The last time I saw London
It is not now as it hath been of yore; . . . The things which I have seen I now can see no more. William Wordsworth, “Ode on Intimations of Mortality”
The best part of our cruise to France was our prior trip to London. (Since 93% of the world’s travelers pass through Heathrow every year, it’s easy to spend a few days in England’s capital city on your way to somewhere else. And that is what we did.) My prior relationship to London had involved my career. I was a scholar of nineteenth-century British literature, and London, as well as the English country side, were places of pilgrimage, full of sacred sites—Jane Austen’s parsonage at Chawton, the Bronte’s house in the wilderness of the moors, Charles Dickens fashionable address on Doughty Street in London.
Now that I am no longer teaching nineteenth-century literature (having moved to contemporary work in women’s studies many years ago), I miss the passionate connection I had to English places in the past. Indeed, I’ve long felt a need to drum up new reasons for visiting, reasons that would distract me from pangs of nostalgia for what Wordsworth calls the “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures” of youthful encounters with the world.
The London for which I entertained a dizzy rapture, a rapture that linked the city landscape to my work, to my love of literature, and to my sense of purpose in life, still exists, but my passionate connection to it, by and large, lies in the past. The old cityscape, moreover, is harder to find. My husband, Bill, and I stayed in the South Bank of London just across the river from the Tower of London, and in walking over the Tower Bridge to our closet tube stop I saw, for the first time, how drastically the skyline of London had changed. The Tower is still visible but looks tiny and quaintly out of place in a cityscape dominated by skyscrapers that look like bombs (locals refer to it more benignly as “the Gherkin”), like cheesegraters (“The Cheese Grater”) or like curvy buildings in cartoons (“The Walkie Talkie”).
An old friend who lives in London pointed out the many excavations currently burrowing beneath four-story Georgian houses, the purpose of which is to construct still another story, this one underground. (Some underground stories boast swimming pools.) An article I read after I returned from the trip documented my friend’s assertion that wealthy foreigners, many from Russia and oil- producing states, were buying up real estate in London as a way to protect their wealth in an uncertain economy. On the streets, pedestrians had never looked so cosmopolitan. One friend lived around the corner from a neighborhood in which women are seldom seen without burkas.
In a way, of course, these changes are a continuation of London’s past. Another friend reminded me that St. Paul’s Cathedral had seemed a shocking innovation in the late eighteenth century. “The Gherkin” and it’s like were also designed as innovations, each vying to outdo what had come before. In the nineteenth century, moreover, London was the center of a vast empire. And over the years, many of its once colonized inhabitants have moved in. The city seems always to have been in a state of feverish growth.
One consequence of this growing cosmopolitanism, of course, is that food in England has vastly improved. Who would have thought in the old days of roast beef and overcooked vegetables that London would become a culinary destination? We didn’t visit the expensive Michelin starred sites, but a simple upstairs restaurant near the Old Vic served a delicious meal of scallops and seaweed followed by ox cheeks that melted in one’s mouth.
It may also be true that, as Wordsworth suggests, muted forms of past experiences remain. There are historical sites, I haven’t visited, and if I don’t retain the thrill of being able to use them in teaching and research, the experience of discovery is still available. I had never seen the Freud Museum in Hampstead Heath or the thirteenth century Southwark Cathedral on the South Bank, and the theater remains the finest in the world.
And, best of all, old friends still live in London. We dined with them under the trees at the Chelsea Arts Club, sipped wine and ate cheese in the arching greenery of Bryanston Square, went out for tapas in trendy Spanish restaurants. Despite my British friends’ prodigious productivity—one friend has published eleven books!– I always think of them as dining under trees, sipping wine on flowery decks the size of postage stamps, or lounging by the women’s pool in Hampstead Heath. Although the dizzy joys of the past are gone, in London I still recover a sense of what it means to live a life that is more balanced, more sensuous, more intensely felt than in the U.S.
Perhaps it is true, as Wordsworth insists, that despite enormous changes, the raptures of the past still color our experience of the present, that “in our embers” there “is something that doth live/ that nature yet remembers/ what was so fugitive.”
Readers, what city figures most in your remembrance of things past?