In the days before I left for England, I was waking up so early that it felt like I was getting my jet-lag in ahead of time. On Tuesday morning, I basically woke up in the middle of the night, and realised that I still hadn’t checked in for my flight, so I did that, and then barely slept again afterwards.
I had had an idea to ride for an hour or so that morning, but was tired enough to let that go. I did head downtown on my bike to run some errands once the fog had burned off, which felt like enough, and I could do everything I needed without any sense of rush.
During the long overnight flight, I did close my eyes for a few hours, but I couldn’t really say that I slept at all. It was nice to arrive on a sunny afternoon, and also nice to enjoy my little gifts to myself, put aside after my last visit: £25 in cash, and another £25 on my Oyster card, which will keep me moving round London.
I was struggling to stay awake after six pm, but when the friend I am staying with got back home, with another friend of hers also arriving for dinner and staying overnight, the conversation and food kept me awake for a few more hours, after which I did have a tremendous sleep.
The morning was sociable, and I offered a meditation for my two friends before heading into town. I didn’t really have an agenda, beyond trusting that walking in the sunshine is the best cure I know for jet-lag.
I had a double sense of dislocation when I got out of the tube at Tottenham Court Road – not just the thin veil of perceptual strangeness caused by the jet-lag, but also walking down streets and alleys around St Giles that have been rebuilt since my days of living in London. There seemed to be construction underway everywhere I went.
When I got on the plane, I had wondered how much the political events in England would have changed by the time I arrived; quite a lot, as it turned out, so it seemed worthwhile to wander down to Parliament Square to take in the scene.
I went via the National Gallery; remembering how a friend and I always used to meet in the room that corresponded to the day of the month, I headed to room 4 for a quick burst of culture (not having moved my internal calendar on correctly). I was rewarded with some well-known, and some less well-known, Cranach pictures, but the room was dominated by Holbein’s The Ambassadors. I could not help wondering, looking at their fine garments and the array of instruments of learning on display, what a modern-day remake would look like…
Trafalgar Square, naturally, was filled with tourists, but I mainly noticed how much more pedestrian friendly it is now, compared to thirty years ago when the traffic dominated on all sides – I remember only feeling safe riding around it on one occasion, when Critical Mass managed to take it over with hundreds of bicycles riding in close formation.
Down past the grand offices of Whitehall, I came across some protestors with Palestinian flags, and many yellow-jacketed police in front of Downing Street – I had read that Netanyahu was in town. Parliament Square was filled with barriers and banners. I realised how real the terrorist threat is here, and also how civilised the disagreements between the two sides of Brexit were, on the street at least, perhaps neither expecting to be able to convert the other. It seemed more a display to be caught on the cameras that filled College Green. I heard one police officer at one of the entry points for the Palace of Westminster say to his colleague, “You have to give Boris his due, he has tried.”
A couple of tube stops later, I walked over to Battersea Park, drawn once again to walk along the river, and to enjoy some quiet among the large trees. I remembered a fabulous day out there as a child, when the permanent funfair dominated the park; and also how alien the peace pagoda, with its large golden Buddhas, had seemed to me when it was new.
I walked downstream as the tide rose, past huge swathes of bankside residential development that were totally new to me, all the way to the Putney railway bridge, by which time my feet were sore enough that I was happy to get the tube back to where I was staying.
The grand young men of The Ambassadors.
Street entertainment, Brexit-style.
A quiet corner of Battersea Park.
It was actually a sunny and warm afternoon along the river.