The size of the city
My first impression of London? The size: it’s large. Not only the structure of the city, the vast area it covers, the length and breadth of the streets; but also the buildings themselves, the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey, the bridges on the Thames, the Victorian houses, the countless stations and long tunnels of the Underground. Yet interestingly, it did not oppress me as São Paulo does. The buildings are much shorter, so the city has a horizon, and there is plenty of light.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson
The queue for going into 221B Baker Street – supervised by a good-looking and smiling bobby, who let himself be photographed with Chinese tourists – was so long that I gave up my plan of visiting Holmes’s and Watson’s flat. Instead, I used the scarce time I had to walk around the block, discovering a back-alley that runs between six-storied buildings of red brick. It leads into the more elegant Glenworth Street, and both look as if they had not changed since the time when Holmes would have walked around these parts. He never did; that master-detective and his faithful friend are fiction; but they are a fiction so powerful as to draw each year thousands of tourists to this little museum.
Here dwell still two men of note,
Who never lived, and so can never die…
To go on with our tour: The Mall is an enormous avenue. It seemed even longer because we walked its whole length, from the Admiralty Arch all the way to Buckingham Palace, under an icy rain, and a mad wind that enjoyed itself by turning our umbrellas inside out.
From there we walked to Westminster Abbey. It is beautiful, except for the fact that it is cluttered up with large tombs crowned by statues which should irritate anyone’s sense of harmony. There is just too much inside the Abbey, so it’s hard to notice the building itself – at least if you are visiting in a hurry. In the aisles, my eye was caught by wood and glass showcases in which are exposed books full of beautifully handwritten names – the names of British soldiers killed during the Second World War. On one of the cases, an inscription ended with the words “…love the brotherhood, fear God, honour the king.” In the nave one finds the tomb of the Unknown Warrior – a simple slab engraved with touching words and decorated with artificial poppies.
Memories of war
All the central area of London seems to be full of memories of the dead of Britain’s wars. In Trafalgar Square, what caught my eye was not so much Nelson, unreachable on top of his column, as the statue of a military man who took part in one of the India campaigns. By the Thames, between the bridges of Westminster and Waterloo, there is a discreet monument to the RAF pilots; and a little further on another one, commemorating, if I recall correctly, the people killed during the blitz. If you walk from the Tower of London to the Underground Station of Tower Hill, you will pass a monument dedicated to those who lost their lives at sea during one of the World Wars. In Southwark Cathedral (by the way, it’s not pronounced south-wark, but suthark) a plaque commemorates the men of the parish who died during the Second World War. Here too one finds the sentence “…fear God, honour the king.”
Impressions of Londoners
But to go back to the living: the personnel of the Underground with whom we spoke were friendly and smiling. They were efficient too, suggesting the best alternatives for moving around – a good part of the tube was paralyzed by a strike, and it was a bit complicated getting from one place to the next.
Also the guard in front of Westminster Palace was friendly. He asked us in an ultra-British accent whether we needed help, and regretted that we should be visiting the city in this “typical London weather. ‘Liquid sunshine’, we call it.” And when we in turn said that the weather makes life hard for him, he answered with genial resignation that yes, but “A job is a job.”
There was also the middle-aged man who offered me some help when he spotted me, map in hand, trying to get my bearings in Marylebone. He told me how to come to Bond Street Station, warned me that because of the strike I might find it closed, and said a smiling “good luck to you”. A typical Englishman he was, with fair skin, well-drawn features, once-blond grey hair, and blue eyes.
A special place
One last word about one of the most famous London buildings: photos do not quite transmit the presence that the Palace of Westminster and the Big Ben tower have. Looking at them from the South Bank at night, when the whole building is lighted by warm golden lights, one has the impression it is translucent, ethereal, as a golden lace or filigree. The Palace and the clock tower seem at the same time solid and fine, large and elegant, and – as I fancied them – protecting, as a familiar, good fairy watching over the city.
But of all that I saw in London in these three days, what stayed with me most was not the buildings, nor the monuments; it was not the memories of the dead or of those that never lived, nor yet the kindness of the living; and neither was it the size of it all.
Strangely enough, what most impressed me were the three Swords of Justice, kept in the Tower of London with the other Crown Jewels. They are the Sword of Temporal Power, the Sword of Spiritual Power, and the Sword of Mercy. As I looked at them in their glass case I thought of the Coronation Ceremony, which is shown in videos in the preceding room; I thought also of that sentence “…honour the king”; and I had the distinct feeling that the attachment to its traditions and to its past are what makes England – and London – a special place. Call me fanciful if you like, but I do believe there is some magic there.
England is England yet, for all our fears;
Only those things the heart believes are true.
© Beatriz Becker