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.

Yellow: Parks and Squares

All of the yellow pins on the board mark the parks, gardens or squares I visited: Russel Square, Hyde Park, St. James Park and Tavistock Square. One of my favorite things about London is that every few blocks there is a park or a square for you to sit in. Every park I went into or passed by was well kept; some had fountains that children could play in or to add soothing noise to the air; others had elaborate gardens with colorful flowers. All of the parks had places to sit and relax, which was such a great way to escape the loud, crowded streets of the city.

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What intrigued me the most was what else was inside or around the parks. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the words “sublime” and “beautiful” as “beautiful” as “(1) excelling in grace of form, charm of colouring, and other qualities which delight the eye, and call forth admiration, (2) affording keen pleasure to the senses generally, (3) impressing with charm the intellectual or moral sense, through inherent fitness or grace, or exact adaptation to a purpose, and (4) relating to the beautiful; aesthetic.”  The OED defines the adjective “sublime” (in terms of “things in nature and art”) as “affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur.” Some of the parks I visited I felt were beautiful, some of the parks I considered sublime.

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Tavistock Square, located right outside of my dorm, was one of the beautiful squares on my trip. The layout was simple and open; a few benches lining the walkways, trees that weren’t too tall. Everything was green or brown. There were a few statues in the corners of the park but, because of where they were located, they weren’t overbearing or obtrusive. One tree that I always sat across from had a small plaque underneath, telling us that it was a “peace tree.” The main purpose of the park was to act as a place of rest and relaxation, and there weren’t any obvious statements of power or control that I saw. Russel Square was a similar story; it was a bit bigger and louder, for it had the fountain that little children splashed around in. People laid out on the grass to try to tan, friends gathered around benches or tables at the small cafe in the park. The presence of the cafe was again unobtrusive and didn’t take away from the overall beauty of the square. These two parks were beautiful and not sublime for it brought “keen pleasure to the senses” from it’s simplicity and function; it was appealing to the eye in a subtle way.

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St. James and Hyde Park, on the other hand, were examples of the sublime. When I went to Hyde Park, I walked around the Rose Garden and by some of the bodies of water in the park. The Rose Garden was filled with dozens of types of flowers, all very well kept with bright colors and interesting shapes. There were overhangs with vines and more flowers growing on top, fountains of naked women, all located on a winding path with several options of which way you want to experience the garden. It was overwhelming at times to choose the right path that would take me to the part of the garden I wanted to see.

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St. James Park was also very large; what made it sublime was the view of Buckingham Palace through the trees. At first the sight appeared to be beautiful due to it’s charm, but the longer you stared at it the more it became obvious that it was sublime. Much of what the palace stands for, the monarchy and power and privilege, is felt by seeing this view of the palace from a distance. It is a reminder that even when you are trying to relax and escape the day’s pandemonium, you cannot escape the power that royalty has, nor will you ever attain it. St. James Park and Hyde Park are sublime because they are overwhelming and meant to leave you with a sense of awe, gawking at the power they present. Overall, parks were quite an important part of Englishness and the London experience.

Glastonbury: Myth and Englishness

Writing from the basement and my room in Connaught Hall, Bloomsbury

Site of King Arthur's Tomb

Site of King Arthur’s Tomb

This sign, standing among the remains of Glastonbury Abbey, reads:

Site of King Arthur’s Tomb. In the year 1191 the bodies of King Arthur and his Queen were said to have been found on the south site of the Lady Chapel. On 19th April 1278 their remains were removed in the presence of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor to the black marble tomb on this site. This tomb survived until the dissolution of the abbey in 1539.

Take a second to read over the inscription another time. Initially, the sign seems to be marking something of immense importance, of sheer greatness. But going back and reading it through a second time, the greatness starts to show a few cracks. The bodies of Arthur and Guinevere “were said to have been found,” though there was no definitive proof it was their bodies (let alone they actually existed). And their supposed tombs were moved to this spot “until the dissolution of the abbey in 1539,” which means that the tomb isn’t there anymore. So, why the sign focused on the greatness?

Right after taking this photo, I turn behind me and look out onto the grass between other ruined parts of the abbey. Chairs have been set up, as well as a sound system and an altar, in preparation for what appears to be a mass service. My mind is filled with even more questions: Why hold a church service in the presence of the mythical tomb of Arthur and Guinevere? Yes, an abbey is a religious building, but there is no proof of their existence, so why practice a religious belief it’s safe to assume that people attending the mass full-heartedly believe in? Geoffrey of Monmouth’s passages about King Arthur were believed to be complete fact for years, but then came to be understood as myth. Is the fate of the religion being practiced in the abbey to face the same fate?

I hope it’s become evident that as I’ve been Mapping London, the idea of Englishness continues to be challenged by my experiences. Each blog entry defines and redefines what it means to be English, as seen from the eyes of a 20 year old American student. Glastonbury Abbey and it’s affiliation with the myth of King Arthur is fascinating. Seeing so many people still to this day visiting the tomb of King Arthur and Guinevere makes me wonder what is so important about this myth? Returning to Monmouth’s text, one encounters not only the myth but the importance of religion tied up with it. It’s hard to define what is truly part of the myth and what is truly part of religion, it’s all woven together. Values such as purity, chivalry, and the sacred are presented. If we jump to Sir Thomas Malory’s Arthur, we see the same set of values. Every chapter is marked in time by a Christian holiday; the knights must be pure (virgins) and honorable in order to fully complete quests; men sacrifice themselves. Looking around Glastonbury Abbey, it’s safe to say that people don’t believe in everything written in the Arthur myth, yet the importance of religion is still quite strong. The Arthurian myth seems to be prevalent in contemporary Englishness because the themes and values in the myth continue to be seen as important for one to be considered “English.” But an identity built on myth, how sound could it be? Perhaps as sound as the inscription on the sign seems; mighty at first, but with visible cracks.

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.