As I mentioned up top in last month’s post, Ed and I spent May in London. A place I haven’t seen since the fall of 2019. A city that has been the home of my heart for the many decades since I first landed there, a student studying Shakespeare and contemporary British drama at the University of London for a semester. Some 250 years ago, Dr. Samuel Johnson nailed it with these words: When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. Let me assure you, I ain’t tired of life!
One of the great perks of being a writer is your time is your own. One of the snags is that you’re never really “off duty.” So, to bring you something fresh while reveling in every moment of my beloved city, I jotted down notes as Ed and I visited galleries and museums, watched plays and listened to concerts, strolled the city’s many parks and tipped back pints in pubs. What follows are moments/impressions/reflections: Notes from the road.
The Kindness of Strangers
On our way to Russell Square Park—an idyllic space to read, daydream, and watch the local children chase pigeons (don’t worry, the pigeons are way ahead)—we walked up Montague Place, a quiet street that skirts the back entrance to the British Museum. A lovely tree-lined street, whose trees on that early May morning were sending up clouds of pollen. I quickly donned the cloth facemask I’ve carried everywhere since The Plague hit, but too late. By the time I reached the top of the road where the park begins, I literally could not get my breath. WATER was the only thing on my brain. That and not collapsing in the middle of the crosswalk.
Then I saw my salvation, right inside the park gates—an ice cream van! I don’t know if you can asphyxiate from pollen [turns out you can, but it’s exceedingly rare], but I wasn’t about to put it to the test. I rushed over. “Water!” I choked out between spasms of coughing. The woman helming the van immediately tossed me a bottle of H2O. “No charge,” she said.
Honestly, I’m not sure what I’d have done if she hadn’t been there. The café on the other side of the park was too far. I would have collapsed before I reached it. After that, I made sure I was well-masked on tree-lined streets and armed at all times with a bottle of water. But the ice cream vendor’s kindness stayed with me. London is a city where I have often experienced kindness from strangers. I believe there may be a connection here between the kindness of individuals to one another and the way their society models (or doesn’t) inclusivity—this city, this nation, this world belongs to all of us.
Eid-in-the-Square Brings a City Together
I was reminded of that last thought on our first Saturday in London as we made our way down to Trafalgar Square to check out “Eid in the Square,” a city-sponsored festival to celebrate Eid-al-fitr, the end of Ramadan (the Islamic holy month of fasting). Ed and I had watched the prep crew set up dozens of food stalls the day before in anticipation of hordes of hungry people. They weren’t disappointed. Thousands of Londoners thronged the surrounding streets and packed the square to chow down on kebabs, tagine, baklava, and much else while enjoying musical acts such as the Baha Yetkin Sufi Ensemble—a band whose playlist ranges from Ottoman “standards” to songs by pop diva Sezen Aksu—performed on a large stage erected for the event.
We stopped to chat with a man working the festival—he was available to answer questions about Islamic texts or tenets—and had a lovely conversation about the need for tolerance, inclusiveness, and harmony in the world.
Googling “Eid-in-the-Square” back at our rented flat, I discovered that this was its 17th year. The festival was developed by the Mayor of London “in partnership with London-based arts, culture and grass roots Muslim organisations … to bring communities, families and friends together to enjoy the celebrations.” One member of the community advisory group, Azmat Suleman, tagged himself as “events and engagement manager with a passion for interfaith and intercultural events.” Well, “Eid in the Square” certainly restored my faith in humankind’s ability to get along, to share in each other’s holidays, to come together to celebrate and enjoy good food, lively music, a beautiful Saturday.
After perusing book titles at the Waterstone’s on Tottenham Court Road for our end-of-trip book spree (we’d already done the same at the Trafalgar Square Waterstone’s the day of “Eid in the Square”), we took a lunch break in the shop’s small but tasty café. The tables were nestled among shelves of psychology, history and science books. Glancing from left to right, I was amused to see a fair selection of books on happiness—how to be happy, how to be happy again, how to be happy no matter what’s happening—and just two shelves over, The Sixth Extinction. Ah, the alpha and omega of modern life.
Whenever I’m in London, I make a trek to the British Library up on Euston Road. It’s a magnificent building—one of the largest libraries in the world with close to 200 million items on 388 miles of shelves—and its Treasures of the British Librarycollection contains a copy of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies—commonly known as The First Folio—which I pay homage to on every visit.
The modern theatre was born with Shakespeare’s generation of playwrights and actors (I could write a dissertation on this, but will spare you) when spelling was not yet standardized and the need to preserve works from the stage, even great ones, not so keenly felt if at all. As successful as Shakespeare was in his day, only about half of his plays appeared in print during his lifetime. Without his theatre pals, fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, who compiled The First Folio after his death, we might never have known Macbeth, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, and many other of The Bard’s works. By comparison, of all Christopher Marlowe’s plays, only Tamburlaine, Edward II, and Dido, Queen of Carthage survive in texts that “can be relied on as adequately representing the author’s manuscript.” So, I stare at Shakespeare’s portrait on The First Folio’s opening page and marvel at the role chance plays in fate.
