Skyline from the London Eye...
I had unscheduled time and found myself, feeling a bit stunned, climbing aboard a double decker (the unconscious having it’s say): “Top deck, please!” It was a sunny, very warm fall day and I was about ‘to do’ a London tour. This is my 5th 10-day stay in London over the past year. Usually, I just wander. Yes, I have taken in some of the sights e.g., the stables at Buckingham Palace! But the wandering has been primarily to linger in the British Museum and Library; to peruse bookstores by London University; to hop on a boat heading up the Thames from Greenwich, to watch the sun setting over London; to stroll Hampstead Heath in a London drizzle; and to meander the many treed squares around London… particularly Russell Square, near my hotel and the British Museum.
Crossing Russell Square
I can travel the tube anywhere to find family, friends, shops and restaurants: from ‘The Ritz” to Crouch End to Brixton to Bloomsbury to Notting Hill. I can get to any airport using a combination of tubes; taxies; trains… bus expertise coming more slowly. Finally, it seemed, I was to discover London on a bus tour.
There was a little bit of history… a limerick about the brides of Henry the 8th; statues of Generals here and there; Cleopatra’s Needle; the Tower of London with one or two comments on famous imprisonments or deaths; old buildings where some of the famous historical figures were born/or lived… the first London pub (mid 1500’s?). But for the most part it was about the marvelous architecture of ‘NEW’ London, including ‘The London Eye’ (three! times we were directed to find it in the view from our bus).
The London Eye
the financial district, and Fleet Street. London is about business! success! AND having fun! it seems. The new millennium architecture is very articulate.
We also saw the fabulous hotels and residences of the ‘Rich and Famous’… the Queen does her business in Buckingham Palace, but spends her weekends in Windsor Castle; Elizabeth Taylor stayed here for 3 of her marriages; Prince Charles lives… Margaret Thatcher lives… here is 10 Downing Street. Through the West End we went: looking at all the white Edwardian town houses… very beautiful. London is a rich city.
The British Portrait Gallery, the Modern Art Gallery, and the British War Museum were pointed out on the way through town. WW 2 was mentioned, briefly… “This wall is one of the few places left, where you can still see shrapnel scars.” (I think it was the one part of the tour that touched me.) The tour guide became most enthusiastic when he could share the London we all know through TV: “There! is where MI 5 was located… now here is the secret (but not!) MI 6; AND the New! Scotland Yard.” This was not Sherlock Holmes’ London.
The tour was designed to tell us about an exciting London, now preparing for the 2012 Olympics! Roads dug up everywhere… the streets around Paddington Station and Piccadilly Circus have been a mess for 2 years. Dozens… hundreds? of buildings are decked out in scaffolding… WHERE! are they getting it all? A multitude of cranes decorate the skyline. London has history; London has its rich and famous; and London has changed. That damn ‘London Eye’… three views of it in one afternoon… I still don’t like it. I’m always left with a grumpy feeling. (Guess IT touched me too.)
It is a new London, even though the medieval lurks, somehow ghostlike in the pavement just behind you! And it is taking me quite some time to adjust to it. It was a disappointment, at first. It is not the London of my mystery books and 1930’s novels: London is no longer for the ‘British’ (the Oxford and Cambridge British or the British villager or the London ‘Cockney’).
My enthusiasm grew slowly, though. I gradually began to take note that it is an ‘International City’… full of every ethnic group and Nationality one can imagine! It is a city chalk-a-block full of energy and the ‘London Life’ grips everyone, regardless of ‘home’ origins. I like this aspect of London: seeing such a variety of faces before me; languages from all over the world. Everyone talking!
International London is intense: The young 20 & 30 year olds are hard at work during long days, and hard at play in the London clubs at night… high energy… dressed to the hilt, ready to party. That’s what we see on TV, and that’s what I see and hear on the streets and in the tube. They DO drink! How do they do it!? The new millennium is alive… pumping! in London. London has a ton of young people.
London does grip… as all big cities do. At this point in history, it is intense and flying high. You know, I have never stay internally focused for long, when I have stayed in London. I muse (and mumble), but I am busy and seldom write anything during my stays. The OLD haunts; and the NEW pumps: It is a strange combination.
The new London skyline
Back to my title: The title of these ‘Musings’ includes the title of a new movie that opened in London this October… a red bus with an advertisement in bright yellow and black flashed the ‘eye catching’ words, as I stood waiting at a cross walk: “Killer Elite”. I was shocked: “Kill the Elite”! This was the same day that I took the bus tour. I thought it left me a little flat; yet, I misread this movie title taking it out of the standard, violent, action film realm and putting it into the realm of revolution. I was stunned when I saw the words, and stunned again when I realized I had misinterpreted them. I do know my rebellious, anti-establishment side. It sure had been awakened. I walked slowly, probably mumbling, down the street toward a string of restaurants, to look at the choices for dinner that evening. There was quite a string: French; Italian; Vietnamese, Turkish, an elegant, ‘smart’ fusion of some sort… no British ‘fish & chips’.
Britain has the worst unemployment in 30 years. Where are the old people, and those who are not very healthy? The tubes and streets are much too demanding for anyone who is disoriented or wobbly: crossing the streets requires close attention to very confusing signs, and speed! and getting up and down all the stairs to tubes takes incredible endurance! (I do notice the aching knees and hips!) London is also about the disenfranchised in all cultures; about poverty in all cultures; unemployment in all cultures; as well as, the young and ‘elite’ in all cultures.
I was on Ibiza when I saw the recent (September) London riots: Young people on a rampage: A real wantonness. There seemed no real aim. It reminded me of the recent hockey riot in Vancouver. The group mentality just seemed to take over. Perhaps I didn’t need to see the words, ‘Killer Elite’, because there actually is a discombobulating feeling underlying the ‘Good Life’. The words just brought it into focus for me.
