Green: Historically Significant Tourist-y Places

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Sort of a funky name, but it describes this category of excursions quite well! Green pins stand for the places in London everyone at home told me I “haaaad” to go visit in order to satisfy my “inner tourist.” These places included Big Ben, London Bridge, Tower Bridge, Tower Hill, the British Library, the Globe Theatre, Parliament, and Buckingham Palace.

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The British Library

Some of the places that I visited I wasn’t sure what the significance of the place was (such as Tower Hill and Parliament), and others I visited because I felt they were important to being an English Major, such as the British Library and the Globe Theatre. In Virginia Woolf’s “Literary Geography,” she writes that some people choose to be “scientific in our pilgrimage and visit the country where a great novelist lived in order to see to what extent he was influenced by his surroundings,” and I tried to do just that by visiting these significant places in London. I took notes in the tourist-y places and tried to see what attracted not only authors but the massive amounts of tourists that frequent them.

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Taking a look at my map, I notice that the only pin on the board that’s north of where I stayed in Connaught Hall marks the British Library. Really, the only pin on the map that’s north?! Mhmm. Again, as an English major and bookworm, it makes sense that the highest point on my map is the British Library (for more about the British Library, browse through my other posts!). Since I went a bit more in depth in another post, I won’t dwell on the British Library here, but the library turned out to be a place where an immense amount of knowledge is held, yet it’s not easily accessible to anyone. You must have permission granted by a library card (which is not easy to get, believe me) and know exactly what you’re looking for. I’m looking for inspiration in this library, how am I supposed to know where to find it? Isn’t part of learning not knowing what to expect and finding it along the way?

DSC_0710Another excursion I promised myself I’d go on was to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I’ve always been such a big fan of his work and couldn’t wait to see Macbeth performed in it’s natural habitat! I spent $40 in the gift shop alone, bought tickets for two different nights just in case I couldn’t make one of the shows, and finally took my seat in one of the balconies to the right of the stage. Thinking back on the experience, I can’t help but hear Woolf’s conclusion to “Literary Geography,” which reads “a writer’s country is a territory within his own brain; and we run the risk of disillusionment if we try to turn such phantom cities into tangible brick and mortar…No city indeed is so real as this that we make for ourselves and people to our liking; and to insist that it has any counterpart in the cities of the earth is to rob it of half its charm.” We don’t know a lot about William Shakespeare; the playbook that I bought at Macbeth explained how part of the original text of Macbeth was lost and there is only one real account of someone seeing it performed at the Globe. Why then was it so imperative for me to see the show in what I called “it’s natural habitat”? The Globe has been completely restored and isn’t the exact stage that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would’ve performed on or been around, yet it was restored to try to preserve what it could of the original theatre. How come I spent so much money to experience something that only faintly lived up to the significance it has historically?
Every place that is marked with a green pin is considered a crucial part of England and the idea of Englishness. The people filling up the space around these places were snapping dozens of photos with them smiling near the building. But how many of them really know anything about the historical significance? Do they stop and think about why these places are still so important today? Circling back to Woolf’s “Literary Geography,” these places that I’ve read about in literature or seen in a movie inspired me too take a step back and look at my surroundings, not just what’s blatantly screaming for attention. My notebook was filled with manic scribbles about how people interact with these tourist-y destinations and what that says about Englishness. Yes, I did snap some photos of myself (I had to satisfy the inner tourist, didn’t I?) but I left with much more than I expected to.

A Stroll Around London: In the Style of “The London Scene”

Writing from my room in Bloomsbury and my room in New York

Postcards, t shirts and video games have shown me time and time again an artistic representation of Big Ben; I’d been in London a few days already, it was time for me to meet him. He is, based on his fame in the States, one of the most important faces of London, though I’ve heard that his face isn’t the most reliable, and taking the Tube for a visit was the least I could do to satisfy the inner tourist inside of me.

As I beheld this integral piece of Englishness in my eyes, I suddenly felt something against my hip. Glancing down, I catch a fleeting glimpse of a white hand grasping into my pocket, hoping to come up with something of value, perhaps my cell phone or wallet; thankfully it comes up empty, for my mother taught me well and I secure all of my important belongings in zippered compartments in my bag, which is held tightly against my side at all times . My eyes disinterestedly scan the crowd for the owner of the begging hand, knowing she or he is long gone, then make their way back to Ben. He stands completely unaware; my heart is pounding, beads of sweat have congregated around my hairline, my body feels violated. Yet his face hasn’t changed. Maybe it’s the distance, but I cannot make out the second hand on the clock. There is no evidence of change in the air, not even on the face that seems to see everything from his vantage point. The personal, almost-trauma of the last minute goes unnoticed by all. I lock my eyes onto the hands that are visible from where I stand, nod at Ben, and cross the street.

How could I have been so deaf, so blind? On the corner of the street I cross onto stands a man and his fiddle; the boisterous, playful music tickles my ears and rejuvenates my walk. Music is what brings me back, even if it only stays with me for a minute or two. The comfort of the notes seems to have spread to those around me. Everyone seems to have joined together, taken a simultaneous, deep breathe in, held it for a moment, then let the breath go and continue on their individual journey.

I must’ve been a bit preoccupied trying to absorb what just happened, for I practically missed Westminster Abbey. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t know exactly what to expect; Westminster Abbey is a bit less famous in the States. I’ve seen a photograph once or twice, but not enough to be familiar with it. Oh, there it is! Beautifully lush trees obstruct my view quite a bit, and that’s not the only thing keeping me from properly appreciating this piece of London; bells have begun to chime. I search the buildings around me to try to find the source, but the trees have kept me from the bells. Hoping to escape the cluttered streets around the abbey, I follow the group and walk under an archway.

Air: fresh and new, unlike the oxygen-depleted air the streets outside Westminster provided. Standing in a cluster of human beings to just stare at an old building seems to have made me a bit lightheaded. Thankfully, the English have found a cure for this proximity and provided the people with open spaces to replenish. A few moments of sitting on the grass make it easier to focus on my surroundings; neat buildings all connected surround me, not a single tourist from down the street, staring up at the abbey or Ben can be heard. But my mind can still not totally piece together everything I saw and experienced within the half a mile walk from the Tube station to my place on the grass. My pleasure and pride in London was not instilled by the buildings themselves, for those seemed to be detached and unaware of anybody coming to experience and appreciate the wonder that surrounds those historical, tourist ridden buildings. The London that struck me was the London that cared; I may be a mere American individual, having my existence acknowledged what I’m longing. Staring into the face of Ben, one only receives a blank, unfazed stare back: these immense structures of Englishness stand proud to be unaware of one’s minuscule existence.