It’s our last day in London this week, and so we want to make it last as long as possible. Being more acclimated to this time zone, we actually got off our duffs and made it to the city by 10:30. By 11, we were eating breakfast next to Gandhi. Time waits for no tourists in this city, especially when everything closes at 6 at the latest.
Our purpose in travel, however, was not to be the background of a thousand Gandhi selfies but to visit Westminster Abbey, which was right next door. Tourist tip of the day? Buy the tickets online and watch the jaws drop agape in jealousy as you skip the long queues and stroll right in.
The tour insists over and over that is is a living church. And they do hold services and daily prayers and communion, and even a coronation every half-century or so. But mostly, Westminster is most famous for being a monument to dead people. Anyone who’s ever been anyone to the Empire got their bones interred or at least a plaque within these hallowed walls. They’ve even made room for a Yank or two.
Walking through the Abbey, one can not help but to reflect on the intimate moibus strip of life and death. Here in a Christian church, A faith that preaches that this life is temporal in contrast to the eternal beyond, great care has been taken to preserve the memory of those who have passed the divide. Perhaps we tell stories of the dead to exemplify the values we wish to transmit to the living. Nevertheless, all of these monuments extol the virtue of deeds done on Earth and the temporal remains of those who carried them out. Only those who fashioned the stone of Edmund Spenser (“Here, except in the case of the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, lie the bones of Edmund Spenser) seem to recognize a precarious irony of attempting to immortalize the mortal and the transient physical everlasting.
For all his wit and foresight, Spenser’s memorial only merits a modest plaque and statue in Poet’s Corner with the rest of the rabble-rousing writers (too many to name, but rest assured that almost every notable British author you’ve ever read–with the exception of Keats, perhaps–has some recognition there). Indeed, size often has no proportion to importance. You can receive an audio tour guide as you proceed that points out the most famous stories of the most famous dead. There are several statues that get no mention at all as you enter. The first two you are told to find as you enter are for Darwin and Newton. Newtown’s memorial is elaborate and prominently placed as you walk past the prayer candles and make your way to the choir while Darwin is a relatively humble plaque on the floor. By contrast, the largest memorial is a bloke named Norris, an ambassador to France under Elizabeth I. You’ve no doubt heard of him if you’re a history buff, I guess. With life-sized statues of himself and his wife carved on a platform carried by statues of their six sons, it seems he is included on the tour because–as a dear friend of the Queen, he has the largest monument at 36 feet tall. But now we know the name of this four hundred year old dead and somewhat obscure civil servant. Immortality, it seems, is having Jeremy Irons tell your story to thousands of tourists every year.
History is funny like that. What is famous in one age can be forgettable or even contemptible in the next. It is easy to assign our values to those in the grave, but the span of time shown in these stones bids us be careful. On these walls are monuments to those who served valiantly in the colonies long before “colonialism” became a dirty word. No one’s marker typifies this more than David Livingstone. By today’s societal standards, it could be said that imperialist Livingstone sought to impose his foreign beliefs on the native tribes of Africa, opening up the interior of the continent to a new, destructive wave of European exploitation, the fingerprints of which can still be seen today. But on his death, he was extolled for “courage”. In “evangializing to the natives.” Looking back to make judgments through the murky waters of history can be problematic indeed.
Nevertheless, for those who know they will be remembered regardless, consciously controlling one’s legacy can be its own motivation. Though it seems odd to worry how people will perceive you after your death in the context of Christianity wherein the eternal hereafter is of prime importance, Henry VII seemed to straddle both the demands of his temporal legacy and his eternal soul. Almost as soon as he took the crown, he built the Lady’s Chapel, Wooden chairs flank the entrance, each one embossed with a plate holding family crests of the Knights who occupied these seats over the years, Sears topped with formal dress war helmets ornamented with dragons, lions, and crows. The crowded quarters meant we walked slowly and observed each minute detail of the statues of Henry and his wife, along with the twin graves of Mary and Elizabeth, one Catholic and one Protestant, interred together. In the golden hall ostensibly dedicated to the Virgin Mary, we paused as a prayer filled the chapel, asking God for a healing in the world. The whole church stopped in silence.
