Mind the Gap, London, and Farewell

London's Attractions / via

In London, all is crowded, yet quiet. It’s a city, for all of its metropolitan posture and jostling urban rhythms, incorrigible clouds and blighted air, in which you can hear yourself think. Like its genteel populace, London communicates in hushed tones, and the muzzled din of the capital offers up its own aural pleasures. London may be known as “The Big Smoke,” but it could just as aptly be renamed the city of ‘Sotto Voce.’ London’s quietude bespeaks a humility, which could readily apply to Britain in general, and naturally, noise levels seldom induce anxiety. It would appear to be that rare locale, where traffic is more likely to be seen than heard, and the honk of a horn suggests a breach of decorum. England may have lost its empire, but apparently, it retained its peace of mind.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Youth is no excuse for American immaturity.[/pullquote]

As I’ve detailed in this space before, I learned to breathe in Great Britain. Not in any respiratory or biological sense (here’s hoping I’m still too young for that), but in terms of self realization. I left America for love, but, in doing so, I discovered my identity. “Breathing in Britannia,” as I characterized it, has been its own elixir. England has given me a gift: a pair of gimlet eyes. Which is another way of saying I can take confident exception to American exceptionalism. And from now on,  I shall not allow America to invoke its youth to make excuses for its immaturity. The proverbial rockets may radiate far too blinding a red glare, but my expat eyes now allow me to see a different kind of light. I love America more than ever, yet I’ve become an ardent internationalist, but not because I believe we should make the world “safe” for democracy. As Christopher Hitchens once declared, “internationalism is the highest form of patriotism.”

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god save the queen
The British have less fervor for the queen than Americans.

It’s not that I needed to live in Britain in order to become an Anglophile; I was one already. But more often than not, as Americans, we take excessive pride in our own myth-making. It’s true that for a former British colonial outpost, we’ve done rather well for ourselves. Yet our own frontier spirit both empowers and betrays us. We are relentless optimists, but we are also gunslingers in more than one sense of the word. We never endured the religious bloodshed of old Europe. Nor did we have a monarchy (although we appear to have far more fervor for the Windsors than do the British).

Yet America, more than anything, finds endless virtue in aspiration. Americans have woven the possibility of possibility into its own civil religion. The term “class warfare” may be among the dirtiest phrases in American politics, but not only because America was free from the rigid class stratifications of the Old World. Rather, our endless capacity to dream can tend toward the delusional, and the much vaunted “American Dream,” must not be questioned, even as it breaks its promises and fails so many of us. An America devoid of hope would be a country without a vernacular, an experiment without an impetus.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]You run the risk of being called “Charlie Big Bollocks.”[/pullquote]

On many an occasion, I’ve been asked what we Americans mean by “the pursuit of happiness,” a notion so fanciful and quixotic to the ironic British purview as to suggest, at the very least, that there exists an Anglo-American language barrier. There is, by the way, and the hoary cliche is indeed true: we are two nations divided by a common language. Don’t go hawking or bragging about your wares in the British Isles; you run the risk of being called “Charlie Big Bollocks.” And if you are gobsmacked by such a seemingly foreign term, take in a comedy show for a “right knees up,” but not before you devour a bag of prawn cocktail crisps (not to be mistaken for the sacrosanct British “chip”), which will doubtless be “moreish.”

I suppose I needed to expatriate myself in a sense. My time as a theater producer was virtually exhausted and I was restless, bewildered and often agitated. But by my 40th birthday last year, I felt newly emancipated. England, at least on the surface, wasn’t actually holding any more or less professional opportunity than my homeland, but it did allow me to pause. As the British theater calls it, I needed an interval. And in my own interregnum from the rat race, I spent more time contemplating what it meant to be an American, on the most conscious level, and far less time thinking about how to adjust, in the practical sense, to the British way of life.

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Although my professional life had felt enervated for more than a while, my love life was robust until my 4 year engagement dissipated last June. Much of the last 6 months has been swallowed by my anguish. The grief arrived and it never left. My seemingly haloed life as an expat was swiftly annihilated by my own severed heart. I came to Britain in love. But as love serrated, I longed to go home.

James Baldwin
James Baldwin, another American expat

Yet I managed to find succor in the blues of my contemplation, within the inner sanctum of my mind, and in the abundance of books that kept me company. Love beat me up for sure, and I’m convinced James Baldwin had it painfully right when he remarked that “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”

And I was unsure as to whether I lost the battle, the war or both.

Thankfully, London has been akin to an emotional convalescence. It’s the only mega-metropolis I’ve ever been in that feels like a quiet sanctuary. Even more than in New York, where I regularly traveled on foot (on Manhattan’s ever reliable grid), I walk most places in London. Let it be known that London puts the pleasure principle into the idea of getting lost, and seldom has there been so much joy in geographic bewilderment.

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The city’s jigsawed, Roman-era roads often seem boundless, as do its capacious and resplendently verdant parks, among the cleanest and the the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered. London feels, a least on foot, as if it never ends, and that its expanse bleeds effortlessly into its own suburbs and exurbs. Such is the historical irony of a city once called Londinium, where the Romans made a military and commercial settlement in the first century AD and was mainly encircled by a protective wall. For 1,700 years, “The City of London,” as it’s now known, was defined by this wall, which from Tower Hill to the east to Blackfriars station to the west, encompassed a 2 mile radius. Evidently, even when not in Rome, the Romans still do as the Romans do.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]London once seemed exotic.[/pullquote]

London once seemed exotic, unattainable, a far-away land, an Old World redoubt. My first visit to London was in the summer of 1998, in relentlessly balmy climes, but sun-dappled nonetheless. With my production of Amadeus in rehearsal, I spent days on end, atop double-decker buses, taking in the city in all of its intimidating glory. In that time, the age before the internet, I got routinely lost, until I was found, wandering in and out of various pubs, museums and theaters, feeling a paradoxical mix of self-possession and loneliness. My professional life in the theater was still nascent then, and everything seemed very much possible. It was long before I realized the truth in William Butler Yeats’ dictum, which forewarned me that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

Love has now come and gone, and in London no less. Yet I was privileged to do what few of my my countrymen have been afforded: to see the world as an American abroad rather than viewing the world through the parochial American lens. But I’m on my way back to the New World, the land of my birth, the homeland I needed to leave, in order to re-discover myself. I’m wistful, perhaps rueful about my time in London. All that was promised wasn’t kept; all that seemed possible assumed a different shape and contour. I found myself in London, to the extent that one is capable of “finding” oneself. But I’m still searching.

The posh view from Primerose Hill / via
The posh view from Primerose Hill / via

On my last days in London, I journeyed to Primrose Hill, a posh, park-centric neighborhood which stands to the north of the iconic Regent’s Park. Replete with pastel-colored townhouses and bespoke shops and cafes, the sui generis charm of the neighborhood is the hill itself. At any moment of the day, the gaze southward, toward the zenith of the city, although financially inaccessible to cash-strapped Londoners as a place of residence, is an elegant repose from the more jagged edges of urban, London life. With the south and its sky-line in view, you are reminded of London’s ethereal magic. In a city, and in a country of embedded hierarchy, you feel as if you are on top of the world. Moments like these, even as you know they are resolutely temporary, are just that — moments which live as quickly as they die. Perhaps these moments occur in New York. Or in any other sprawling urban center which demands a similar reprieve. I can’t say for sure. Nor do I actually need to know. Whatever else I may know, I know I can hear myself think again. London, sweet London, and so goodbye.