Thursday, February 07, 2008

Living the Past

I almost missed my stop on the tube this morning because I was so engrossed in my novel of the moment. Isn't that just the most exhilarating, when you absolutely can not put a book down? Right now the novel distracting me is Atonement by Ian McEwan. I haven't seen the movie, which was just nominated for an Oscar, but if it's at all reflective of the book then it's probably brilliant. The novel is cheating on my London Novel Project just a bit, 2/3 of the novel takes place in Surrey and on the battlefields of France, but it's the part that does take part in London, a wartime London right before the blitz, that captivated me.

In a London that is so old, rambling and vast, I am constantly reminded of different, earlier versions of the city. I'm talking about tangible relics of the past; The Tower of London is a short squat reminder of the medieval, the architecture of train stations gleam with Victorian ingenuity. And everywhere around the city there are simple memorials and reminders of London during the Great Wars.Today on my way to work I thought about how exhilarating and terrifying it must have been to be a part of that. America sacrificed plenty during WWII, but we had two oceans to cushion us from the immediate danger. It's strange to think that while we were planting Victory Gardens and holding war rallies London was actually under attack. Children shipped out to the countryside, people carrying gas masks everywhere like handbags, and the constant lurking fear of the German forces amassing just on the other side of the channel. The rationing, the blackouts, the actual shelling. I'm not a war history buff, I'm just an imaginative romantic, and it's strange to imagine what it must have been like to walk these streets I walk everyday.

And of course there are concrete reminders all around the city. The gates of the British Museum are speckled with pock marks from some long ago shrapnel. Other buildings were wiped out completely. At orientation I learned that the main Christie's building on King Street was decimated during the bombings, only to be rebuilt using the exactly same, incidentally completely illogical, blueprints (go figure).

And of course the memorials. London loves it's monuments even more then Washington DC does. It makes sense when you have so many momentous things to be reminded of. Every train station, every public building, and business which existed before 1945 is bound to have a plaque commemorating employees killed during the war. Larger monuments commemorating both World Wars are spread all over the city. On remembrance day they are blanketed in wreaths of red paper poppies. Nobody will be forgetting any time soon.

Sometimes I think of the history of London like a play, a really long play with many different acts. The build on each other. The city is over a thousand years old, it's been through quite a lot. Often times I think history is easily ignored, but here it is a constant presence, because it's such an integral part of London's personality and being. Obviously you can never go back and relive the past, but in London, the past is a constant part of living, and that's the next best thing.

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