Rome is the greatest city of all time, and Paris is not far behind. Yet London dominates my mind; the English capital has a towering presence found in literature, cinema, art and politics. Of course, London is not the only city with this affect. No serious traveller to Western Europe argues differently. I’ve visited Lucerne, Berlin, Madrid, Venice, Prague, Vienna, Dublin and Florence. These cities are clear delights and do not conjure the despair one associates with London.
I visited London in February 2019 for seven nights. It was my first solo trip and there is plenty to love about the capital: the Master and his ravens in the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, shopping markets, scenic views, friendly banter, excellent museums and the many vibrant characters frequenting the streets. Chances are, you already know about St. Paul’s Cathedral and the National Gallery. But consider a visit to the Churchill War Rooms. They are truly marvellous, as are the special collections in the Victoria & Albert Museum. One exhibition I saw in the Buckingham Palace museums related to the Crimean War. I ended up buying a thick, beautiful book on Russian royalty, which I still cherish.
I even saw the ‘Stop Brexit’ guy. As an Australian, I thought he was a myth, a meme, a legend. The King Arthur of our times. But no, he exists. Regardless of my own thoughts on British politics and EU governance – I’m glad for Stop Brexit guy’s existence. I live in Sydney, and although my city is wealthy and brimming with natural beauty, we are not interesting enough to have a man dressed in EU flag colours and shout ‘stop Brexit.’ It’s too humiliating, too vulnerable, too time-consuming. Australians are an apathetic lot. None of us care enough to do that.
During my time in London, I encountered a diverse range of protestors: Palestinian activists, climate warriors, anti-CCP artists and more. My degree of sympathy to these causes varies, but that’s not the point. London is a place where things happen. A Sydney-siders life is awfully dull, especially if you live in the Northern or Eastern suburbs. A bookstore in my hometown once produced a tea towel declaring that the suburb wasn’t boring. Yet an interesting town or city comes at a price. And in London, you are already paying quite a bit. I am referencing crime, social stagnation, living costs, poor integration from newcomers and lack of order.
Unfortunately, London has a really insufferable mayor in the form of Sadiq Khan. I know – it’s poor taste to comment on the politics of other countries. Not that it stops Khan. He has opinions on Trump, the European Union and Black Lives Matter. You’ll see them on Twitter, on your television, on press releases.
The sad reality of London is its poor governance. It’s a city of chaos, and while this makes a quirky tourist experience, it’s unfortunate for those who live there. The homelessness problem is serious in London. But according to those who run the London Underground, the spiritual crisis is ‘men staring at women uncomfortably.’
Many who live in London, especially young professionals, house share. London’s housing situation would add stress to the dating scene, I imagine. The costs of childcare make good men whimper.
Of course, one can have a lovely life in London. I ventured into Chiswick and was taken aback by its beauty. Other areas of interest include Highgate, Notting Hill and Richmond. Yet this is a small part of London. Much of the city is plagued by hideous architecture and disorder. One of my regrets while in London was not taking a day trip to Oxford, Bath or Stonehenge. England is a truly beautiful country. Those who are drawn to English culture, literature and philosophy will find little in London. Unfortunately, those who mention this are called racist as London is extremely diverse. Sure, demographics always have had a role in urban development. But this misses the point as our concept of ‘Englishness’ goes well beyond race.
Many motifs of Englishness, such as Victorian shopping, high tea, Jane Austen, Gothic cathedrals, stained glass, fish and chips, the Beatles, Tolkien, lush forests, good-hearted individuals, cottages… are somewhat absent in London. It’s a modern metropolis. Do not visit London expecting a Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes or Charles Dickens experience like I did. There are other English and British cities for that. Perhaps the time of year I visited had an impact. February is a dark and dry month. Whereas other cities delight with snow and shimmering lights, London does not. I’m sure it’s better at other times during the year.
That’s why for a while, I harboured an intense dislike of London. I wanted a fantasy. London is many things, but certainly not whimsical or enchanting unless we consider art museums. In the excessively melodramatic poem ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ by James Thomson, the writer paints the English capital as a Dante-like hell. I’m not sure I agree but I certainly sympathise with the disillusionment of London.
I’ve visited London twice in my life. The first time was in literature, philosophy, history, art, theology and cinema. It’s a place of whimsical and eccentric magic where anything can happen. In the sky, above the Big Ben, Peter and Wendy fly. There are Dickens-like lampposts, illuminated with mystery. A group of magicians cast spells in a dusty corner and Shakespeare’s Macbeth is about to perform. This is the London I love. But it’s not the London in my second visit, where I ventured into reality. Maybe the magic never truly existed.
Next time in London, I hope to have a good time and accept it for what it is. I’d like to see the Templar Church. Many have commented on the excellent Catholic churches and I’m sure they are worth visiting. The British Library, especially the medieval manuscripts, are of special interest.
I’ll see you soon, London.