Friday, March 15, 2013

A psychic map of London

2005, London bombings. i was at a course with a group of people mostly my age. The course facilitator, an Englishwoman, began the day by suggesting we remember, and honour in some way, the terrors of that day.

People said, we could have been there. We used to live just around the corner. We used to use that tube station, get on that bus. Our sister still lives in London and it could have been her. Our kids work in pubs near there. When we were doing our big overseas trips,  in London back in 1979 or 1989 we remember, we remember....

Most of us had ties to London. i have never been there, but i have in my head a psychic map of the place, the London of my imagination.

It has a long history, the London of my imagination. Even in the nineteenth century, Pakeha New Zealanders saw London as their rightful capital city and their own country as London's agricultural hinterland. It was the place to go to find our roots, and to be inspired by a heritage we felt we owned. Our frozen lamb went there. Our young people went there - to study, to fight two world wars, to party.

My grandfather, who lived all his life in the south of the South Island, called England Home. With the capital H. When my parents were children, New Zealand fed the troops fighting World War Two. There were privations. Everything good went to England. Kids ranged the hillsides looking for rosehips, to make syrup, to send to England. My mother smuggled bottles of cream from her aunt's farm back to Dunedin, in her schoolgirl luggage. My grandfather tried growing his own tobacco. None of it was begrudged - everyone knew that Londoners were surviving the blitz, and they saw it when they went to the 'pictures', the plucky Cockneys putting their milk bottles out amidst the rubble, Buckingham Palace bombed, St Paul's standing against all the odds.

My childhood literary life was almost all British and much of it featured London. Especially post war, all austerity measures and fireweed and old griefs. That's where i developed my own psychic map. It seemed like mine - i could tell you roughly where Hampstead Heath was based on reading A Dog So Small by Phillippa Pearce, and where the Otterbury Incident took place - except actually that wasn't in London, but it ought to have been.

At the time i didn't realise how my psychic map was a typified London, as it had been for Kiwis for a century.  It was London as experienced by Victorian era artists in search of real history and real civilization, of troops on furlough in 1917 being guided by YMCA staff around all the right places (and none of the wrong ones!), of the propaganda films and educational short travelogues shown in schools. It really was a psychic map, not a real one. i guess it will stay with me until i actually go there, and even then it will be my psychic guide to the past.

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