LONDON – I walked through the garden on my way to work and breathed in deeply, steeling myself for another eight-hour day. I inhaled. The usual scents of car exhaust and cold weather weren’t there. I inhaled again. Spring. Light and floral mixed with a deeper hint of forested musk. I looked around me and noticed cherry blossoms in bloom, purple sprouts peeking out of the green earth, families walking about with nowhere particular in mind.
It fell upon me like the first drop of spring. The beauty of it all, the innocence, the joy. It was enough to buoy me through my research-laden day and have me skipping all the way home.
Spring has sprung! I excitedly thought as I lay down at the end of my day. Spring has sprung! I sang as my eyes closed for another night’s sleep. Spring has sprung! I dreamt the whole night through.
And just as quickly, spring rescinded its floral promise as I looked out of my window the next morning to a chilly, frosted picture of King’s Road. I buttoned up my winter coat and headed out into the honking mess.
This, I have come to learn, is the story of London.
Throughout London’s massive history – dating back to 43 AD – it has been thought of as a city of contradictions. It has known both glory and shame, peace and revolt, rain and fire. And its citizens reflect this same fluidity – often combating tragedy with humor and finding beauty amid the dirt and grime of the reality of their city.
In my British Contemporary Culture class the other day, we watched a BBC film called A Picture of London (2012). It explored London through the centuries and found a common pattern seen in people’s reactions to the city.
Time and time again, beauty was found artificially – forced upon London in inaccurate paintings or romanticized writings about her. Every time the city found itself in ruins, grand plans of restructure and order were put into place. And every time, London resisted and narrow twisty streets, dark gothic buildings, and chaotic markets thrived while orderly architect’s designs withered out of sight and mind. True beauty, the film finds, is borne of the city’s unplanned and muddled nature.
While watching the film, I was reminded of Victor Hugo’s Preface to Cromwell in which Hugo states that “it is of the fruitful union of the grotesque and the sublime types that modern genius is born”. He means to prove that the grotesque things in life, the evil, the horrific, the ugly, are not merely parts of life – they are necessary for beauty to exist at all.
Without the dirt and grime and muddle of London, its beauty would cease to exist as well.
The picture of London is this, then: a delicate balance of the sublime and the grotesque. Beauty is at the mercy of the ugly. Had I not have smelt car exhaust and cold weather for two months, the beautiful moment of spring could not have given me so much joy and warmth.
This story weaves throughout London and now that I’m privy to it, I see it. Complaining about late busses makes the on time ones feel like a special surprise. Grumbling about the rain makes the sun seem brighter and feel warmer. Thinking, “Why am I not in a pub right now?” makes being in the pub that much better. Or maybe it’s just the beer.
Nonetheless, this story of London is still being written, and now I am a contributor. This is a city that I call my home – even if I only occupy about 15 feet and 4 months of it. It is with this in mind that I press onward, embracing the ugliness in the beautiful and the sublime in the grotesque.
That is what London is. That is what life is.