Writing London

I never would have thought that 16 days could have changed my overall outlook, but London changed a lot for me. From the texts to the excursions, I was able to put everything together in a way that still has me thinking about discussions and seeing things around my hometown in a different way. I have talked about how much London has influenced me in several different blog posts and journal entries, but here I’m going to tie it all together. This was an amazing experience for me and something I will not forget for the rest of my life.

Day One started with our first try at navigating the city by ourselves. I immediately fell in love with trying to find my way around and was able to do it fairly efficiently. I felt as though I had a good handle on getting myself to where I needed to go. I think it was incredibly important for us to individually learn how to navigate by ourselves. Being from Webster, New York and not used to getting myself around a big city, I found it exhilarating to have to find my way around. So we walked ourselves from Tottenham Court Rd. back to the dorms and then to the British Library, our first historical stop. What intrigued me about the British Library was the ginormous poster of Uncle Sam on the wall as we walked in. While it was for an exhibit on propaganda and power and wasn’t one of the exhibits we visited, I still thought it was interesting that the first British place we went to had a ginormous Uncle Sam on the wall… the Sir John Ritblat Gallery was where we spent the majority of our time in the library and it was really fascinating to see excerpts and pages from notebooks of The Beatles, historical documents, the Magna Carta, and many other things on display. This kind of collection makes it amazing to see actual documents and the handwriting of famous people and/or people who have been dead for a long time- they are immortalized on paper for unmeasurable amounts of people to look at and experience. This is just the tip of the iceberg on heterotopic spaces for me (more on that later) and this was only the first day!

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Day Two gave some of us the opportunity to explore some of the tourist stops that London has to offer. It also gave us our first experience on the Tube. I instantly grew attached to the Tube and it became one of my favorite things about London because it can take you anywhere in the city and the idea that it runs miles below the surface and for miles underneath the city is incredible. I’d been on the New York City subway, but it just wasn’t the same as the Tube. The Tube is a really important part of London because it encompasses the majority of public transportation and is 150 years old. This underground train has been taking passengers around the city for an incredible amount of time, this means something to the city and its history. After we got off the tube, we saw Buckingham Palace, which provided us the opportunity to witness the beginning of the Changing of the Guard. Changing of the Guard is the process of the old guards being changed with new guards. It happens every day at 11:30 am from May-July and alternate days for the rest of the year. There’s more information on what the different ranks are and what exactly the process entails on the British Monarchy website and this video about the purpose, history, and significance of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.

From there, we went and saw Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. I’ve seen these buildings in pictures and movies for as long as I can remember, but they are absolutely incredible to see in person. It’s a huge, iconic building cluster that is significantly important to the history of London’s political system. It only makes it more astonishing that Westminster Abbey is right across the street, one of the significantly important buildings to the history of London’s religious existence. The Abbey has been the coronation church since 1066 and is the final resting place of seventeen monarchs. (Westminster Abbey website) Seeing these kind of iconic places is an inspiring experience and was definitely a great start to the entire experience and knowledge of the trip.

IMG_0373 IMG_0381Continuing on that day, we then went to the British Museum, which houses some of the world’s most prized possessions including the Rosetta Stone. What fascinated me most about the British Museum was the incredible architecture of the building itself. The glass roof is one of the most beautiful things I have seen and only further contributes to the Michel Foucault “Space, Knowledge, Power” interview that raises the argument that architecture is space and that it defines places and their histories. The architecture is purely beautiful and I bought a postcard so that I could remember how beautiful this building was. On the inside, I was most intrigued by the sheer number of countries represented throughout it. There are artifacts from so many countries, something that has become kind of a scandal because countries think their artifacts should belong in their own countries. However, there are so many exhibits to look at and so many cultural things that those artifacts represent. I was interested most in the Egyptian mummies and the artifacts from Turkey. It was the perfect first museum to visit as it set the history end of London in our minds.

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Day Three brought us to our first day of classes. Our first class was on The Emperor’s Babe by Bernadine Evaristo. What I found most interesting about this book, besides the fact that it is written in verse, is the idea of our national identity. Through the discussion, we we talked about how national identity places a role in spatiality, thus linking both courses and the work we had done so far. From page 148 in the text, Septimus says to Zuleika, “‘If I should die, think only this of me, Zuleika,/ there’s a corner deep/ in Caledonia that is for ever Libya.'” This is a reference to “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke and it means that you take where you’re from with you forever. So while we were living in London for two weeks, there was a bit of the United States in the shape of 14 American people existing in the space with multiple other countries. What has shaped you is brought with you and this defines your spatiality throughout your life.

