I started my second day by traipsing down to St. Paul's. This was a walk of perhaps an hour. Later that day, and most days, I would use the Tube but I took my time to amble just as often.
An amazing, video art installation called Martyrs, by Bill Viola, was presented to one side of the Quire and High Altar area (if I am remembering correctly). Stand with me in your imagination to see four tall, mute monitors. Moving from left to right, you see a person barely visible beneath a mound of dirt, a woman in white suspended in mid-air by chains around her wrists and ankles, a man seated in a chair with a few flickers of flame near his feet, and finally a man whose wrists and ankles are also bound, but he is lying on the ground, wearing only a pair of pants, with a rope dangling above him, tied around his feet. For a moment nothing seems to happen, then you notice motion. Dirt begins to fly upward from the pile on the left. The woman seems to tremble even though she does not appear to be struggling. A fresh glint of flame falls from above to land at the sitting man's feet. You think you notice something dripping on the prostrate man. Shortly it becomes clear that time is moving in reverse for the leftmost man - he is being unburied until finally he stands (but is he relieved? Are you? He is expressionless, his head bowed). The woman shakes more and more violently and you perceive that a cruel wind is buffeting her, and it seems to go on forever until the wind dies down and she once more hangs, still (it must be torturous, but she never opens her mouth or betrays any emotion). The calm man in the chair does not move a muscle as fire begins to positively rain down about him - and he is somehow untouched, although at the height of the conflagration you can barely see him - yet finally the flames die away and he is once more simply sitting, staring straight at you (no fear, no anger, no joy). As for the final man, you did not imagine that dripping water: it seems a faucet, no, a fire hose, has been turned on him from above, and not this but the rope is pulling taut, dragging him up into the air by his feet, until he is suspended upside down as water thunders down upon him. At long last, the deluge abates (you never see this man's eyes due to his position).
Symbolic suffering and you, the symbolic witness. Are you the one who inflicts the torture? The one on whose behalf the torture was endured? A passive bystander? One called to relieve the pain or the conditions that create it?
Hard as it was to move on from this - even now, in the retelling - I did, at last. Sobered, I think. I climbed up and up into the dome. I made a circuit of the peaceful Whispering Gallery, and of course paid a visit to the Golden Gallery to take in its panoramic views of the city.
I climbed back down and out, then made my way south to The Tate. On the Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian footpath, I made the delightful discovery of tiny pieces of art. If you are ever there, be sure to look down as well as around!
The Tate was a joy. This free modern art museum, formerly a power station (!), contained many, fascinating pieces. For several hours I wandered around its halls, and only after I left realized I had not even explored half of the museum!
- Janet Cardiff's "Forty Part Motet." Sit on a bench placed in the middle of a huge, dark room. 40 speakers surround you in a distant circle. Waves of chatter and then music wash over you from every direction. Approach the speakers, and discover what the posted information is talking about: each speaker projects only one voice, so that if you walk around the room you experience small aspects of the total piece of music.
- A roomful of photos and daguerrotypes of African Americans who were slaves or Civil Rights movement participants. Carrie MacWeems curated the collection. Pictures circle the entire room, surrounding but also excluded, bearing witness but also invisible, judged and judging. The first and last pictures are of the wife of a Mangbetu chief, taken in the Belgian Congo in the 1920's.
- The Painting With White room - a group of art pieces demonstrating the beauty of severely-limited choices. What can be made if one only has shades of white to work with?
The next day, a Sunday, I did a lot but absorbed little, and remember less.I took another fulfilling walk - along the south shore again (which I visited almost every day), from Tower Bridge past the New Globe Theatre, through what seemed like a market of some sort (but not active while I was there), past the Big Eye and across the Thames to take in Big Ben and Parliament. I strolled through St. James Park, enjoyed my first live sight of swans, made a perfunctory visit to Buckingham Palace, and then moved on to the Museum of London.
Afterward, I grabbed some lunch from an Asian fusion restaurant called Leon, and took a seat outside the Museum by an ancient Roman Wall. It was quiet, and a bit drizzly. That proved to be one of those unexpected, unpredictable highlights of the day.
