In the very first post on this Blog (this is about the 35th) you described boarding the RV1 “tourist bus’ and advising tourists about their routes. When this happens you really feel part of this incredible city, even though it has chewed you over and spat you out on several occasions, and even though it has you working day and night, doing literally back-breaking toil, almost entirely and purely for the privilege of simply continuing to live within it.
You’ve learned its byways and back-roads, created your own psycho-geographic network of cultural memories here, walked all over it, across it, in and out of it, by day and by night. Now, as a mature, married man you find yourself for the first time entertaining 1-2 visiting relatives (a young niece, followed by a young nephew, both from the other side of the world.) So, not only does your summer job take you to all the major museums, galleries and collections in London but you find yourself adding to your busy weekly itinerary large numbers of other destinations that might interest your relatives but which you usually don’t get around to seeing and doing for yourself.
So, this week you found yourself visiting the Imperial War Museum, not far from where you live in South London. It’s a wonder of this world and this society that as soon as a country sees itself as settled, emerging, or ‘leading’, it spends millions of pounds on its museums, organising and parading its story, and other stories, in more or less coherent narratives. You saw this when you visited the new South Africa, as well as in South Korea, but its clear, here in London too.
In a relatively limited space, highly skilled technicians and creative curators have conspired to tell the story of various wars, but the main exhibits are; a variety of WW2 paraphernalia (including the intimidating V2 rockets that Germany fired repeatedly on London in the last year of the war), a carefully structured journey through WW1; and ‘The Holocaust.’
Everything here tends to leave you with a strange mix of emotions, included amazement, disgust, fascination and a form of philosophical anxiety that seems in some way ‘healthy’, i.e. as if you should (we all should) really visit this place once a month or once a week to constantly keep much closer to mind just how appalling the human race can be and how revolting the outcomes of all its modern skill, wealth, education and ingenuity can be.
As well as – it has to be said – wonderfully rendered- models and exhibits, that awaken and aid the understanding of a broad visiting public concerning events that, to our day-to-day, media-saturated, consumerist minds seem remote and inexplicable, you are also confronted with video testimonies of those living (or recently departed) human links between then and now, there and then, the faces and voices of those who did really live through the unthinkable and the unspeakable.
Nevertheless, their words fall from their mouths in gems of irrefutable truth, as if proximity to philosophical impossibilities has rendered each and every one of these modest people poets; creatures who have themselves become living textual evidence, walking, talking scrolls who know that their words are all they have, all they had then, all they have ever had, that their words are the only frail and limited means with which to counter the most obscene, most monstrously forceful, highly organized and intentional brutality the world has ever known.
Feeling harrowed, as if your hair had suddenly been turned the same very pale grey to coat an enormous topographic model of Auschwitz (as if ashes from its chimney had imprisoned the area in a coat of deathly snow) you leave the museum and find some momentary, partially compensatory solace in a ‘Peace Garden’ in the grounds of the museum, there reading a dedication written by the Dalai Lama (again, words may be all that we have …) and easing your bruised sight on the forms of flowers, plants and well-meaning works of public art.
The next evening you take your nephew to a Prom concert at the Royal Albert Hall (a way of accessing world-class art for a mere £5) There you witness another side of humanity indeed. Thousands of people pack the beautifully constructed building, made philanthropically for the delectation of most refined sonic expressions. The huge and complex crowd here remains respectfully silent for long periods, blissfully, sensitively attentive to the meticulous interpretations of a an equally complex score made by a hundred or more of the world’s best trained and most committed musicians, every one of whom has been educated and seasoned to reach the apex of their profession and perform on this world-class stage.
Despite all their great individual accomplishment, not one of them appears in any way salient, each of their egos and personalities is reconciled and subjugated to an aspiration to work together, for the common good of doing justice to the highest standards of art; to pleasing the audience and satisfying the conductor; to respecting the composer and, perhaps most of all, to doing justice to the piece of music they are performing and doing justice to the mysterious, glorious, moving and magical power of music itself, that great salve to, and redeemer – in part at least- of the human condition.