I landed in London at 6 in the morning. People are really friendly. Everything moves slowly, and there seems so much space and time between objects.
Almost nobody employed in London, apart from the guys with the green fluorescent waistcoats who are digging up the roads, is of English origin. Not that it matters – in fact it’s probably a good thing, it has always been one of the fascinations of London that you can walk 100 metres down the street and hear 10 different languages spoken. And the English “sense of humour” is still so parochial and nasty – advertisements on the tube based not on making gentle fun of certain social groups, but actively sneering at them. Fulham girls, for example, with their social aspirations (to Chelsea, I assume). I probably used to think that was funny, but it’s a turnoff now.
I went to Eve’s cafe in Great Russell Street. I used to go there in the 80s, for their prawn and crabstick sandwiches, and their egg mayonnaise. The same guys – of Italian origin – still run it, even though they have been greying and losing hair at an even faster rate than me. That was heartening. They didn’t have any prawn and crabstick or egg mayonnaise, so I had an omelette and chips instead. It wasn’t very good, but the staff were friendly, and it was nice to celebrate being back in England by slathering my chips in brown sauce.
Outside, it was impossible to get comfortable. I’d put my jacket on, and the sun would come out, so I’d have to take it off again. Then it would start raining, so I’d have to pull my brolly out, but by the time I’d got cold enough to put my jacket back on, the rain would have stopped. And so it went on.
I went to the British Museum, which is a funny name for it, because not much that is in there is British at all. Of course the most well-publicized example of this is the Elgin Marbles (no longer called the Elgin Marbles, for understandable reasons, since the label screams “English imperialist toff nicks priceless cultural treasures from impoverished Balkan nation”). The commentary on the wall doesn’t allude to this point of view at all, but tetchily makes the point that they would have been destroyed if they hadn’t been removed to London, and that in any case they are world heritage and deserve to be in a “world museum” such as the British is. Greeks can’t match that, obviously, though they are welcome to the few they still have. That’s what you call balance. Having said that, no doubt if the Greek government was still in possession of all its marbles in 2012, it would probably have to sell them as part of its austerity drive, and they’d end up right back in London anyway. Or more likely in Germany…
but wherever they are, they are still unbelievable pieces of sculpture: the Greek representational miracle of the fifth century BC. When you first see them they might appear comically absurd – torsos floating in air – but look more closely and the line and flow in the carving, the way the stone is brought to life, is quite amazing:
this horse from a century later, at Halicarnassus:
Those were the highlights of the Greek collection. For the Romans, if you’ve seen once the standard issue statues of Caesar Augustus and the five good emperors that were identikitted all over the empire, you’ve pretty much seen them all; but this head of Caesar Augustus was a bit different, and I enjoyed the story behind it:
He looks unusually sad and worried, as though there’s a danger someone might cut off his head and steal it. In fact that’s exactly what happened: a Sudanese raiding party took it home from upper Egypt and buried it in the entrance to their temple so that everyone would walk on it, a gesture of supreme contempt. And that’s where the British archaeologists found it nearly two millennia later, and how it came to be in London.