Thursday, 12 March 2009
"All bright and glittering"
I was muttering as I crossed the bridge. Once I was word-perfect in Wordsworth's famous sonnet. I began securely enough, "Earth has not anything to show more fair ...", had a bit of a hiccup at the list of "Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples" and jumped straight from the sky to the sun. I was pleased to recall the stand-alone line, "The river glideth at his own sweet will" and wondered, as I reached the end, if I'd managed the complete poem. I checked later - I'd missed the line "All bright and glittering in the smokeless air." That line still works although these days we expect our cities to be "smokeless."
Perhaps my muttering made others think I was mad. It would have had that effect in the East Midlands. But in London it's easier to be an eccentric. And I couldn't cross Westminster Bridge without trying to recall Wordsworth's lines, even though they weren't entirely applicable to a crowded lunchtime.
In some ways, my brief visit to London felt like coming home - it always does. London is where I belong. But it's more than twenty years since I lived and worked there. There were familiar sights - the Byzantine exterior of Westminster Cathedral is unchanged and a sign still points to the Royal Horticultural Hall. The Army and Navy Stores vanished years ago and I wasn't sure if it had been replaced by House of Fraser or a new row of expensive little shops. I marvelled at their shiny exterior and gazed through the plate glass. But I felt more at home wandering round one of the little markets for locals and office workers, in a street of cafes and shops selling all sorts of goods from hardware to secondhand books. I had to resist the temptation of cheap hot lunches to take away: food from a range of European and Asian cuisines.
We were near Westminster. Signs warned that the area was designated under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 - and that any bicycles left near Westminster Abbey would be taken away. Brian Haw continued his camp, surrounded by flags of Commonwealth countries. Opposite him, policemen carried big guns. Westminster Abbey was closed for the day and no reason was given.
I wandered along the tourist routes and gradually realised what was strange about central London. Where were the empty shops, the "closing down" signs, the advertisements offering a "fantastic retail opportunities"? Nothing seemed to be "to let" or "for sale." Cafes where coffee costs £3 a cup were at least half-full.
There was so little evidence of poverty in London that I was relieved when I came across a young man, drunk and bruised, sitting on Maggi Hambling's monument to Oscar Wilde. The young man was solemnly sharing a bottle of white cider with "Sir Oscar," as he called him. "Sir Oscar's my friend," he told me. I hope Oscar would have approved.