Veronica and I have just returned from two weeks in Britain, our time split between London, Manchester, and York. This is not in any way an intuitive itinerary--no one is going to say "Yeah, great, I'd never thought about that but it makes complete sense." I had thought Veronica would be interested in the way an industrial city had re-imagined itself, and in the kinds of juxtapositions that resulted. (We also wanted to hear its prestigious Halle Orchestra--which was wonderful.) And while we were in the near north, visiting the very edgy Whitworth Art Gallery, I thought a visit to the thirteenth-century Gothic York Minster would be an interesting balance. Knowing that I am often overwhelmed by crowds and only love large cities for limited periods of time, Veronica reminded me that public space in large or busy cities is used differently. People create their little bubbles by not making eye contact, and thus protected go merrily about their day.
We arrived at Heathrow at 8:30 a.m. after very little sleep, so thought it was going to be important to just keep moving. Covent Garden, where one can often hear wonderful street music, was just a bit south of our Bloomsbury hotel, but I wanted to make a brief detour into Holborn before we hit touristland. So, turning left instead of right we found ourselves walking around Lincoln's Inn Fields, the largest public square in London, created in the 1630s by William Newton with landscaping by the famous architect Inigo Jones. (I doubt we even see any ghosts of his plantings.) It was around 12:30, and as you can see, the square was full of people who had probably poured out of the law offices on the perimeter. People found ways of making their own space: I watched several women lay out a blanket or deliberately fold a jacket, kick off their stilettos, and then sit down and arrange their lunch. In one central area, a handful of people in very colourful spandex were having a yoga class. Some people were alone; others had gathered ebullient groups of four. Close by, as if she was a walking metaphor, a young woman stood outside the London School of Economics with an unhooded peregrine falcon on her arm. I didn't ask her if I could take a picture (and I wouldn't have dreamed of it without asking): some privacies simply need to be respected--though now that I think of it, walking around London with a vigilant peregrine on your arm is rather asking to be noticed.
England's parks might well be one of the themes of the trip, in part because Veronica is 29 years younger than I am, in part because my vertigo would act up and I'd need to be still for a while, in part because I seek out such spaces. There are good reasons for this, and there is good research to explain those reasons. My friend Katherine Arbuthnott writes about the social benefits of spending time in nature. Because we are a social species, we seek out ways of connecting with others. If we have green space readily available, we tend to spend more time outside, creating more opportunities for meetings with others and thus a greater sense of community. Researchers have found ingenious ways of testing their hypothesis that people are friendlier and more helpful in a natural setting--from having the researcher's covert helper drop a handful of pencils or a handkerchief, to organizing games that test whether we are feeling selfish or generous. We're kinder, more helpful, more generous, and even more cooperative in a natural setting or when nature is top of mind. We have more self-control; if someone annoys us by spilling a bowl of the soup we have just made, contact with nature makes us less likely to blurt out something rude or hurtful. Being in the natural world correlates with having the energy to make the "nice" choice and to control our feelings. Peace reigns--and you are rather proud of yourself for not taking the bait. Blame it on the ivy growing enthusiastically in your kitchen or on the ferns in your garden.
We began our first full day at York by walking part of the old Roman wall--which means to walk in the tree tops, to notice the wild flowers that spring up in the verges between yards and wall that rises just beyond them. We looked into well-manicured back gardens where golden laburnum glowed and horse chestnuts hoisted their blooms into rough and fragrant cones, into vegetable gardens where beets were being carefully thinned, the leaves put aside for a salad. In contrast, the old centre of York (where some of the street scenes in the Harry Potter films are set) is a twisting rabbit-warren of streets, none of which meet at right angles. The centre-most streets are free of traffic, so tourists wander vaguely everywhere. Between having to watch the pavement carefully for unanticipated curbs, having to watch the cobblestones waiting to trip me up, having to watch the tourists--each of them in a different bubble as they searched for the purchases that would epitomize their time in York or their sense of self--my vertigo went wild. Veronica loves the carnival atmosphere of these busy little towns and had presents to buy for others and tea to sniff, so I settled myself in the Museum Garden--which forms a large crescent that joins the museum and the York Art Gallery. After she came back to fetch me, we could walk through this verdant space all the way back to our bus.
