It’s Leviticus in the streets, I have decided…life and death so very close together…in this my inner journey through London. What else can explain it? I am positively charged up being here. And I am so painfully aware that I may not be here in this, my formative city, many more times…or if the fates are against me…ever. While intellectually inescapable…this basic truth is avoidable in every other way. And there’s something else going on about London for me. I keep thinking I’m going to return, somehow. I mean, live here again. Which is patently untrue. Which makes this the place where I was formed, and continuously revisit, mostly in my mind, and occasionally on the ground. And that’s life. That’s mortality. And London either bookends my life. Or provides an orbital center. And, to add to confusion, it is also the place from which I will happily depart to my wife and true home on Friday.
Besides, I am clearly unfit to live here. This is a city for working people. Rich working people, yet. And by ’working’ I mean simply that London is a lot of work. Doubtless New York City is too. Whatever. On with the story….
Evie, one of my earliest friends in London, met me in the hotel lobby at 8:45 AM as announced. It took a while to get a cab. But we had a while. Our train left from Liverpool Street Station at 10 AM. Evie started getting nervous when the cab headed toward Oxford Street. Well, I told myself, cabdrivers have their ways. After all, most of Oxford Street is now cabs and buses only. Still, we were barely creeping along.
Cabdrivers may have their ways…but they also have their ways of making money. I told him we had a 10 AM train. Not to worry, he said, we were almost there. And we were almost there…for a long time. Long enough to circle Smithfield, the historic London meat market, still working and not tarted up…several times. And, even though we were late, I couldn’t help taking this in. London is renewing itself, for better or worse. Can Smithfield, Britain’s largest meat market, keep working within the square-mile City of London, some of the world’s most expensive real estate? I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. It will either be what it is…or it will become something like Covent Garden.
Where will people live? How will they get there? At least people are asking these questions. In a dying city, people wouldn’t be asking anything. Trust me, London isn’t dying.
I was dying to get on the 10 AM train to Ipswich. And we certainly had a frantic rush at the station. I dispatched Evie to check us in with the disabled services people at the station. Then the two of us rushed toward the ticket machines. Actually, this was something I should have done the day before at Paddington Station, downstairs from my hotel. Too late now.
Now we faced the ticket machine. In truth, we faced a bank of ticket machines. We only had minutes to spare. Never mind what my watch said – it was slow. And I was slow to grasp the working of the ticket machine. Particularly maddening, because all sorts of people were making tickets spit out left and right of us.
This is one of the dividing lines between the youth and old age. No, one needn’t dwell on it. But it’s real enough, isn’t it? After all, here is a video screen full of possibilities. One can buy a ticket. Several tickets. Single. Round trip. Season tickets. Theatre tickets, parking tickets, for all I know. Furthermore, this bank of ticket machines had a generic title like ‘Buy Your Tickets.’ The one across the way promised to help you ‘Collect Prepaid Tickets.’ So we dashed across to the other machines…and, no, we didn’t actually dash.
Because in the few minutes we had spent at Liverpool Street, all 10,000 people currently milling in the station had invited several of their closest friends to join them. With a good 30,000 people now hanging around, it took time to get across the way. There, the alternative ticket machines, offered the same screen displays. Evie confessed that she had never picked up tickets this way. I hadn’t done this for over a year. And it was taking time. Still, between the two of us, we managed. We also managed to miss the train by about 30 seconds.
It’s an interesting experience, if one can see it that way. In a moment from some movie, the barrier goes down and your train pulls away. There it went, heading for Norwich. Taking fellow passengers, my people, away. And leaving me behind. Already going about 30 mph by the time it reached the end of the platform. My future disappearing into the distance. Anna Karenina possibly on the tracks. Hard to tell. So, what’s to do but head for the ticket office and plead my disabled American case? No time at all for the agent to write something in the back of each ticket and urge us aboard the 11 AM express.
Express is what it does, expressing all my joys for trains. We manage to go from London to Ipswich in an hour, including one stop. Electric, of course. And then after a change to a little train, two coaches with a built-in locomotive, it’s Woodbridge, Suffolk. That this picturesque, rich little tourist village is a real place is summed up in its violin artisan studio. At least three guys visible through a window building violins. It’s a real workplace. There’s a window. People want to see what’s happening. There’s a small display. But Woodbridge is building Britain’s violins. Go figure.
Go down the street, turn and look toward the harbor. It is small. The estuary of the River Deben is barely wide enough to shelter 100 boats and 10 or so swans. There is a gentle feel to this eastern coast. The land is flat, and the banks are low. The harbor is ringed by flood walls and floodgates. The North Sea keeps trying to reclaim land, forever battering at banks on either side…Suffolk and Holland. In this country, Turner did his watercolor landscapes. Countless other romantics have tried to do the same, capturing the essence of a country where horizons soften into each other. Sea, sky and land.
Friends of Evie point across the harbor to a large house in the distance. It stands in a clearing, forest behind, harbor shimmering in our foreground. I knew the former occupant of the house and stayed there in the 1970s. At that time, I didn’t know Woodbridge was here. The driveway is on the other side of the house, through the forest. This harbor would have been at the back. I didn’t know where I was, literally. But then I was barely 24 years old and didn’t know where I was in general. I hadn’t been crippled long. Everything was difficult. And getting to a place was enough work, emotionally and physically.
It means something, something more than geographical, to see this house from the other side of the water, a distant and new perspective. I have come this far. I have crossed the water.
Life, death and immortality all converge in the Woodbridge graveyard, of course. The village church is a beautiful thing. It is made of flint. This is not unprecedented, I learned. Many a church in Britain was built this way. I stare in fascination at the walls. The flint has been carefully fitted together, the irregularities in one black stone folded around its neighbor. The church was built in the 15th century, hardly an old one by UK standards.
The vicar hurries past. I have to stop him, complement him on his church and proudly proclaim that I am married to one of his landsmen. I want to tell him about the amazing things Jane is doing in her church, but the guy clearly doesn’t have the time. So I continue wandering about the place. As an American, I can only marvel. The flat, black flints are not only fitted with the precision of, say, a mortarless dry stone wall, but they are curved into various patterns, mosaic-style. On and on they go, up the steeple. Along the sides. The work must have been murderous…or life-affirming, depending on one’s perspective.
On the next day, my perspective is Hugo’s. He was the little boy hero in Martin Scorsese’s film of the same name. I too seem to be living in a railway station. My lunch date having failed to appear, I roll out in search of a curry. I fail. The restaurant is closed. So, back to Paddington. This time to the station and into the modern part and up to a lift, then up to another level. Then, down a walkway, everything being a surprising distance in this town…around a corner, and there it is. The Grand Union Canal.
Boats quietly plying in the duckweed waters beneath the high-rises of Central London. I’m very much alone and getting increasingly far from my hotel. I can’t seem to find my way to the restaurants. Jane and I have been here before. And winding back and forth along canal pathways, I finally come to the end of the canal footpath road. Now there’s a lift. It’s one of those wheelchair-oriented devices that require holding down the button all the time to make the platform move. It’s a one-person thing. If I get stuck here, I’m really on my own. What the hell. I’m up and over and into more of this central London Canal Wonderland.
It’s brilliant, all this. Paddington dominates the area. Or it focuses it. In the lingo of shopping center designers, it anchors the experience. This is what San Francisco’s new Transbay Center is designed to be. A center. A hub for transportation. A hub period. Of course, Paddington Station has been working on this for 150 years. Perspective. I need to keep it.