London has uncommon good weather during the week of June 20-25. I am here with a high school friend of mine for a hybrid pleasure/business trip. Our plan is to bundle a staggering amount of tourist sites into the two days that we spend in a centrally-situated Air BnB before parting ways for the next three days while I attend castings and stay with, appropriately enough, a high school friend of my mom’s!
On one of the allotted tourist afternoons, my friend and I spend a few minutes on the lawn outside Westminster Abbey. The sun is shining, we have just been splendidly feted at an Indian/Persian fusion place in Covent Garden, and we are sleepy and footsore. Sprawled on the grass gazing up at a blue sky jaggedly lipped by the walls of the Abbey, I feel unexplainably, perfectly happy. It seems like an intricate, golden gladness is enveloping (or emanating from?) all the nearby trees and clouds and cars, crafted especially for the frequency and color of my heart. I know, though, that it’s just a temporary perfection. That it is no more than a translucent membrane of present time stretched across the turgid, marbled flesh of all the years gone by. I and my tiny gladness hardly form a flicker in the consciousness of Westminster Abbey. After all, there are hordes of other tourists and politicians and priests and queens and sirs and soldiers and laborers and beggars for the Abbey to notice. Centuries and centuries of them! Did you know that this site has housed England’s coronation ceremonies since 1066, when William the Conquerer enacted his namesake conquering and claimed the throne? Did you know also that Westminster’s not technically a Cathedral, but a “Royal Peculiar,” which puzzling title it received when Britain deserted the Catholic Church over the divorce case of Henry VIII? Oh to have witnessed so much history with one constant gaze! to be marigram to the ebb and flow of Europe…
I’m marveling at this legacy but thinking; really, for all Westminster’s greatness, I like myself more than it, and I wouldn't trade places with the Abbey for all the world. Is any human existence equal in value to a landmark such as this? I mean, would they destroy Westminster if such was the price of saving a single somebody trapped inside? Or would they prioritize this bastion of national identity over an ordinary person’s life? Public scandal! it would be a public scandal to do so. A thing the British, as a rule, avoid.
We get up, blink, stretch. Down “Broad Sanctuary” street and round the bend into “Little Sanctuary” street, I leave behind my bulging brainiac bliss, spangled above the green. My brain— exhaustive, convoluted thing— moves on with me (what ho! does it really belong to this head?) and it thinks now on other things.
* * * *
I am thinking of Brexit. It is Friday, one of my allotted business days, and also the morning after the Referendum to leave the European Union. It’s 5:45 am. I have woken so early because my kind hosts are relocating to Seattle today, and within an hour the couch I’ve usurped as bed will be boxed up and brought to the quay. But before deserting said couch (and the lifeline of wifi that appends it), I linger, knotted in my blankets, to scroll through my phone— and I can hardly believe what I find there. Throughout the past four days in London I have seen only support to “REMAIN” in the bloc: picketers on train platforms, social media propaganda (#bremain?), raucous coffee counter rants about xenophobes. Where then did the “LEAVE” support come from? Through what cobblestoned cracks of rural Britannia scuttled this ra-ra egoism and brazen prejudice? Public scandal, public scandal: it’s a debacle that now can’t be avoided.
Through the course of that day and a wide swath of London town, I overhear a variety of reactions:
- Breakfasting dames over croissants at Gail’s bakery: “Well, what in Heaven’s name comes now?”
- Security Guards in the Degas room of the National Portrait Gallery: “mumble mumble Bloody Hell mumble. Miss, are you looking for something?”
- Cabbie driving me to my afternoon casting: “It’s about time we start running this place our own way, I say!”
- Young businessman on the Tube to a curious group of American Girl Scouts: “It’s a grave mistake, a grave mistake.”
- Taxi driver outside Kings’ Cross: *shrugs shoulders* “I suppose Europe could use a shaking up.”
And shaken up it does appear to be. And I am a little bit, too, as I board a train at King’s Cross and rumble off towards the northeastern suburb of Waltham Abbey, where I will rejoin my friend for our last day together before she returns to her career in Israel and I to mine in New York. (My full-time coffee-drinking career, that is). I muse on what has struck me most today: the way strangers search each other’s faces in passing. The way no one directly mentions Brexit, but rather looks it, shoves their keen awareness of it into one another’s eyes on the street, in an elevator, on line at Marks and Spencer. Is it just me who gets a sort of ice cube thrill from knowing that all these significant looks, grim nods and cocked eyebrows reference one and the same subject? That we’re all in something together? Whether our opinions concur or not is inconsequential; what I relish is the strange unity of our brains as we each absorb separately some common information. Shared experience. Society is knit of shared experience.
And so is history, really. What classifies something as a historical event if not the fact that it effects many individuals at once? So, then. This must be what witnessing history feels like. I'm no Westminster Abbey but at least now I've seen something mildly momentous... I step off my train in the beige township of Loughton. Trees once more surround me; wriggling, vibrant trees drying after a brief rain. I stand on the station steps, shade my eyes as I scan the parking lot. Who of us knows really what will come next? An ebbing of a vast European tide? A lawn sprawled bliss? I spot my friend, we move, brain follows.