The End of London and What to Read on the Plane

“No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”–Boswell, Life of Johnson

London is beautiful, fascinating, rich, poor, inspiring, tiring…and I wish I had walked around the neighborhoods of London for days like Martha Quest in Doris Lessing.

If, like me, you can go to museums almost indefinitely, you try to go to every museum twice.  I managed the British Museum and the National Gallery twice, and the National Portrait Gallery, the Dickens Museum, and the British Library once.

I will never forget Caravaggio’s superb painting at the National Gallery, “Salome receives the head of John the Baptist.”

"Salome receives the head of John the Baptist," Caravaggio

“Salome receives the head of John the Baptist,” Caravaggio

Look at the parallel figures of Salome and the executioner, both looking to the left, with their heads at the same angle, while Heroides looks down at John the Baptist’s head, whose eyes also appear to look downward.  The executioner (is it Herod?) looks regretful and separated from the women’s vengefulness.

The National Gallery website says:

“The subject is from the New Testament (Mark 6). Salome had danced so well for King Herod that he swore he would grant her any request. Her mother, Herodias, who sought revenge on John the Baptist, persuaded Salome to ask for his head. The old woman behind Salome may be Herodias.

This is a late work by the artist, painted in the last three years of his life, perhaps in Naples where he resided from 1609 to 1610. No longer concerned with the incidentals of the narrative, Caravaggio focuses on the essential human tragedy of the story.”

If I lived in London, I would go back every day and look at one painting thoroughly.

Looking at art was my richest experience in London.  And it is only in very big cities that one has a chance to see so many masterpieces.

By the time I made it to the British Library (accidentally; suddenly I found myself there), I was too burned-out to do more than gape at a few manuscripts.  With my bifocals, I couldn’t see Charlotte Bronte’s or Dickens’ tiny writing in the dark space of the museum, so I quickly left and walked home.

My great regrets? I didn’t make it to the Tate Modern or to Peter Stothard’s interview with a writer at the Oxford Literary Festival (I was flying home). I would doubtless have enjoyed seeing Stothard, the editor of the TLS, whose Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra was my favorite book last year.

Next time I’ll do more in London.  Ha!  I’m not sure I can spend 17 hours waiting around in airports and flying again.

Flight is an amazing invention.

The plane is a chance to sleep, or to catch up on your reading.

I was so tired that I did sleep on the plane.  I also got a little reading done.  And so I will write very briefly about the reading.

What We Talk About When We Talk About the TubeI picked up a wonderful short Penguin, John Lanchester’s What We Talk About When We Talk About the Tube.  I loved the tube–only a couple of minutes from Russell Square to Leicester Square, and the same from Euston to Baker Street–so I was fascinated by this short essay about the history of the Underground.  He begins by writing about taking the first train on the Underground to leave the station before 5 a.m. (the District Line).  He writes from the perspectives of a passenger, and also interviews the drivers, who get there by minicabs, and sketches the history. He distinguishes between the Victorian Underground and the Tube of the 20th century (a deeper underground, in the form of tunnels).

Before he did his research, he pictured the first train as

populated by inhabitants of the secret Baudelairean London. The truth is more prosaic, and it becomes clear, not so much at Upminster, since, after all, Upminster is a relatively posh suburb, out past the East End where things are starting to feel vaguely, suburbanly rural.  No, it’s a few stops before you realize who these people getting on the train are, bone-tired but indefatigable:  they are cleaners.  By Dagenham East, a few minutes after 5 a.m., the first train on the network is already packed, and the people with whom it is packed are cleaners on their way to work.  That’s the unromantic truth about this version of the secret city.

This brilliant, entertaining book was the perfect length for reading on the plane.  Well, alas, I had hours left after that, but I do find nonfiction somehow easier on the plane.

I also read a classic mystery, Gerald Heard’s A Taste for Honey, one of the old crime Penguins with a green cover.  Did I really pay 7 pounds for this?  My husband was looking at the prices, and discovered this.   I was spending my British money madly at the end.  And I love this book.

Heard was a brilliant philosopher who also wrote mysteries, and this first-person narrative by Sydney Silchester, a timid man who has retired to the country, is both humorous and compelling.  He dislikes people, and becomes reluctantly involved with both a Sherlock Holmes-like detective and a gloomy mad scientist beekeeper who turns out to be a murderer.  There is a terrifying scene where a swarm of murderous bees are sent to Sydney’s house (it reminds me of The Birds) and he has to outrace the bees and shut himself in the bathroom to avoid a lethal sting.  (Hhe is stung, though, and cannot convince the doctor or the hired girl that the bees were set on him. )   Heard’s writing is superb, and it is the perfect book to read when you are miserable because you’re breathing plane air and your butt hurts.

This trip to London will have to last me for years.  I’m back to my quiet life in the Midwest, but do you know?  I really prefer it.:)

5 thoughts on “The End of London and What to Read on the Plane

  1. I’m glad you had a lovely time, Kat – and yes, the art in London is inspiring. Tate Modern is one of my favourites, so make sure you catch it next time. There is a whole series of those little Penguin tube books and every one I’ve read so far has been great! Yes, old Penguins will cost you money – but they contain some real treasures you don’t find elsewhere.


  2. I’m glad you had a good time even if you tired of London — I too found that vacations could go on way too long and preferred them shorter than otherwise — unless we were moving on to another place. And as it is said the real purpose of sending children away to camp is to make them understand and be grateful for their homes, so I’ve thought the real purpose of vacations can be (for some) to make us realize how good our regular lives are and our regular place.

    Nonetheless, as you did omit a great part of what is to be enjoyed in London — its theater life, the National and several others powerful theater companies along the embankment, the theaters on the South Bank side including the Old Vic (still going) and the old old Globe (rebuilt), if you should ever want to return, I offer to return with you and wait on line at tickets to get half-price entry every night.


  3. Karen, this old Penguin was completely worth it! Now I want to go back and get more. Not possible, though.

    Ellen, I love looking at art, and that was my purpose, but my street smarts, mastered long ago at a Women’s Center, said it wasn’t safe to go out at night alone. Such a great city, but I also had to “vacate,” i.e., be empty, for a while. Loved London!


  4. Welcome home! As much as I love NY, my dream is to live in a cottage in New England with a vegetable garden and cats and dogs.


  5. Yes, the cottage thing is great! One of these days I’ll have to go to New York for a weekend. It’s hard to get used to living in a big city if you’re used to the cottage thing (though we’re far, far from New England)!


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