Today is my last day of being a tourist here. From tomorrow through Friday I will be devoting most of my time to the Royal Opera House development session for Stephen McNeff’s chamber opera on Pedro Páramo. So today I set forth prepared to be a gawking tourist in this great city of London, for as long as I could stay on my feet, or until the sun set, whichever came first.
Arriving at London Bridge on the train from where I’m staying, I walked up the Thames to Tower Bridge and crossed over to see the Tower itself. I suppose I’m quite idiosyncratic about being a tourist: more than once I’ve found that the standard attractions attract me not a bit, and that sometimes all I want to do is wander and soak up the feeling of various places. Often I prefer to do that wandering without benefit of tour guide, just with a guidebook and my own sense alert and listening to the place itself.
So today I just walked around most of the perimeter of the Tower without going in. I’ve been around buildings of that approximate age before, in France and Spain; and around buildings quite a lot older, in México. But there is something about seeing that “Traitor’s” Gate, where supposedly both Anne Boleyn and Thomas More were brought into the Tower, which sends a shiver up my spine. The arrogance of power has something to do with that shiver, I suppose; and how power –and the fear of losing it– can erase all trace of human empathy and compassion from a human soul. Brrr.
Brr also because it is COLD down there by the River Tamesis, at least by comparison with what these now Mexicanized bones are used to. Never mind: I have my cozy sweater and hat and gloves and rebozo all piled on.
I cross back over the river and head back toward whence I came, to the Southwark Cathedral. Old, old; tho’ not so old as the temples and observatories the Maya built. Still it is the oldest Gothic cathedral in England. In the oldest part there are various effigies. Interestingly with reference to the merchants –and artists– who were instrumental in the prospering of London, I see only one which is a knight. Among the others which I find interesting are one of a man who is almost-skeleton, flesh partly eaten away, ribs and other bones visible. All white. The sign is at pains to point out that, in the time when it was made –12th or 13th century– this was not considered a sign of disrespect. Rather, it was saying that death is part of life … just as we believe in México. An interesting change of focus: for many northern Europeans now it is a little hard to wrap one’s mind around the idea that to show a dead person as a corpse half-eaten by worms, by the earth, by time, might actually be respectful. I think about this particularly, in this moment, because of what I’ve been thinking I’ll say to the ROH group tomorrow as I explain a little about the historical and cultural background of Juan Rulfo and of Pedro Páramo.
I was also struck by struck by the effigy of one John Gower, who died in 1408 and was Poet Laureate to Richard II and Henry IV. He was called “the first English poet” because he wrote in English –really the vulgate then– as well as in French and Latin. The head of the effigy rests on three books of his authorship: “Vox Clamantis” in Latin; “Speculum Meditantis” in French; and “Confessio Amantis”, in English. I have a fanciful moment of wondering if the spiritual or religious thoughts seemed most appropriate in Latin, the philosophical reflections most fitting in French; but for enunciating the intimate confessions of the heart, only his real mother tongue would do.
From this beautiful cathedral I continue walking along the Thames to the Globe Theatre: the Globe Theatre as it was quite faithfully reproduced and rebuilt by Sam Wanamaker in a noble effort that apparently spanned some four decades. I spend ten pounds fifty on the half-hour tour because it’s the only way you can get into the actual theatre, which I feel I must do. And it is certainly worth it. The space, as you might think, is astonishingly intimate – so much so that I was surprised to learn that it can accommodate up to three thousand spectators. I imagine experiencing Shakespeare here, in this space where he undoubtedly must have walked when it was just a tavern or a bear-baiting dive, where maybe he tried out lines of dialogue in his inner ear; and once again feel tears welling up. The excellent guide points out that the theatre was effectively the first place where different strata of society mixed, where a noble, a merchant, and a poor person might all be in the same place at the same time. Theatre as democratizer. A striking parallel with modern times is how the Puritans dedicated considerable energy to crushing the theatre, feeling passionately that it was immoral and encouraged immoral behavior. This was why it was only feasible to build the Rose and the Globe theatres on the South Bank of London, in Shakespeare’s time outside the city walls. I’ve always felt that culture is dangerous – it certainly is for people of that repressive stripe, and they keep on proving it, all through history and throughout the world. The Globe is one of the many reasons I want to return to London.
