England evokes in me a yearning which will remain unrequited.
The sense of longing emanates from a composite of impressions formed reading, all my life, books by English authors which are replete with its rich and varied history. There is also the vestige of colonialism that I saw in India as a cheap imitation of the real thing – the English way in England. Yet, there is still this fascination with the country and what transpired here over thousands of years!
As I walk through Chelsea and South Kensington, where the old is preserved with the new, I peak into those bay windows to catch a glimpse of the oh so glamorous lives of its well healed denizens who include members of the royalty. They have pedigree that can date their ancestors back centuries and are steeped in the tradition that I have longingly read about. It’s hard to explain why wafer thin cucumber sandwiches, high tea or even gentlemen’s clubs and the depraved lives of Wodehousian characters evoke such a sense of deja vu! Talking about traditions, yesterday we were at evensong at Westminister Abbey and stood enthralled as the voices of coral singers echoed through its Gothic beauty. The experience was made richer by the knowledge that I was now part of a thousand-year unbroken practice that those silent walls ( or the original parts of it that survived London’s many fires) have witnessed.
And yet at the back of my mind lingers this understanding that the thought is never the thing described; the impressions that etch themselves in memory are just fleeting like picture frames, mostly two dimensional, and not available for absorption by the soul. That sentiment has been captured in wonderful drawings of the everyday and banal by Dawn Clements in her art which hangs at the Saatchi gallery that we visited today! It’s still fun to create a composite of one’s experiences, being selective about what we choose to recall and to share stories? Am I richer from these experiences? In a limited way- maybe. But not because of what it does to my soul. In the end everything is relative and, ultimately, the “dance of the universe” with no apparent purpose. Given this then, the possibilities for enrichment from what I heard and saw, how I managed my emotions, navigated through difference and learnt things about myself are indeed extremely limited.
So just for fun then I will list those things about England that I have learnt from and that tickles my temporal fancy. Ranking up there, the importance of a safe, comfortable and reliable public transit system and its impact on the planning of cities and citizens’ lifestyles. Then, the government’s policy not to charge entrance fees to any of the wonderful museums it operates. The architecture of churches and their evensong services which are held true to well-preserved centuries’ old traditions. I also like the country’s fervent attempt to retain reminders of its historic roots be it through its monarchy, its museums, its churches, architecture or socio-political structures in its guild halls, its local governing bodies and community associations. I like its people’s commitment to remembering their past, with pride and horror, especially as they recall the lives of their poor, those who fell prey to black plague and cholera, wars and carnage and colonisation.
They have learnt from it as is abundantly obvious from their commitment to creating an equitable multicultural society.
They are also cashing in on it with their well oiled tourism industry that does a fantastic job of peddling their past! They risk mock and ridicule with so much self-reflection, but only as they laugh their way to the bank!
Yes – England and the English are fascinating!