The Diversity of London

11 03 2006

Of London it has been famously remarked in the past that when a man is tired of London he is tired of life. This is certainly not an unqualified truth but there is some truth in it. London in many ways is an epitome of life. It is place of activity. Every occupation, trade, business or pursuit is represented. Every form of leisure and entertainment is to be found. Every corner of the globe and the various cultures of farther lands have in some way found a niche, a niche of survival, co-existence and to a lesser extent integration. Each building tells a story, from the crumbling Roman walls to the modern glass facades towering to the sky. To one who visits London or lives in it, these aspects of this great city are clearly visible. The life of a city is not in its buildings or their history. It comes from the people and their active presence – the crowded streets, the busy shops, the repetitive rush of the Underground, the faces one sees in hundreds on the escalators, the constant movement of individuals, many private lives mingling effortlessly to make this scene of public life.

But there is a life in London that is more subtle and less visible. Rather, it is the source of everything we see. This is the ceaseless activity of the human mind. Without this everything else will falter and fall. To understand this one needs to only observe what the average commuter reads in the London Underground. Reading is far more common than talking in the Underground. There is the businessman who reads the Financial Times. There is the student who studies Maslow’s theories of motivation. There is the ardent fan who reads the sports page of a tabloid. There is the middle-aged man who reads the wasteful gossip magazine. There is the woman who reads the suave fashion magazine. There is the couple who read the programme notes of the evening’s musical. There is the tourist who religious studies the Underground map. There is the common man reading the latest of novels or solving the day’s sudoku. There is me reading the scene, the facial expressions, the fashion of the day, the opening and closing of doors, the movement of people in and out of the carriage, the expectations on the platform…

Discovering London means being involved and becoming a part of the scene. It takes little effort to do this. The city absorbs you almost as soon as you are within its folds. It is the variety that’s lets you do this easily. No one cares who you are or where you come from. Here you are a Londoner and that’s all that matters. There’s the teenager who has his lips pierced. There’s the Indian woman in a sari. There’s the African man with a hair-style as unique as his continent. There’s the Chinese who brings the plate to his mouth instead of the food alone. There’s the Englishman sitting in the park with a pipe in his mouth. There’s the musician with a guitar filling the silences of the Underground passageways. There’s the homeless in the street gripping a tattered sleeping bag in the biting cold. There’s the gang of drunken youths cursing those who defeated their team at a league match.

Ironically, being a Londoner means being in London. It is the place with its rich history that falls like a shadow on those who pass through it. A Londoner has no clear identity of his own. If there is any identity at all, it must be found in an Englishman. An Indian lives as an Indian, a Chinese as a Chinese, a Nigerian as a Nigerian, a Spaniard as a Spaniard, a French as a French, a Brazilian as a Brazilian. When in London, they behave as Londoners. It is an act they put on in vindication of the adage: “When in Rome do as the Romans do”. Shakespeare’s Globe sets a stage but there is a bigger stage.

Everyone comes to London with a purpose. However, it must be a pleasure to travel with no greater purpose than to observe what is visible. This requires suspension of higher ambitions, to resist the temptation to infer what is invisible or to decipher meanings that hide under the surface. Someday I intend to do this. I shall have no plan to visit a museum, a gallery, a park or a manor house. I shall walk the streets with blank curiosity. I shall walk in and out of public buildings. I shall ride the buses without any chosen destination. I shall browse the shops for everything they have on offer without buying anything. I shall traverse the length and breadth of the city by the Underground, station to station, line to line. I shall observe and record, rejecting nothing, accepting everything as they are presented. I shall neither praise nor condemn. These then will form the basis of my personal interpretation of London. But for today my travels have taken the usual form.

My favourite museum in the world is the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. After visiting countless museums in Britain, today I can claim that I have found a fitting match, what can be claimed to be my favourite museum in Britain. This is Tate Britain. My first visit had been too short and afforded only a glance. Today I have spent more than six hours walking from room to room and held completely spellbound from painting to painting. Such had been my interest that I skipped lunch until reminded in the evening by a headache. Yet for all the time spent, I managed to cover only half the collection on display.

“What”s in a painting?” we may ask. Try a blank canvas. Countless possibilities exist, some real, some products of artistic fantasy. Countless themes exist – historical, religious, allegorical, scientific, domestic, personal, literary, abstract, and many more. Countless media exist – pen, pencil, charcoal, oil, ink, watercolour, paper, canvas, wood, and so on. It is thus the job of the artist to transfer to the canvas a visual representation of what he sees in his mind. It is his job to represent in his own brush strokes and style what he sees of the world around him. It is his inspiration to see the face of a model in a personal way. It is his ingenuity to represent a fact in a memorable way. It is his fortune to give drama and feeling to a scene that we have only heard of or read in the past. It is his privilege to hold a mirror to the face of the world. There is meaning in every line and curve, colour and shade. There is reason for every perspective and composition. If we have not found them perhaps we have not searched enough.

The importance of a simple line is seen in the drawings of John Flaxman and William Blake. The richness of oil is not for them. Theirs is an expression in pen, pencil, ink and watercolour. Bold outlines, subtle shades, simple colours and above all, ample imagination make their works special. The aesthetic and spiritual appeal of Gothic art is their inspiration. Homer and classical mythologies are not their interest. Their interest lies in Biblical themes, the parables, the spiritual journeys of Dante and Virgil.

It will be a difficult task to describe the beauties of the numerous paintings at Tate Britain. So leaving descriptions alone I merely list those I have enjoyed the most – “The Death of Major Peirson” by John Singleton Copley, “The Great Day of his Wrath” by John Martin, “An Iron Forge” by Joseph Wright, “Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants” by William Hogarth, “Hadleigh Castle” by John Constable, “The Blind Fiddler” by Sir David Wilkie, “Ophelia” and “The Order of Release 1746” by John Everett Millais, “The Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse, “Hope” by George Frederic Watts, “The Last Load” by John Linnell, “Waiting for the Verdict” and “The Acquittal” by Abraham Solomon, “Past and Present” by Augustus Leopold Egg.

To end the day, I attended an evening concert at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. There were many brilliant pieces but the main one was “Four Seasons” by Vivaldi. This is my second attempt to understand this composition. It is a difficult task. There are so many movements with so many variations that it is impossible to say for sure when a season arrives or when it departs. The moods are so interwoven that one wonders if there is a hint of winter in every summer, a touch of spring in every winter or the ripeness of autumn in every spring. What is clear is that the composition in parts and in whole is expressive. The sombre, coffin-bearing image of winter comes before our eyes but winter is more than just sorrow. It is quietness. It is hope. It is softness. It is a pause before the activity that is to come. The regeneration of spring comes in all its flowing colours. It is light and jubilant. It is born of harshness, nurtured with patience and hence sweeter. There is the dance of the daffodils, the “unpetalling” of cherry blossoms, the fresh breeze mingling with the mirthful songs of birds and the pulsating energy that precedes the exuberance of summer. Summer takes time in coming but it comes all the same in slow measured steps. Summer witnesses the pinnacle of growth. It explodes on the scene with limitless energy but there is in it an underlying harmony that comes from controlled growth. The majestic conclusion of all such energies is found in autumn. Then as fulfilment is attained and no further joys remain untasted, winter comes to claim its rightful place.

Now winter is well out of the way and spring has made a quiet entrance. The world is waiting for summer. As I see it, the whole magic lies neither in the enjoyment of spring nor in the anticipation of summer. It lies in the change of seasons, the way in which each season make a presence of its own but gives way to another when the time comes.

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