And onward: to the Tate Modern, barely a hop and a skip away. ¡¡The TATE MODERN!! On Sunday when I was trying to decide what to do with my last day as a tourist, Stephen and Charlotte described the ground floor to me as a “cathedral-like” space; and Charlotte talked a bit about the Ay Wei-Wei installation –a commission– which is there through February. You can read more about this at the Tate internet site. Too much to talk about quickly here. My usual problem with blogging: most times I am not a knee-jerk responder and so it’s hard for me to get stuff posted promptly. Half the time I end up chewing on it for weeks and then it never gets posted because other stuff comes along.
The Ay Wei-Wei installation was thought-provoking for me in a number of areas. It’s millions –yes, MILLIONS– of sunflower seeds in an enormous space. Except that they are sunflower seeds made of porcelain, each one hand-made by Chinese ceramic artisans. This makes one think –me in particular, in México whose thousand-year artisan traditions are right now threatened by mass-manufactured Chinese goods. It makes me think about how the Chinese artisans themselves are threatened by their own country’s mass-produced goods, as well as how the Chinese people are threatened by their own country’s political choices … and a bunch of other issues. Among them, the sheer mass of people in China: the vast extension of that field of sunflower seeds for me became a kind of representation of the vast extension of that country and of its people. “Life is cheap in China”, more than one person (mostly Western) has said to me; and the fragility and uniqueness of every one of these millions of sunflower seeds made me think about how much of a stereotype that expression surely must be, just as much as saying that Mexicans are constitutionally lazy or mendacious.
I cruised through only one more floor of the Tate Modern because eyes, brain, and emotions were starting to tire. I saw an expo of artists principally of the “Arte Povera” school, Italy post WWII when the idea took hold –perhaps a little like what happened in music– that it behoved visual artists to abandon the “fine arts” traditions and in their art make use of common and sometimes industrial materials, in recognition of the devastation left after the war. Piero Manzoni wanted, according to the blurb by one of his “Achrome” paintings, to “banish narrative content from painting”; sought nothingness. So for this picture he soaked the canvas in kaolin (clay) and rid it of all colour. The blurb goes on to say that the weight of the clay, soaked into to canvas, caused it to sag. My own take on this is that it IS a kind of narrative: the enormously subtle narrative of an infinitude of textures and lines formed by the canvas itself, not to mention the various ways the light hits it and causes it to respond. Like it or not, I think, we are a story-telling race, and it’s something integral to who we are. There’s no question that the rhythm and nature of our diverse stories come out of our multiplicity of cultures, but the love of story, I’ve come to feel, is something completely human. Then there was Giuseppe Penone, who in a room full of pieces using industrial materials makes two sculptures (or maybe one, my notes are incomplete) out of TREE TRUNKS, good four metres’ worth of them. His process involved closely following and carving out around the knots in the wood, resulting in something which for me looked like a sort of skeleton of a tree, if you can imagine such a thing, with the very beginning of each knot like a branch but naked somehow, without bark or anything else to cover it, shield it. These two very tall sculptures had a terrible vulnerability about them but at the same time they were very comforting in a room full of wire and metal.
I had visions of an apocryphal lunch in a warm and comforting pub, but somehow it never happened. There was always one more thing to see, not to mention the damp chill which made me want to keep moving. So I never did really stop.
I end up walking back to London Bridge to the train station to go home. On the way there I bump into one of those small spaces whose intimacy is made far more intense by the size of its surroundings: a tiny park with a sweet and lovely alabaster fountain, all voluptuous curves with a base of river stones set together and the water washing gently over them. I look beyond to the building –a small chapel, Georgian perhaps– and in the near-dusk see that it is the Mission to Seafarers. As one who has various times sailed out of sight of shore, I salute this mission and those to whom it ministers. Then, as I turn around to keep walking, I see the sign with the name of the tiny park: Whittington Park. This is really the final touch: this lovely little space named after Richard Whittington, another who went bravely off in search of his destiny and –with the help of his cat– found both fame and fortune, among them becoming Lord Mayor of London. By all accounts he was a fine man.