I studied abroad at Oxford for one term when I was in college (uni, ahem). While I was there, I got to know London fairly well. Not local-well, but enough to have favorite cheap Chinese restaurants, hostels, and museums (which are all free, thank goodness; that city is so expensive). I loved wandering the well-paved streets and organized gardens, with cardinal red and navy blue accents, the hodge-podge mix of the city balanced by its sense of propriety and history. London! You are so resonant in all of my Anglophile taste. This may have been my hardest Cultural Itinerary yet…
- Zadie Smith, White Teeth. It’s hard for me to write about Zadie Smith without gushing, but I can say with a clear head that one of the things I like most about this book (as well as all her writing) is how she tells a very modern story that is as steeped as a tannic tea bag in the British literary tradition. The story of Archie and Samad and their families, immigrants and British locals, journeys through a magical realism version of London. A knockout.
- The Night Watch, Sarah Waters (2006). London was hit hard by the Blitz in World War II. Sarah Water’s novel describes people trying to pick up the pieces of their lives after war, amidst secrets and ruins. It’s a haunting tale of discovery and renewal, and London is both the cage and the release for its inhabitants.
- Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925). “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Virginia Woolf’s book captured the stylistic reaches in English literature of the time. As Mrs. Dalloway plans her party, and Septimus Smith sits in the park, their everyday London activities are contradicted by their whirling interior monologues.
- A Hard Day’s Night, Richard Lester (1964). Simply put: if you are sad, this will make you happy. Watching the 4 young Beatles scamper about mod-era London, getting into scrapes, meeting fans and playing songs is pretty much the best pick-me-up (until you think about how they will be broken up in less than 5 years but nevermind). It’s a pop-era view of the city at its swinging-est.
- Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mike Newell (1994). As the title suggests, a group of London friends attend 4 weddings and 1 funeral. The characters seem even more quintessentially 90s-yuppie British (embodied by Hugh Grant with his hair at its tousliest) when contrasted with the broad American (Andie MacDowell). This London seems safe, warm, slightly posh, both full of life and promise. But beware – your heart will fully break with the “Stop all the Clocks” speech.
- Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón (2006). This is possibly one of the scariest movies I have ever scene because it is the most realistic. London as you know it today is here, complete with the addition of scary border checkpoints and barbed wire. In this dystopian world without children, the pomp and splendor of 19th century London clashes with the gray and imposing police state. One of the best scenes is when Theo (Clive Owen) goes to visit his brother-in-law, a collector of art that is safe and sterile with him as museums have been rendered obsolete.
- The Kinks, “Something Else” (1967). Of all the British Invasion bands, the Kinks carried the most of their motherland’s sensibility with them. “Waterloo Sunset” is a perfect song for meandering the streets and getting somewhat lost.
- Oasis, “What’s the Story (Morning Glory)?” (1995). Want to know the English equivalent of “Don’t Stop Believing”? The song that drunk people will happily on their merry way home? “Wonderwall.” Most of the songs off Oasis’ second album rely heavily on embedded Beatles nostalgia, but that doesn’t make “She’s Electric” any worse.
- The Clash, “London Calling” (1979). London was not just the seat of Parliament and the birth of literary scenes. It was the home of some very angry young men, who didn’t see any opportunities in their homes. “London Calling” is the smartest of all punk albums and expresses the anger of the time as well as the musical hodgepodge (reggae, punk, ska, rockabilly) brewing in the late 1970s.