London Without its Landmarks

A mournful silence in the Stage City

Lex McKee (Flickr/lex-photographic)
Lex McKee (Flickr/lex-photographic)

Jan Morris, the Welsh historian and travel writer who died last month at 94, once opened an essay about London with a description of the flight path by which her plane arrived in the city. The essay, titled “The Stage-City,” originally published in 1978 in Rolling Stone, appeared later in Destinations, a collection of her travel essays. After passing over “a drab sprawling mass of housing estates, terraces and industrial plants,” Morris comes to the River Thames, and familiar landmarks begin to appear: “The Tower of London squats brownish at the water’s edge. Buckingham Palace reclines in its great green garden. The Houses of Parliament, of all famous buildings the most toylike and intricate, stand like an instructional model beside Westminster Bridge.”

If Morris were an ordinary writer, I might have said that starting a travel essay in this manner, with an enumeration of the destination’s most familiar landmarks, would be a tired and obvious gambit. But Morris wasn’t an ordinary writer—who else could have described the Tower of London as squatting brownish?—and, more important, the familiarity of these landmarks was precisely the point. These places are, as Morris says, “part of the whole world’s consciousness […] reflecting the experience of half mankind.”

Not long ago, I made my own descent into London. I was moving away from the East Coast for the first time, having graduated from college months earlier in a stumbling, well-intentioned Zoom ceremony. Now I was flying to England to start graduate school. I didn’t know when I would return. As our plane tilted leftward and we began to wing down toward the city, I raised my window shade, allowing a slant of afternoon light to come streaming into the cabin. I wanted to know if our plane would follow the same path as Morris’s, over all the landmarks I knew by heart. But the world outside the window was shrouded in a dense fog; I could scarcely see the wing of the plane. Imagining myself somehow cheated—why should Morris get a glorious arrival, and not I?—I lowered the shade and closed my eyes until we touched down, feeling that I might have been arriving in any city in the world, as if this were not a new place but a non-place, a gray and numbing repetition of everywhere else.

I started reading Destinations in April, as I finished my senior year from my parents’ house in Maine. I felt cooped up, stunted, and I hoped that the essays might bring me some vicarious sense of escape. I’d been struggling with depression for a few months. For me, depression often seems to drown everything in uniformity, as if every place and every day were the same as the last; when life first went into lockdown, it was suddenly as if the outside world matched my interior one. Of course, this wasn’t actually true. I had much to be thankful for: my family was healthy and secure, unlike so many others in the pandemic. Nor, speaking objectively, could that time be described as uneventful, between the daily devastation being wrought by the virus, and the injustices of a brutal and racist policing system. But for me, in those early, dazed weeks of April lockdown, the days truly felt indistinguishable. Photographs from cities around the world showed the same empty streets that I saw out my window. Interactions took on a generic quality. What else was there to talk about but the virus? And what could anyone possibly say about it that we hadn’t heard already? Perhaps worst, in the midst of so much to be mourned and fretted over, I found myself unable to feel much of anything at all.

Morris’s essays became my consolation in the crushing sameness of those days. I read and reread them. Like all good travel writing, hers is a celebration of difference, a masterly display of differentiation—viewed through Morris’s eyes, no place or time is like any other. Her essays take on far-flung places at distinct moments: Panama in the midst of discussions over the U.S. treaty in 1975; Delhi under the rule of Indira Gandhi; Cairo during the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations. Though Morris always seems to visit a place at a dramatic moment in its history, her writing is hardly journalistic. She’s there to capture a particular atmosphere, a feeling in the air, an energy in the eyes of the people on the street.

Morris judges the places she visits with an almost self-parodying degree of authority, as if only she could sum up the true spirit of a city or country with a few brash, broad strokes. The resulting assessments are never predictable, and are always entertaining. Consider her view of Los Angeles in 1976, not as a haven for smug sophisticates or vapid elites, but as “a city of hard workers.” It reminds her of “the guild spirit of some medieval town, where the workers in iron or lace, the clockmakers and the armorers, competed to give their city the glory of their trades.” She is often at her best when casting a critical eye, as she does when arriving in Istanbul:

For Istanbul does possess, as you can feel from the deck of your ship, the arrogance of the very old: like the rudeness of an aged actor whose prime was long ago, whose powers have failed him but who struts about still in cloak and carnationed buttonhole, snubbing his superiors. … It is only when you get closer that you realize the illusion of it, just as you observe, if he leans too close to you on the sofa, the creases of despair around the actor’s mouth.

I read these words and felt, for a brief moment, filled with hope about the possibilities of different places, of life going on and on around the world. I began to think that if I could get away from where I was, I might shake off the November of the soul that had come over me.

I exited Heathrow into a drizzling London afternoon and was promptly almost hit by a bus. I’d forgotten that when crossing the street in England, I’d need to look right rather than left. I briefly toyed with a fantasy of acting like a true tourist, taking a taxi directly to Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London and seeing what I could of them from the outside. I was brought back to reality by an enormous banner hanging over the airport sidewalk. It read: ALL TRAVELLERS FROM THE UNITED STATES REQUIRED TO SELF-ISOLATE FOR 14 DAYS.