The next book we discussed was A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. What struck me about this was the idea that it’s fatal to be a poet in a woman’s body in this time period (something that is echoed by Evaristo). Woolf goes on to expand this idea through the metaphor of Judith Shakespeare, an imaginary sister of William. Judith wouldn’t survive as a successful poet in her time period because women were confined by what was expected of them. Another really fascinating point that Woolf makes is the necessity for the androgynous mind. “But the sight of the two people getting into the taxi and the satisfaction it gave me made me also ask whether there are two sexes in the mind corresponding to the two sexes in the body, and whether they also require to be united in order to get complete satisfaction and happiness?… Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine…” And the most significant quote of the entire work, “It is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their own sex.” It is important for anyone, but especially writers, to have this creative blending of both sexes in their minds.

Our excursion on that day took us to the Museum of London. This museum was much different from the British Museum in that it has a more modern feel to it. We were fortunate enough to get a private lecture and viewing of actual materials from the Suffragette Movement. It was eye opening and inspiring to see these women fighting for something they believed in, especially in this Victorian time period. This trip was necessary because being able to talk to Beverly Cook was incredible and seeing the actual materials was amazing and helped connect our minds and images to Tracy Chevalier’s book Falling Angels, which we were going to discuss the next day. It is always mind-blowing when we can look at materials from hundreds of years back. But this was more meaningful because this course is about women writers and, being one of the females on the trip, it was meaningful to see these women sometimes physically fighting for rights we have now. In a different exhibit, being able to see Londinium helped us draw images in our minds to The Emperor’s Babe and what the city was like for Zuleika to live in.

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Day Four had us in class for Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier. This was one of my favorite books that we read for this course because it was told from different perspectives and I just found the entire plot incredibly entertaining. I have already made a point to read more of her books. I also loved that a lot of the book took place in Highgate Cemetery. It’s an interesting look at how women occupied this space in this era. For example, the girls, Maude and Lavinia, have the freedom to roam throughout parts of London pretty much by themselves. They are able to roam through the cemetery and areas around their houses. Women were expected to have a certain amount of decorum and etiquette throughout the reign of Queen Victoria, but that all changed a little when Edward VII became king was responsible for modernizations in several different respects. Things changed and women weren’t expected to be the prim and proper representations of themselves that they were when Edward’s mother was queen. This is exemplified in Kitty’s character throughout the entire novel. Kitty felt trapped in her life and was dying for an escape. “I have spent my life waiting for something to happen.. And I have come to understand that nothing will. Or already has, and I blinked during that moment and it’s gone. I don’t know which is worse- to have missed it or to know there is nothing to miss.” (Kindle page 186) This spark wasn’t ignited until she met Caroline Black and joined the Suffragette Movement. She died fighting for this cause and that is something highly respectable. She felt trapped in her role as a mother, a wife, a human. Her skirts were a form of this entrapment and so she liked the short skirt of the Peter Pan costume and the removal of the tights. It was liberating and she liked this change, in both herself and in the world. “What I did feel sharply was the sun and air on my legs. After a lifetime of heavy dresses, with their swathes of cloth wrapping my legs like bandages, it was an incredible sensation.” (Kindle page 301) Reading this kind of novel was empowering as a woman and we were able to envision it more clearly with the talk with Beverly Cook behind us.

Our excursion for that day was to Highgate Cemetery, which was another eye-opening and beautiful experience. I stated earlier, and in several other mediums, that heterotopic spaces really opened my eyes and were the ones that I most enjoyed and this was another stepping stone on my final understanding of those spaces. Highgate Cemetery was unlike anything I had seen. I’m used to the flat cemeteries of the United States and this was on a hill and totally overgrown with beautiful greens. I love ghost stories and I feel like this cemetery was just like walking through a million different ghost stories. This was one of my favorite excursions because of the beauty of the nature mixed with the hardness of the stone and the marriage of the living and dead worlds. It was definitely an important stop because it made Falling Angels real and gave us a better picture of where the girls would play. It also is important to the history of London because in the Victorian era, it was expected that you give your dead the highest and most regal of funerals. This is what people spent the majority of their money on and having the showiest funeral and tomb made you somebody. Burial rituals were greatly important and mourning guidelines were strictly followed. It is here that we can physically see that decline and appreciate the beauty of both past and present.

