"The charm of modern London is that it is not built to last; it is built to pass. [...] It is an impulse that makes for creation and fertility."
Virginia Woolf, The London Scene in Good Housekeeping, 1931.
So close and yet so far away! London and Paris: two cities, two philosophies, two very different lifestyles. Living under the spell of the French capital, it was hard for me to imagine my life anywhere else. And when I was traveling, I would choose cities tangled up with their past. I kept visiting Rome, Naples and Venice, more eager every time, to unfold their stratification of history and architecture. All these cities had something larger-than-life in their existence that pulled me close like a magnet.
Unwilling to scratch the surface, I kept using Londoners’ business-oriented culture and attraction to everything that is new and subversive, as an excuse to procrastinate my visit. Fortunately, art made me finally cross the canal to explore an exhibition on French-born artist Louise Bourgeois. I was soon to discover how wrong I was in my preconceptions.
The pulse of the world
The volume and pluralism of this city reveals itself immediately. On my very first day in London, I went to the Oxford Circus. What a shock! This muscled body of vehicles, people and sounds was breathing on a scale that I had never witnessed before.
I stayed at the crossroads of Regent and Oxford streets for a while to start absorbing with my mind the excitement that made my heart race. Hundreds of people were coming out of every cardinal point, crowding themselves in buzzing swarms, only to disappear a few moments later and be replaced by a new bunch of figures and faces.
“A perpetual ribbon of changing sights, sounds and movement”, said Virginia Woolf to express her amazement when she herself was discovering Oxford Street some 80 years earlier. In a selected extract below, this modernist writer, brought-up with a home-school education, remote from the outside world, describes her first brave walks as an adult in the chaotic metropolis of the ‘30s.
Such a massive agglomeration of people and cultures is unique for European standards. The tension and excitement electrifying the air have become part of London’s hallmark; travel literature has written some of its best pages: German philosopher Friedrich Engels called the city “endless”; Sir Victor Sawdon Pritchett “voracious”. For French diplomat Paul Morand, London is “an extraordinary listening post”; for 19th-century writer Heinrich Heine “an agitated river of living human figures”. Their impressions are gathered in “Babylondon”, an article dedicated to the colorful chaos of the British capital.
City on the move
Have you noticed that London has very few squares in the continental style? I realized that when I looked for a bench to rest for a while. I had found a couple of parks and a lovely garden square, but had bypassed them all. On that first day of visit, I did not want to spend a minute away from the city vibes, and these havens of green were giving me an impression of seclusion: although not too far from the main arteries, they seemed in complete disconnection from the city.
I started pondering upon this observation: with so little public space inviting us to slow down and sit around, does the city try to pass on a message? Is it because of London’s historic duty as one of the oldest trade hubs to show by example that market leaders are here to produce, not gaze around? Has London become what Peter Ackroyd called “a city of clock-time and of speed for its own sake”, that there is no room left for some occasional idling in the middle of the streets? As I was trying to calm down the horses of my conspiracy theories, I remembered the words of Sir Victor Sawdon Pritchett: This polyglot traveler -whose impressions of London are hosted in many of our articles-, has expressed some interesting thoughts on the topic:
“As for one Londoner meeting another in a public place outdoors, this appears to have difficulties. […] London has no Grande Place. Compared with continental cities, it is poorly provided with places for sitting outside for a chat whenever and wherever you please.
A few timid little coffee bars allow one to sit outside nowadays; but there is no stretch of tables on a wide pavement […]. After the fixation on property, privacy and order; […] after the guilty feeling that to sit down and just watch the crowd go by for an hour or so for the price of a beer or a cup of tea is idle, bad for trade and that in any case it is rude to stare – would you like people to stare at you? – after all these things, – there is the unanswerable climate. It will rain in a minute, and it takes a German Queen Victoria to like picnicking in the rain. […] No. Get inside, pay for your drink, finish it quickly. Be considerate, someone else may want the table – go. If you want to sit for hours, go to the parks. In the centre of London you have the largest and most beautiful parks in Europe.”
Cult of nature
And the most beautiful they are. Being used to the artificial geometry of Parisian gardens, I was impressed by how wild and free London parks are left to grow. In Paris, where every tree is planted according to a landscape plan, parks are beautiful because of human touch; the ones in London because of its absence. Their thick turf and flashy-green lawns travel me back to the exotic rice fields of Bali; squirrels are running around, fearless, making the visitors feel like they are the ones who intrude.