Fourth day - this might have been my second-best day in London, after the night I arrived.In the morning I toured the Tower of London, guided by an ebullient and wonderfully hammy Yeoman Warder - apparently known colloquially as a "Beefeater." In her red-and-black striped uniform, this woman delivered a colorful and informative array of facts about the fortress. She showed and described the Traitor's Gate, The Bloody Tower (where two young nephews of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, were perhaps - probably? - murdered by that very uncle), a small, lovely chapel that served as an odd oasis in the eye of this historical storm of blood, as well as the Scaffold Site. This last is now an outdoor memorial on the spot where many people met their unfortunate ends, often for the simple crime of being an object of the monarch's ire. Thomas More was killed here, as was Henry VI, Queen Anne Boleyn, and over 100 others.
The north walls of the grounds show off some odd, fun metal sculptures of animals. Across the way the south walls provide nice, if not particularly marvelous, views of the Tower Bridge and Thames River.
After I had my fill of the Tower, I took up a lead that my host had provided, taking the Underground up to Camden Market. This is a maze-like flea market, indoor and out, that consumes three storeys for a couple of blocks. I basked in bright sun and people-watching, was bemused by the sudden discovery of an Amy Winehouse statue (forgive me, but I know nothing about her music), gobbled up some delicious falafel, and then sallied forth, further north, to Hampstead Heath.
Hampstead Heath is a very large park grounds with several ponds at its southern tip, a string of several more along its eastern edge, and voluminous meadows and forest ranged about the rest. Naturally I felt drawn to the water, which is how I discovered an apparently popular gay sunbathing spot. I worried for a moment that I was intruding, as this smallish, yet crowded lawn was secluded from view by a line of trees to west and east and was by far the most populated area I had seen in this enormous park, but as I kept walking I saw several others on strolls of their own and I realized I was just being paranoid. (The most poignant part of this story was my observation, at the time, of my capacity to create awkwardness where there need be none).
Further on, between two of the ponds was a tall, earthen wall with some sort of tracks along the ridge. Another pond provided a play area for dogs, where I smiled at some eager puppies leaping about in the water. Reaching a tall hill crowned by a couple of tall trees, I climbed up, then looked back: the final pond on the east edge of the park was hugged by a rind of grass and purple flowers.
North of here I found the Kenwood House, a large, white manor looking upon a vast, flat lawn that I don't know anything else about. Finally, I made my way back south toward the nearest Tube station along a wooded trail. Here I ran into a worried man on a bike who had lost his dog. As he pedaled away, I hoped they would find one another.
Day five (fourth and final full day before leaving) - Westminster Abbey, the National Gallery, and a poorly-planned visit to Speaker's CornerWestminster Abbey was beautiful, but tragically overcrowded. It was impossible to really visit with anything there, as this Abbey - impressively crowded with impressive statuary and crypts - is basically a cattle chute of tourists that offers scant moments to step to the side and appreciate. The gardens and gated cloister were out of the way, much less crowded and by far the best part of my time there. In the serene emptiness of the gardens my imagination finally escaped, giving me a bit of the encounter with peace and beauty I had been hoping for. I ought to also give due credit to Poet's Corner, which I have dreamed of visiting for twenty years. Seeing crypts - even honorary ones - for so many famous artists was breathtaking.
The National Gallery is another one of London's amazing, free treasures. This generously endowed, extremely busy art museum lies in the heart of the city (if there is such a thing in London). I regret that my time and memories here has also suffered from the physical and cultural fatigue I ran into at the Museum of London.
Honestly, the most fascinating and indelible part of the Gallery to me was the profusion of performers and chalk artists. I saw lots of very large, very colorful chalk drawings in more than one place, come to think of it. A particularly vexing mystery: how did the person dressed as Yoda hover in midair, supported by a tall, thin rod held out straight to the right by one hand?
I made my way at some point up to Speaker's Corner, eager to hear some local word on the street. This is a small spot in the northeast corner of Hyde Park that has traditionally been set aside, for over 140 years, to speeches and demonstrations. The only problem: this only takes place on Sundays, and I was here on a Tuesday! For my time and weary feet, I settled for sitting in a deck chair someone had left out - at least until a scruffy fellow came by and said that if I wanted to use the chair, I had to pay a couple of pounds. I moved on....
That evening I went out for one, final walk. It drizzled so I brought my raincoat with me. The sky cried for me, just a bit - happy/sad tears that my European journey had, for now, reached its conclusion. So many glowing city lights, fuzzy in the rain. So many tall, tall shadows. So much water rolling beneath me as I crossed each bridge, and so many people going on millions of other adventures.