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LONDON—If you happen to be in London for the summer, and you’re waiting for the No. 49 bus stop at Shepherd’s Bush Green past midnight, you’ll see how hard it is to understand, much less summarize, a city like this in the space of an essay. In between lovely greens, brooding men threaten another with knives; drunken people stagger around looking for a light; forlorn homeless wander past into the dark of the park; someone breaks a car window; friends laugh and urinate on storefronts; the police pass, looking for someone, maybe you.
And then, when things can’t get any more dodgy (as they say), a bright face under dripping hair offers directions (oh, the No. 49 bus doesn’t run at night) and asks questions (there’s a lot of crime in New York too, ain’t there) in a cockney accent, not the sort known to be particularly chatty with out-of-towners. She reveals: “There’s that London [gesturing perhaps towards Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square] but there’s also this London [nodding at the drunk in the shadows]. And after 11, there’s another city entirely.”
Waiting for that legendary red double decker bus is part of a revelatory experience, a continual revision of what a place is, a kind of decoder ring for the city’s century-old myth. That a city like London is, to use Benjamin Disraeli’s phrase, one of “two nations” is not surprising, but it’s not enough to see it through A Clockwork Orange’s blood-colored lens, or even in Dickens’ soot-tinged ink. Once, his dirty, patchwork metropolis of chimney sweeps and scofflaws was no more impressive to me than the broad, imperial tones of a history textbook or a Lord Soandso (chancellor, historian, poet, collector of exotic birds) majestically painting the background of the Imperial City, with its thatch roofs, flying buttresses, Big Ben, the golden Houses of Parliament.
My first visits here, on holiday (not vacation!) were no less mythic than these imagined landscapes. I spent my time strolling around the secretive gardens of Westminster, pressing my camera against the iron of Buckingham Palace, throwing my lanky frame around an exorbitant mega-disco, spinning dumbly at the continuous vroom of oblivious Ferraris. A few years ago, staring despondently across Kensington Gardens through a late spring haze, I found myself looking into the far reaches of the old, overgrown empire—fertile Punjab farms, the plains of Kenya, the plantations of Virginia. The finished postcard canvas was cold and foreboding: Ferraris and investment banks and high manners alongside Wordsworth’s thronged alleys; abject poverty beside obscene wealth is a good place to write history or poetry but not much of a place to live.
But this is a different time, and it’s a different place, and I’m a different person. It’s not that I’ve matured in any way—no, lately I feel the opposite: it’s that I’m living in London, staying here, planting some roots, tenuous though they may be. The person you are when living somewhere, strolling around damp street corners and lazying around Regents Park and getting dressed for a newspaper job is not the person you are when you’re on holiday, pushing through queues and wax museums and hustling to get to the play on time, map flapping in the wind like a cape as you barrel down Picadilly Circus.
It’s common travel lit philosophy that one of the joys of journeying is the ability to discover and even reinvent yourself. That may be, but when you’re on holiday, with family or friends, counting the days before you’ll have to return to the airport, the only self-reflection you get is in store windows or in the panes of glass overlooking the runway. It’s hard to feel like a new, adventurous person when you find yourself spending a good deal of time riding airport conveyor belts to the next terminal, and the next. And to me that’s what traveling on a regimented holiday feels like—terminal, static, stuck. Life seems to go on hold as soon as you go on holiday, your mouth ajar, thumb perpetually stuck in the travel guide.
Strange as it is, only when I’m staying somewhere for a while, working and relaxing and living there, and not merely passing through, do I feel any sense of movement. It’s the natural movement of the place you’re in, the city that, like every city, is always changing. And just as when you’re moving on the subway, looking out the window of the car on your way to work, the view is less of a postcard portrait than an overwhelming blur. Of course Dr. Johnson was right: “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.” The old, cold illusion of London, of its foreboding palaces and city estates and dispassionate people gives way to a mess of place names, curious tunnels, galleries of exciting posters for plays and films, tired faces of all colors speaking over three hundred languages.
The foreign lilts and signs here are as diverse as the delightful scents that spill out of Edgware Road’s fruity shishas, the hash pipes of Notting Hill, the tandooris of Tower Hamlet, the boerewor shops of Southfields. The world to which London extended itself for centuries has flocked to London. In 1888, Henry James wrote that “It is a real stroke of luck for a particular country that the capital of the human race happens to be British. Surely every other people would have it theirs if they could.” The British still have it, except now more than ever, “British” doesn’t just mean English.
This 21st century melting pot not only confounds attempts to condense London—more than any other city I’ve lived in—into a guidebook, or capture it in a postcard; it makes London difficult to grasp for even Londoners. My own re-evaluation of London comes at a time when many British seem to be doing the same thing with their country. For the past half-century, the country has been coping with—and reveling in—the realization that it is no longer a sceptre’d isle onto itself, nor, in the age of the European Union, can it ever be.
But long after the demise of this naval power, navel gazing has also led to increasing spates of exceptionalism. The fall of Labour in the recent local and European elections was as much a sign of dissatisfaction over the Iraq war, largely seen as a blow to European cooperativeness, as it was a sign of a yearning for independence. Calls for “democracy over bureaucracy” are as old as the Magna Carta, and they continue now in the form of the rising U.K. Independence Party, which, like the Tories, is quite happy with the Pound and doesn’t want to be bossed around by countries that use the Euro, thank you very much.
I’m not sure what it means to be “British” any more than did, for instance, my cabdriver the other night. “I dunno,” he said. “The red-and-white flags always come out around the Euro.” Unlike the currency of the same name, the ongoing Euro soccer—er, football—tournament draws out the best (and, as evidenced by the occasional riot, the worst) national excitement the country has to offer. That enthusiasm doesn’t jibe with the British reputation for reserve and the quietude of its country lanes. It’s getting harder these days to make such stereotypic claims about this increasingly multicultural country, where, people of every color and ethnicity are likely to cheer for David Beckham or Wayne Rooney at their local pub (provided their team is knocked out of competition first).
I’m reading a book about London now, one that certainly inspired some of this incomplete “postcard,” but I’m not much inclined to finish it anymore than I’m anxious to start Peter Ackroyd’s biblical “biography” of London. All I really need is my small map with hundreds of streets listed on it, a sort of basic table of contents to the ur-text, the city itself, “the most complete compendium of the world,” as James called London.
Joyce reportedly once claimed that if Dublin ever went up in flames, his Ulysses would be enough to rebuild it, a boast made credible I think by the very difficulty of that book, by the fact that while many start, few finish that thing, and that those who have insist they should probably give it at least another go before talking about it. Cities are that way too: no matter what James says, they can’t be “completed” by readers or writers, and even if they could by some feat, you’d be hard pressed to recount the plot line. I’ve always loved the end of Poe’s short story “The Man of the Crowd,” in which the narrator follows a mysterious chap through the bustling, contradictory streets of London: “it does not permit itself to be read.”
Without any sort of Ulysses to ensure its recovery, London did go up in flames, twice: the Great Fire in 1666 and the blitz of World War II each destroyed most of the city; rebuilding hasn’t stopped since. In the past few weeks I’ve been doing some rebuilding of my own version of London, and, as these things go, London’s been doing some rebuilding of me. But I won’t finish, can’t. There’s too much complexity here, too much living to do.
Alexander L. Pasternack ’05, a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House, is a Crimson news editor. He is spending his summer roaming the streets of Britain’s capital, pondering its many byways and hoping for a bit more reflections than the shop windows afford.
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