A friend of mine was letting me stay in his London apartment for my isolation period, after which I’d be allowed to move into university housing in Cambridge, about an hour’s train ride from the city. He was out of town, but he’d left his pantry and fridge stocked with food so I wouldn’t need to go to a grocery store. The apartment was a single tiny room on the fourth floor of a brick building in Hoxton. The windows looked out onto an empty parking lot. I didn’t leave for two weeks.

I cooked lavish meals for myself and tried to eat them slowly; I tuned in to an online yoga class, twice; mostly I slept. I often thought about Morris’s version of London. She called it “The Stage-City” not because of its theaters, but because she felt it was engaged in a constant performance of its own spirit. In her eyes, London itself was a stage:

The histrionic art is the London art par excellence—the ability to dazzle, mimic, deceive or stir. Look now, as you step from the restaurant after dinner, across the blackness of St. James toward Westminster. There is the floodlit Abbey, that recondite temple of Englishness; and there is the cluster of the Whitehall pinnacles […] and riding above it all, high over the clockface of Big Ben in the Palace of Westminster, high in the night sky, a still small light, all alone, burns steadily above the city. It is the light that announces the House of Commons, the mother of all parliaments, to be in session below. There’s theater for you! There’s showmanship!

I had no illusions, of course, that the reality of the place would ever be as stirring or romantic as Morris made it out to be. But it didn’t matter. Alone in that apartment, I felt as if I had missed the closing of the theater doors, and was trapped in an empty lobby, straining to hear a snatch of the performance. On days when it wasn’t raining, I opened the window in the hopes of hearing other people’s voices, a morsel of London conversation. But the only sound was that of the cars driving by, hidden from view.

Finally, my quarantine came to an end. My classes were starting the following day, so I was leaving London without having had the chance to see it at all. I woke early and called a car to take me and my embarrassing amount of luggage to the train station, then came out from the apartment blinking in the glare of a bright October morning. When the car came, I asked the driver if he had any recommendations for things to do in London, already planning for when I would make the trip back down to see it properly.

“All the things you’re supposed to see are overrated,” he told me. “Don’t do those. Just wander and see it that way. You’ll enjoy that.” I nodded, disappointed.

When we’d been on the road for a few minutes, the driver pulled over. He was, he informed me apologetically, diabetic. He needed to stop and buy a snack. Once I’d assured him that this was okay, he rolled the windows down and disappeared into a grocery store. I sat watching the people hurrying by on the busy sidewalk, most of them masked, their eyes blank. It occurred to me that people-watching isn’t nearly as riveting when you can’t see people’s faces; not even Morris, I thought, would be able to find the words to salvage this scene from such bleak uniformity. Beyond the sidewalk, through an iron-grilled fence, I could see children running around in a playground attached to a church.

After a few minutes, I became aware of a change in the frantic energies of the playground. The children had hushed and withdrawn to the laps of their parents on the park benches. All seemed to be waiting. Through the gaps in the fence I saw a woman pointing something out to her child, though what it was exactly was obscured from view. I got out of the car and walked over.

A line of small boys, clad in black robes and top hats, was emerging from the church into the playground. Each wore a dark silk mask and clutched a binder at his side. They carried such a solemn air about them that at first I thought they were a group of very small adults. There were around 20 of them, the youngest only eight or nine, the oldest probably 14. They arranged themselves neatly into a two-ringed circle, six feet apart. Then they removed their masks, and it became clear to me—as I’m sure it was already to everyone else—that they were going to sing.

I prepared myself to hear a hymn, something stern and Anglican, possibly in Latin. I was wrong. The song began with a solo from a young soprano, a red-faced boy, singing a piercing and desolate and seemingly wordless melody. After a few measures, more voices joined in, and then the rest, the melodies folding back on themselves and repeating. It didn’t sound like church music. It was modern, atonal, with an aching dissonance that never resolved itself. The language sounded vaguely Swedish. At the center of the group stood a conductor who seemed hardly older than I. He spun in a slow circle, giving attention to each section of the singers. They sang quietly, and not perfectly, but with such forceful and earnest sadness that I wondered what it was these boys might be mourning, and then, at a loss for any answer, found myself mourning along with them. I didn’t feel hope—I felt grief. But it was a shared grief.

The song ended as abruptly as it had started, and the onlookers clapped quietly while the choir filed back into the church. The driver was leaning against the fence beside me, wearing an expression of wonder and sadness.

“Don’t see that every day, do you?” he said quietly, passing me a sleeve of cookies.

“You’re right,” I said. “I don’t.”

For more tributes to Jan Morris, see “Kindness, Always Kindness” by Bruce Falconer and “Experience Everything” by Simon Winchester.

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Charlie Lee is an assistant editor of Harper’s Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.


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