“You are now
In London, that great sea, whose ebb and flow
At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore
Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more.
Yet in its depth what treasures!”
Things that come to mind when thinking of London: Westminster, The Houses of Parliament in the fog, double-decker buses under the rain, the grey, trembling waters of the Thames. Ben Aaronovitch said once that there are some people who feel like Londoners the minute they set a foot out of the plane at Heathrow, I don’t think I know what it is like to feel like a Londoner. The first time I set foot in the city I had with me a really long list of places I had to visit. Too many for the time I was staying. As the night fell the city had already set its own rhythms on me, and I realized I was mistaken to think all those places I wanted to see were in the same city. The rythms of that vast mass of stone and fog were like those of the waves, and Shelley’s words then made sense to me: London, a great sea with its roaring waves, each of them as different from the others as majestic.
Because there are many Londons; there is the London of Picadilly and Oxford Circus, of displays and consumerism, a European Times Square; there is the London of Soho, alternative and boheme, ; the London of Westminster, a palimpsest of cities; the West End and the East End; layers of city on top of each other, and the underground moves between spaces but also between times.
The city is eclectic not only in its freneticism, but also in the way in which its history actualizes itself on the present in every building, in every park and street. Trying to imagine everything that has happened there, on the pages of innumerable books, what happened in life but also in imagination, is enough to get dizzy, it feels like being on board of a little boat afloat in a raging sea.
There is, in Southwark, one of the places that give account of the immense history of the city and its very intricate links with literature: The George Inn, a vaulted pub, founded in the Middle Ages and restored after the great fire in 1677. The place was used for theatre during the Elizabethan time, its yard and big rooms were enough to entertain a considerable number of people. Later on the inn still worked as a coaching pub and looking at it I couldn’t stop thinking of the place where Austen’s Elizabet Bennet receives the news of her sister’s elopement, or where the characters from Dicken’s Bleak House discuss the mysterious past of a young lady in a private chamber.
The inn actually appears in Little Dorrit and it is known that Dickens was a frequent client. The place is also a vestige of an industrial London, dirty and dangerous during the Victorian time, a time of beautiful dresses, top-hats and oiled mustaches as much of crime and violence; Sherlock Holmes’ time, Jack the Ripper’s time. How many cities can overlap over a simple stone structure? Almost everything has changed around it, but the George Inn still stands.
Places like these are like anchors. Or perhaps like the remains of a shipwreck that inhabitant the depths of a sea that violently yet gracefully agitates itself towards the shores of the future, Another one of these is, undoubtedly, The Globe, where one can’t help but wonder if Shakespeare’s contemporaries felt the same things when they witnessed Juliet or Ophelia’s sufferings. it is a curious feeling, to feel surrounded by a fictional past, déjà vu like reminiscences, like feeling we have seen somebody’s face before, perhaps in a dream, when we have only read about it. A feeling, too, that Londoners seem to share, for they surrounds themselves with plaques and statues of poets, bringing back all those past wanderings of the city.
In Westminster Abbey, the poet’s corner hoards hundreds of tombs and tributes. To think that under one same building lie the remains of Browning, Chaucer, Dickens, Dryden, Hardy, Johnson, Kipling and Tennyson. There also are, on stone carved letters, the names of Austen and the Brontës— enough, anyway, to make someone want to go to church. The poet’s corner is rarely empty, people wander about looking down to make out the names, some completely foreign. Every footstep is light, every moment soft, as if not to wake up someone.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “the best bribe which London offers to-day to the imagination, is, that, ins such a vast variety of people and conditions, one can believe there is room for persons of romantic character to exist, and that the poet, the mystic, and the hero may hope to confront their counterparts”. And London’s charm could not be better described; there is an East End at night for the contemporary Poètes maudits, surrounded by cafés and curry places; a Hyde Park for the romantic and, next to it, the Kensington Gardens, crowned by a Peter Pan statue, for the nostalgic; there is also Bloomsbury for the disenchanted; Camden Town for the rebels; and even a Platform 9 3/4, inside King’s Cross Station, for those who still believe in utopias.