Fresh Perspectives

Before I left for New York, I had become blind to London’s beauty. I spent most of my time underground, shuttling between tube trains, oblivious to what was above my head as I sped through the labyrinth of tunnels spread beneath the vast sprawling mass of the city. When I was above ground, my focus was on getting to where I was going, not on what was surrounding me. I had seen it all before; Westminster, St Paul’s, the Tower, the river at night – their familiarity meant they went unappreciated, and barely got a sideways glance as I rushed by.

I was born in central London, and grew up on its fringes. My parents were both born and brought up in London, my maternal grandmother was a true cockney – born within the sound of Bow Bells – and my maternal grandfather grew up in the pre war slums of Marylebone. London is in my blood; its history courses through my veins. But I didn’t learn to love it – truly love it – until I tried to make a new city my home. As much as I adored New York, at every turn I was reminded of what it wasn’t, and it was then that I realised that the streets of the city I thought I had become indifferent to were irrevocably etched onto my heart.

The streets of London pulse with history, dating back so many hundreds of years that it frightens me to think of how many souls have walked them before me. Remnants of Tudor wattle and daub jostle for space with Georgian and Victorian brickwork and 21st century steel and glass. The spires of ancient churches reach into the sky alongside the skyscrapers of modern commerce. Labyrinthine alleys filled with tumbledown buildings unfurl behind wide, modern thoroughfares filled with glitzy shops and roaring traffic. Graceful bridges span the river that is the heart of this great metropolis, that manages to be both historic and marvellously current; modest, yet brilliant; cosmopolitan, but unashamedly and unequivocally British.

The first time I set foot in central London after my year in New York, I stood on Tower Bridge and really looked at the tremendous view that unfolded before me. The dome of St Paul’s; the blinking lights of Canary Wharf; the gothic towers of the Houses of Parliament. As I stood there, I found myself crying – crying with happiness at being back in a place that, without me realising it, was as intrinsic a part of me as my own flesh and blood. I saw its beauty, I saw its magic, I saw its splendour. Now I look up wherever I go, and I never cease to be amazed by the glory of the city I am fortunate enough to call home. This past weekend, I climbed to the top of Parliament Hill, and I gasped at the wonder of seeing London spread like a blanket at my feet. Last night, walking home from the theatre, I stopped as I walked across the Thames and noticed for the first time how sparkling, how beautiful, how awe inspiring London is when it is all lit up in the darkness; like a diamond necklace laid upon velvet. I feel like the scales have fallen from my eyes. How could I ever have thought I was tired of London? I must have been mad.

45 comments

  1. You know, Rachel, lyrical, heartfelt, and powerfully conveyed as your appreciation of London is, there’s one more aspect to its allure that I want to mention, which testifies even more to its wondrousness. It is that people from other countries, fervent Anglophiles, can feel like England’s own sons and daughters, and have a similar overwhelming reaction to London as you have just described. Probably the exemplar of this species is Helene Hanff, whom I’m sure you’ve read – I don’t refer you to the movie particularly, but to her memoirs, 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. She was a Jewish New Yorker (like me, no wonder I relate!) who started as a professional play reader (also like me!) and lifelong Anglophile: the story of the first time she actually saw London, when she was no longer young at all – just looked it up, she was 57 when she first reverently and ecstatically set foot in London in 1973 – is very touching. How fortunate we are to live in an age when flitting back and forth is so much easier. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a working girl like Helene but my next trip to England will be my 30th, and I feel sure that you will be back and forth across the Atlantic even more times! I think this particular brand of Angliphilia has its roots in a love for English literature, but here’s another story I want to tell you. A friend of mine, a playwright, was traveling in Turkey by bus, and he sat next to a young Englishman. The journey was long and naturally they talked for hours, mostly about books, since both were great readers. At some point in a discussion of Shakespeare, my friend (Peter Mellencamp is his name) said something like, “I’m so glad to have this as my heritage!” The young Englishman replied, “But it’s not YOUR heritage. You’re an American!” I don’t think I’ve ever heard any remark in my life that was more wrong-headed.

    1. What a lovely comment, Diana – you tell the best stories! Indeed you are right – I always love how patriotic people who aren’t from here become about London and also Britain in general. I’m glad that the spirit of Britain so fires up the souls of people who weren’t born here!

