Emerging from the Tube on a sunny September day, we stood at the corner of Green Park looking across at The Ritz. Perhaps the most famous hotel in the world: six neoclassical storeys from 1906, spanning an entire city block and resembling Louis XVI apartments in Paris.
Aah London, once the capital of an Empire which existed still when I was a child.
The map indicated a short walk down broad Picadilly to Covent Garden but it took more than an hour because we wandered through Burlington Arcade (which made us feel poor), around the back of the Royal Academy (featuring photos by Dennis Hopper from the 60’s) and detoured through the crescent of Regent Street and the corner of Carnaby Street.
Oh, the size of the streets, their width and busyness. Red double decker buses and roomy black taxis just like in the movies. When you look at map you think “I can walk there easily” but an hour later you’ve only gone an inch, all the while marveling at the Englishness of the names along the way. Saville Row, Pall Mall, Soho Square, Bloomsbury, Charing Cross.
There’s a song “The Banks Are Made of Marble” and the scale of banks and trading houses, as well as residences and hotels, is simply stunning. Stone facades, columns, limestone and granite, squares with private gardens, flagstone pavements. And many of the iconic monuments – Marble Arch, Nelson’s Column, Big Ben even – seem minor compared to the imperial and financial headquarters, and even the recycled industrial streetscape.
London is vast and grand – so vast that no words or images can capture it. Seven storey apartment blocks dating from two centuries ago, before the invention of the passenger lift, the 400 km and 270 stations of the Underground (started in 1863), the 16,000 acres of parks and commons, stone churches and markets we Australians can but marvel at. It’s the grandeur and scale that cause the maps to fail to make sense.
This city makes our hometown, Melbourne, look like a provincial settlement. Gold rush Melbourne was once one of the great Victorian cities of the world, but nowhere would you find as magnificent a laundry, say, as the one at the back of the Brixton market.
Compare Covent Garden market with the Vic Market and then consider the number of markets here with how many still exist in Melbourne. Of course London has 12 million people so at the very least that accounts for three times everything. Yet this metropolis seems bigger than a mathematical ratio.
We visited, photographed and shopped in Spitalfields, Smithfield, Brixton, Borough, Berwick Street, Camden and Camden Lock, Covent Garden and Brick Lane markets and didn’t even get to Petticoat Lane or Portobello. There are a hundred others.
London’s biographer, Peter Ackroyd, writes with sympathy of an 18th-century geographer Richard Horwood who designed a huge map that “contained street numbers as well as names and houses”. The compulsion to achieve a pictorial equivalent of the city that would rival reality and keep pace with growth, exhausted its maker. Horwood died at the age of 45, four years after the publication of his masterpiece.
This is “a city which cannot be recognised or understood in terms of one central image” says Ackroyd, and being just a tourist with a cheap camera I concur. Look at my photos and read the rest of my journal, but the only way I can attempt to “capture” London is with a scattergun collage of arbitrary random images.
What could possibly constitute that central image? The Tower (currently encircled by commemorative and ceramic poppies)? Buckingham Palace (sterile with a huge forecourt and tiny toy guards)? Harrods in Knightsbridge (where incredible wealth displays blatant kitsch)? Or could it be a modern monument such as the Eye, the Shard or the Isle of Dogs?
We saw all these things and strolled both the shopping Districts – Oxford, Regent, Picadilly – and the Whitehalls and Strands. But although in awe, we always felt something was missing. Paris presents the magnificence of history with elegance. Berlin makes you feel that either something is about to happen, or that you just missed it. Barcelona almost sulks in nostalgic mystery.
But nothing like this signifies modern day Britain – for all its majesty and fascination, London parades the empty importance of financial empire, without heart or soul.