I’m sitting here in the Roebuck pub after partaking in a Sunday roast with my flat mates. Sated by our steak and cabbage, Francis (who is reading the latest on Gordon Brown in The Early Standard) and I are sitting at a table by the window, watching the rain fall on Great Dover Street. The London weather (marked by perpetual, ominous clouds) reminds me of an unstable person; the sky teeters on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I imagine the sky’s lower lip trembling before it erupts into a full-blown wail—a sporadic and violent downpour that leaves everyone soaked to the bone. Bankers, businessmen and Bengali tots, pretty posh girls and gap-toothed grandmas are all opening their umbrellas as they make their way to the Underground. As Walt Whitman writes, “I mind them and the resonance of them” as I people-watch from my perch inside the pub.
London continues to literally feed my soul; I am nourished to the core by the beauty that I see here. From the stiletto-clad sweetie sobbing to her best mate outside a glittery dive bar to the pungent pork pie at Borough market, everything entertains, amuses and inspires me. James Joyce, an ardent Irish Nationalist, once claimed that there was “more in an Irish safety pin than in a British epic.” I would have to contest (or at least augment) my favorite author’s claim. Perhaps, in revision: “there is as much in an Irish safety pin as in a take-away box of chips left on a bench in Hyde Park.” The smallest things, in both places, seem to have such profound metaphoric potential. I have continued to explore tiny galleries and museums over the past few days. One of my recent favorites was the Wallace Collection–a museum replete with works by Fragonard, Greuze, and other 18th-Century French masters. I spent hours in the Victorian house-turned-gallery, admiring paintings of pink cherubs and fleshy femmes draped in silk. I also returned to the Tate Modern, where I saw the Miro show—such a beautiful exhibition! The deep reds and azures of the canvases quieted me.
Yesterday I took a day trip to Stonehenge and Bath. I booked the excursion for myself through an agency advertised at the local hostel. It was nice to relax in an air-conditioned bus. So much of my day in London is spent rummaging through my backpack for a map, dropping coins out of my wallet (why do the Brits need so many coins, anyway?) or searching desperately for a bathroom. The guided tour was quite luxurious by comparison to all that: a mental manicure, if you will. That said, the tour guide himself was pretty sub-par. This unfortunate fellow had a kind of slippery, grimy look about him; he wore big, aviator sunglasses for the entire expedition despite the fact that it was pouring rain. “My name is Tim,” Tim the tour guide announced to an already-wary audience (it’s hard to take your leader seriously when he has removed his shoes and is speaking to you through mouthfuls of biscuit). “We’re going to be going to Stonehenge, which is really old,” he continued. “I can’t remember exactly how old it is, but let’s just say on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the oldest, Stonehenge is a 10.”
As we approached Stonehenge, I saw the rocks appear in the distance—a little gray spot in my field of vision that I could eclipse with my thumb as I pressed it to the bus window. As we got closer, I didn’t find myself particularly impressed by what I saw. Stonehenge registered to me as, well, a pile of rocks. I laughed to myself about the absurdity of the ritual—the tourist’s pilgrimage to these ancient stones in the middle of nowhere. Indeed, Tim warned us that we weren’t in for anything spectacular: “Don’t expect them to be big, because they’re not,” he cautioned us. “Trust me. You aren’t going to want more than 15 minutes here.” Despite Tim’s rousing introduction to Stonehenge, I decided to brave the rain and investigate the site more carefully. The weather was truly apocalyptic; thunder bellowed over the hills from the distance and blue-white lightening zigzagged in crazy patterns across the sky. The whole thing really seemed like something out of a Mel Gibson movie; I could have been King Arthur on horseback, wielding a ruby-encrusted sword. I elbowed my way through the crowds of parka-clad tourists; their umbrellas poked me uncomfortably as I tried to navigate my way towards Stonehenge. For some reason, every tourist in England seemed to have decided (on arguably the rainiest day of the summer) to go to Stonehenge yesterday. A cacophony of languages swirled through the site: guttural German sounds, melodic squeaks of Chinese, the American drawl as flat as the Kansas prairie. People pushed their way to the front of the fence with such ferocity one would think that the Stonehenge stones were going somewhere (which, after earning a “10” in Tim’s “oldness” scale, seemed unlikely).
It was only after experiencing Stonehenge amidst these crowds of tourists that I understood the power of the monument. In a recent posting I quoted Faulkner’s meditation on the porous relationship between past and present. At Stonehenge, however, I felt the opposite–the Stevensian “dumbfounding abyss between us and the object.” In other words, looking at Stonehenge, the past felt astonishingly distant and impenetrable. The deep silence of the stones—majestic in their age—made the frenzied present (the gaggles of tourists with their cameras and hot dogs) seem foolish by comparison.
After Stonehenge, we continued on to the town of Bath—a lovely, tourist-friendly village filled with shops and cafes. More to follow soon on Wordsworth–I received an email with the abstracts for all the papers being delivered at Grasmere! For now, however, the sun has finally emerged so I’m off to take a walk on Dover High Street to catch some rays.