I had brought something to read, but I spent most of my time people-watching, seeing people turned outward in a way that they hadn't in the city centre. It was a lovely day, uncharacteristically sunny and warm for Yorkshire, we were told, and people were simply joyful, delighted that nature had shown up just to make a lovely day for them. They threw frisbees, sat cross-legged on blankets to talk, explained flowers and stones to curious children who touched the edges of petals gently or sought the most interesting pebble among the ancient stones of the fallen Roman walls and the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey. They were curious, open, playful.
When we returned to London, we stayed at one of the many hotels on Argyle Square, close to Paddington Station, where we'd arrived from our time in York. On Saturday, Veronica wanted to glory in the delights of the Portobello Road Market, but I had found that markets make my vertigo vertiginous, so suggested that she go alone while I had a quiet morning reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas in Argyle Square. Parks are many things to many people, chances for them to re-invent space to answer their needs. On a weekend morning, the park belongs to older men who have come out of the hotels and flats for their daily constitutional and a little conversation. As I walked into the park, there was large a dark mass on the lawn that could have been a person except that I could clearly see its head on the grass and its feet jubilantly aloft--not a natural way to lay in the grass In truth, it was the overlarge bag of one of the gentlemen in the park, who eventually reached into one of its pockets, drew something out that he threw aloft before catching it, satisfaction on his face, in the fluidity of his wrist, and the crisp grasp of his hands. He was off to some satisfying adventure--or perhaps just heading home.
One of the older men settled onto a shady bench near me and seemed to spend the whole day there, as if this were his outdoor gentlemen's club, and he the host. Various people stopped by, some standing and just checking in, others sitting down for a good long chat and staying several hours. There was enough busy-ness in the park that in the pauses between their thoughts they could separately watch the spectacle unfold before them--the group of eastern European students who had their last picnic in the park before heading for Paddington Station or the handful of basketball players playing three on three at the north end. He was there when I left the square at 1:30, and again when we came back from the British Museum at 6:30. I suppose one could conclude that his small flat was cramped and hot, but it was also true that he'd had a richly social day he couldn't have had anywhere else.
Our final day was quite hot and very humid, so when we decided that we wouldn't walk from the National Gallery to Whitehall, we got on the underground for a reprise of the day before, when we'd spent part of the afternoon among Greek ruins and the Elgin Marbles in the British \Museum. Having only about an hour before closing time, I suggested we try the other long gallery on the first floor, identified simply as "Enlightenment." We discovered...air conditioning (stones from Greece and Egypt don't need air conditioning) and the largest cabinet of curiosities we'd ever seen. Shells, pots from Greece or China, botanical drawings, a Grand Orrery (a clockwork model of the solar system) made for King George III, nestled among other 18th century scientific instruments, thousands of books (probably the reason for the air conditioning. On our last hot day, we headed once again for the air conditioning (where I was finding the seeds of poems in the works of botanists I hadn't known about or in King George's orrery), and when they kicked us out headed once again for Russell Square, a large park between the British Museum and our Bloomsbury hotel.
We had to walk a bit in order to find a shady bench, but the roses and lavender were fragrant and the simple fountain at the centre made the world seem cooler. Children challenged the enclosure around the fountain to see how wet they could get. An older gentleman had gone to the cafe in the corner of the park and brought back an ice cream cone for a toddler so clearly not related to him, patiently spooning ice cream into the boy's mouth. Young women walked confidently across the square in stilettos or sneakers; young men lounged with their friends. I felt like a traveler into another museum or gallery--that of people simply being happy, feeling the air and sun on their skin. Veronica leaned over to me and whispered some perfect lines from Mrs Dalloway: "Life, London, this moment in June."