Thursday, April 3, 2014

Walking London in My Mind (for Roger Ebert)

Damn, I miss Roger Ebert. I never met the man, my sole contact with him was a few exchanges of comments on his blog, but he broadened my appreciation of the art of film more than any person I ever have met. And now, on the first anniversary of his death, I'm thinking of him again, wondering what he would have made of Cormac McCarthy's screenplay for The Counselor, wishing I could read his Great Movies essay on Blue is the Warmest Color, trying to decide if he would have loved or loathed Nymphomaniac. Back in 2010 Ebert wrote a blog post about walking in London (a favorite pastime I shared with him, although our paths never crossed). I was inspired to reply with a long comment based on a walk I took in central London about ten years ago. Ebert gave my comment the equivalent of a 'thumbs up,' instructing his readers to "clip and save" it. Here's what I wrote:

In my mind I've just stepped out of the front door of the Regent Palace Hotel on the north side of Piccadilly Circus. I walk across the circus, glancing up at Eros hovering above me and turning my head to the right to see the great curve of Regent Street turning north toward its eponymous park. I walk due south down Regent Street, past the clubs of Pall Mall, until Regent ends in a waterfall of steps beyond the bankrupt Duke of York's really rather ugly column. I cross the Mall, cut through St. James Park (Horse Guards is on my left and beyond it the horizontal spire of a construction crane makes a perfect tangent with the upper half of the London Eye). Just past the park, on Storey's Gate, I pause at Old Queen Street for the best view of the towers of the Abbey glowing in the June sunlight. I continue walking, cross the busy street curving into Parliament Square, and enter the Abbey, proceeding immediately to the Henry VII chapel to look up at one of the most beautifully labyrinthine ceilings in all of England. (For me, the three best ceilings in London are the Henry VII chapel, the library at Kenwood House [which is like standing inside a piece of Wedgwood pottery], and Rubens's ceiling fresco in Banqueting Hall). When my spirits have been sufficiently lifted, I pass back through the nave to the cloister and then, rather than following the tourist trail around the large cloister and back to the nave, I walk through a turning series of corridors to the Abbey Garden. (I'm always surprised at how few visitors make it back to this lovely spot, a pretty piece of pastoral within shouting distance of the Houses of Parliament). When I reach the middle of the main path across the Garden, I turn around and see my second-favorite view of the Abbey exterior: the great transept window and the bright cathedral roof seeming to float above the mellower brown brick buildings on the north side of the Garden. After ten minutes or so sitting and wandering around the Garden, I walk back through the Abbey, pay my respects to Chaucer and Rare Ben Jonson in Poet's Corner, and then walk back out into bright sunlight (it's like leaving a movie theater; I shade my eyes for a few seconds). I walk up Whitehall as Big Ben tolls ten behind me, Virginia Woolf's leaden circles still dissolving in the same air Clarissa Dalloway breathed. I pass the Cenotaph, pop into Banqueting Hall to see that Rubens ceiling and reflect that it was one of the last things Charles I saw before he stepped out of the window onto a scaffold and lost his bloody head. Then I continue up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, scaring pigeons into flight as I walk across to the National Gallery. I go through the revolving door at the Sainsbury Wing, up the massive, glassed-in stairs, and turn right toward the older part of the Gallery. The large Venetian Renaissance room opens around me, and I see on the end wall Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne with its blues that redefine the color and greens that are like seeing green for the first time. I linger here for a long time, studying the painting, thinking about it, enjoying it. When I leave the gallery I walk around behind it and try to get lost in the narrow streets back there, eventually finding myself in Lincoln's Inn Fields, where Sir John Soane's museum beckons. I enter and walk slowly, lingeringly, around Soane's crazy house, ending up in the basement room directly below the picture gallery (the room with the skull in the middle of the table). I meet a woman there, and we agree that Soane was a very weird guy, then we walk together up to the top floor, go into the back room and look out the windows overlooking the roof of the 'museum,' a gorgeous crazy quilt of domes and skylights. She thanks me for showing her the view and I say, "Have you seen the view from the top of St. Paul's?" This walk has only begun...

Thanks for the Proustian rush, Roger.

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