Things have changed in London as everywhere.
You did not need so much money when I was young to live in London. I went to the theater often and paid one pound sterling to sit in the gods.
Nocturne, 1875-1880; oil on canvas. James McNeil Whistler, 1834-1903, American. Philadelphia Museum of Art
Opportunities for a large diversity of people were certainly not as available as they are now because the country was in economic doldrums; and paralyzed by class/race far more than now. Difficult to believe because there remains deep poverty in Britain and class remains a killer of souls and black and brown skin still a reason to discriminate and Islam the latest battleground for race war.
London was the place of my political, intellectual and aesthetic education: vast histories became available to me and particularly of the multi-century movement of people towards their freedom and equality of access to the goodies and of the Irish towards their political independence. Towards, I say because these remain incomplete. The history of the movement of British colonies towards their independence was not available to us until many years later.
Waterloo Bridge, Morning Fog, oil on canvas. Claude Monet, 1840-1926, French. Philadelphia Art Museum
The Stones, the Beatles, the Kinks, Procol Harum, David Bowie and Queen were young with us then. So was the Prince of Wales, still in waiting.
I miss London. Equally, though, it would not matter to me if I never saw her again because I recall her without effort.
Houses of Parliament, London, Sunset; 1903, oil on canvas; Claude Monet, 1840-1926; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Nor is she a passive or inactive entity. Like any city, she acts on you and she can be very demanding. I hold her partially responsible for the death of one of my oldest friends, a Londoner of many years standing. London poisoned her heart with the longing for things which were, in the end, not attainable.
Demanding or not and perhaps partly because she is demanding, London is a portal of paradise to me. I have others too, physical and metaphorical. They invite you through onto a plain covered with treasures and many of them buried. The perfume called Caleche made by the French luxury goods firm, Hermès, is another such. She opened a door to sensuous, liberating imagination in a season of great difficulty.
I was never afraid in London, even at Waterloo at one in the morning.
I miss Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Hungerford Bridge (1845) which I used to cross the Thames as a ritual of arrival whenever I reached London. It crosses the river between Charing Cross and Waterloo Stations.
Both Monet and Whistler would have known this bridge.
(The old) Battersea Bridge, 1872-1875, oil on canvas; James Abbott McNeil Whistler, 1834-1903, American. Tate Britain, London.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Perhaps I wrote this piece only for the pleasure of rolling such a voluminous name around my mind. The German and Norman are coiled tightly in layers under ‘British’ in his name. All displaying their genius in London.
Like Claude Monet, a Norman, of course, by adoption.
Charing Cross Bridge, London, oil on canvas, 1890. Camille Pissarro, 1830-1903, French. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802
William Wordsworth, 1770-1850, British
Charing Cross Bridge, 1905-06, oil on canvas. Andre Derain, 1880-1954, French. MOMA, New York
Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, 1903, oil on canvas; Claude Monet, 1840-1926; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Charing Cross Bridge, London, 1906, oil on canvas. Andre Derain, French, 1880-1954. National Gallery, Washington, DC