Corridors of Power 07/03/2010Posted by brendan in Avions, Trains et Voitures.
Tags: brick lane, buckingham palace, east end, england, history, london, palace of westminster, parliament, south bank, st. jame's park, trafalgar square, travel, victoria park, wandering, waterloo station, westminster abbey
I had envisioned London as being a sweeping urban jungle of concrete blocks, narrow streets and masses of people. My initial surprise was that the city is essentially populated by various villages all distinct from their neighbors architecturally and culturally. The second surprise was the amount of open space.
The entire northeast of London is one stretch of greenery from St. James and carrying through Green Park, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens. Walked along the promenade of towards Buckingham Palace, amazed at the amount of tourists braving bitterly cold winds. A central lake runs the length of the park housing the most varied assortment of waterfowl free of an aviary. Black swans, ducks, and pelicans– apparently the Russian ambassador brought the gift of pelicans in 1684 and the birds perpetuate, fed daily by rangers.
Originally St. James was marshlands, bought from Eaton College by Henry VIII. Henry, living at Westminster, hunted deer on the grounds or lounged in his lodge. When James I sat on the throne seventy-five years later he ordered the marshlands drained, took up bird hunting and began a zoo of exotic captures such as crocodiles, elephants and camels. Half a century later when Charles II returned from exile in France he found the park tacky and ordered it redesigned in the French style. Perhaps this is why it’s difficult to imagine walking on the grass now, despite this being the period when the park was opened to the public. During the 18th century the park was bookended by the creation of the Horse Guards Parade, and the royals moved into Buckingham on the other side. The 19th century finalized the metamorphosis to what I walked through, courtesy of John Nash’s makeover and the refinement of The Mall.
The division between park and Buckingham Palace is like witnessing desertification. Suddenly you’re crossing a broad and empty street, honing in on a towering structure crawling with Italian tourists. The Victoria Memorial is more interesting to look at than the main event, with its mermaids and fountains and strange New Zealand donations; the maritime theme may celebrate the expansion of the Empire which took place during the Victorian era.
Buckingham Palace becomes the horizon. It’s massive, it’s cold, it’s the face of the British Empire. It seems strangely out of place, dropped from the sky in a plot of dusty orange tarmac. At least The White House, hardly the most beautiful royal quarters, has a lawn. The changing of the guard happens at the very unfriendly hour of eleven in the morning, long passed by the time of my arrival. Regardless people clung to the fence, clustered around the gates, posed for pictures, stared at the stone walls patrolled by bored looking security guards. Such an interesting display of celebrity worship, but I’m not sure who or what people have come to see. The monarch who first ruled from this roost, cemented a hundred yards away and surrounded by water nymphs and shutterbugs?
Certainly no one’s interested in the current royal family or the mobs of tourists would be at the heavily fortified gates of The Royal Mews. After the pomposity of Buckingham it’s shocking to see the prison lurking behind, all razor wire and dark stone. I followed the walls, looping through a military installation of dead heroes and the Wellington Arch, then back through St. James Park for an overpriced espresso procured from another immigrant teen who spoke English as well as I apparently do.
Whitehall is where the power really lies. Across from the park is a gravel pit called The Horse Guards Parade which I can’t exactly figure out but seems to be dedicated to, uh, parading horse guards. It was once a parking lot until the IRA launched a mortar attack on Downing Street, and now remains an open expanse from which you can admire the rears of government buildings. Through the arch more tourists mob unfortunate mounted troops who stare into an uncertain distance, desperately seeking the koan which will prevent their stabbing people posing for pictures at their side. Downing Street hides behind even more heavily fortified gates than the Royals receive.
Trafalgar Square lies at the northern end of Whitehall, and it’s the most perplexing tourist attraction known to man. It commemorates a naval victory of some vague consequence, it’s populated by pigeons and statues, the fountains were frozen solid and no one’s much interested in the National Gallery except to use the steps as a good vantage point for pictures of… I don’t now. The square. It’s used as starting points of protest marches and unofficial celebrations, but there doesn’t seem to be anything which ties the site to any particular manifestation.