“Killer Elite” is a harsh combination of words. No matter how you read it, there is violence in the air.
So London, after several visits and much wandering; first disappointed then enthused; has now caught my attention with harsh words. Harsh is an aspect of London, of course. It is energetic, enthusiastic, fun and exciting and it is a good example of the new millennium. But, not surprisingly, all this intensity does have its’ harsh edge. I see the ‘The London Eye” symbolizing something more than ‘a BIG and FUN city’. What I see is the ‘ferris wheel’ from our childhood, and the ‘toughs’ that ran them.
That which provides a symbol for the NEW London, replacing ‘Big Ben’ (‘Father Time’? Paternalism?) is also a “fun” symbol from our past: the ‘Funland –Playland - Gayway’ strips. But my memory is that there was something tacky about them. They symbolized the age-old conundrum: “Have fun! but watch ‘the toughs’ who give you the ‘come-on’ smile!” London is BIG & FUN: and its’ combination of power and materialism is particularly seducing.
This harsh ‘edge’ seems more palpable here in London, than in multi-cultural and often violent New York, Istanbul, or Amsterdam. In my musings, I finally settled into a sense that today’s London seemed closer to the feelings I get in Singapore. Singapore also has an incredibly long and haunting history; and today’s Singapore is also ambitious. Its financial buildings are the pulsating core of the city. At Singapore’s new ‘Museum of Civilization’, the guide is proud to take you to a lovely big round window (in the old British colonial building which houses the museum), that faces ‘the might’ of Singapore’s financial district… a huge number of impeccably designed steel and glass towers. The guide enthusiastically tells you Singapore is ‘the financial center’ for all the countries from Istanbul to Japan, including India and China. The rich river delta, you are told, has been a port of commerce throughout the ages. Now! its hinterland is the whole of modern Asia. Clearly, nothing in the museum was more important than the view from that window. I was stunned. Like the British museum, it was a museum full of stories from a multitude of civilizations.
Mummies in the British Museum
My wanderings continue: watching and sensing what is in the air. I try to stay open… and I can feel the enthusiasm. But it gets overshadowed. In India, and more recently on Ibiza, in Spain I found books to read… filling in background and flushing out the current ‘winds of time’. Here I am, even after perusing many bookstores, still looking for a book about London to catch my eye… not just pictures of the new millennium architecture. (grumpy) Maybe I have just missed it. So far, I have only the highly charged, action oriented TV series; the ‘BBC News’; and bus advertisements to rely on for a perspective.
Oddly enough, however, shortly after my bus tour and sighting the words, “Killer Elite”, a book did come to light. As it ‘happened’, I came upon a commemorative service for Ghandi’s birthday, in Tavistock Square opposite my hotel. I paused to watch: a touch of India! I can still be entranced by India. The speeches emphasized Ghandi’s “Moral Politics”: politics based on understanding the human being, not on ideas; or on succumbing entirely to the use of power.
Celebration of Ghandi's birthday in Tavistock Square
Not a phrase of Ghandi’s that I remembered. As I listened, I got excited: a form of politics based on understanding the human being! I actually watched the whole ceremony. It left me wondering, “Was this some British-India history that I had missed! Was this phrase remembered particularly this year because it expressed something currently ‘in the air’! Was it just a re-working of Ghandi’s philosophy and more romantic! liberalism? It is easy to be pulled by the romantic.”
Like pretty leaves in a fountain...
LATER… As I leave London and arrive on the Dalmatian Coast, a friend in India has emailed (responding to my email about the Ghandi celebration) to tell me that the Ramana Maharshi Ashram has just! announced a new English translation of a book on Ghandi. (Coincidentally, it is translated by an acquaintance, known to many as a saint, KVS). This new publication can be purchased in the ashram bookstore, which is quite significant because the ashram only sells books on the sage, Ramana Maharshi.
Certainly, it is an interesting synchronicity. I will see about getting the book. Given the synchronicity, this book is either related to my own unconscious; or it is related to London’s and the new millennium. Time will tell… in the mean time, I am tickled pink! a book has finally caught my eye.
P.S. Just arrived today October 29, as I am completing a 3rd draft of this difficult ‘Musing”… an email from KVS describing the book:
"I am happy to know that you attended the Gandhi birthday meeting in London on October 2. The book referred to by Annette is titled 'Revolutionary Gandhi' published in June this year at Kolkatta. It is a translation done by 12 years ago, when I was at Uttarkashi, Himalayas, from a Bengali book written by Pannalal Dasgupta. It remained unpublished all these years and I thought that it would not see the light of the day during my lifetime. However, thanks to the efforts sof two dynamic, committed people - Bharat and Vinita Mansata of Earthcare Books, Kolkatta, it has come out. The book was released at Kolkatta on June 5 but as I was not able to go, due to frail health, Vinita wanted to have a launch at the Ashram and our President, Sri V.S. Ramanan, willingly agreed. It was launched from the New Hall of the Ashram on September 11 by Sri Gopal Krishna Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.
The book talks about Gandhi as a supreme votary of Truth, an apostle of non-violence, one who sought to spiritualise politics and economics and indeed every department of human life, as a revolutionary extraordinary. as a friend of the downtrodden, as one who showed that the means should be as pure as the end. as an emancipator of women and liberator of men and women from fear, as one who accepted all world religions and practised every worthy teaching, as a warrior who fought with love and without any weapon of any kind and as a mass leader unparalleled in human history.
Our President was keen that the book should be kept in our bookshop for sale, though I pointed out that there was not a single reference to Bhagavan. He said that inasmuch as Gandhiji was a votary of Truth and the book talks about his total commitment to Truth throughout his life, the book should be kept along with Ashram books."