A pilgrimage through London reveals the beauty of the banal.
What to do with your last day in London? After twenty years of visiting, my answer hasn’t changed. Walk along the river somewhere. You can never get lost if you steer by the water. I set off from the Charing Cross—London lore defines the city as any point within fifteen miles of the spot—and I begin my journey by replicating the viewpoint of Monet’s Houses of Parliament. I had just seen the famous painting in the National Gallery, where a woman’s voice had decried the tourists for taking pictures of the pictures.
“They won’t stop them from doing it,” she declaimed for all of us silly foreigners to hear, “Heaven knows why.”
In the galleries, I snapped a picture of someone else’s phone held aloft in front of Caravaggio’s Judith, the severed head on the platter miniaturized on the tiny screen. I wanted to preserve my own subjective experience of the museum, which was about jostling for glimpses while tour guides held forth and tourists snapped away.
I disagreed philosophically with the woman who looked down on this activity. Nobody really knows what collages, wallpapers, emailed moments, or new types of strange joy might be unleashed by the digital confusion of endless replication. I think she feared trivialization but in my view creativity was more likely to be fostered by things that cultured people considered unserious. I thought of Chris Marker’s comment, in his great film of his global travels, Sans Soleil (1983), that after having been around the world several times, “only banalities” interested him.
The overheard comments at the National Gallery—and Chris Marker’s antidote to them—resonated along my Thames walk from Hungerford Bridge to Battersea Bridge. The crowds around the London Eye seem almost frantic for pictures—it is a kind of hysteria that is difficult to explain. Why not buy a postcard or a professional photograph of the view—or even a cheap reproduction of the old Monet—as an aid to memory? Is there anything more to the selfie than a desperate I-was-there? (Surely somebody has already photoshopped themselves into a world vacation of global wonders as an art project—perhaps the need to travel has itself been superseded). Is there any kind of art, no matter how supposedly serious, that isn’t just a form of a selfie? Maybe the phenomenon of the selfie is so disturbing because it is so honest. The true joy of selfies is not in the taking or even in the final display on social media, I would hazard, but rather the process of selecting the silliest from an overabundant harvest of one’s own face. Which me is me?
Is there any kind of art, no matter how supposedly serious, that isn’t just a form of a selfie?
Low tide allowed me to get a decent measure of Thames mud into the treads of my sneakers on a stretch of beach just below the HQ of MI6, where the phrase “THERE IS NO ENEMY WITHIN” was scrawled on the wall below a row of stone lions. The slogan was taken from a television show, I believe. I think that too many people have forgotten that there is a distinction between images and reality. The frivolous snapshot does no more harm to the Monet than Monet himself harmed London by painting it. The camera phone-wielding videogame players who set out into the world’s cities to hunt fictional creatures in real places aren’t hurting anyone.
We can never know and should not wish to control what others do with their images. The younger person immersed in The Glow might be doing anything from searching for knowledge to dealing with bad news, but older generations jump immediately to the assumption that they are wasting their time. Of course they are—but then again who isn’t? Who gets to decide how anybody except themselves wastes their time? There were a couple of Japanese women by the riverside taking photos of each other and of themselves dressed in colorful Super Mario outfits. The Monet was interesting but they were interesting, too. What they were doing was silly but in that silliness I believe there was courage—I reflected that I would not have been brave enough to emulate them by wearing such a costume. There was something deliberately old fashioned about their choice of video game but their playful idea of projecting pixels into real life seemed to reflect our times. The woman back at the museum was wrong—what the world needs now is more of this kind of absurdity, not less.
I could tell you about the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park or the way the light turns pinkish cream and fiery orange on the paint of the Albert Bridge. I pledged to walk the river west from here on my next visit. But suddenly I remembered that this place was where the ridiculous model sea monster Gorgo was chained up in the British film of the same name released in 1961. If I recall the plot correctly, poor old Gorgo eventually breaks free and does considerable damage to various miniaturized famous monuments of London. This old fantasy partakes in a perennial delight to see what’s high laid low, but only in a fictional catastrophe, with the shoddy construction of the scale models clearly emphasized.
Then there is the mystery of the old water. The Thames held everything from sacred curses and wishes to Roman coins, magical artifacts, Neolithic forests, and earthenware vessels for transporting fish-sauce and wine. At low tide ruined fragments of the city emerge in the mud, not just the usual plastic trash and typical old tires but also worn shards of dissolved bricks and other historical detritus. Rummaging around the beach at MI6 (whose gates are emblazoned with the deceptively fanged and courteous phrasing of British officialdom—“ENTER WITH CARE”), I was surprised to find an oyster seashell, the symbol of the great medieval pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I retrieved it from the mud in order to give it to my wife. She was born in London but like so many other English people she preferred to spend her vacations in the Spanish sun.
At low tide in the river muck of London’s ancient river, looking at these banalities—water-rounded glass, river stones, and political graffiti designed to submerge with the rising water—the whole idea of pilgrimages crystallized in my mind as a basic human quest. Pilgrims had spent centuries traveling to Compostela in order to venerate what probably were not the relics of Jesus’ disciple. From these bones, which had been recovered from a small Roman tomb, churches and cities and continents of travels and millions of hours of faithful walking meditation had been spun. It feels absurd but also delightful that we don’t know why we do what we do. “Traveling is a fool’s paradise,” Emerson wrote, in one of those intimidating statements that seem to carry a whiff of the old invective against all forms of shadow-play and triviality. But is there any other kind of paradise and is there any other kind of person?