The prayer over, the motion continued. We bypassed a logjam at the tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots and flowed through the river of penitents to Poet’s corner, the writer and actor Hollywood walk of fame, initialized by the memorialized ion of Chaucer, first renowned as a public servant, then revered for his storytelling ability. We came around to Willy Shakes, who almost had his own wall, two famous panels that the Puritans under Cromwell had tried to strip of color,’and Handel, whose internment, Jeremy Irons notes, brought such a public outcry of support and celebration that it transformed the Abbey again, now a living church, a memorial cemetery, and a space for the public arts.
As we passed to the exit, the 12:30 communion service held parishioners at sway as the vicar prayed for those plagued by mental illness, poverty, or other blights to resort to violence. The stabbing attack from last night seemed to be on her and everyone’s mind. Immortality, it seems, is a concern for those who have their mortality somewhat secured.
Of all the British writers I’ve read, none seems so preoccupied with immortality as Shakespeare. Aside from love, having his poetry outlast the ravages of time and the boundaries of his own mortality seems a primary concern in his poetry. Sonnet 55 famously starts:
Neither marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlast this powerful rhyme;
It seems that for all his worry, he may have gained some success. In addition to his posh spot at the Abbey, they built a theater exclusively for his works. The old Globe burned long ago, but his works are so beloved that a new theater and museum has been built to replicate it on some choice riverfront property.
What exactly has ensured such literary immortality has been the grist for much discussion. But had little time for this as our tickets for A Midsummer Night’s Dream were scheduled for 2. So we hied us hence along the Thames, past the Tate, bubble makers, musicians, and a poet for hire to catch the show.
Built to mimic the old Globe, the theater has space for groundlings, with whom the actors interact, three tiers of hard wooden benches, and an open air to London sky, complete with airplanes and helicopters. However, it has its updates: sound system, lighting, pre-order drinks for intermission, and a gift shop. The best of history updated.
However, the updates theater were small groundlings next to the updates to the play. First, and perhaps most importantly, Helena is now Helenus, a man. For those of you unfamiliar with the text, this means that both Lysander and Demetrius are bewitched to fall in love with a man, and the nuptuals end the play with Lysander wed to Hermia and Demetrius to Helenus, or as the players say, “this ones for all you ladies and all you gay-dies”. What’s more, the play survives, even thrives in the spirit of envelope-pushing bawdiness Shakespeare made his trademark. Additionally, the band featured a woman with an electric sitar perch on a balcony above the stage undernesth a neon sign that read “rock the ground” (a line from Oberon). Oberon instructs Puck to find the men in “hipster garb”. Interludes of song are constructed from some of Shakespeare’s more famous sonnets, but also modern style appeared with nods to Beyoncé, Cabaret, Bowie, and Kubrick. Farces flew in harnesses like acrobats. The production of Bottom’s company drew raucous laughter as “Wall”–an actress covered in cereal boxes–allowed Pyramus and Thisbe to whisper through her “crevice”. Finally, a riotous Bollywood dance number closed the show to joyous, rhythmic applause from the crowd. Lord, what fools these mortals be.
With huge smiles we joined the tourists who selfied at the stage as the staff ushered us out so MacBeth could start at 7. On the way home, we crossed the Millenium Bridge–a tribute to 2000 years of London as a trumpet and Bassoon combo played “Bolero” underneath the visage of St. Paul’s. Willy Shakes had stood the test of time. He borrowed stories as he wrote, repackaged them, and made the accessible to update. Some theories of immortality have this temporal form breaking apart and rejoining the totality of everything. Shakespeare can continuously adapt and incorporate changing standards of propriety as well as styles of music and art for a more digital and international world. Because his work is both timeless and adaptable, he may have gained a modicum of the immortality he sought.
Back in Daling, Gary and Ashley met us for dinner at The Clay Pot–a traditional Indian restaurant–where we talked about the day and their upcoming plans to travel to India. I experimented with the Lamb Curry while Nic stuck with her everlasting favorite–chicken tikka masala, which Garu says is actually a British adaptation of Indian food. Regardless, like today’s play, I’m sure she’ll love it until the end of time.