Less baffling is Westminster Abbey which sits at the southern end of Whitehall. It’s an amazing structure, begun in the 13th century after the gothic school, and has born witness to coronations and funerals of formerly famous people. Sneaking in to gawk at the interior is a little difficult but you can walk over to a smaller church, St. Margarets, and poke your nose inside. As with all churches that double as tourist attractions there’s a confusing confluence of curiosity seekers and devotionals, ushers hoping to welcome you while simultaneously keeping you quiet and to stop taking pictures, please. It was warm inside but it was awkward.
Parliament sits across the street from a set of flying buttresses more crazed and intimidating than those anchoring Notre Dame to earth. Where Buckingham Palace seems monolithic and dead the Palace of Westminster is monolithic and alive. Towering with incredible poise, it carries the gravity and prestige of absolute power. It’s hard to imagine something so massive and powerful having ever been destroyed but it has, in fact, suffered fires and bombings and been rebuilt several times.
To truly appreciate Parliament, cross the river and gaze from the far shore. It’s beautiful, at least when the sun is disappearing to the west and the orange groundfloods and the face of Big Ben stare back. It’s no wonder, taking it in, that the British political system carries itself with a sophistication and intelligence (or rather, the appearance of) lacking in DC, the latter populated by slumbering dolts and jabbering lunatics.
Wandered through the commercial endeavors of The South Bank, additional revitalization efforts to prevent the riverfront from returning to its murky past. Parents subjected their children to harsh winter conditions on a merry-go-round while pensioners packed into the suffocating South Bank Center for a rousing dance party complete with piano jazz. I sat on a luggage cart and ate my sandwiches basking in the sudden warmth and the joy of so many people free of inhibition.
Then Waterloo Station, and trying to understand how a beautiful song could be written about such an ugly place. The innards resemble any major transport exchange, although with the bonus English perk of being freezing cold. I bought another overpriced espresso and milled about searching for some secret magic hidden in the walls, the ceiling, the clattering announcement board or harried voices or rushing commuters. Then I felt like I was an obvious tourist and hopped the Northern Line.
Becky is a friend of a friend, and now possibly a friend. She and her friend met me at Liverpool Street Station and we marched off through the streets towards Brick Lane. Severing The City from the East End, Brick Lane has welcomed centuries of immigrant communities. Huguenots, Irish, Ashkenazis and now Bengalis have called the surrounding neighborhood home. It’s renowned not only for the beginning of Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror but also for curry houses.
It actually was the most shady stretch of London I’d seen, despite the comforting site of drunken gay club-kids stumbling down the block. Someone offered me some bammer weed which made me laugh– wasn’t that something you wanted to avoid when buying weed? There were a couple street vendors hawking DVDs of dubious origins, some dark corner habitants, but we promenaded down the length without hassle. Killed a few hours of happy hour in a dark plush bar reeking from scented candles but boasting the comforts of a fireplace and cheap pints.
Becky’s friend (who was terribly nice and cool but I can’t fucking remember his name) ditched for a swinging hotspot and she walked me down a confusing number of streets through Bethnal Green to Victoria Park. In the park there is a canal and on that canal is a boat. We shivered inside with a bottle of wine while I introduced her to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She got a fire going and we hung out until it was growing close to pumpkin time.
Getting back to civilization was a daunting prospect. The East End has a reputation, compounded by menacing estate blocks and dark streets. I passed a school more heavily fortified than any government building I had seen and noticed cars slowing down for no particular reason, but did not come across any mobs of impoverished youths or drunken yobs. In some ways it was my first experience of reality. Not the quiet suburbs of Putney or the tourist traps of history, not the yuppie infested Southwark or monuments of The City. Brick Lane, East End, people living in boats. And of course now I was leaving.