Monday, 12 January 2015

Hello Neverland: Goodbye Charlie

There was no other way for the morning to be but overcast. It had quickly evolved from not just a tragedy, a series of murders, a terror attack or even the ideas surrounding censorship, cartooning, or free speech. The event, gunmen had stormed the offices of a Parisian satirical newspaper and executed members of staff, had become the dirt into the hole some people needed to prove their theories correct.

The most burdened thing being, this was no longer just some crazy right-wingers calling for changes to immigration, or racist religious bigots trying to convicnce everyone that an Orwellian Christian state was the solution to the Orwellian Islamist state they swore was coming. Everyone seemed to be joining the debate, placing their soapboxes on top of a dozen corpses to make their ideas heard. Islam is a violent religion. Muslims should apologise. Maybe the cartoons shouldn't have happened.

Everyone's screaming, everyone's right on their little wooden box. Yet it sounds to me, like the very thing they are condemning is the thing coming out of their mouths. It is a frustrating mindset where argument is redundant, and there seems to be no escape from the headlines and the people sat around throwing out dangerous opinions like those words don't grow and fester.

I have the day off and I walk towards the centre of London. Everyone has come back to London after the Christmas holidays, while most tourists have gone home to live out their January blues. There's a change, where early morning are full of people running before work, or running to work. Where the hours between nine and ten give you elbows of crowds holding coffee cups, wearing trainers with their business suits and rushing with purpose in their glazed vision.

I'm walking just a little after ten, and London's  about the quietest you'll ever see it. You don't have to fight to get across the bridge on St. James' Park which offers one of the city's best tourist views. Buckingham Palace on one side and The London Eye flanked by Horseguards Parade on the other, framed in the relative tranquility of a royal park river scene.

Trafalgar Square greets me with more grey than usual. The area is usually covered in people, but tourists are smaller in volume and late to wake. The lions seem to yawn and Nelson is somehow more pensive than usual, he's had enough time to think about his actions leading to the way the world is today. It must be lonely, forever stone atop the heights.

My plan was to visit the British Museum. I am studying Wordsworth and he was inspired by one of the sculptures contained there to write his poem "Ozymandias". It is a bust of Ramesses II, from a time when world powers were very different in their geography. There is nothing more humbling than looking into the past, and perhaps nothing more depressing. Mighty empires fall, they are not untouchable, and the conflicts between ideologies are the basis of humanity. Perhaps the museum is not the best place to be today, and the National Gallery tempts me in.

The building is normally extremely crowded, and famous paintings are sometimes hard to get to. I am able to glide through rooms, think of myself in times when art was practically sacred or not at all. When subversion was punished by death and torture, and artists were sly in their rebellions.

I can stand by a painting of Cezanne's father, composed by the artist on the wall of a kitchen in France, now framed on the wall of The National Gallery. I can stand in the relative silence, the thickness of reverence that happens in galleries and libraries and anywhere that demands quiet. I imagine the tiles on the floor of the kitchen, the brushstrokes that grew and formed into image. A relatively innocent figure by comparisonm to Cezanne's later works, with The Bathers now taking up the wall opposite. Visitors smile and pose with the painting, mostly unaware that when this art movement came into being, the artists were seen as perverted and scandalous.

There's nobody around and I can take in a private moment with Van Gogh's Sunflowers, which I normally peer at behind the back of everyone else's head. The simplicity, the light and the silence, it's like seeing this oversaturated work of art for the very first time. I never particularly liked it, I found it too pedestrian to mean much of anything. I understand, in this private moment, that there's refuge in the yellows and oranges, in the plain composition of a vase of sunflowers amidst a world heavy with politics and conflict.

It's a fleeting luxury to be able to lean on the railings outside the entrance to The National Gallery. They are normally congested with tourists taking photos, and for the first time since I have been in London I can see why. It's a particular view, the back of Nelson's Column with a partial view of Big Ben in the background, teased by the entrance to Whitehall. I feel proud of the city I live in, I don't know what feeling this is, but I just feel connected. I look down  at the makeshift memorial to Charlie Hebdo on the Square, and can't help but feel outrage. I imagine what it would be like if London would be like, it would feel like a home invasion. It reminds me of what the writer Poppy Z Brite said when asked about leaving New Orleans after Katrina. "If you’re ever lucky enough to belong somewhere, if a place takes you in and you take it into yourself, you don't desert it just because it can kill you".

I walk through Trafalgar Square every morning on the way to work. There's a person who dresses in a long black tunic and hood and covers their face with a mask. All they do is sit on a taped-up black box all day, not even begging for money. The night before, there had been a gathering of hundreds of people, holding "Je Suis Charlie" placards and candles. A simple, peaceful vigil of solidarity and compassion. The leftovers are now in a circle on the floor. Signs, candles, a plastic figure of the Eiffel Tower, copies of Charlie Hebdo stuck to the floor. The hooded figure sits close to the memorial, with a black umbrella, shielded from the rain. They look fitting to be there, like they suddenly found a purpose, the shadow of death.

People carry on with their day, after a moment of reflection by the memorial. I don't know what thoughts go through their heads but I'd like to think there's more empathy than hatred. I still want to believe that most people are good, that they would like to lead a decent life and value the lives of others. The sun peeks out behind a cloud, the rain stops.

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