London Diary, 20/09/22
The Great Moving-On
Other than modern depictions via film of the Elizabethan-era Globe Theatre, I do not have any mental images of London that are easily retrievable from my memory older than those handed down to us by the 19th century literary greats who chronicled their imperial capital in all of its contemporary glory and filth. Despite reading volumes of histories that reach back to Roman Londinium, nothing has managed has stick prior that era. It is Victorian Age London that has the greatest resonance with me, and is what I subconsciously seek out most when visiting this endless city.
Fate would have it that I be present in London for Queen Elizabeth II’s royal funeral. For the Brits mourning or paying their respects, I have nothing but understanding for why they would do so: she is theirs. Much has been written elsewhere that describes how those feeling sadness (or that an era has ended with her passing) are mourning the loss of a Britain that has slipped through their fingers. I think that this is a valid interpretation that describes an outpouring of emotion and genuine respect for a woman whose role was nevertheless entirely ceremonial, one that a cynic would portray as little more than a good and consistent tourist draw. I am a cynic, by the way.
There is a much larger London for whom the Queen, her death, and the Royals, are simply an abstraction that is ‘best ignored’. Anti-monarchical sentiment has long had a constituency in Britain, with republicanism a steady, albeit small minority presence of the whole. Indifference seems to be the order of the day, particularly among new Britons i.e. immigrants. It is impolite to suggest that these New Britons are replacing the old ones (which is why it should be said, as it would be self-defeating to allow others to define the parameters of acceptable verbiage). Whether you agree or not with this characterization, they certainly ARE displacing the English stock.
One comes to London to do business. One does not plan to settle here even if they WILL reside here for an extended period of time. It’s not asked of you to do so. This is the kill floor of finance, the gentleman’s club of insurance, the cosmopolitan’s cosmopolitan. “No one is from London”, I am told by the English, by the Scots who remain here, by the wealthy foreigners from the continent, from the Arabic world, and beyond. It’s okay to treat this place in the most mercenary and self-interested of methods. Extraction is applauded, provided that wealth is spread around to those that assist you in the matter.
London still maintains that promise of immediate adventure heightened by an indescribable energy that is felt instantaneously upon arrival. Anything remains possible. Yet London has already moved on from the Queen’s death, a city too distant from its rich imperial history, and too large and bogged-down with the tasks of financial hubbery for such a reduced and ceremonial monarchy. The English (and maybe the occasional Scot and Welshmen) are overwhelmed with the sense of an epoch ending, but London has changed too much for it to resonate for any length of time here. Beata, the chubby Polish girl working at Costa in Paddington Station, is too busy flirting with Jermaine, her witty and also chubby West Indian colleague, to care about the Windsors and what the end of a 70 year reign means.
When I visit this city, I thoroughly enjoy myself every time. It’s not my city, it’s not my country, it’s not my people. Therefore, I cannot feel the sense of loss that many English and British people do with how much it has changed in less than two generations. I walk around, I spend time with friends or people with whom I interact for the sake of business, I spend (a lot, as it is quite expensive here) money, I don’t cause trouble. I arrive quickly and leave just as fast. Queen Elizabeth II has been a constant presence throughout my life. She serves as a reminder of the pageantry of royalty. But she was an unremarkable character, enthroned at the tail end of a dead and buried empire. It’s what she represents by way of bloodline that activates the nervous system of the remaining loyal British subject; a reminder of long-past imperial supreme glory, now distant, tattered and frayed, holding on by the thinnest of threads in the collective memory.
For those interested, I wrote a long essay on the UK struggling to find its place in the sun two months ago: For Whom the Bong Tolls. Check it out.