A holiday to most people is getting away from it all. A sandy beach, a cottage in the depths of somewhere scenic, a luxury hotel on an exotic island, these are the images conjured up when holidays are mentioned. Originally, of course, a holiday was a Holy Day when you did indeed have a day’s rest but for the purposes of prayer and religious observance. But inevitably the Holy part gradually became buried as secularity took over the idea, until it finally metamorphosed into the family fortnight away from the usual grind.
I rarely have holidays as such but a recent trip to London for a friend’s birthday party, grandmother duties and moral support for my youngest’s first stage appearance, unexpectedly turned out to be one.The four days I spent in the city where I had grown up and spent my formative years were wonderful, and I was sorry to leave. What made it memorable was the lack of planning and my ability to do exactly what I wanted with no-one else to think about. Apart from the organized engagements, all of them evening ones, I had whole days to myself and, as the weather was fine, I was able to spend them without getting wet: not having to carry an umbrella is always a bonus in Blighty.
So, with all the time in the world I travelled by bus, trundling gently along, seeing at close hand the eclectic mix of London’s architectural styles I once had to rush past on my way somewhere. The joy of being able to sit and stare, to study and wonder increased as the buses I used took me through unfamiliar areas. Tucked into corners, nestling between modernity, or bravely standing surrounded by ruins or building sites, were glimpses of London’s past, the days when Pepys and Boswell roamed the streets, when David Garrick, Edmund Kean and Sarah Siddons electrified their audiences in theatres proud of their illustrious history, and men and women from the golden age of music hall strutted their stuff in variety theatres long since abandoned. And there also were the spires of Sir Christopher Wren’s churches where the world listens to music from composers lying in Westminster Abbey.
I rediscovered Samuel Johnson’s home in Gough Square, a beautiful house hidden in a muddle of streets and still with its burglar proof chain across the front door, a glimpse of a householder’s security concerns when small children were lowered from fanlights to unfasten locks. I spent two hours steeped in a world where the famous dictionary was written and where books and pictures chronicled not only Johnson’s life but that of the people he knew. A house where Hodge, Johnson’s favourite cat, sprawled contentedly in front of the parlour fire.
Another discovery was „Postman’s Park“, near Aldersgate Street in the old city. A strange name but the old General Post Office was nearby and to commemorate it there’s a statue of Rowland Hill of „Penny Postage“ fame. The park was originally the grave yard of a local church but it’s now known for the memorials to „Heroic Self Sacrifice“. In 1900 the painter and sculptor George Watt, to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, suggested commemorating ordinary people who gave their lives to save another’s. This is why visitors continue past St Paul’s Cathedral to see the park, and although most of the memorials date around 1900 there is one which was placed there in 2009 to a young print technician who died saving a child from drowning. The memorials are touching in their simplicity, and the stories of men, women and children who died trying to save someone else, resonate in a world where health and safety rules do much to stop the spontaneous human instinct of helping someone in danger.
And of course I pleased myself when it came to food, so I descended into my usual haunt, the Crypt restaurant in St. Martin’s in the Fields, handy for the galleries in Trafalgar Square. This, for those unfamiliar with the workings of today’s English churches, was one of the first to spot the financial possibilities of turning either the cloisters or the crypt into a restaurant. Cathedrals and churches up and down the country now provide reasonably priced food for all appetites. Home-made cakes and lunches to feed the stomach are as much a part of church going as prayers and psalms are to feed the soul, and St. Martins has for decades provided inexpensive sustenance for visitors and locals alike.
I browsed through the National Portrait Gallery, rediscovering its treasures with a more discerning eye than was previously the case; age does have some advantages! and then saw a quite excellent exhibition in the National Gallery of an almost forgotten painter, Federico Barocci, whose preliminary work was more stunning than the finished paintings.
And all the time I could stop and gaze at will, wandering luxuriously midst the thronging masses of workers for whom London is not a tourist attraction but the place where, like I once did, they live. It was a glorious few days of selfish enjoyment and a reminder that whatever changes take place there, London is still the vibrant, exciting city of which Johnson said: „No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.“
In kulturissimo July, 2013