What Makes London Special: History, Beauty or Community?

London is a magical city where I once lived and now regularly visit. This great city has become more magical with time because of our growing community of donors, readers, editors, authors and supporters.

November 29, 2023 10:11 EDT
Dear FO° Reader,

Not a very long time ago, I used to live and work in the City of London. The City, as Londoners tend to call this part of town, is the historic financial district, home to both the Stock Exchange and the Bank of England. There, I witnessed both the frothiness of the financial bubble and the meltdown of 2007–08.

In 2008, I came to the US and did not visit London for a few years. Of late, I have been going back. London feels more like home than Washington, DC, or New York. As I write this piece on the vibrant 126th Street in New York, I ask myself why.

History is in the air

Like many people, I am torn between contradictory impulses. When I was younger, I wanted to party till late at night and then go for a run early in the morning. To steal a line from a 2022 movie, I wanted to experience everything, everywhere, all at once. As I get older, life has knocked some sense into me. Yet, when it comes to life, my eyes are still bigger than my plate.

When I came to the US for the first time, in the summer of 2004, the land of the free and the home of the brave proved heady. The wide open roads, the gargantuan national parks and the upbeat nature of Americans proved seductive. More things seemed possible in this young nation than the old City where history is in the air and the ghost of Dick Whittington still stalks the streets.

Over the last few years, though, I have been returning to London, and the very history that I left behind soothes my soul. One pleasant evening, I walked past the Banqueting House in Whitehall, where Charles I was beheaded in 1649. Strangely, I felt optimistic as I walked past. England and the UK have seen bitter division and even civil wars before. Yet they evolved into a decent parliamentary democracy over time. This age of fear, anger, hate and terror will pass too.

Credit: tkemot / shutterstock.com

When I was in London, history was more in the air than usual. Animated discussions on Palestine and Israel were commonplace. London being London, demonstrations, processions and poster wars animated the city. For all the sound and fury, I found conversations with my friends in London on various topics far more nuanced than in Washington, DC, or New York. London has a sense of history that the New World far too often lacks.

“History repeats itself” is a cliché. “History may not repeat itself but it does rhyme” is another cliché. History may not give us a map of the future, but it helps us understand the present and paints a set of possibilities for the future. With roots in Varanasi, the historic Indian city that Mark Twain called “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend,” I am biased. I came to the US because of that whiff of new, exciting and fresh possibilities. Yet the longer I stay here, the more I realize that we can never escape history and are best served to understand times past.

For that reason, Fair Observer is producing timelines, providing context and doubling down on history. Whether it is World War II or Kashmir, we aim to be the place where the old and the young come to make sense of history and how history lives on.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever

One of the things that struck me during this visit to London is the extraordinary beauty of the city. True, there are ugly parts as well, but London is a magically, mysteriously beautiful city. Even though it was wet, gray and rainy, I was blown away by the changing color of the leaves, the glorious architecture of historic buildings, the Christmas lights of Regent Street and beautiful women gliding on the ice rink at Somerset House.

I was far too busy to visit the British Museum and the British Library, two of my favorite places on the planet. Yet I walked everywhere, soaking in the beauty of London with my eyes. I spent half an hour speaking to a policeman on duty by Buckingham Palace as soldiers in fancy uniforms marched and rode on stately horses to welcome Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. Green Park, St. James’s Park, Buck House, nattily dressed chatty bobbies, ponds, geese, swans and the skyline are still enchanting.

Credit: ExFlow / shutterstock.com

Trafalgar Square, with Horatio Nelson watching on from his majestic column, never gets old. In this city of stunning sights, I wandered from one club and coffee shop to another. I saw plaques on homes where poets, painters, musicians and greats of the past lived. I wandered past graveyards, into Westminster and by the Thames, and could not help but agree with John Keats, who once said, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”

Community: maybe the Buddha had a point

As I mentioned earlier, my roots lie in Varanasi. Close to the city is Sarnath, where the Buddha shared his message with five disciples. At a time when mindfulness has become a buzzword, many forget that the Buddha did not just talk about attaining higher consciousness and acting righteously, justly and wisely. The runaway prince emphasized the importance of community.

Our chair, Claire Whitaker, lives in Hampstead and dutifully does British Military Fitness (BMF) with her husband. Running around in the mud in pouring rain is something that only mad dogs and the English would do. What enables them to do so is community. The BMF folks are truly an uplifting, even inspiring, group. Just like scholars in college or musicians practicing for a concert, the BMF gang in Hampstead is bound together by a wondrous web of collective experience. Nothing great was ever achieved by anyone alone. Even the great Novak Djokovic, who plays an individual sport, has a strong community of support around him.

I am pleased to observe that we have built a strong community over time in London. Donors, readers, editors, authors and former volunteers showed up for our FO° Meetup. They came to our event at the Nehru Centre and dinner afterwards. In conversations over coffee, food and wine, many good souls came up with insights, ideas and suggestions. In this city of history and beauty, we have a growing community and we are indeed greater than the sum of our parts.

In New York, “the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward” buildings. In a few hours, retired CIA officer Glenn Carle and I have to perform in our dog and pony show: our FO° Exclusive. Later, we are hosting our FO° Meetup in the decidedly unglamorous basement of Starbucks Reserve in the majestic Empire State Building. I hope to see some of you in either or both events.

Before I go, I want to thank everyone who donated yesterday on Giving Tuesday and got their companies to match their donations. 

Note that our target is to reach 1,001 recurring donors. So, please sign up to support free, fair, fearless and independent crowdsourced journalism today. Even $1 per year matters.

A thousand thanks!

Atul Singh
Founder, CEO & Editor-in-Chief
We are an independent nonprofit organization. We do not have a paywall or ads. We believe news must be free for everyone from Detroit to Dakar. Yet servers, images, newsletters, web developers and editors cost money. So, please become a recurring donor to keep Fair Observer free, fair and independent.

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