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When we returned from the cemetery, we talked about Romanticism with McVicker and touched on the works of Keats, Shelley, Browne, and Foucault. Throughout this entire class discussion, it was made clear to me that existence and spatiality was a big deal to these particular men, as their works all touch upon the idea of existing. Browne’s “Hydriotaphia, or Urn‐Burialle” was questioning how to put a mark on human existence if there is no afterlife, no returning to God? Keats’ significance of the urn in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is that it freezes a moment in time and becomes immortal in that respect. Shelley’s “Mutibility” says that only change survives and so staying the same throughout your existence is not practical. We thrive on change. And finally Foucault’s thoughts in “Of Other Spaces, or Heterotopias”, he brings up the idea of two worlds, two levels of spatiality, existing in one space‐ such as cemeteries and museums. It was especially important in understanding Highgate Cemetery and what that space means as a “gateway” for both the living and the dead worlds. This particular conversation stuck with me throughout the rest of the trip and was considerably eye‐opening when we got to Stonehenge.

Day Five had us discussing Feminine Gospels by Carol Ann Duffy in class, particularly the poem “The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High”. The main principle of this poem was that the laughter disrupts everything in this school and the traditional modes of study and learning outcomes. These girls are in this school not necessarily to learn, but to prepare to become “daughters, mothers, and wives”‐ a 20th century version of “The Angel in the House”. All of the teachers also have other dreams and ambitions that they are currently not achieving by being teachers at this school and the laughter changes all of that. The teachers realize their dreams and set out to achieve them. This is an important piece of literature because, even today, when equality is stronger, there are still women being trained to just be mothers and wives, not to achieve their own ambitions. Times may progress, but there are still injustices occurring. It’s an important book to this course because of its writer being an important female poet, but also for the content. Women, and people in general, should never be content with what they’re expected to be, it’s a continuation of A Room of One’s Own. However, there is an ending point with the last words of the poem being: “Higher again, a teacher fell through the clouds with a girl in her arms.” (page 54) They all achieved what they set out to do, but there is a limit to their progress. So this poem is hopeful and realistic.

The next book we talked about was The London Scene. Obviously there isn’t a lot that has to be said on why this is an important book in relation to this course and to our learning. The London Scene was the perfect first step into looking at London how it was at the time of Woolf and how that compares to the London we just visited. It’s always an interesting comparison between the two because so much has changed, but at the same time, so much is the same and that is the beauty of London, a connection of the old and the new. London captures the brilliance of old architecture and new glass building and brings those together in a seamless harmony. It was incredible to envision what Woolf saw compared to what we were seeing.

This brings me right into our excursion for that day. Taking a walk through London and seeing the things that Woolf made sure to talk about in her essays was incredible. The churches: St. Paul’s, St. Mary‐le‐Bow, and St. Clement Danes still had the charms that Virginia Woolf talked about, but also were full of modern people. Her words were so spot‐on, even to this day that it’s hard to believe she wrote it starting in 1931. Sitting at St. Clement Danes today has what I can imagine to be the same feel that Woolf felt when she wrote it: a church on an island in the middle of two busy streets. I felt most connected there because it was a small church island surrounded by bustling people and traffic. This excursion is where I learned about the combination of old and new that London celebrates in its architecture. From The London Scene: “Even St. Clement Danes‐ that venerable pile planted in the mid‐stream of the Strand‐ has been docked of all those peaceful perquisites‐ the weeping trees, the waving grass that the humblest village church enjoys by right. Omnibuses and vans have long since shorn it of these dues. It stands, like an island, with only the narrowest rim of pavement to separate it from the sea.” (page 49)

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Day Six brought us into discussion of The Mara Crossing. What I found most interesting about this book is how knowledgable Ruth Padel is and how she connects it all together in the end. She starts out talking about cells and biology and how those migrate through the body to birds and animals that risk their lives to cross the Mara River and then to immigration, both legal and illegal and the mere fact that human beings are always moving, always migrating through different places. The most important part of this book, to me, was the very end and the quote, “This modest place embodies Britain over the centuries as a place of sanctuary and new life. It tells the story of a house, a parish and a city whose walls, as we know, were built by immigrants. Very quietly, it shows how multicultural Britain‐ and every modern, multilayered society‐ was made, just as the world was made, by migration.” I’ve quoted this before in other things, but I just think it is so important in relation to mapping Englishness and to this course. London wouldn’t be what it is without migration and that migration starts from seeing a place and falling in love with it and wanting to live there or needing to leave your home. In a way, we took a short migration to London as a school trip, but with the way many of us fell in love with the city, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us made a permanent migration to London in the future. I really liked this book in that it explained the hard biological parts and then the poetry flowed with that. And it all comes back to how people move and what moves us and what shapes the places we live and that comes back to our spatiality.

