Last weekend I went to London to attend the UK-German Connection seminar, which facilitates the starting up of joint projects between foreign language assistants in each of the respective countries. Before this I’d only ever driven through or skirted the vicinity of the city on the way to somewhere else. As a result of my brisk pedal-powered departure from Fleestedt (which is south enough of the Elbe to be technically Niedersachsen) at 4.30 am, I had more or less a full day in the UK capital to myself.
“When one is tired of London, he is tired of life” is a quote from Samuel Johnson, famous for writing one of the first dictionaries of the English language. The fact that it’s stood the test if tune makes me strongly want to believe that it’s true. Delve not too far below the surface of this enigmatic epigram, however, and you might find an implied criticism of anyone who expresses even curiosity to venture beyond the city’s bounds. Yet I like to see it as: everything you could possibly hope to experience in the wider world can be found here, in due proportion, if you’re willing to seek it out. All that the globe contains in concentrated in this spot – a true Weltstadt.
And yet, London is also, well…London. In spite of the hostile symbolism of the Houses of Parliament and the perpetual spin of post-millennial global capitalism finding constant renewal in the fickle-flitting sponsorship of the epitomising London Eye, we are all, in some essential way, at home here. So much of what we culturally consume originates from this locus. The novels we read, the TV we watch and even the board games we play (my initial thought on entering the city was that I was, in a very tangible way, inside Monopoly). Although ostensibly the environment’s a complete novelty, navigation is somehow a matter of confirming the internal map so vividly etched onto my consciousness by unavoidable saturation in television and books. When I turn a corner in the ‘unreal city’ (I add anecdotally with pride when a fellow literature student points out the church of St Magnus the Martyr, that he’s the patron saint of Orkney) I am hit not with foreign awe at the constructions of folk unknown, but with a welcoming wave of proxy familiarity.
It’s very hard not to be impressed though; and believe you me, I wanted to be cynical.
Cynicism comes easily, for example, on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile where screeds and screeds of tartan tat is touted daily and the superfluity thereof only serves to emphasise the total vacuity of it all. Unlike in the Scottish capital, London’s tourism is not so mercilessly concentrated in geography or season (August/the Festival) and thus here a sight more bearable. Edinburgh’s branding is painfully contrived and inauthentic, whereas London succeeds in the subtler cues of its sense of identity in the constant, but gentle insistence to “mind the gap” on its celebrated public transport infrastructure, the charming sixties-style typeface of said underground and the cohesive elegance of its street signage. I’d like to meet someone who thinks Lothian buses possess a similar spirituality, although I would have to admit Glasgow’s subway does have something special about it. Of course, barring logistics and layout, there is that factor of history that goes hand in hand with a city’s soul. Edinburgh has more of that than a lot of places, but here it runs alongside daily life, integrated in continual innovation, not lamented as a warped Romantic ideal.
Rewinding on the subject of tourists, my experience was not entirely unmarred by them. In a previous post I praised the universalistic, egalitarian, municipal spirit of Manchester for allowing me to visit all of its art galleries and museums for free. This point still stands, and I must say for the record that I remain fully supportive of the absence of admission fees, but to provide a counter I must say something about my visit to the National Gallery. Aiming to do a vaguely circular route that would use up the hour I’d allotted on my schedule, and having rushed through the Renaissance and Early Modern stuff, I pushed open the door to the 19th century and was arrested by Turner’s turbulent, stormy landscapes. However, before I was able to draw breath and examine these subtly crafted masterpieces in detail an atonal braying started up at the other end of the room. It was a class trip, and now having been on one or two myself from the other side, I know how draining these can be. This was almost physically painful. It had nothing to do with irritating kids and everything to do with the utterly dominant, patronising, nasal racket in which this educator delivered her excruciating lecture. I had to leave, but I could not escape.
In the next hall was Van Gogh. I had hoped that my experience with his Sunflowers would be if not spiritual, then at least warm and allow me to warmly reminisce about now cherished art lessons in primary school with one of my favourite teachers. All potential for this kind of nostalgia was obliterated by tourists smothering the works to take selfies. I still have these memories, and that especially poignant Doctor Who episode to keep Vincent alive in my consciousness, but to me it seems almost futile to have his paintings on display if that’s the only response they’re going to elicit.
My visit to the British Museum conjured further memories of that beloved TV series with its exhibition on the history of money. There was a small section on production companies having to print fake currency when they use it on screen. A clip from the first Christmas special of New Who was playing on loop in which the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver on a cash machine to make it spit out a flurry of banknotes in order to create a diversion between him and the approaching killer Santa Clauses. The notes used have David Tennant’s face on them. Oddly enough, a love of Doctor Who is something I have in common with my equivalent German language assistants, Sina and Jule. I suppose the show is something you could name among things that are archetypally British, and I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense at all. Thinking about it, I would say it’s probably one of the best examples of British culture precisely because it rarely tries to be and it’s also a bit rubbish. Partly, this is why I also enjoy Public Service Broadcasting’s music. Anyway, I could go on for hours about the subject, so I’ll quickly move to the seminar.
To my complete surprise and delight, I met the German assistant placed in Orkney. Only the day before I’d been introducing my group to the stanzas of George Mackay Brown, so you can imagine my excitement. We’re going to do a project focussing on regional identity, particularly through language, and this will involve the usual strategies of letter exchange, but also hopefully artistic collaboration and a joint, multi-lingual blog to which the pupils will contribute.
Right now, it’s called “Opposite Sides of the North Sea”. It’s very much evolving. If it’s possible I hope we can learn about Plattdeutsch – a variety of German spoken in the North with some affinities to Dutch, and ultimately see each other’s countries not simply as undifferentiated monoliths closed unto themselves, but as moving conglomerates of distinct regions defined by interrelationships. Of course, somewhere along the line this needs to be translated – quite literally – so that hamburgisch/Orcadian secondary school pupils can understand it, but we’ve got a few months for that.