Off on another trip to London. Hopefully, I have a few more years left in which I can comfortably take this yearly journey, maybe even with a side trip to Paris as well.
Yet I have uneasy moments when I ask myself why I must make this trip so frequently. For there are few mysteries left for me to uncover in London. All the same, I’m both consoled and profoundly moved by walking through the familiar streets and parks, and going to cafés and theaters that I have visited for over 40 years. Obviously, for me London’s pleasures far outweigh any feelings of tedium that I may have. And if I remain alert and observant, I always discover something newly revealing about the city’s changing population and neighborhoods, architecture, political culture, and social class dynamics.
In recent years I have chosen to take the early morning flight, to avoid redeye anxieties. Falling asleep and then waking up in a totally darkened and disorienting night plane can generate in me feelings of being trapped in a nightmare in which the darkness seems all enclosing But now that I have changed to the day flight, I find that getting up in the middle of the night with little sleep to catch that early morning take-off leaves me bleary-eyed, dizzy, and prone to making absurd mistakes at the airport -- like sticking credit cards in the wrong slots where they get stuck, and standing foolishly on lines going nowhere.
The plane trip itself is happily uneventful however, and I pass the time half-watching films like the Stallone scripted, gratuitously bloody "Homefront" and the big budget, carefully designed "Hunger Games" sequel, in which ingenious "Perils of Pauline" cliffhangers and close-ups of our charismatic, indomitable heroine played by Jennifer Lawrence mindlessly dominate. But there’s no point decrying action-dominated films made for revved-up adolescents, who are the movie industry’s prime audience.
The first day in London is predictably damp and chill, and the streets seem drab as I walk, barely awake, unthinkingly sloshing through puddles. But I know where I’m going.
Once I reach South Hampstead’s shopping street (South End Green) my spirits lift. The street played a central role in our first stay in Hampstead when I walked the few long blocks daily to buy fruit, vegetables, meat, bread, cheese and The Guardian, and then stopped to have my morning coffee (almost undrinkable in those years) or tea.
Bordering the Heath, that great London park, and its magical ponds, the green looks little changed. I see a large Marks and Spencer and a Pain Quotidian that didn’t exist a decade ago. But if there are fewer small service shops (no butcher or delicatessen), there remains a book store, many decent cafés, a couple of pubs, a frame shop, and a fruit stand. It’s cozy and communal looking and free of towering architectural monstrosities that would overwhelm its human-sized character. And though the people who pass by seem more moneyed than years ago, the street still emanates an arty, slightly anarchic ambiance. I feel I am home again, and that feeling is reinforced by amiable chats with passing strangers in cafés and pubs and on buses, who offer snatches of their life stories without much prompting.
The next day the sun finally comes out, and sitting drinking a late in a café on South End Green. I am stirred by the deep green lushness of the Heath’s trees, bushes and meadows. For a moment the world seems luminous, and I return in my mind to the first time my wife and I came here on a sabbatical with our infant daughter, and we were looking towards a seemingly infinite future, rather than spending, as I do now, so much time delving into the past.
That night I attend a writer friend’s retirement party at the Freud Museum, the house which Freud inhabited the last year or so of his life. She’s retiring as the chairman of the board of trustees. The crowd is sophisticated and open, people easy to connect to for a few minutes of pleasant conversation. My friend offers a seamlessly gracious and heartfelt set of final remarks and thank yous to the staff, who clearly find her many contributions to the museum invaluable.
Before I leave, I wander into Freud’s study. It contains his antiquities collection, many of the ancient figures rest on his desk and the room’s walls are lined with shelves containing his library. There is also Freud’s famous psychoanalytic couch where all his patients, hoping for some sort of deliverance, lay down to communicate to Freud their painful personal histories.
It brought back images from a film "1919" (1985) that was built around two characters based on Freud’s case histories, the last two of Freud’s surviving patients. The two meet and share their memories of reclining and confessing on Freud’s couch, in that same room filled with his mysterious objects. The film poses questions about Freud’s capacity as an analyst to help them, and about the causes of the anguish they lived with, personal but also historical, as Nazism had an impact on both their lives. I’ll always recall it as the most penetrating narrative film about the psychoanalytic process I had ever seen.
Eight days left, and I still have friends to meet, plays to see, museums to visit, and neighborhoods to explore. That’s if my energy and body hold out -- I seem to have picked up a horrific cold in my first few days here. But I’ll recover, for I feel an imperative to make every day of this trip count.
Leonard Quart can be reached at email@example.com.