17 July 2008

Terminal eyes

...cut glass porcupine
sailing on the Serpentine

I walked the length of the Serpentine, beginning at the fountains and traversing the path all the way to the Serpentine Bridge. The sky was near cloudless, the sun surprisingly hot, hectically bright, light shattering on the water. Swans floated peacefully in the algae-laden fountains, ducks and their babies in the larger body of water. The surrounding grounds were meadow-y, in many ways far less manicured than the horrifying, Stepford-like symmetry of the areas in Orange County owned by the Irvine Company, which prescribes certain plant and color combinations, none of which would be found in nature.

Here, however, in Hyde Park, nature was left to her own course in some measure. Not all the grass was mown; much was left to grow wild, and flowers ran riot in no special plantings in the space between the iron fence and the Serpentine. Birds and squirrels moved quietly through the underbrush, traveling busily along cool, dim pathways better suited to the fairy folk than any human.

Perhaps it was my own state--lost in the limbo of the long-distance traveler--that made the park seem so otherworldly. Maybe it was simply that I was in London for the first time, a place about which I've read so much that it seemed almost surprising to see words made real.

I always worried that the London I first saw would be a disappointment. In many ways, the London that lived in my mind is a city in history, a place in a time warp. Henry VIII, War of the Roses, R.F. Delderfield, Virginia Woolf. But disappointment wasn't the case; as the van traveled the streets (Notting Hill, Bayswater), I found myself face to face with old bricks wrapped around horrible new construction, not so different from what one sees in older areas of the U.S., an uneasy congress of the ancient and the modern. It was easy to see history in the elderly golden walls, even those that sat by the almost Disneyesque facades of buildings that intended to blend in, but only looked plastic, fake. The Edgware Road had a vibrancy that was as expected (busy, colorful) as it was unexpected (hookah pipes being smoked on the sidewalk).

From my hotel room, I can see Hyde Park, I can see the Millennium Wheel. There are cranes in the distance everywhere. Planes pass on their way to Heathrow.

England seemed so romantic when I was 12, and spent the long, burning summer devouring Barbara Cartland books by the cartload, until I became so bored with her pasty heroines that I turned to Dickens for relief. Still, I had to smile as I passed Rotten Row, a dreamy ideal of childhood, the place of a bygone day to see and be seen.

But London is any big city, alive and humming with its own life. The dream is still there, not lost, only realized now in a different way.

Go listen to some good music: "Terminal Eyes" from the album Past, Present and Future by Al Stewart.

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