Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Weight of London

Every time I land at Heathrow, I can feel a difference in the air. With many countries, the swirl of foreign language makes it obvious that I am traveling, that I have left the United States and entered the land of the other. But this could still be New York, though perhaps a cleaner one. Sure, I receive a strange-looking currency out of an ATM instead of dollar bills, but I have no problem reading the signs for the Underground, no problem telling the taxicab driver where to go. It was just like America, except smaller and with better public transportation. Why then, did it feel so different?

The first thing I notice this visit is that tea becomes my blood as it never can be in America. The hotpot always seems ready at friends’ flats, whether they are of Indian, Chinese, or Irish extraction. "Tea?" is offered at every pause, at every corner cafĂ©, and the tradition and ritual connect us with a billion British through the years. I try to think of a daily American custom that has lasted as long, fifty years even, and fail. Another day we had afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason, pretending to be upper crusters. "Pass the scones, old sport," my friend tells me, quite seriously. But that day we drink tea at a simple tea house in Regent’s Park, and I have what is possibly the best cuppa of my life. I check the bag and find the Twinings label, a common tea brand in the U.S. "Twinings!" I exclaim to my friends. "This ain’t the Twinings we get!" I marvel at the attention to quality, to the importance of detail in daily life that seems missing at home.

From the Regent’s Park tea house, we walk out onto the wet green lawns and find the spot where the final scene of John Fowles’ The Magus takes place, where the main character and the reader are left wondering whether love will triumph. Suddenly, ten thousand novels, plays, and films open to my senses as I realize that London is English Literature, the birthing ground for story itself, for a million scenes of conflict and resolution. Down the road, in the Archive Room of the British Library, those stories line the walls – unbelievable documents that seem legendary: the only copy of Beowulf, the first folio of Shakespeare, the Magna Carta, Alice in Wonderland, Newton’s laws, Gandhi’s letters, and a thousand more, spinning my head in disbelief. Such a room does not exist in America, except in palest imitation, housing a few minor manuscripts, a paltry sum of historical record.

The city seemed like a thick tea bag full of the most venerable leaves as we waded into it again. Stopping at the British Museum, I find a hundred pieces from history class, things that make our heads swim in the deep well of time. Outside, in the streets, the march of history continues, from the primeval Tudor taverns to the iconic Big Ben. Here we stride through those stories in a way we could never do in a place like Hollywood, where the backdrops are fake and the on-site locations constantly changing. Here the ancient gates and smoky taverns live beside gleaming towers of modernity. Certainly a place like New York has at least begun to build its own mythology, with a hundred years of film and novel to lend it weight. But in ancient Londinium these moments can come to life all around you, in this dense, chewy center of English-speaking culture.

My friends and I take pictures with the electrified statue of Winston Churchill, on which no pigeon dares to perch, and duck into Westminster Abbey. As we make our way through the ancient halls, we find the tomb of Queen Elizabeth. Queen Elizabeth! That such a fabled person walked the earth and has an actual resting place seems beyond all expectation. We pay homage in Poets’ Corner, to the writers who built our common language and passions. And then, in the wide gallery of the Abbey, I find the grave of Charles Darwin, an apparent contradiction that only the British could cheerfully stomach, like a Monty Python skit come to life. It is like the pub a wry Britisher opened in an old temperance hall, like the celebration of Guy Fawkes’ Day with fireworks. Only a people with a seasoned, rich culture can see beyond the seemingly outrageous paradox to the calm, tea-blend of true history.

I stand a long time at the grave of Charles Darwin, amongst the murmur of tourists and the sound of echoing feet, knowing that some of my fellow English-speakers probably take this for granted, the solid weight of memory – their lives made denser than scones by narrative and details, in a way that most Americans will never know.

First published in Hackwriters: The International Writers Journal.

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