Too Little, Too Late: A Tragic Tale of Greed and Indifference
But rare books and documents are not the only thing happening at the British Library. They regularly feature thought-provoking exhibits. On this trip, it was “Breaking the News.” From the Great Fire of London to #BlackLivesMatter, the exhibit encouraged us to explore five centuries of UK news through broadsheets, blogs and objects from our own collection with the aim of challenging and changing the way we think about news.
The stories on display chronicled heroes, villains, and celebrities. Some were funny, some tragic, and some reveled in deception—disinformation wasn’t born yesterday. But the one that sticks with me is the coverage of the deadly blaze that destroyed Grenfell Tower, a public housing high-rise, in June 2017, “the worst UK residential fire since WWII.” The fire raged for some 60 hours, while 250 firefighters and 100 ambulance crew members battled and braved the inferno to save the lives of the nearly 300 residents. In the end, 72 tenants died.
There was nothing particularly shocking or “new” about the tragedy itself. Safety concerns had been raised repeatedly but largely ignored. Corners were cut on the fixes that did occur. Excuses were made. Blame was shifted. To wit, a year before the blaze, an independent assessor had highlighted 40 serious fire concerns, only half of which were addressed, and the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority had served Grenfell Tower with a fire deficiency notice the tower’s management group must act on—but didn’t exactly. A major refurbishment in 2016 only added to the problem: exterior rain-screen cladding was laid over new insulation boards—a common means of preventing exterior damage to buildings—but in Grenfell’s case, both the insulation and the cladding were made from highly combustible materials. The cheaper option, of course. When a faulty fridge-freezer started a fire on the fourth floor, the flames shot out of the kitchen window and set the cladding on fire. From there, the inferno blazed out of control, engulfing most of the building.
In the years since, as investigations have proceeded, politicians have lamented the tragedy—“should never have occurred”, “forever in our memory.” Kensington and Chelsea TMO (a tenant management organization)—the largest entity of its kind in England—has had its contract terminated by the local borough council. Another tragedy for the history books.
What resonated with me most were the stories of tenants refusing to talk to the press in the immediate aftermath. Where were you when we needed to make our voices heard? they cried. We blogged about these safety concerns and demanded someone fix the situation, but you weren’t interested! WHERE WERE YOU THEN?! It’s a damn good question.
The friendliness of people everywhere. They smile and speak to each other (and us) in pubs, in theatres, in the parks. Yesterday, for example, I was watching an egret who was avidly focused on something just beneath the water’s surface at Regent’s Park. Two women, also noticing the bird, joined me and the three of us tried to figure out exactly where—and what—the prey was. A nice moment. A good thing—sharing it with others.
Kew Gardens, a short tube ride from Central London, bills itself as the most biodiverse place on Earth. Its mission statement is at once both succinct and hugely important: Plants and fungi are vital to the future of food, clean air and medicine. We’re fighting against biodiversity loss to save life on Earth. Its Wakehurst wild botanic garden in the southeast of England houses the Millennium Seed Bank, the world’s largest seed conservation project, with an underground collection of more than 2.4 billion seeds from around the globe which scientists are conserving for the future.
But as significant as these missions are, Kew is much more. It’s 300 acres of sanctuary—a place of healing and reflection. Of sky and earth, of trees and gardens. Its five-acre lake is home to a variety of aquatic birds. We always spend a day there, and it is always hard to leave.
As I sat on a bench, surrounded by trees many generations older than myself, I laid down the book I was reading, and just… breathed. Just breathed and let all the fear and uncertainty of our troubling times flow from me and dissipate beneath the green awning of the trees above. I watched a dozen downy goslings follow their mothers to the lake’s edge and launch themselves into its clear, calm waters. After a time, on the back of yesterday’s theatre ticket, I wrote: The brilliant works of humankind—the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”, Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. These things feed my soul. At Kew, the wilds of nature nurture me—I can lose myself in its still, calm, green. BOTH art and nature give rest and re-energize.
A Different Sanctuary
St. Martin-in-the-Fields, on the edge of Trafalgar Square, has always struck me as more of a social center than a church. A religion of community. It offers lunchtime and evening concerts in the nave of the church. It runs a cozy café downstairs, appropriately named “Café in the Crypt.” It hosts art exhibitions curated by charitable orgs. Built sometime before the 13th century, it offered London’s first free lending library and during WWI, its vicar provided refuge for soldiers on their way to France. It has been called “the church of the ever open door.” As Ed and I sat in the nave, enjoying an evening of concertos by Bach, Vivaldi, and Mozart, I picked up one of the donations envelopes dotting the pews. It read: “No matter who. No matter what. We’re here to provide opportunity, sanctuary and support for everyone. We are St, Martin’s and this is what we do.”
I can only add to that: Amen.