London, that wonder-filled city characterised by ‘the grey damp filthiness of ages’ (P. J. Harvey), is a city with absolutely no shortage of the bustle that attends the wellsprings of human civilisation. Following on from my meeting in Rüdlingen, I had opportunity to revisit the place last week; and I milked the brief time I had. Starved for cultural input, I enjoyed revisiting The British Museum (it really is the most extraordinary collection of stolen goods) where I was euphoricised by the lime plaster statutes from ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan, the earliest large-scale representation of the human form and dated at around 7200BCE. And while it is not my favourite gallery, it was worthwhile too to revisit Tate Modern where I was reminded of the fact that the collection of work housed therein reflects both the groping for new meaning and the attempt to reject precisely such a quest in a world whose confidence and conscience was irreparably wounded on the battle fields of Flanders and in the execution chambers of (mostly) Eastern Europe. Time at Tate Britain was richly rewarding too, although I was saddened to discover that Ophelia, who usually hangs out in those hallowed halls, is in the US at the moment. I hope that she’s not too cold, or made too exhausted by the constancy of North American chatter. A day in the British Library (one genuine highlight of which is the Treasures Gallery), and a half day at the Victoria and Albert Museum also made up the brief visit.
Of course, no trip to London is complete without spending some time – and moula – in the West End. So I took in Simon Gray’s delightful play Quartermaine’s Terms, starring Rowan Atkinson, and, later that same day, Les Misérables. Not having seen the live show before, I was very excited about going, had a great seat, and was not disappointed. It was absolutely outstanding. In addition to a visit to the West End, the other must-see-every-time-I-visit-London highlight (and it probably helps that it’s free!) is the National Portrait Gallery. Feeling a little flat, still jet-lagged and gallery-exhausted, and with sore feet, there was a sense in which the last place that I wanted to be was wandering about another gallery/museum. Instead, I wanted beer and sleep. After succumbing to the former (and a quick power nap in the pub), I soldiered on to the NPG. I love that place, and within minutes my mood and energy had lifted, and with my Nexus in hand I penned a poem on Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Samuel Johnson. In addition to the good Mr Johnson, this time the following subjects attracted my most sustained attention: Johns Milton and Bunyan, Williams Wilberforce, Shakespeare, Gladstone and Blake, Hannah Moore, the Lake Poets, Coleridge, Joseph Banks, Michael Dahl, Samuel Johnson, W. G. Grace, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Disraeli, Mary Seacole, Alfred Tennyson, Henry Irving, Holman Hunt, Ernest Henry Shackleton, T. S. Eliot (and Eliot again and again and &c), Ralph Vaughan Williams, plus an entire room of portraits by George Frederic Watts. O that I had more time to stay with and write poems about each one.
Speaking of ‘cultural input’, I also had the opportunity to meet the Tillings – Chris and Anja, his ‘ridiculously beautiful wife’. What a wonderful team they make, and what a fine chap – and preacher – Chris is. Chris preached at St Judes church on Colossians 4, drawing an important connection between Paul’s verses on prayer and the mention of names in the final chapter of the letter as being not an optional extra but a natural overflow/extension to the manner of life borne witness to in the earlier and more ‘theological’ chapters. It was really wonderful. His basic point was that there is no proclamation of Christ apart from human relationships. This makes sense for, among other things, when Christ comes he always seems to bring his friends along with him, apart from whom his life makes no sense. Then over coffee later in the week, Chris and I discussed theological education, his writing projects, and PT Forsyth. We didn’t solve all of the world’s problems, but we made a start. [Note: Although the tidy state of Chris’s office gives every indication that he not doing any serious theology, he assures me that the case is otherwise. The proof, as they say, shall be in the pudding.]
As delightful and as intoxicating as London is, however, like every other metropolis it suffers under a strange absence of a sense of not being a place where vegetables are grown, and meats cured, and nappies changed by the side of the road. For all its grime, and for all the time it affords on one’s feet, it lacks a sense of dirtiness; that is, of its location in earthdom. It is not the kind of place, in other words, where dogs – or their owners – appear to be at home, as it were. But bless you London. For the conservatism with which you embrace change, for the efficiency of good (albeit expensive) public transport, for decent pizza, for resplendent women wearing ear muffs and tastefully tailored coats, for conventional-looking men undaunted by the snow resting gently on their shiny bald heads, for making space for a tide of Polish and Ukrainian workers, for driving on the correct side of the road, for restaurants happy to attend to appetites well after 10pm, for stiff upper lips and for unreliable football teams, bless you.