  2. I thought of you today. I spied a beautiful book about the Clositers in a St. Vincent DePaul resale shop in a town near Madison, Wisconsin. Of course, it would have meant nothing to me but for your wonderful post about your visit there. The instant I saw the title on the spine of the book, I thought of you. I would love to send it to you. Where may I send it?

  3. So lovely, Rachel. We sometimes have to leave that which is familiar to truly appreciate it and see it with a new set of eyes, which are often washed with tears of wonder. How grand it is that you have experienced your beloved London in so many ways.

  4. Perfect post … having lived in the USA too, I came to realise how much “my” place was part of me on our return from our first posting. I’ve always loved the Australian landscape but it was only after living overseas that I realised how important it was to me. I still love to travel but I realise that I would find it hard to migrate to another place. I admire those who can (though some of course have to, to survive, and for them I feel sorry.)

    1. Thanks whisperinggums! I love to travel too but now I’ve tried living somewhere else I can’t see myself doing it permanently…I love that feeling of being truly ‘at home’. I can’t imagine being forcibly removed from it – that would be devastating.

  5. As a born and bred Londoner (who has lived in the States for many decades and is a naturalized U.S. citizen), your post reminded me of Dr. Johnson’s famous line, “When you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.”

  6. Do you know how hard it was to have one of my favourite English bloggers, who has her finger on the pulse of London and some of the best books, take off to America? It was hell, let me tell you! I stuck out that whole year of Willa Cather and the streets of Harlem in the hope that you would return to Dorothy Whipple and Cheyne Row. Glad you’re back, Rachel.

  7. You have perfectly expressed what I feel about London – and about Britain really. I miss my home every day in spite of being blessed with the chance to live and work here in France. Friends often ask me why I would ever want to come back to Britain – ‘It’s awful here,’ they tell me. Ha! What they need is a spell away. In whatever beautiful place I have found myself (I’ve lived in 5 other countries) I have always been thankful to return.

    A beautiful piece of writing, Rachel. Thanks.

    1. Oh Chrissy – it must be hard for you. No matter how wonderful where we are is, there’s no place like home, and it must be so frustrating for you to hear how little some people appreciate the place you long for.

      Thank you – I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  8. And though I sound like a broken record, I feel the same, though I wasn’t born there, and have only been there three times. I do envy you actually living there. I do believe we have spiritual homes that may be different from our physical ones. You are lucky to have found both in one.

    1. I think we have spiritual homes too, Nan – there is something about certain places that just strikes a chord in our hearts. I am, I think, extraordinarily lucky – nothing makes me happier than this city.

  9. I lived in London for a year, and I love the place, and enjoy going back. I would also say that returning home to Australia also gave me a fresh appreciation of home as well, and made me realise all the things I took for granted. I find that a lot of people in London and Britain in general don’t seem to fully appreciate the good things about their country. From experience I know that London has a lot of hassles and problems, every big city does. But as Chrissy mentions above a lot of people seem to only see the bad.

    1. Yes, I think you’re right, Ed – people grow so familiar with London that they don’t see the good any more, and the stress of commuting etc does take the sheen off things. I’m glad I’ve gone and come back and can now see things in a more positive light!

  10. I wonder if I went to London on vacation and then came back to New York, would I have this same reaction to New York? I love London so incredibly much, far more than New York really, and actually feel more at home in London than I do in New York. But I’m sure I love New York more than I am aware of liking it, and I’d love to have a sort of It’s a Wonderful Life moment about it.

    For now you are making me missssssss London! So much. Beautiful London.

    1. I think you would! New York is MAGICAL and you know you’ll wet yourself at the lights at Christmas!!

      I think now I only remember the worst parts of New York as I am trying not to want to spend $500 on a plane ticket back…but I fully expect to be enchanted when I return.

      COME to LONDON!! I have such a big bed! There’s room for you! :p

  11. I remember my first trip from Heathrow to London on the Tube looking around at the people and envying them what I perceived as their incredible good luck to be living in London, compared to my misfortune at being born in the isolated and very young Australian city of Perth. I have returned to London as often as my husband and children allow; I can pass barely a year here at home before that yearning to be in London returns. I think Diana is correct in her suggestion that it comes from the literature and the shared heritage. And perhaps if you are Australian, it comes from the television programs you watched as a child. I loved walking the streets and finally seeing the places I knew only through books.

