I’m off to London for the first time in a couple of years. There are friends to visit, art exhibitions and plays to see, and especially the city’s parks, streets, alleys and neighbourhoods to explore—more this time out of a sense of nostalgia than expecting any new revelations. Still, there are always those moments that bring unexpected pleasure. Like the fond memories that are invoked when I sit outside the NFT near the Thames, memories of being a much younger man in London and avidly attending European art films with my wife there. For a time London had turned into a second home for us. But my wandering freely and easily has recently become a problem. At seventy-eight I don’t have the same capacity to walk miles. Neuropathy makes my feet at times feel difficult to move, as if they are stuck in cement. So I know I will have to make many pub and café stops along the way to keep my energy up. But I’m trying to get the most I can out of this trip, since I don’t expect miracle cures in the near future for ageing and neuropathy.
After an uneventful but tiring plane trip, I arrive a little the worse for wear to stay one night at a grand but seedy budget hotel I have gone to for decades. Everything remains as it was in the neighbourhood (Bloomsbury) surrounding the hotel, with the same restaurants smelling uninvitingly of oil, fried food, and indifferent sanitation, and an all night squalid convenience store where all the fruit they sell looks rancid. But the next day–a Summer Bank Holiday with most of the stores closed– I move to a friend’s flat. We head for the Matisse exhibit at the Royal Academy, located on that handsome shopping street, Piccadilly, that has been a main road since at least medieval times. The street houses such striking places as Fortnum and Mason, the Ritz Hotel, the Burlington Arcade, and Burlington House.
The latter House is the last surviving town palace of four built in the 1660s, and has been home to the Royal Academy since 1867. It has gone through many architectural transformations, but has consistently offered well-curated and original exhibitions. That includes the aforementioned Matisse exhibit ,which is filled with his studio’s treasured objects, and which focuses for the first time on their role in his work.
On another day, I walk haltingly and with care—no more bold, unthinking strides—across the suspension Millennium Footbridge to the Tate Modern. I am there to see a grand exhibit of Giacometti’s sculpture and paintings, ranging from his early realistic heads through surrealism to the final quarter-century of his life where in his sculpture he relentlessly pursues the truth of the human condition. (“I am very interested in art but I am instinctively more interested in truth.”) The stirring isolated forms he produced are open to a variety of interpretations, but they have become emblematic in our collective consciousness of modern men and women.
But if this trip were built primarily around viewing art exhibits, I would be no different than many other tourists. Instead, I walk and closely observe the utterly familiar streets of a city I have resided in or visited for 45 years. Near the financial district I see many building cranes and new indistinguishable box-like office buildings, with hordes of junior executives, clerks, and secretaries pouring out for lunch at sterile cafes and restaurants. The City (London’s financial district) still contains more than a trace of grace, for no developer and politician has been allowed to destroy the Guildhall and Leadenhall Market and other historic buildings. But the City does have a new skyline dominated by oddly shaped buildings with vivid nicknames: the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie, and the Cheesegrater.
Despite all the justified concern that Brexit elicits, London remains the dominant European city for the wealthy, for it is more convenient, more connected and more open than other cities. And though– depending on the outcome of EU departure negotiations– there will be some attenuation of London’s financial community, few are predicting a total meltdown.
But like any city that is a magnet for the wealthy (e.g., New York, San Francisco) there are many homeless young people camping out on the Strand and Piccadilly. Shelter, the housing and homeless charity, calculates that 170,000 people are homeless in London today. The mayor of London, the generally admired Sadiq Khan, has said that the scale of rough sleeping in the city was “beyond shameful” as he announced a £4.2 million funding boost to help the most vulnerable homeless. It’s a problem that defies easy answers in every major city that confronts it.
On another day I walk through neighbourhoods dominated by council housing (public housing)—not the hated tower variety like Grenfell, that burned down recently, causing many lives to be lost—but solid red brick 4/5 story buildings with balconies. They are drab and homogeneous and offer nothing aesthetically appealing to the passing observer. But they often provide decent, reasonable housing to working class residents. However, since Thatcher allowed council flats to be sold, those located in affluent areas like Chelsea or in gentrifying areas are being sold off to the middle class. In fact, since 2014 figures from 72 London councils show more than 12,000 properties have been sold and only 4,300 have been built.
And there are always other streets that are bursting with nightlife, with countless restaurants, outdoor cafes, theatres, and boutiques like Upper Street In Islington. It’s a street I feel at home in, just as I do in affluent, arty Hampstead’s quiet, leafy ones. Despite my physical unease, it was a gratifying trip. I hope to return next spring.
Words by Leonard Quart.
Leonard Quart: Professor Emeritus of Cinema— CUNY and COSI; Contributing Editor, Cineaste; co-author of American Film and Society Since 1945 (5th Edition (Praeger) was out in 2018) , and The Films of Mike Leigh(Cambridge University Press). Writer of innumerable essays and reviews of film and other subjects for magazines like Dissent, Film Quarterly, London Magazine, and Logos. Columnist for the Berkshire Eagle.
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