A reflection on my time living and researching in London is well overdue, considering that I left the UK to return to New Jersey in early June of last year. In the intervening months I’ve gotten married, spent a semester teaching a grueling (but rewarding) core curriculum survey course encompassing major philosophical works ranging from Plato to Rousseau, and eaten up much of a winter break with further personal and professional travel, illnesses and recovery from them, and fretting over the sketchy state of my dissertation. My sister’s then-apartment, in Southwark, and the daily experience of commuting on a lurching bus to and from the British Library or Greenwich, now feel very far away.
In other ways, however, I have never really left. My parents moved to England last spring, in the midst of my time there; my entire nuclear family now lives and works in Britain, as well as several friends old and new, and a huge network of current and potential contacts who know an incredible amount about my areas of research. The village where my parents are now living in Kent is a little muddy paradise of local food, history, and breathtaking walks, from which I hear weekly updates on the adventures taken by birds in the gardens and the sad state of the bell-ringing team which mans the tower of the central (Norman) church. It’s the sort of area, in the sort of county, which produced holiday presents ranging from personalized ceramic trinkets to artisanal jam made to taste like strawberries and champagne, and where the local village eccentric (and, I suspect, a fan of Doctor Who) has put a blue historical plaque on their house claiming that the inventor of a time machine once lived there. We are hoping to visit again in March, when it will be wet and cool, and we might plan to attend an evensong at Canterbury. It is all quite lovingly, and somewhat ridiculously, English.
London, on the other hand, has the distinction of being both quintessentially and never English. I had fallen very much in love with it as an undergraduate, when I spent a semester abroad living in King’s Cross and learning at New York University’s facilities on the beautiful, and entirely unique, Bedford Square. Over the years I fell out of love with it, somewhat inexplicably – perhaps it came down to my visits mostly being made on my own, for research purposes, and often in the dead of winter. No place I know of is quite at their best in these times, at least not for someone who doesn’t thrive in the cold and dark – not when all you can do is think of how to get warm again, and people hurry by each other with their faces down in their collars, soaked and miserable and vampiric from lack of sunlight. It made a huge difference to me during this stay to be living with my sister, to have someone to be accountable to with my feelings and presence, and to be enjoying London as it woke up to springtime and belied its reputation for grey, overcast damp.
No one area of London, I’ve felt, is at all the same as another. It is also perhaps the only major city I’ve ever been to where everyday life and history sit side by side so easily and so often. New York’s housing projects are places which, by dint of architecture and atmosphere, usually feel set apart from the life of Manhattan or Brooklyn themselves, meant to be slid over and ignored in your mind’s eye. In London, in contrast, residential housing old and new and ancient works – hundreds of years older than European establishment in America – loom and encroach one upon the other shamelessly. In the City, my favorite monument is the remains of a medieval church, bombed during the Blitz in 1941; its tower and a few broken walls now nestle in the conjunction of a major roadway and glass-plating banking buildings, and it can only be seen if you know just which strange alleyways and staircases to take, a few blocks away from the Millennium Bridge, to wend your ways crabwise down to the Embankment. History confronts you here, even if it has been overshadowed or sanitized, in ways which cannot occur in new New York and homogenized, Haussmanized Paris. This is not to say, of course, that London’s boroughs and neighborhoods do not each own something particular to themselves – it is perhaps that the differences between them are subtler, learned over many years of residence, requiring you to burrow down to the individual relationships between shops and restaurants, takeaways and pubs, and those who inhabit them.
I could also count myself lucky that I got to spend most of my working days looking at late medieval and early modern maps, building a database of geographic material that is going to support a good half of my dissertation. I count myself even luckier, in fact, that despite having spent a lot of the last five years staring at them, and the occasional bursts of enthusiasm I’ve had for cartography across my life before graduate school, that I didn’t get bored of any of my charts despite the multiplication of editions and so, so much Ptolemy; to me they will always be jewel-like distillations of human knowledge, despite the wear and tear of their age. I’m lucky to be pleased and intrigued and obsessed with the aesthetics, as well as the content, of my chosen subject. London was where I did the vast majority of this work, and for that alone, living there would have been worth it – in the end it was much more besides.