Living in Los Angeles, it’s sometimes easy to forget that I am almost completely surrounded by the new. Huge billboards on movies not yet due out for months tower over me, the latest cars slide past on the streets, and the latest and greatest gadgets are everywhere. Even our oldest buildings are relics of the ’50s and ’60s, and our oldest history tends to be about movie studio heads who took orange trees and turned them into mini malls. Los Angeles is a city of movies and cars, both inventions from our time, not the distant past.
Westminster Abbey’s latest inhabitant, on the other hand, is an unknown British soldier that was buried in 1920. I literally walked among kings today, explored rooms with walls built hundreds of years ago, and saw a painting, in real life, that was probably put up there 700 years previous.
It’s almost ludicrous how much history there is in Westminster Abbey — the place is literally littered with it, in that there are tombs stacked on tombs, one gorgeous memorial after another, commemorating figure after figure throughout British history. The symbolism is cacophonous: In one corner, here lies a pair of nobles commemorated with life-sized statues placed on a platform being carried by their six sons. Next to that, a tableau of a man fighting with death to save his wife, who passed in childbirth and was buried here.
And across the way is Captain Cook’s grave, and then Henry VII, and the shrine of Edward the Confessor, and the tomb of Mary the Scots. Over here in the Poet’s corner is the statue of William Shakespeare (who’s actually buried in Stratford-upon-Avon, but we thought we’d commemorate him here anyway), and right across from him is a statue of G.F. Handel. He is indeed buried here — along with 3,000 other corpses in a space roughly the size of two city blocks. Everywhere, there are faces of the dead, and symbols and symbols and symbols. Coats of arms, religious symbols, animals that represent Britain or a house or a clan, ornate patterns dating back to medieval times, the Victorian Era, different periods of the monarchy. There’s so much history in the abbey (which “above all,” says a pamphlet, “is a working church”) that even the staff doesn’t know what to do with it. Various unused equipment, chairs and tables, and temporary barricades, is just laying around the church, leaning up against the gold-leafed grave of what’s-his-name, who died fighting for Britain’s honor, and is depicted riding a flying lion, his family’s primary signifier.
That’s not to make fun of the place at all. It’s a holy place despite all of the calamity, and standing there in the Chapter House (with its walls of incredibly detailed stained glass) or the Lady Chapel (with a impossibly crafted stone ceiling) does encourage some reverence. I was dutifully awed at Chaucer’s grave, and I made notes on my iPhone to go and read more about Mary, Queen of Scots and Edward Longshanks after seeing their final resting places.
I felt some of that reverence down the street as well — seeing the Cenotaph and learning the story of Remembrance Day really made me consider what both “the Great War” and Hitler did to Britain specifically and Europe in general. These people haven’t just been through some history — they have good reason to make sure and remember it as well.
And from what I saw today, they do. Churchill stands just east of Big Ben, outside of Westminster. Monty (the general that beat Erwin Rommel) stands outside the Ministry of Defense. And the whole lane there, all the way down to Tralfagar Square, just reeks of tradition. The Horse Guards changing in their prim uniforms. Nelson and his column and his Lions. And all of old buildings, steeped in the tradition of kings’ executions and classic war photographs and press.
I walked that whole lane today, and then over to St. James’ Palace and the Square, and then up through Piccadilly again, where stores that started to sell goods as long ago as 1700 still peddle their wares. In the evening, I went to dinner with my friend Jem, saw the Tower Bridge and Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, had a drink at a pub that’s been around for 150 years.
I’ve been thinking a lot about worldbuilding lately, for various reasons. George R.R. Martin’s world in Game of Thrones, for example, is a complex and textured universe, with plenty of fascinating houses and characters and places to fill it out. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most well-formed fictional worlds out there, with thousands of years of history that tells an epic story. But these have nothing on the Britain I saw today — the royal tradition is full of rich stories and characters, and wrought with symbols and signs and legends.
The smells of London are something I haven’t come up with a good way to describe yet. They’re probably the most foreign thing I’ve encountered over here — just walking around the city, you’ll get a whiff of something you just didn’t expect. Coming up from the Tube, you’ll grab a note of curry, and wonder where the great Indian place is that you’re missing. You’ll walk down a side street and get a quick puff of stale air, undoubtedly forced up from one of the city’s complex and vast underground systems. Or you’ll be walking down a narrow street, and suddenly smell horses. There aren’t any around at the moment, but then you realize that for centuries, horses and carriages probably wandered this same street, leaving their smell for just as long.
This is a city where history has happened, over and over again. Los Angeles is full of the new — you can’t get away from it. But London is steeped in the old — you see it, you smell it, you feel it. There’s history here, real history, so much so that the years weigh down upon you.
Posted on Wednesday, April 4th, 2012 at 2:26 am. Filed under general.