Thursday, October 18th, 2018

London: a tour through time

Martin Conte

Posted on September 29, 2014 in Perspectives
By martinconte

Let’s take a walk through London; we start at Buckingham Palace.  On one side of a massive square is a fountain, dominated by mermen and white marble.  At the other side of the gates, the high fence, and across a cobble yard as barren as an empty parking lot, the little figures of the Queen’s Guard stand with their bright red uniforms and admittedly funny hats. The palace itself is massive but surprisingly indistinct: it is rather like a large block, a rock rectangle jutting from the ground. It bears little ornateness, and is unexciting as buildings go. But somewhere inside, a woman who represents the last dying notions of a thousand year hiercharchical system sits down to her tea.

Next is the gardens, a similar layout to Central park in Manhattan, spanning proudly the length of the city.  Along the way we see the Queen’s royal cavalry showing off their well polished silver helmets, and a neatly arranged knoll covered with lawn chairs, courtesy of the city. From the Park we pop out in the center of governance; on one side, we have the chambers of the Supreme Court, and dominating the far end of our view, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. We stop with our tour guide under a rather surprising statue (in little more than 30 minutes, we’ve already seen at least a dozen dark, old metal statues).  Abraham Lincoln stands in solitary eminence outside the courts; a reminder, according to our guide, of his staunch belief in the American system of judicial courts.

Now across the street, a moment was spent to try and crane your neck up the side of Big Ben. We’ve now reached the river Thames, which runs the length of the city, and bordering it, the London Eye: a massive ferris wheel which gives one a truly encompassing view of the whole of the city. From here, we launch our way through various squares, around areas of government, history, art and preservation. In a simple walk down the block, it’s easy to see as many statues as people. History is aggressively a part of every aspect of the city’s life. One cannot separate the city of London in the 21st century from the city of London in the 14th. Our tour guide concludes our tour in Piccadilly Square, a sort of mini Times Square completely equipped with street-performing break dancers. He says we have three hours until we’re to return to the bus. See you in a bit! It’s time to find some bangers and mash before we go exploring!

One of the single most remarkable parts of my time in the city was visiting the Tower of London. While I haven’t yet had an opportunity to go inside (I surely will on my next trip), just being outside the building, standing witness to it, was revelation enough. I’m reminded of a discussion in my first Chaucer class, in which our professor asks us what medieval means in our colloquial understanding of the term. As an American, I describe our historical perspective of the period as being almost fantastical; we can look upon the period as almost separate from our understanding of history, as almost a construct, an invented culture. Yet here, medieval stands side-by-side with the modern. Along the shores of the Thames, we can turn in one direction and look through arrow-slit windows into the interiors of the fortress. Do a 180, and you’re looking at skyscrapers built of modern steel and glass.

Another aspect of the tower that entranced me was the current exhibit being constructed. By November, 888,246 red ceramic poppies will be “planted” around the tower’s dry moat. Each one of these handmade flowers represents a fallen British or Colonial soldier from WWI. The sheer immensity of the project, which even now is unfinished, is staggering.  The flowers, like blood, pour from the fortress’ windows and line the walls like a red tide. It’s sublimely tragic, as my eye condenses the flowers into one single mass. So too does my remembrance of WWI tend to condense, and not recognize the tragic losses as individuals.  The flowers insist that, now closing in on the 100th anniversary of the great war, we maintain a dignified respect for the fallen. Just as modern warfare launched a new dehumanizing force in the act of war, so too can our digital age create new acts of remembrance and memorial that will survive for centuries.

Let’s hop back on the bus, compare our afternoons and slyly slip our shoes off in our seats. Let’s look back to our own shores, to the United States, a country younger than many of the gravestones in the neighboring cemetery. Let’s remember our own wars, and perhaps, after looking at the relics of an empire a millennial older than our own, we might consider how many fallen we already are forced to memorialize. As England remembers its 888,246 fallen soldiers from a war haunting us from the past, let us hope that our own nation does not have to sacrifice so many to potential wars in our future.

*http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/wwi-anniversary-tower-london-bleeding-poppies-180952236/

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