What is the most surreal place I have ever visited? (I like this question.)
Imagination, uncontrolled by reason, truly characterizes my experience in London. I’m not writing about Brexit; I’m writing about walking around a place for the first time but knowing it well. I had long been very familiar with this part of the world in my own way. How is that? At age sixteen, I had read most of the gothic novels on offer at my hometown’s library. (This was before the advent of shared library systems.) More than half of those stories, it seemed, took place, if only in part, in eighteenth century London. Less than ten years after age sixteen, I was in London.
I walked around Whitehall, which had been filled with the upper class characters. I knew how to navigate from the upscale St. James Park to the Tower of London. I found some streets from the poor neighborhood of White Friars, always a spot for a tense moment in the plot. I knew how to navigate from Newgate Prison to the gallows at Tyburn. These didn’t even exist anymore, but I barely noticed. As I recognized street names, I recalled the characters strutting or fleeing around nearby street corners. I was entranced. (As with the sphinx in Egypt, it was fortifying to see Westminster Abbey truly existed.)
A local man mentioned that I seemed to spend most of my time in the tourist areas. That awoke me to the fact that not everyone was experiencing the London in my mind. After a moment of chagrin, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see London any other way. My private London is the city where I walked step in step with a multitude a characters facing the their life changing moments. This is where the beggar lied his way through supper, where the thief narrowly escaped execution when the crowd rioted, and where the desperate sailmaker plotted with the devious soldier. Inevitably, the corrupt were unmasked by the last page.
Eventually, the rain cleared my mind. When the fog lifted, I realized I could experience the real place while still enjoying the setting for those stories that had introduced me to the intricacies of intrigue. So there is London and there is London. That city still has a somewhat surreal feel.
“This melancholy London—I sometimes imagine that the souls of the lost are compelled to walk through its streets perpetually.”―William Butler Yeats
“All my life I’ve wanted to see London. […] I wanted to see London the way old people want to see home before they die.” —Helene Hanff, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
“Paris is a woman but London is an independent man puffing his pipe in a pub.” —Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveler (Talk about surreal! What if Magritte had drawn a world map?)
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