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May 10, 2002
The long walk out of London
Still thinking about the depiction of London in From Hell. Also thinking about St. Paul's Cathedral, and what it means to me personally. When I was last in the U.K. I walked from London to Oxford, more or less along the Thames. I wanted to start from somewhere significant, some kind of distinctive landmark. London, to my astonishment, had a meagre, disappointing selection.
I went to Trafalgar Square, and looked around at what is probably the best view you can get from ground level in London. Arranged in front of you is the National Gallery, and the South African Embassy, and St. Martin in the Fields, and lots of traffic and pigeons. I vividly recall standing there, thinking: "is this it?" It's all very low rise, which is kind of nice, in a funny sort of way, but you'd have to be squinting very hard to describe the view as inspiring.
Because it doesn't have what New York has, or Paris has, or Sydney has. It doesn't have a place where you can look out and think "ah, so this is why there's a city here." London doesn't have a spectacular harbour. It wasn't built on a hill. It does have a river, of course, but there's no real reason why the city is at that particular spot on the river. London could have been built, quite conceivably, much closer to the sea, or as far inland as Oxford. It's different in that regard from Paris, which grew outwards from two small islands in the Seine. One of those islands now contains Notre Dame cathedral, and the plaque in front of it marks the point from which all distances in France are measured. It all makes a pleasing amount of sense.
But London seems to have come about entirely by chance, or by bad management, or as the result of several thousand sternly worded letters of complaint. It's as if all those cars and all those pigeons somehow arrived there by mistake, and then couldn't get out again, owing to all the other cars and pigeons in the way. Frustrated, they remained where they were, and formed a city.
The one genuine landmark in the oldest part of town is St. Paul's Cathedral, so that's where I started my walk to Oxford. St. Paul's is also the first thing I go to see whenever I arrive in London. Looking at it satisfies my need to fully register exactly where I am.
There's a wonderful passage in Nevil Shute's The Far Country where the heroine is debating whether or not to leave England to live in Australia. She's in London, so she does something to help her make up her mind about what she's going to do. She walks through the city to St. Paul's Cathedral:
She moved towards it, and stood staring at the mass of masonry. This was the sort of thing that Australia would never have to show her, this masterpiece of Wren. If she left England she would be leaving this for ever, and a hundred other beauties of the same kind that the new country could never show her. She stood there thinking of these things, and two devastating little words came into her mind - so what?
I was born in London, to Australian parents, and I've lived in Australia from a young age. Every time I've been to London I've found myself looking at St. Paul's, and being generally impressed. It's big and old and overwhelming, in a city that's become bigger and older and underwhelming. What I love about the cathedral is that it's the most obvious trace of what was once a glorious place, which makes it even more important as that glory falls into ever deeper disrepair.
So on the day I started the walk to Oxford, I went down to St. Paul's, and looked up at it, and then moved away from it in a westerly direction. I then spent more than a week just getting out of London. That seemed an incredibly long time to be walking through one city. Especially because it was a city that had so often made me think - so what?
Last night I met Flash, who's going to Varanasi, in India, to teach at a school which offers Vipassana meditation, Indian philosophy, and the usual range of high school subjects: maths, science, English. "Wow," I said, "good luck."
But she got me thinking about my time in India, which came at the end of a long journey, and the same journey that took me from London to Oxford. And I remembered that I'd already written something, but never got round to finishing it properly. So maybe what I'll do over the next few days or months is to give you installments of a travel piece.Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:52 PM in the Wandering category | Comments (0)
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