There are not many other cities where nature plays such an important role in the life and mentality of its citizens. Paul Morand’s remark is spot-on: “Parks connect London to history more deeply than buildings, because the latter disappear much faster than trees, in this country that is characterized by a love and sense of nature.” Indeed, one gets the feeling that it is nature, not buildings, the most stable landmark of London: the only one that resisted the challenge of time and wars.
In a city that grew without central planning, where buildings were coming and going according to the private considerations of its noble land owners, London became a patchwork of styles. Tudor, Regency, Victorian, Modernist, Brutalist and other movements formed an architectural plurality that can only be appeased by the city’s green lungs.
The parks in London also serve to wipe out any cultural divisions left from the Industrial revolution. Take a few steps on their luscious grass and you will watch the entire city parade: elegant joggers, book lovers, tidy picnickers with their cute hampers, young moms walking their strollers, amateur photographers, and digital nomads grabbing a lunch using their laptops as a tray. In the parks of London, all the city tribes get united under one same flag: the Londoner’s everlasting passion for nature.
The power of evolution
I spent the last couple of the days of my visit at the exquisite Victoria & Albert Museum. I was amazed in front of one of the world’s richest collections of applied and decorative arts. Inspired by a magnificent Persian carpet I was gazing at, a thought crossed my mind:
If Paris was a tapestry, admirable for its quality and the know-how of its upholsterer, London would be the sharp eye of the merchant who picked it out of a hundred others; it would be the free spirit of the decorator to mix-and-match it with different fabrics; and the courage of its user to replace it with a new and more fashionable one.
In other words, some cities stand out for the created object –a palazzo, a fountain, a boulevard-, while others are admired for the creative process. Paris would not possess the same charm without Baron Haussmann and the grandiose 19th century; nor would Rome without Bernini and the theatrical Baroque era. And while visitors will rightly admire Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s or John Nash’s Regent Street, these masterpieces are not necessarily what they will take away from London. This city is not about the genius of a few brilliant minds; it is about the people’s ingenious state of mind, a spirit in constant search of new ideas, not afraid to erase and start fresh. Virginia Woolf used to say that:
“The charm of modern London is that it is not built to last; it is built to pass. […] We knock down and rebuild as we expect to be knocked down and rebuilt. It is an impulse that makes for creation and fertility.”
Was it the city’s development as a multi-cultural metropolis that taught its people to encourage diverse, unconventional views? Or maybe, their merchant spirit dictating to always seize the opportunity first, urging them to push the lines further, rather than marking them firmly on the ground?
The fact of the matter is that London’s pulling power resides in an ever-evolving balance between its multiple diversities – social, cultural, political, and even architectural- and its inherent sense of evolution.
Back to Paris from that first visit, I was so thrilled to have been finally able to enjoy a city for something other than its history. When other places are fenced in images dominated by their glorious pasts -Athens and Naples are two typical examples-, in London, one learns to appreciate the power of evolution. The city’s innate sense of progress, its refreshing urge to “knock down and rebuild”, and the electrifying energy of its crowds are sources of excitement and motivation.
Exploring the socio-political context behind the growth of a city can give us the key to realize its identity; especially when it comes to understanding why London and Paris, two capitals born with similar profiles and fellow destinies, have grown such distinct personalities. Paul Morand studied their parallel orbits in detail to throw some light on how these two cities became each other’s alter-ego. His observations are enlightening and enjoyable.
That’s why every time I travel back to London I stick a post-it with some of his notes on the back of my boarding card:
“London or the anti-Paris. They were born in the same era, but their destinies were so different! London has groped its way along, like a big blind beast that never meets any barrier; Paris had to crack, consciously, one by one, the city walls within which it has been fortified […]. Paris is the barricade and London is the social order. London drips with water and Paris with blood […]. Paris is the bistro and London is the private club. […] In London, things are beautiful because of people; in Paris, in spite of them. Paris is mistrust and London is credit; Paris is the ability of reasoning […], London is the chance […]. The lights of these two cities shall never be confused.”
Ladies & Gentlemen
What makes a gentleman? Is it his impeccable tweeds and phlegmatic talk? No sir; this isn’t about the words he uses, but how he stands by them. See, a gentleman, is a man of honor.