Our trip to London this weekend turned into very much a trip into its arts history. The Muybridge exhibition notwithstanding—that had been our original motivation for going—we spent most of our time looking at references to and images of long-dead British authors, poets, painters and other agents of social and artistic transformation.
Early on in the weekend we made a trip round (the now extortionately priced) Westminster Abbey. It was twice the pecuniary hit that a five-year-old Rough Guide warned us that it might be—making it sixteen pounds per person, literally for heaven’s sake—yet we paid it, saying begrudgingly to the attendant something along the lines of: “you needn’t bother searching our bags; they’ve been empty since we paid the entrance fee.” In doing so we joined the ranks of such as Oliver Goldsmith, who apparently grumbled about the thrupenny charge back in 1765. The humour of suddenly being in such illustrious company was almost consolation enough for being so royally screwed.
But consolation followed consolation. After we were gradually weighed down more and more by a thick, velvet historical-architectural instruction that was cut by the yard and draped around our slightly sagging shoulders, we finally made it to Poet’s Corner, and to the memorial to that very same Goldsmith. And as someone who has only just been released from the bewitching spell of David Copperfield, I was in raptures to find Dickens’ simple, affecting tombstone in the floor. It’s difficult to be surrounded by memorials to the greatest writers in British history (Milton, Blake, Betjeman; more recently, as you’d expect, establishment figures; but then the notion of rebellion all comes out in the wash given the passing of enough time) and by the actual entombments of such as Dickens, Chaucer, and Tennyson, without feeling the presence of some sort of benevolent pantheon, an astrological galaxy of cultural demigods looking on.
The effect of being very much at the centre of things was compounded by finishing our weekend in the National Portrait Gallery. There we concentrated on the writers and artists of the Stuart and Hanoverian periods. K. got a glimpse of the most likely extant image of Jane Austen, while I felt the visionary zeal of that portrait of Blake hit me on the temple and in the heart like it never fails to do. We were also able to assign faces to that earlier pantheon: the defensive, dismissive scowl of Goldsmith; the pasty pastryfolds of Johnson; the observant, crafty grin of Sterne. Here they all were again, this time in much sharper focus.
We left London with our heads spinning and full to their brims. London isn’t merely a city. It’s a physical effect which turns distance into time. To walk around London and among its buildings is to pass between periods of history at a pace which can make you feel nauseous. As if in homage to its peculiarly temporal geography, we went there to see an exhibition about a man who first sliced time up into many instantaneous visual representations, but ended up getting lost somewhere between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I’m still there yet.