The other day, I was wandering up to the seventh floor of the Graduate Center (which is just about the tallest building on the whole of campus) with one of the students from my Resources for Research class. She hadn’t seen the view from the top of the structure yet, and as we reached the viewing balcony, we stared at the Central London skyline jutting up in the distance. She then asked me how I was liking the city so far. I praised it for being beautiful and diverse and full of history (sounding strangely like some sort of travel brochure; Join the adventure! Fill up your camera roll on your phone and empty out your pockets!). However, she surprised me by replying like this:
“Actually, I’ve always thought that it was kind of ugly.”
When she said this, my reaction was that of genuine surprise. Many of the Londoners that I have met express the same feelings about their city that they do about their football team—a deep, unwavering pride. Nevertheless, it got me thinking about what my general impression of this city that I am now living in actually is. Is there anything that I’ve noticed to be actually ugly about London?
The more I thought, the more I came up with things about London that I would categorize as not beautiful (though some might disagree with me):
- The color of the sky almost every day, which usually resembles the color of the glue that I peeled off of my hands when I was in kindergarten. And, just as constant as the rain, there are the high costs of almost everything (except museums, which are wonderfully mostly free).
- The constant noise of the sirens, the traffic, the undergraduates that insist on performing karaoke at one in the morning (although that last one might just apply to college campuses in general).
- The way Regent’s Canal, which lies outside of my kitchen window, becomes occasionally choked with duckweed and, with its arrival, an eclectic collection of bottles, bags, and other assorted “rubbish.” There aren’t many garbage cans around on the street as you walk, so the pile-up of trash does seem inevitable in a multitude of places in the city.
- The musty smell that somehow exudes from old buildings. Elisa and I have discussed this one, and we’ve compared and contrasted the distinct smells of both of our flats.
- The streets can be crowded and hectic too. Apparently there are bicycle/moped thieves that will snatch your phone right out of your hand if you are walking too close to the bike lane?! (Don’t worry, I tend not to walk around with my phone out and I stay aware of my surroundings. Don’t tell my parents to come and make me go back home just yet).
However, there are a lot of things about London that I would argue are beautiful:
- There’s art and literature everywhere. They have an amazing theatre district (and the Old Globe). There are whole tourist attractions dedicated to novelists and their characters (The Sherlock Holmes Museum, any place affiliated with Harry Potter). Some flats have blue plaques above them to describe what famous author, artist, or philosopher once lived there (also, did I mention the free museums?).
- The aesthetics of the old British pubs, restaurants, and bookshops, many of which look like they’ve jumped right out of Pinterest pins. In fact, they are better than pins because you can go inside and actually buy the food and admire the rows of titles before you. That is all not to mention the web of Sunday markets that sprawl across all edges of the city.
- The green spaces that house hundreds of birds, such as geese (like the ones that parade near the canal outside my aforementioned window) and even swans (like the ones I saw with my dad in St. James park.)
- Ninety percent of the buildings or sites that you visit come with a prepackaged history that can span hundreds or even thousands of years. All of that comes with a sense of being in a place where people of great fame and contributions to the world have been before you. Plus, some of the architecture is sublime, like many of the stained glass windows in the cathedrals.
- Just walking down the street, you might hear English, Spanish, Chinese, Urdu…it’s like playing a dozen films at the same time, but all of them are in different languages and the dialogue of all of the characters blur together in a colorful blend of sound.
So, what’s my conclusion? Is there really any way to reconcile the beauty and ugly without giving up this exercise altogether?
One possible solution can be found in one of the books I’ve read since my program started, called An Acre of Barren Ground by Jeremy Gavron. The author of this novel includes a chapter on the way that the landscape of the East End was reshaped after World War Two. Apparently, from what I’ve learned about the conflict in London during this time, the East End was hit harder than the West because of its reputation as a center of industry, which the Axis powers wanted to target. The bombing that resulted from the air raids caused the East End to become pockmarked with rubble and holes from where the explosions went off. According to Gavron, however, seeds, through hitching rides on railroad systems and drifting on the breeze, were able to take root in these divots, eventually sprouting up to form plants and flowers.
The green of new shoots juxtaposed with the gray desolation of war feels like a nice metaphor for the East End and London itself—the crumbling old coupling with the shining new, the corruption with the culture, the graphitized walls with the million-dollar paintings. London, to me, seems to be a city too large and too caught in a state of constant change to ever be categorized as just one thing or another. Rather, it lives on in a way that allows the beauty and the ugly to both exist, side by side.