Posted on

Crowds and clouds in Westminster Abbey

While the Independent‘s headline was about how America is eating the world, I spent a couple of hours yesterday afternoon (as a break from the next issue of Guanxi and the Cool Planet Guide, which interested a lot of people at Frankfurt and is thus creating panic for the author–yours truly) relishing English heritage, at Westminster Abbey and the National Gallery.

I thought there was a concert at 16.30 at Westminster Abbey and turned up early for that, but as usual I got the time or date wrong. This turned out to be a good time of day to see the Abbey. Quite a few people, but not a mob. It was lovelier than I remembered, perhaps because it has been so remarkably cleaned up in recent years. The stone in many places is truly cream-colored, pristine. All those centuries of grime removed.

The Abbey is a bit like a crazy auntie’s parlor, packed with objects that don’t quite fit into the space, all different styles and periods. After reading about WWI, the Armistice Day memorial to the unknown soldier, a rectangle with the usual words about king and country, surrounded by poppies, was a bit hard to take. There are lots of imperial warriors’ memorials, funded by their families, one presumes, or by the East India Company.

Then there are the sovereigns. Mary I and Elizabeth were there together, with a plaque saying, in essence, that in spite of their religious differences they both did what they did for the love of Jesus.

At poets’ corner I took two snaps of the T. S. Eliot stone before being admonished—I truly didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to. I noted a couple of odd things that I looked up later: Cromwell’s three-year burial in the Abbey, after which he was dug up and posthumously executed, and an American, George Peabody, who was given the honor of temporary internment before being sent home to Danvers, MA.

The most beautiful place, though, apart from the Abbey itself (what an astonishing sight, that long high vaulted ceiling), was the Chapter House, a round room with another high roof (they cared more about God than comfort) that had been neglected for centuries. Wall paintings made soon after the Abbey was built have been restored. Apparently they are of the apocalypse, but I couldn’t work out that detail. Lots of saints, obvious from the gold surrounding their heads. The best work is gone, but there remains, on one side, a group of people, their faces close together, rising from the dark plaster. Clouds of witness, I thought. Those early paintings and the building itself are full of feeling, unlike the Victorian memorials.

From there I went to the National Gallery. The Cezanne exhibit was wonderful because so varied, with lots of sketches and studies as well as the Provencal landscapes that I would have identified with him. It’s a grand idea to bring together an artist’s whole work. I like to spend just a little while in galleries (and in London they are free so this is feasible!) because they overwhelm me. Dark Spanish paintings by a famous artist whose name escapes me, and lots of Rubens which were, again, more varied than I’d realized. A painting about war and peace done for an English king when Rubens was helping to negotiate a treaty. Politics and art, another kind of two cultures.

Finally, a beautifully lit round room filled with paintings by Turner. I was undone. How tourists can just walk around looking at things day after day is a mystery; I can take only 20 minutes and then have to go away and walk for a while to recover.

3 thoughts on “Crowds and clouds in Westminster Abbey

  1. I was studying abroad in London during the fall of 2001, and so I was there on September 11. As Americans living abroad at that time, my flatmates and I had a difficult time processing what was happening at home. On September 12, 2001, our professor encouraged us to decide on a way to mark the day together. Having only been in London about three weeks at that point, we decided to go to Westminster Abbey- an obvious place, but one that turned out to be just what we needed on that day.

    I will always remember the sombre mood of that day, the way the light streamed in through the Abbey, and the way a building overflowing with history seemed to be calling out to us. We placed flowers at a memorial that read “Remember all innocent victims of oppression-violence-war.” I was struck by how a memorial could pay tribute to an event that hadn’t happened yet when it was conceived. You wrote of how the Abbey is packed with objects that don’t seem to fit– on that day, it felt like it was packed with history that we should all be paying attention to. The wars had been fought, victims had died, memorials had been built– and I wondered if we were on the brink of doing it all again. Westminster Abbey was an overwhelming place for reflection on September 12, 2001, but I wondered if our leaders should also have reflected in places so saturated in history, lessons, and spirituality. It was nice to be reminded of that space through the description of your visit.

  2. I appreciate this remembrance and completely understand the feeling you are talking about. I am not a Christian, or a believer in any other faith, but I find the atmosphere of old churches incredibly uplifting. Yet the more I know about history, the harder it is to reconcile the beauty and serenity of the place with the wicknessness of the battles and wars fought by the people celebrated there. Those buried are not innocents, as a rule, but powerful people who were often responsible for the deaths and suffering of innocent others.

  3. 16.30 is not the time for a concert at Westminster Abbey. It is in fact the time for admitting the public to Evensong. If the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is ‘a bit hard to take’ then I most humbly suggest that that you take yourself off to New York and tell the tourists there that the memorial there is ‘a bit hard to take’. As for Poets’ Corner and taking a photograph, well you should be ashamed of yourself because you are nothing but a fucking goddam American tourist and you should fuck right off out of our land. have you got that?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *