. For starters you need the Baroque of Henry Purcell and G. F. Handel. Throw in a little Mozart performed at St. Martin in the Fields. Then add Ralph Vaughn Williams, Percy Grainger and Gustav Holst. For seasoning, some Gilbert and Sullivan is a must as is the tradition of the English Music Hall. You'll need some great popular standards like the Gershwins' A Foggy Day (in London Town), A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square, and Roger Miller's charming England Swings (like a Pendulum Do). Then there's the British Invasion: The Kinks with their hauntingly beautiful Waterloo Sunset, Ralph McTell's poignant Streets of London, The Rolling Stones, the divas, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark and Marianne Faithful. Oh yes there was a quartet from Liverpool who had some success with a few of their tunes recorded over on Abbey Road. Jimi Hendrix did most of his recording in London too, in fact I heard you can still buy stuff from the guy who built all of his guitar effects.
One man band Lewis Floyd Henry channelling Jimi Hendrix
I almost forgot the very British Liberty Bell March by John Phillip Souza:


If there is a better example of the close cultural ties between our two countries I can't think of it.
Of course you can't ignore the Glam Rockers; David Bowie, and Elton John, and the Punks; The Sex Pistols, London Calling by The Clash. The list goes on and on and on.

Top it all off with contemporary music from the Caribbean and Africa, from India the Middle East and the rest of the world, and you may scratch the surface of this tremendously complex city.

By comparison, a guy wearing a beret playing the concertina on the Quai Saint-Michel pretty much conjures up the whole of Paris musically.

I close this piece as I opened it, with the words of Samuel Johnson as recounted in his biography by James Boswell. Here is his most famous quote about London, a snippet of which can be found in virtually every description of the city:

"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

After we came home and our friends asked if we went to this or did we see that, upon recounting all the things we did, and the things we wished we had done and hadn't, we asked ourselves, what can two people in one week possibly accomplish in a city where a lifetime is barely enough.

4 comments:

Francis said...

What guidebook did you have anyway? I think it has been quite some time since anyone uttered the old cliche about the food in London being terrible. Expensive, yes, but not terrible. I think you would like Ian Nairn's "Nairn's London" if you can get your hands on a copy. It was written in the 1960s but is the best architectural guidebook I have ever read. Also, Roger Ebert (a fan of Nairn) wrote a very nice book on London.

Great post!

jamesiska said...

Thank you Francis.

The guidebook in question is "Cardogan Guide London" written by Andrew Gumbel.

As I said, it had been sitting on my shelf for a number of years, my copy was published in the mid-ninties.

Yes the topic of English food is an old stereotype just like the typical British personality, a subject upon which he also goes into great detail.

Thanks for the recommendations, I will definitely check them out.

Also I'd be remiss not to credit you for sending us in the direction of Regent Street and All Saints Church.

Much obliged.

Francis said...

Actually, I was sure the first thing you would do was go to Abbey Road and have your picture taken crossing the street.

jamesiska said...

Don't think I didn't want to but alas...
Maybe the next trip.