I have a strange relationship with London. I go there often, to the degree that sometimes when I enter the U.K. the passport officials, after leafing through my passport stuffed with U.K. entry stamps, suggest that I need a work permit. (If you spend more than something like 30 percent of your time working in the U.K., you need a work permit.) I point out that I’m never there for long, but I think it’s only the prospect of spending hours tallying up entry and exit times from the myriad of disparate stamps that buys me entrance in such times. Most of the time, my destination in the U.K. is London, yet I’ve never written about it.
Why not? I suppose part of the answer is that my time in London is generally boring. I know that London is a wonderful place to live and that it’s a fascinating city to visit as a tourist, but I’ve never lived there and I’ve very rarely gone as a tourist, so for me it’s just a city, you know? What’s more, it’s all spread out, it goes on forever, and I’m never quite sure where to start.
All that being said, the glaring absence of a dispatch about London has weighed heavy on my conscious, so I recently decided that the time had come to write about London. But, of course, that begged the question of where to begin (and end, for that matter).
I had long harbored ideas about Speakers’ Corner, that small bit of Hyde Park where (generally crazy) people set up a soapbox and rant on about this and that. The problem is that every time I’ve set off to do a bit of field research there’s been no one speaking at Speakers’ Corner, in which case it’s just a corner.
I eventually decided that if you’re going to write about a city a good place to start is in its center. I therefore recently went to Trafalgar Square, which is located in the dead center of London, in that all distances from London are measured from it. It also has a big column in the middle, dedicated to the hero of Trafalgar, Lord Admiral Nelson. (A brief aside for those of you who slept through your history class: The Battle of Trafalgar was the decisive naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars, fought in 1805 between the British fleet, under Nelson, and the combined French and Spanish fleets, under Admiral Villeneuve. The British won, although Nelson lost his life, passing into martyrdom as he asked for a kiss from his friend Captain Hardy and gaining himself a square in London and a highly phallic column, on top of which perches his statue. His ship, the HMS Victory, has been preserved and sits in Portsmouth and must absolutely be visited. If I get back there one day, I’ll write about it, too. But I digress.)
Nelson shares the square with four enormous bronze lions, two fountains, and the statues of Charles Napier, King George IV, Henry Havelock, Admirals Beatty and Jellicoe (they only warrant busts), and a fellow named Cunningham.
The fountains are populated by a variety of merpeople and dolphins. The dolphins spout water from both their mouths and their blowholes, which is kind of cool. The lions are almost inevitably carrying tourists on their backs, most of which are posing for photos. Trafalgar Square is prime tourist-photo territory. I watched as one African family lined up their children on the pedestal supporting Nelson’s column: one boy and four girls, the three youngest girls all wearing identical pink shirts. The eldest girl had evidently outgrown the pink-shirt phase and wore more-adult clothing, with earrings. The parents carefully arranged the children, then got down in front of the pedestal with the camera, at which point all the children sang “Cheeeeeeeese” as they were immortalized in pixels. The parents then went back up, arranged the children in a different order (what were their criteria?—hard to tell), and then went through the whole process again.
I was at Trafalgar Square with a Canadian friend, who pointed out that they might as well call it Canada Square, since the Canadian Pacific Building flanks it on one side and the Canadian Embassy on another. (I find it charming how Canadians have a tendency to point out things about Canada to Americans, probably in an attempt to remind us that theirs is an entirely different country. And, for all you Canadians out there, yes, I know that Neil Young, Pamela Anderson, Keanu Reeves, Alex Trebek, Robbie Robertson, and all the Barenaked Ladies [as in the rock group, not actual bare-naked ladies] are Canadian.) What’s more, it would seem that last year there was a big celebration in Trafalgar Square for Canada Day, on July 1.
“Doesn’t that celebrate your independence from Britain?”
“That’s right,” she replied. “In 1867.”
“Kind of ironic that they’d hold a celebration here, don’t you think?”
There are no Canadian heroes at Trafalgar Square, though, only the statues of British ones, such as the aforementioned Henry Havelock, of whom I had never heard. The pedestal of his statue is engraved with the following quote, attributed to Havelock: “Soldiers! Your labours, your privations, your sufferings, and your valour will not be forgotten by a grateful country.” I decided to test this out by finding out how many British people had ever heard of Havelock, let alone his soldiers.
This proved a daunting task. I went around the crowded square trying to find British people so I could ask them if they’d ever heard of Henry Havelock. I quickly discovered that on that particular August day there were precious few Brits to be found in the square. When asked “Are you British?,” the vast majority of the people I approached answered that they were not—or, in some cases, that they didn’t even understand the question. I eventually did manage to come up with some Brits, who apparently have a tendency to travel in packs of four (at least around Trafalgar Square), and I discovered that none of them had the slightest idea who I was talking about. When I explained that his statue was right behind me and that, as citizens of a grateful nation, they were supposed to remember him, they shrugged. One young man did respond in the affirmative. “Sure!” he said. “I’ve heard of him.” A little leery of his cavalier manner, I asked who, exactly, Henry Havelock was, and he was stumped.
“You don’t really know, do you?”
“Why are you asking about Henry Havelock, anyway?”
I explained that I was a writer, at which point he immediately asked me to proclaim his name to the world (Dean Kay-Barry), saying that although he didn’t actually know who Henry Havelock was before I told him, he was a nice chap all the same, which seemed true enough.
I was running zero for 19 before my Canadian friend spotted an older gentleman who was so British you could hear his Oxbridge accent in the swish of his trousers. I didn’t bother asking if he was British, but immediately asked if he had ever heard of Henry Havelock. He raised his eyes, pursed his lips, and said, “A soldier, I believe. Indian campaign, what?”
I congratulated him, explaining that he was the first of 20 British subjects to remember a man whom they were all encouraged to remember, at least according to the statue’s inscription.
“Ah, well, you see, I collect Staffordshire figures [whatever they are] and they have a figure of him, you know.”
He then informed us that in front of Trafalgar Square is the exact spot from which all distances from London are measured: the plaque commemorating Charles I, who was beheaded in that very place, just in front of where they later erected a statue to him. We thanked him and headed over to check it out. I have to confess that I do find it strange that a country would behead its king and then erect a statue in his honor on that very spot 26 years later. You’ll see no statues of Louis XVI in Paris (although the French did build a couple of fountains in the places where they guillotined old King Louis and his Austrian wife).
We were about to leave Trafalgar Square (which, I might add, was strangely devoid of its famous pigeons—I wonder what the Brits have done with them) when I noticed yet another plaque in the ground, stating that neither would the nation forget Admirals Beatty and Jellicoe, whose busts are set into the north wall of the square. Of course, this meant that I had to do one last bit of research to determine whether these two had also slipped into the fog of history, so my friend and I approached another foursome of Brits to ask whether they’d ever heard of either of the two sailors. None of them had.
“Who were they?” asked one young man.
“Admirals. Their busts are behind you.”
At this news, he slapped his hand against his forehead. “Admirals! My father would kill me—he spent 20 years in the Royal Navy!”
I assured him that his name would not appear in print.
“I do know something, though—Nelson’s statue was set up so that Nelson is facing Napoleon across the channel. Where’s Nelson, anyway?”
“Up there,” I replied, pointing to the top of the column looming over us.
“I knew that! Really. Of course. Christ, my dad would kill me.”
I don’t know what Nelson himself would think of all this. It’s been almost 200 years, after all (although even I know that Jellicoe won the Battle of Jutland, in 1916—which may not be yesterday, but neither is it ancient history). Maybe he would take solace in the fact that his square is full of people of every nation, none of whom are enemies at all.