The Joys of Walking London


To write from London on these museum cards might give a true picture of what’s being shown at the galleries, at the Courtauld, at the Royal Academy and at the V and A on this recent trip at the end of February. The Dream by Michelangelo in black chalk unites the angel blowing the dream into the mind of the reclining figure, the handsome young figure with his arms on the globe, his muscular legs on the box holding the masks of worldly temptation. Michelangelo drawing to instruct his young patron Tommaso di Cavalieri, a love affair with a 16 year old boy. A love affair for the aging artist at the height of his productive life. These are the Presentation Drawings, a small group of finished drawings to instruct and to entertain the young lad with love sonnets attached. Gifts from the 57 year old artist of renown and humanistic learning to seduce by beauty, to connect body and mind to soul. Nothing more interesting than late work of genius: the holding of the breath at that time of life.

They are pornographic in detail with detail rendering sculptural facts—and the grace of body parts filled with longing. And the sonnets written in the master’s own hand, moving from Latin stillness into life and breath.

I wonder if London is simply Disney world for adults when walking from the Somerset House to the Royal Academy of Art offering a once-in-a-lifetime collection of Van Gogh’s letters to Theo sketching compositions that he paints from 1887 til his death in 1890—those years of reckless color and forms. It is called “The Real Van Gogh: the artist and his letters.” Here, again, words and drawings and finished canvases in seven open rooms, uncrowded on this February morning.

If I assume that great cities belong first of all to the young and the old, especially to college age students and the retired old who love to walk, why not New York in its thrilling size and modern sheen and in easy reach by car, train or bus from my New England town?

Getting into the theaters, for one thing. Jeruselem by Jez Butterworth at the Apollo Theater had been so widely acclaimed in early February that no tickets were available on line. In London, however, getting into the most popular show, including Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, takes some finagling–getting to the theater early and waiting, often an hour, for returns. But in London the arrangement assures your getting to see the play you desire if you’re ready to expend the effort. Try getting into Horton Foote’s The Orphan Cycle and you’ll notice the difference in attitude. Returns represent sharing.

Walking the neighborhoods in London I find movement a kind of synthesis: looking and history, with my interest in the literary past unparalleled. From the Sunday noon chamber music at Wigmore Hall, the Doric quartet and sherry by noon, we walk up to Marylebone High Street exploring the changes in this recession. Daunt bookshop’s door is opened so that we can look at contemporary poetry finding Elizabeth Alexander’s new collection prominent on the shelf. Mr. James Daunt mans the store on Sundays and gives us directions to Moxon Street saying that they now have afternoon tea as well as their fine coffees. A French cheese shop, La Fromagerie (2-6 Moxon) and a butcher’s shop help keep a feeling of the early 20th century present, if not the 19th. Across Marylebone Road at York Gate to Regents Park stands St. Marylebone Parish Church, one of the old London congregations, the parishioners entering on this day for Lenten services.

As we flew into Heathrow from Logan, it was night. We flew over London waiting on the landing queue; our flight attendant pointed out the Parliament buildings and Big Ben along the necklace of lights decorating the Thames. The great spread of the city below with dark wooded parks and silver lakes of water which he told us were filtration plants. Green Park and maybe over there Gloucester Road, he told me. The London Hilton at Park Lane offered a 3-course dinner menu at recession prices—twenty pounds. From the restaurant at the top of the hotel you get a splendid view of Hyde Park, the best view of Buckingham Palace, Belgravia and Mayfair.

To my astonishment I like the changes in our neighborhood during the two years we’ve been staying at the Harrington Hall. We buy sandwiches, yogurt and sometimes a bottle of wine at Tesco’s and Paul’s serves hot chocolate you can eat with a spoon. Fish and chips shop and now a new tapis bar and another restaurant to lure us away from Black and Blue hamburgers — all just a block away across the street from the Gloucester Road Tube stop on Piccadilly Line, District and Circle. For several years we rented a flat from Apartment Services on Sandwich Street, staying there in our friend’s apartment long before the library from British Museum moved to the new British Library and the remake of Euston got underway with new international train service — Eurostar to Paris. Bloomsbury and Soho Square and the South Bank are neighborly, too.