A Literary-Minded Day in London

A dreary, overcast morning (typical London I’m told). I have been awake for hours – jetlagged, adrenaline-filled, foreign. Abbey Road is a long road. I find what I think is ‘that’ crossing (it is the only one I can find). It is early still and the street is packed with buses, taxis, rushing Londoners with grey-weather faces. I am too embarrassed to seem the tourist so I don’t ask for someone to take a photo of me pretending to be George (my favourite). Plus, it could be the wrong crossing. I take some crappy snaps anyway, inhibited by shiny red buses. I take an unplanned detour through affluent suburbia (high-heeled pram-pushers, Burberry umbrellas, pretty potted gardens) before finding the main road again.

London is big to me. There are swarms of people. The air is multilingual. Still, in my trilby hat, with my pink backpack and notebook in hand, I stand out a little. Sydney is large in expanse but there aren’t so many people squeezed into the spaces. It is coherent, not disjointed like this multiple-personality capital. The ‘tube’ is much easier than the Sydney trains though, if you don’t mind a bubble to breathe in. I even chat to people on my journey in to the centre (after accidentally slapping them with my bag) – a Brit, and some from the other down under, New Zealand.

Jackson Pollock’s ‘Naked Man With a Knife’. Although a picture just does not do it justice… (courtesy of Tate Website).

The Tate Modern is the epitome of my vision of alienated modernism. I seek the artists I love and discover new ones. I find myself unwilling to move from Jackson Pollock’s ‘Naked Man With a Knife’. Other highlights are:

Francis Bacon ‘Figure in a Landscape’ and ‘Second Version of Triptych 1944’

Mark Rothco ‘Material Gestures’

Jackson Pollock ‘No. 14’, and ‘Summertime No. 94’

Monet ‘Water Lilies’ The soft, magic green.

Picasso ‘Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle’

Max Beckmann ‘Prunier’

Roy Lichtenstein ‘Whaam’

Georges Braque ‘Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantlepiece’

Vanessa Bell ‘Abstract Painting’

Gino Severini ‘Suburban Train Arriving in Paris’

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson ‘Bursting Shell’
George Grosz ‘Suicide’

Pieter Roth ‘6 Picadillies’

Henri Matisse ‘Standing Nude’

Gustav Klimt ‘Portrait of Hermine Gallia’

Pierre Bonnard ‘The Bowl of Milk’

Jasper Johns ‘0 through 9’

Andy Warhol ‘Margaret Hayward’

The gallery contains pieces from movements such as realism, surrealism, expressionism, minimalism, cubism, futurism, vorticism, Dadaism, abstract-expressionism, and Pop Art. Much of the stylistic themes are tied into literary, philosophical and social ideas from a changing world post World War One and Two. Some of these themes include existentialism, modernity and industrialisation, modernism and romanticism, Nietsche’s distrust of Western rationalism, Marxist revolution, and Freud’s theories (a ‘revolution of the mind’). Enthralling. Search for artworks in the Tate Collection online.

I plan to visit Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in a few days but happen across it on my way to the tube. The tour begins in two minutes –

‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.’ – Shakespeare.

I enjoy the refined accent of the tour guide as he explains the process and reasons behind rebuilding the infamous Elizabethan theatre exactly as it was. A theatre that nourished the best plays in the English language, and we could say, the English language itself. I get shivers imagining the words spoken upon the gilded wooden stage. The stories that are still deemed timeless and essential, even in montage-postmodernist fashion where recontextualised characters and moments maximise the potency of theme. I touch the stage as a ‘groundling’ and then I go into the rafters to experience the views of the privileged. I regret their program does not extend to the Winter months.

I get the tube from London bridge, on the way feasting my eyes on cobbled streets of old London. I sense the ghosts in the mossy stone walls. Plague-riddled lunatics, scungy crims, ratty-tatty tykes. Even the new signs and shopfronts don’t detract from the dankness, the closeness, the history of the walk.

At Holborn I meet my tour guide for a look at Blomsbury and the most literary streets in London. I am walking in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps. I sense the strong connection to her emotional and intellectual enquiries. I visit the house where the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ met and an amateur ‘hat photographer’ takes a photo of me by the red door (that story is just too long).

