I’m in London, to teach a day school on poetry and Stoic philosophy at the Poetry School in Lambeth. It’s more fun than it sounds.
Mid-May: the whole city is saying Thank God for That, breathing a sigh of relief, hanging out a green welcome. London’s parks and spires are at their very best and the wisteria in my host’s Brixton garden is draping the bricks with blossom.
In this city the archaeology of leisure and the archaeology of respect are often side by side. In Horseguards Parade, ranks of plastic seating have been set up for Trooping the Colour, but rearing up behind the grand military buildings is the defiantly pleasurable circle of the London Eye. In the park opposite, it’s clear to see why JB Priestley started his writings on Delight with public fountains. By the Swiss-style chalet built in 1841 for the park’s bird keeper, a city heron is standing sentinel. A herb garden includes a little roofed shelter full of dead wood and bark, to give a home to beetles and bees. It will leave no archaeological trace, but the air is full of sharp aromatic flavours.
Memorialisation and commemoration are everywhere. On the riverside parapet a plaque honours the engineer who kept London from flooding during the war. Markers embedded in the ground mark the greenway dedicated for the Queen’s Jubilee. A monumental memorial lists the names of the fallen. On my way here, I saw the bright murals of the Stockwell Rotunda – a former air raid shelter, now a vivid memorial to the war dead and to the immigrant Londoners who brought colour to this corner of the city. From the top deck of the Number 2, I see a brighter memorial still, one that will be completely invisible in the archaeological record. The pavements are spilling with ranks of smiling runners who did the Moonwalk marathon last night and are just heading home – their bosoms jiggling in tinselled bras, the names of their own fallen written across their chests. NATALIE 26 MAY 09, says one.
The state opening of Parliament is coming up. The Ring of Steel is operating at full strength and many of the roads around Westminster are closed to traffic. In some places there’s an eerie ease of movement and in others an unexpected bottleneck, channelling a polyglot stream of humanity in manageable tides around Big Ben.
For the first time I notice the low building next to the House of Lords, with its sedum roof. The elderflower blossom by the Pankhurst statue, and the green roof with its modest little flowers are a triumph of nature next to Pugin’s triumphant architecture. Blossom wins, every time. Nothing is stronger than spring.