What London Means To Me
Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago —
3rd Year – No. 95 — Friday 1st June 1956
Our roving reporter in London
The Tower of London is probably one of the most famous historic buildings in the world. Standing on Tower Hill just above the River Thames on the site of Roman fortifications, the Tower was started in 1078 by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, who built the White Tower. Traditionally, the Tower had been the prison and place of execution of most of the historical figures of high rank who fell under Royal displeasure throughout the centuries of English history. Here Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned, and Henry VI murdered while at prayers. Here Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, wives of Henry VIII, and Lady Jane Grey went to the block. The Crown Jewel and Royal Regalia are kept in the Tower and history tells of the unsuccessful attempt to steal them by Colonel Blood in 1671. The Yeoman Warders of the Tower, or “Beefeaters”, wear to this day the scarlet and black ruffed uniforms worn by their forerunners in Tudor times, and the grim Traitor’s Gate, entrance for high-ranking prisoners, still stands.
London to me is primarily the city of tolerance, of courtesy and fair play. One never feels at sea in that big city, with a population of nearly ten-million strong. Any time you open an A to Z Atlas of London, on one of the highways of London — to wit, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Picadilly, Marble Arch or Hyde Park — you are certain, nine times out of ten, that someone will readily come your way to help you with your problems.
London is the cosmopolitan city par excellence, in much the same way as Rome in the days of Nero, Diocletian or Hadrian. It is a very refreshing experience to rub shoulders in London with Jews, Jamaicans, Arabs, Turks, Norwegians, Indians, Russians, or Greeks who, in the long run, in a place like London, will probably out-number the ‘cockneys’…
The other night I met a genuine communist, a Russian patriot, at Hyde Park. Despite his strong left-wing tendencies, he had to confess that Britain was the only place where the spirit of Democracy could not be challenged by anyone. Indeed, London, the very core of the British isles, is the haven of Democracy — genuine democracy at its best.
Anyone who has listened to the negro soapbox orator Matthews, a damaging orator with the gift of the gab, a man who can whiplash anyone with his tongue, will tell you that only in a country like Britain one can talk with such freedom, with such ease and vigour.
Indeed, at Hyde Park, one is quite free to broadcast one’s political or religious views, following any line of thought one wants to; and, very often most orators would develop theories or thoughts which would cause our intelligentsia to dream for days on end. Occasionally one would come across prophets, palmists or quacks always on the look-out to convince or convert people. And it is all a very tricky and fascinating affair.
At Picadilly Circus, we stood at the foot of Eros watching that mammoth crowd which flows endlessly from all quarters and with some melancholy in our soul, feeling “all, all alone” for some time we said with the poet Paul Dehn:
“But where is the arrow? Whom has it pierced among the hundreds watching? The barrow-boy, the typist, the Ordinary Seaman, the extraordinary blonde — this one or that one? Nobody knows, and I, who have been watching too, would suddenly like to talk with that one.”
London for me is everything, everyone, every building — even the slum areas or Soho itself — put together like the elements of a masterpiece of the “baroque” school which, despite their apparent contradiction or lack of coordination, form somehow something grand, unique and pleasing.
The glamour of London is not found only in the soft rustle of the wing of pigeons hovering high in the misty sky of Trafalgar Square, or in the placid, muddy waters of the Thames at ebbing tide, or in the daffodils, the lilies of Clissold or Finsbury Parks.
No, for me the glory and splendour of London is more prosaic. For me, it centres all around the newspaper man in the pub, leaving behind his “Evening News” or “Evening Standard”, with his ill-battered hat full of coins, the taxi-drivers looking listlessly at thousands of people, wondering what the fuss is all about; or the homesick colonial students, American airmen, street singers, with vacant eyes and thirsty souls, looking all in vain after the elusive heart and soul of the mighty city of London.
* Published in print edition on 2 March 2018
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