The next book of the day was Tess of the d’Urbervilles. This was a heartbreaking book, but was important to this course in terms of the time period. We are able to look back to the time Tess occupied space in England and compare it to what we see in front of us in modern times- much like The London Scene. This book was also important in giving us the first inklings of what Stonehenge would be like and why Thomas Hardy chose Stonehenge as the place where Tess is taken in. Another important point that links this to Virginia Woolf is the idea expressed in this novel that if you’re not pure, you might as well be dead, there is no alternative. And this idea is why Woolf attacks the Victorian age. This was such a fragile time for women and this poor, innocent girl takes the brunt of the trauma.

Our excursion for that day was to the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Both of these museums were incredibly important for us to see because they’re both another example of a heterotopic space, but also because both museums provide context to the things we’re reading and to what we were supposed to be envisioning as we explored London. The Victoria and Albert Museum holds some of the best examples of rooms that would have existed during old time periods in London. All of the museums we visited are so different that it’s interesting to see what each one brings to London as a city.

Day Seven had us talking about City of the Mind by Penelope Lively. This was an important book, hard to get through, but important because of Matthew’s connections of the modern London that he’s living in and the old London that he can see in the architecture. This continues to combine the ideas of both Foucault articles: architecture defining a space and a space being a heterotopia. “That particular stack of bricks occupied the same space in, maybe 1740. The same bricks, in the same place, looked at by different people.” (page 8) This book is important in looking at London because it does combine the old and the new and will continue to do so throughout the rest of time. 

The excursion of that day was to the Museum of London Docklands. The contest was a brilliant way to encourage people to use the skills they’d been garnering all week to get to the Docklands Museum and win a pint from the professors! I felt comfortable in my experience traveling the city and am honored to say that Courtney and I won. This particular museum though was important to our knowledge because it allowed us to see the history and importance of the docks and what they meant to London. We could envision what Woolf was talking about in The London Scene and what Matthew Halland was talking about in City of the Mind. This was one of the biggest ports in the world at some point and this is incredibly important to the history of London and, thus, imperative that we learn about what made London what it is today.

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The weekend, Day Eight through Day Nine, brought us to Stonehenge‐ one of my absolute favorite places on the trip. Stonehenge is very significant in London’s history and landscape and being able to experience Stonehenge at sunrise was absolutely mind‐blowing. This is where my understanding of heterotopic spaces clicked into place. While I was standing amongst the stones and experiencing the beauty of the morning, I was able to envision the people who put these stones here and who they were trying to respect and mourn by doing so. We were standing on a plot of land that was the final resting place of these ancient people and so, we were interacting with them and existing in that moment with them. It was through this that I really fell in love and became obsessed with heterotopic spaces and that affects how I look at things now that I’m home. This weekend trip also brought us to Glastonbury where there is even more amazing heterotopic imagery and spatiality. This weekend trip was highly valuable and important to the experience I had on this trip because, like I said before, heterotopias are now something that I’ve become obsessed with thinking about.

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Day Ten had us right back in the classroom talking about Patience Agbabi’s Bloodshot Monochrome. This particular collection of poetry was really interesting to me because it’s a very contemporary form of poetry and she likes to play with sonnets. Her “Problem Pages” section references poets and literary history and was really interesting to see her play with the combination of historical poets and their issues and advising them through her words and contemporary sonnet form. It would have been amazing to meet her and/or see her perform live because she has such an energy that you can sense in her writing. I think she’s important because she’s a British woman but also because she likes to play with the historical and the modern and that’s what London is all about.

In another chapter of diversity of the day, we talked about The Black Album next. This novel is important because we can see the different cultures that reside in London and call it their home. London is multicultural and through the migration of people from other places and the historical and modern, there is a large amount of diversity present in London and that is where some of its beauty comes from. It’s a city in England that is home to many, many different cultures. There are a lot of radical different people in this novel from Shahid to Brownlow to Deedee. This is a culturally important reminder that London is multicultural and diverse and that is truly beneficial to what the city has to offer.

The excursion of the day was the Mrs. Dalloway walking tour which took us through the mind of Clarissa Dalloway as she prepared for her party. This was a very crucial part of our trip because Mrs. Dalloway is Woolf’s most recognized piece of literature and it takes us through her walking trip of the city and what she sees throughout her day. We got to see London in context with Mrs. Dalloway and what she’s experiencing as she’s walking. This is important because we can, again, see the merging of old and new through us walking the streets that Virginia Woolf had to while writing this book.

