Sitting in a shady public park under a verdant canopy of hundred-year-old trees as Wimbledon plays on a giant screen, this visitor feels like a lucky extra in a novel or movie situated in London tradition, and the Woolfian setting steeps into you like a proper cup of tea. The moment finally arrived after a 10-day quarantine and pent-up anticipation of the surrounding scenarios, my only interaction with the outside world being trips to the mailbox to send the mandatory tests, this in a metropolis frenzied with energy. England was in the Euro Cup final, which felt like the Super Bowl x100, and Boris Johnson had just declared July 19 as the reopening of the nation, a “Freedom Day,” as they put it. I had finally arrived in what I perceived as London, a film set of an old place, watching a prestigious 144-year-old tennis tournament where the players perform in compulsory, pristine white and the audience, sprinkled with Princes and Princesses, sport elaborate hats. It’s all so staid, a bit regal, this annual celebration since 1877, which inevitably sparks a sense of irony, or in my case, a sense of anxiety: this sort simple observation of traditions that persist amid an incredible wave of the unknown, our past “normal” lives colliding with a new existence of Covid tracing, travel restrictions, Delta variants, social distancing. The off-kilter nature of the moment is palpable once experiencing something previously considered normal.
The circumstance that brought me to London was one of loss. Even in that universal event, a moment we all face, the world has been so turned upside down that we are forced to rethink relationships as the things we treasure. We are programmed to believe that the world will accept our tragedies, our grieving, and act accordingly to a normal set of rules. First off, that is no longer allowed. We accede to quarantine, accept this new way of being from the get-go and automatically adjust to travel in this new pandemic world. Everything you used to do normally is not available, even in an event of an unforeseen loss. For a culture writer for whom art is a love, a distraction, and a routine, who found travel as a vehicle to elicit a bit of an escapist fantasy, I’m now in London a bit unexpectedly, attempting to establish rhythms from a previous life. And that fantasy part of a previous life is no longer needed.
Because art has always been a constant, for generations, sustaining and guiding many of us through difficult times. We memorialize tragic and epic events through art, play a favorite song when we are sad, watch a film when we need to be distracted, or go to our favorite museums when we need some tranquility. The pandemic has certainly taught us that we need these things more than ever. As we transition into a new way of life, these routines that ground us, embrace our shared humanity, seem to have been snatched during the pandemic. In London, at this present moment, in trying to re-establish that overwhelming sense of beauty and need for art in my own life, I was also trying to come to understand what it is we lost. And really, I spent most of my time looking at how it is that art is a tool for understanding transitions in life, to explain grief, to capture the unexplainable. So, in this fractured moment, with London’s historical convergence of centuries of art and history, of pageantry and uber-contemporality, of just simply old world versus new world, it was the perfect place to be.
Hackney and East London
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