Thursday, 3 April 2014

London and The World

David writes…

There’s something so London about this.

Even though it is – needless to say – Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine.

The statue’s of St. Volodymyr, who brought Christianity to Ukraine, about a 1,000 years ago. The Ukraine equivalent, if you will, of St. Patrick. Or Augustine of Canterbury. It’s on Holland Park Avenue, just along from Beckingham Palace.

(Beckingham Palace – for anyone who’s been lost, batteries dead, in the Rainforest for the last week or so – is Posh & Beck’s new £40 million pad.)

And very London, that – the celebrity froth – it’s the air we breathe these days – of Beckingham Palace and just a stone’s throw away the sorrows of Volodymyr. Something real, in other words. Something somber, something serious.

The photos are of Ukraine men – mostly very young – who’ve been slain these past few weeks. There’s the flag of course. Flowers. Personal messages. A teddy bear (prompting in me a short, sharp intake of breath when the following wisp of thought pitched up: “15 years ago, barely yesterday, some of these young men were toddlers, clutching a teddy bear”).

And it was the most beautiful Spring day. Life – London life – was going on all around that corner. 

And radiating out from that corner – sunbeams of London life – for many miles in every direction. 

Think of Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts.

Something else about the vignette was even more London, though. Had to do with the thought, “only in London – nowhere else in the country could this plant, and the fruit it’s bearing right now, have taken root.”

One of the finest books ever written about London shone a light in on this matter. In this passage the author has done what only a great artist can do – he’s peered into the depths of his sitter, he’s captured, in paint on canvas, the character of his subject.

And maybe bears repeating, it’s a writer, it’s words, rather than a painter and pigments and brushstrokes. But it’s a portrait – a great portrait – nonetheless. It’s a great portrait because it does what only the Rembrandts and da Vincis can do – it’s a brilliant likeness of a face (the likeness is the surface, the externality, the appearance) that’s also captured the depths, the soul, what’s inside. The character.
The truth.

(Aside here: the root of the word “person” is the Etruscan word phersu, which means mask. The Etruscans understood that a person is a creature of masks. The surface of our personness anyway.)
Here’s the passage, the paragraph. You’ll understand immediately why the Ukrainian‐statue­‐that’s‐become­‐a­‐shrine put me in mind of it, put me in mind of a fundamental truth about London. And Londoners. (Oh, and if you want to know the author – and where the passage has come from – send me an email at Or ask me on one of my walks. It’s David writing this.)

“This weight of the city and its name have other associations, mainly with the sense of authority, quiet self-­consequence – known among us as modesty – unbounded worry, ineluctable usage, and natural muddle. These are aspects of a general London frame of mind. If Paris suggests intelligence, if Rome suggests the world, if New York suggests activity, the word for London is experience. This points to the awful fact that London has been the most powerful and richest capital in the world for several centuries. It has been, until a mere fifteen years ago [these words were of course written half a century ago], the capital of the largest world empire since the Roman and, even now, is the focal point of a vague Commonwealth. It is the capital source of a language now dominant in the world. Great Britain invented this language; London printed it and made it presentable. At the back of their minds – and the London mind has more back than front to it – Londoners are very aware of these things and are weighed down by them rather than elated. The familiar tone of the London voice is quick, flat-­voweled and concerned. The speaker is staving off the thought that hope is circumscribed and that every gift horse is to be looked at long in the mouth. He is – he complains – through no fault of his own, a citizen of the world. Half his mind, like that true Londoner, Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, is with his galleons overseas. And I do not speak only of the top people in Lloyds, the Bank of England, Downing Street, Lambeth Palace, or Buckingham Palace, or what we call the Establishment; I speak of the bus drivers, the office-­workers, even the office cleaners. It is the man who is painting your house who tells you he “sees” the French government has fallen, that the Congo is unsettled, or that there is a dock strike in New York or “trouble” in the Middle East. Foreigners are the Londoner’s nightmare; it is a nightmare he is paid to have every night when he goes to bed. Sometimes rather well paid. There can be few of London’s nine millions who have not one close relative abroad and one at sea and who are not directly aware, like modest seismographs, of what is going on behind the scenes in places where the weather is better. They will mention the matter in pubs, lifts, at shop counters, in bus queues. The man who delivers my beer shuddered this week at the though of what is going on in Iran: he once made a structural alteration in the Shah’s Rolls-­Royce, outside Teheran. The publican at the end of the street worked on a survey on Turkey: he worries about the Turks, economically, geographically. A local waiter can run you off a résumé of the financial prospect and political tangle in Singapore.”

Great, isn’t it? Beautifully written. Alive. True. Even London cadenced. Wow.

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