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 Day Eleven had us on a trip to Oxford. As I talked about in an earlier blog post, I think Oxford is important to England in terms of garnering Englishness. This was an important trip to us so we could see what exactly education means to Englishness and how we can start to define that. It also was important because Virginia Woolf mentions this and Cambridge (as Oxbridge) in A Room of One’s Own. We can visualize what she was talking about and have a good illustration of what happened here during her time of writing. Also, the buildings of the college are just gorgeous and something that everyone should see. It was also really interesting to drink in pubs that some great minds also drank in.

Day Twelve gave us the opportunity to meet Tamar Yoseloff, the author of Formerly and experience a poet reading their work and talking about the inspiration behind her words. It was particularly interesting to me because I could pick up on a little accent in her speech because of how long she’d been living in London. Being from the United States and assimilating into the culture was amazing to hear in her voice and dialogue. It was also amazing to hear her read her own words in the way she meant them to be read. This collection of poetry was really cool because it talked about abandoned places in London and what those places used to be versus what they are now. This whole blog post is about the changing and staying the same of London and this book just epitomizes that ideology. Being able to see one of the photographs in person was also amazing because we’re seeing what they saw and trying to feel the kind of inspiration that they felt.

IMG_0587That same day we talked about Mrs. Dalloway and were able to see connections between this and other works of Woolf. Sally is the rebellious character who doesn’t want to get married, thus opening Clarissa’s eyes and being a character that Woolf refers to in A Room of One’s Own. This is an important book because Virginia Woolf lived in Bloomsbury, where we stayed, and this was her most famous piece. It was really interesting to see the words on the page and the real places they represented in London while we were on the walking tour. It’s this kind of connection between written word and real life experiences that defines this trip and made it an incredible experience to have.

Day Thirteen had us talking about Saturday by Ian McEwan. This book was interesting because it is something historical that happened in London and was the biggest coordinated day of protest (600 countries) opposing the Iraq War. It is beneficial because it took us around a different part of London through Henry Perowne, who’s trying to navigate the London streets on the day of the protest. There’s also a sense of knowledge and power working together in this novel in Perowne’s character. He knows Baxter has a medical condition and uses that knowledge to his advantage when it comes to confronting him. While this may not have been the best approach, it raises the need for a balance between knowledge and power.

Day Fourteen had me up at five o’clock in the morning and gave me a chance to explore London by myself. It truly was an amazing experience. Up to this point, we had been traveling at least pairs. This was the first moment I had to navigate myself and take everything in. I was comfortable traveling and navigating by myself so it was liberating to have that kind of freedom to see what I wanted to and go where I wanted to go. It was something I won’t forget.

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That day we also talked about There But For The (and a little the day previously). This was another one of my absolute favorite novels that we read because, again, of the different perspectives and the fact that we only find out about the main character through other people and what they have to say about him. This was a really interesting books because it looks at how everybody is affected by this one man and what he does for the Lees and for the people waiting to see him outside the window. Ali Smith is an incredible writer and likes to play with the form of contemporary novel writing. There is a revelation at the end of each section that leads us to finding out more about Miles and what he means to each character. I truly loved this book and also plan to read more of her work. It was important for our class because she is a female writer, but also because of the playing of structure and the imagery of the Greenwich Royal Observatory. This kind of connection made us able to draw connections between the text and the observatory.

We also talked about Neverwhere  by Neil Gaiman. This book was unlike anything I had read before and was really interesting because it takes place in London Underground. Because I felt this huge connection to the Tube, I loved going back and looking at this book with the places we had already traveled via Tube in our minds and having a clear picture of what London Underground looks like.

Our final excursion was to the Greenwich Royal Observatory. It was really amazing to stand on the Prime Meridian line and see what Ali Smith is referring to in There But For The. It was really interesting to see the blending, again, of knowledge and power and what that kind of knowledge and education means to Englishness. Being that that was where the Royal Astronomers lived is something amazing to think about. And is another kind of heterotopic space in that it houses some of the clocks and collections of those astronomers. It was a really cool place to visit because of this kind of knowledge existing in this space and to see the Prime Meridian and to stand in the east and in the west. This was important to our trip to see more of the history of England/London and what that means to our overall learning experience.

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This experience was one of the most amazing I have ever had and it was definitely heartbreaking to come home. I fell in love with London and everything about it. Every text, every excursion, every discussion helped me understand the different areas of London and the different meanings of each layer of London. I learned so much and have taken that home with me and so I am viewing things in a different light and asking myself the same questions I asked in London in terms of Englishness and spatiality. This was an amazing trip and I am very honored to have taken part in it.

 

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