Space For Rent
Friday, March 18, 2016, Chaitra 4, 1422 BS, Jamadius Sani 8, 1437 Hijri

The charms of London
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Published :Friday, 18 March, 2016,  Time : 12:00 AM  View Count : 20
It was Samuel Johnson's view that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. There was in London, he added for good measure, all that life could afford.
I happen to concur with him. For me, ever since my first arrival in London on a cold February day in the latter half of the 1990s, London has always been a fascinating place because of its character. And let me not forget the historical richness which has consistently been a reason for people from all over the world to be drawn to London. When I am on the Tube, it is the multifarious nature of people, the races they spring from, which draws my attention. There are, of course, the very proper English. And then there is an assortment of Africans, Chinese, Japanese and Asians in all their diversity. And now there are all the East Europeans happily working away here. It was not like this before. Perhaps this cross-culturalism --- the proponents of Blairite New Labour would rather have it called multi-culturalism --- began to make itself felt when Edward Heath in the early 1970s decided that Asians expelled from Idi Amin's Uganda should be given new homes in Britain. And in all the decades which have elapsed since, people not English or Welsh or Scot have become Britons.
Such are the sights, interspersed at times with sounds in the form of a whole lexicon of languages, which London is home to these days. The city is surely one of the most tolerant, on a global scale, in our times, defined as it is by a heritage which keeps hitting you everywhere you go. Homes which once were inhabited by important figures in British history have been preserved, perhaps as schools or offices, in nearly the way they used to be. Beside the doors of these structures, you get a sense of who lived in them all those decades, even centuries ago. History does something to you. It transports you back to the past. Suddenly, you live in the times of Samuel Johnson or Benjamin Disraeli. You feel you are right there as Oliver Cromwell's supporters are pronouncing judgment on Charles I. Closer to our times --- and this is something which I feel every moment --- there is Downing Street, there is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). I have been inside both, which will always be a happy part of my memory. But the more important point is that places like 10 Downing Street are engraved in the public memory because of the historical permanence they have come to embody. For me, the home-cum-office of Britain's prime ministers has been something of a place of wonder since that day in October 1964 when I came across a newspaper image of an electorally triumphant Harold Wilson entering it as its new occupant.
The FCO is an old building which remains witness to much of history, indeed to the making of it. It was once a privilege for me to have met with some British officials there in a room where, I was informed, the final plans for Indian independence in 1947 had been made. At such moments, when you know that history was written in such rooms, you tend to identify yourself, even if vicariously, with that political process. I have felt that way and every time I have been inside the FCO, a spontaneous feeling that I was walking right into a labyrinth of history, into the many passages and pathways of British diplomacy as it has shaped up over time, took over. These days I have with me a very enlightening work on the history of Whitehall. Colin Brown, the writer, calls it 'Whitehall: The Street that Shaped a Nation'. It only adds to the heritage London has symbolized over the centuries. Downing Street for most of us has been just that, Downing Street. But how many of us know that behind its story was Sir George Downing? Pepys thought the man was 'a perfidious rogue', but Downing was also a trusted spy for Cromwell. Upon the Restoration, he changed sides and betrayed some of his friends, who were hanged by Charles II. It was shrewdness, such clever ways of survival, that eventually saw him emerge as the owner of a huge swath of land today known as Downing Street.
An enduring point of interest for me has been London's book culture. People, those who have not yet fallen prey to the twenty-four hour temptations of viber, whatsapp and what have you, read all the way from adolescence to ripe old age. I go to Waterstone's at Piccadilly, to Any Amount of Books and Quinto on Charing Cross Road and am happy to be in the company of men and women of all ages quietly engaged in browsing. The other evening I was at the Waterstone's shop adjacent to the London School of Economics. I walked away a happy man, with two old books under my arms. And then there is the family-owned book shop, Arthur Probsthain's, of my friend Michael Sheringham on Great Russell Street. It has a commendable collection of works, new as well as very old, on Africa and Asia. You cannot go out of it without procuring a few rich volumes. For good measure, it has a charming place where you can have snacks, a drink or two and good conversation. Tea & Tattle is the name.
London is an endless saga of human endeavour. For me, there are its varied colours. I love walking along its streets in winter, when the winds howl and darkness sets in early. In summer, it is its leafy sounds, with the breeze gently blowing, that play music in the soul. Outside my window, as I work, the raindrops hit the window relentlessly. The clouds play in the sky, getting cheerfully darker by the minute. It is then that the urge rises in me to walk out, with an umbrella, and go seeking old churchyards --- to read the inscriptions on the tombstones of people buried ages ago, to see the grass growing tall on their graves.

Editor : Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury
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