I see where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were married and where they spent their wedding night. I want to touch the door of the depleted-seeming house. Ted Hughes has a poem in his Birthday Letters called 18 Rugby Street about that very address.

I meet a bust of Bertrand Russell, which reminds me to read more – Russell said

‘It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.’

I see where Oscar Wilde spent his last day, where TS Eliot worked and was obsessed with punctuation, and the University of London, nicknamed the ‘godless university’, also the headquarters of the ‘Ministry of information’ in WW2, the basis for George Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ in 1984.

Bust of Bertrand Russell.

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'” – from 1984.

The tour ends at the British Museum, whose Reading Room nourished the ideas and research of countless literary greats and revolutionaries. The Museum’s Great Court is also my meeting place with PD Smith, author of Doomsday Men. We find a compact London pub and embark on a lively conversation about writing, science, travel, cities, people, literary inadequacy, and publishing. I come away thoroughly refreshed and stimulated by the conversation and very glad to have met him. I promise him a Michel Foucault article I have lying around to add to his research for his next book, an analysis and exploration of cities. After reading Doomsday Men, I know it will be both accessible and intelligent. I encourage PD before I go to have a go at fiction sometime when the inspiration strikes as even in non-fiction he is adept at describing moments and developing character.

I make my way to Covent Garden (only getting slightly lost) to the ‘Fire and Stone’ to meet Jacob Sam-La Rose, the poet, art event organizer, and teacher (among other things) and some of his friends for a late meal. One of my favourite poems of his is called Algebra:

Loaded pizzas and continual talk-over-each-other conversation runs rampant. We speak of politics (why Thatcher is never really related to by gender, whether it’s a good or bad thing), race, religion, literature, life, work and all the other essentials. Jacob and friends Michelle, Annette, Malika and Naomi sweetly shout their Aussie guest dinner (thanks again guys, you must visit me down under) then drive me to my hostel. We do eventually get there after circling it eight times due to my own terrible directions. I jump online to make sure I have somewhere to say in Scotland then I crash out – fulfilled, grateful, and exhausted. Onward to castles, lochs, museums, and canine ghosts on Candlemaker Row…

12 thoughts on “A Literary-Minded Day in London

  1. Love the bit about “Plague-riddled lunatics, scungy crims, ratty-tatty tykes”. I think there were a few of those in that pub…Good to meet you too! I’m still working on the fiction…

  2. Ha, thanks! Was glad to get a feel of ol’ London town. And yes, there may have been a few of them in that pub – it was pretty packed 🙂

  3. Hi MP, thanks for reading. I looked at your blog but it’s in another language… Seems like advertising anyway and I’m not interested if so.Jacob – no worries, I love that poem and you read it so well 🙂

  4. “also the headquarters of the ‘Ministry of information’ in WW2, the basis for George Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ in 1984.”Well spotted. I actually use the building next door (Birkbeck College) as my London base when I’m in town, so i can “enjoy” the views of the Ministry of Truth when I have lunch on the BBK roof terrace. The one cultural attraction that I’ve checked out in this neighbourhood is the Picasso mural, linked to the history of our department (BBK crystallography) as Picasso had been invited by Bernal, the dept.’s founding genius and supreme peace guru.

  5. dear oh dear i stayed in london for two years ghost writing and product design – my place was in Holland Park and John Cleese came over to my friends place and i cooked an indian meal. But u have been to places i never went to…hahahah…did u go to the V & A? U mention two writers who i carry n my soul wherever i go – Wilde and Plath. U are an honest writer – Thank u for sharing ur travels xxx mark ulyseas

  6. I didn’t go to V & A, what is that?John Cleese? Wonderful! I’d love to meet that other ex-Python Michael Palin.

  7. from what I’ve read you haven’t been near the V&A, it’s on Exhibition Road, opposite the Natural History Museum. Not sure whether it’s still on, but quite recently they made headlines with an exhibition of Kylie’s clothes … I’ve never been to the V&A, but spent many days on the other side of the road, mainly at the Science Museum.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s