    And Parliament Hill I hold especially dear as it was the place I walked to on the very first day I experienced snow, and I will never forget how magical it was to watch children building snowmen and sliding down the slope when these were things I had only ever seen on a screen or in a book.

    1. I am so glad that you love London so much, Karyn, and feel at home here -it is a city that embraces all, not just us natives! Maybe one day you will be able to make it your full time home!

      I find it so interesting when people tell me they have never experienced snow before – I just can’t imagine it. What a beautiful place you were in to experience it for the first time!

  12. This is such a beautiful post. I grew up in the north of England, and have been living in London for 4 years now, but it has never really felt like home. Your post has inspired me to look around a bit more instead of just scurrying along.

    1. I’m sad you don’t feel like London is home yet – give it time, it will grow on you. Though saying that, I think there is something fundamental in us that will always prefer the place where we have our ‘roots’ – I love London because I grew up here and because my family are from here – I doubt I would feel as passionately about it if I didn’t have those roots laid in its soil.

  13. Who was it who said ‘A man who is tired of London is tired of life.’ Glad you have your mojo back! I agree with you that the Tube is depressing. I do hope you will still keep posting about American literature though.

  14. Was wandering through some blogs and missing my Australian home a little when your lovely post reminded me how lucky I am to be living in the UK. The first time I visited when I was 16 I felt like I was home and having been here now for 4 months, it still feels the same. Diana’s comment about literature rings true as well, I have definitely mentioned to people that sometimes I feel like I am in a Dickens novel come to life! Thanks for reminding me what a special place we’re in.

    1. Welcome, Kate! It’s always hard to leave home – I know what it’s like – but you do have to embrace where you move to and see its wonders as much as you can. I loved New York and felt so lucky to be there but at the same time London always remained my home in my heart – I suppose the same will be true for you with London and Australia, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Home will always be first in your heart, but it doesn’t mean there won’t be room for London in it too, given some time. Good luck with settling in!

  15. I have never been to London, but have always loved it through the books that I have read all of my life. Sometimes a different perspective makes a big difference. I know it is an overused saying, but it is true that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
    Your pictures are so lovely and they make me want to visit London myself.

    1. London seems to have a powerful hold over people even when they haven’t been here themselves! I hope one day you will get to come and see it through your own eyes, Janet.

  16. I know exactly how you feel! Not about London (though I would happily live there if I could), but about Canada. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States that I truly came to appreciate and yearn for my homeland; the things I had taken for granted as just being part of life, suddenly took on special meaning as they were no longer part of the quotidian and easily accessible. There are a lot of things I like about living in the United States, now that I’ve been here for 7 years (!), but the first year or two, I definitely felt homesick and nostalgic in a way I hadn’t before.

    1. I love how distance makes the heart go fonder. I bet now when you do go back to visit Canada, you don’t take anything for granted, and knowing that you treasure everything makes home so much sweeter! I hope you’re not too far from the border!

  17. Could not help but thinking of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s word’s “If you are tired of London, you are tired of life” while reading your lovely entry. London is indeed a city worthy of happy to be home tears. Home, no matter where it is on the globe, usually is.

  18. I’m tearing up right now thinking about standing on the Tower Bridge or the balcony of the National Gallery or in front of Hatchard’s book store or in Kensington Park looking at Royal Albert Hall or in the middle of Piccadilly Circus or on Gower Street where I always stay. I love London so much. I have gadgets from London Transport on my iGoogle page and everyday I look at the webcams at Piccadilly, Trafalgar, Embankment and Parliament Square. My co-workers think I’m a bit of a nutter! Enjoy living in London for me too. I hope to be back soon. Cheers!

  19. Your thoughts on re-discovering London are breathtaking! I agree with the first comment, that something about Britain lures foreigners in and welcomes them. I’m an American who has lived in England intermittently for three years, and my love for it continues to grow. I remember the last time I flew into England. I was arriving for postgraduate study in Yorkshire, though I had never visited the North before. There had been so much stress with visa delays, last-minute flights and accommodation arrangements, but as soon as I hit British soil I felt calm. I felt like I had come home, not left it behind. In summary, your eloquent post made me feel a bit *home*sick.

    1. Hi Diana, thanks for your comment! I’m glad you feel at home in England…it’s a special place! The North particularly is beautiful and earthy in a way the South probably isn’t as much…I love those windswept moors!

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