Our plan for the day was already logistically challenging…catch an early train from Cambridge to King’s Cross, London, drop our bags into secure storage there, head to The British Library to see the rare documents room, walk to The British Museum by way of Tavistock Square, return to King’s Cross by the same route, pick up our bags, catch a train to Gatwick, head to the hotel, wake up early for a flight back to the States. Whew!…And all of this while pushing a stroller with a daughter who just turned two in it!
Two weeks earlier, July 7, 2005, my wife Katie had been taking her students on a chartered bus from Cambridge to The British Museum when they were turned around by a sign on the exit ramp that said—“London Closed.” At the very moment she called to tell me about it, Eleanor and I, having walked through some drizzle to get there, were staring at the gigantic skeleton of an ancient stag in The University of Cambridge Archeology and Anthropology Museum, a old-school sort of spot with musty wooden drawers full of fossils. The skeleton was elevated on some kind of table, and I remember that I had just tilted the stroller backward in order for Eleanor to see it when my cell phone rang.
For our remaining time in Cambridge we, like everyone in England and beyond, were inundated with images of Tavistock Square where a bus had been blown apart so definitively that the thick windows of an adjacent building were pushed in, and the twisted red metal lay spun and tornado-twisted in the middle of the street. We heard about the other bombs, including the one that exploded at King’s Cross, and we watched the story evolve and narrow the way stories do when they last through news cycle after news cycle.
We weren’t brave or reckless by going through King’s Cross only two weeks to the day later—it was really our only choice. We had been in Cambridge about a month, and without a car, the train to King’s Cross was the only workable option, as it gave us access to the British Library and the British Museum, and it would allow us to take another train (with a connection along the way) out to Gatwick at the end of the day.
Making a return to The British Library and The British Museum (this time with our daughter) was a no-brainer since they are each easy walking distance from the station. Where else in the world can you have an experience in one room that guarantees that you will be in a room where you can walk from the Magna Carta, to the First Folio of Shakespeare, to a handwritten Jane Austen draft, to “Please, Please Me” written on a napkin? Nowhere but the British Library, my friends. Add on to that a quick walk over to The British Museum where you can see…well, everything it seems!
My favorite spot in the Museum is the gallery with the Marbles from the Parthenon, one of which played such a key role in one of my favorite poems, “Ode on A Grecian Urn.” I had no idea how relevant Keats’ poem would be until I reflected back on the day later.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
Keats’ poem, one of his Great Odes, is a truly rare accomplishment, and it represents a seminal achievement by the poet who wrote this and his other Odes of 1819 knowing that his own days were numbered–he died early in 1821 in his mid-twenties. Distilled to it most essential idea, Keats was busy identifying in these poems the things that time would not change against the backdrop of his own mortality. And in the final two lines through the Urn, which he calls “Attic Shape,” he makes his most bold and definitive statement:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
‘Beauty is Truth, and Truth Beauty,’–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
He was looking for what is eternal and somehow spotting it at the very moment when its discovery was most poignant and undeniably tragic. He matched this discovery with the full force of his poetic skill after figuratively stealing the lowing heifer and hiding her in plain view on the side of his imaginary Greek funerary urn.
This brings us back to 21 July 2005…I don’t remember the train ride down from Cambridge or where we placed our bags in locked storage. I do remember being in the rare documents room at The British Library. It is more than a repository for important documents—it contains much of the core of the shared western culture external hard drive. You should certainly go if you have not yet had that chance.
From there we walked toward the Museum on a route made infamous only fourteen days earlier. Like most tourists we were enough unsure of our path that we probably did not pay as much attention as we should have, but once we saw the flowers and notes on the church steps, we knew we were close to the spot where so many lost their lives in the bus explosion on Tavistock Square.
It was disconcerting trying to reconcile what we had seen on television with the actuality of the location. The perspective of the camera lens seemed so false to me after seeing the location for myself. As we paused on the sidewalk for a news crew setting up an interview with someone, we became more aware of the security blanketing the square. The events felt not only recent but also ongoing as we made our way through and re-focused on our journey to the Museum.
Once there, we spent our time in the Ancient installations—Assyrian tablets, the Rosetta Stone, and, of course, the Parthenon Marbles. Even though I knew that she wouldn’t remember it, I was excited to be there with Eleanor, and I was ecstatic to have Katie take our picture next to the “lowing heifer.” To an English teacher (at least this English teacher), this was a big deal.
My next memories are of the three of us headed back toward King’s Cross. The sun had come out, and we were focused on the very practical realities of trying to catch the right trains and get to Gatwick in time to get some rest in advance of our journey back to Asheville. My English teacher brain had cut off and my “get here in order to get there” map-reading brain had cut on.
There was not a sound that announced that something was going on. In fact, it was the absence of sound that stopped us—a giant city suddenly gone startlingly silent. All at once we noticed that the cars had all stopped and people were flooding out of every building speaking silently on cell phones. Far down the road toward the station we barely saw some more hurried motion. We had no idea what any of it meant.
We started to gather that more bombs were going off all over the city. We heard that at least five had gone off, and that this day might be worse than July 7. As we walked further along the route directly back to King’s Cross (we didn’t know what else to do!), a gentleman jogged up from that direction and told us that we might not want to go that way to the station as there seemed to be some commotion about a block down that direction. From there we dead-reckoned a different route and finally arrived at the station where we found out that all trains were stopped, and we joined a long queue inside the station for a cab.
After about an hour of making almost no progress and growing increasingly uncomfortable with being in a train station with a small child in such an uncertain situation, Katie went outside to scout out what was happening and found that the cabs were all being grabbed outside the station. By the time she returned, she had a plan and less than five minutes later, I was joisting Eleanor’s stroller—with her still in it!—into a cab. Amazingly her stroller fit right in, and Eleanor stayed right in it for the entire 100 plus pound (@ $200) ride to the hotel near Gatwick.
For the entire ride we listened to the news…five or six bombs had gone off, there were a number of casualties, there was fear of a chemical attack having taken place. While all of this later proved false…the bombs failed to fully detonate, and there was no chemical attack, we didn’t know any of that at the time.
When I reflect on that day, the memory no longer seems fresh. We have traveled a lot since then—to Cambridge again the following summer, to Italy, to Egypt, and Tunisia, and each subsequent trip seems to put another screen between us and our experience in London that day. I am left, however, with the poetry of having seen so many things that represent mankind’s best efforts to struggle with the finite and the infinite on a day when the world immediately around us seemed so fluid, so perishable. Like Keats, we were admiring things and ideas that have somehow transcended the bounds of time at the very moment we were harshly reminded of our vulnerability and mortality.
We may be stewards of objects—the Parthenon Marbles, and even “Please, Please Me”—but they will outlast us, and what’s more, the ideals the creators of those objects aspired to represent, will outlast the objects themselves. We only borrow them. Keats calls such objects, and in essence such ideals, “[foster children] of Silence and slow Time.” For me, 21 July 2005 was the moment that made that knowledge real beyond the intellectual recognition of its truth.