Comment: Letter from London

By May, Derwent | The Hudson Review, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Comment: Letter from London


May, Derwent, The Hudson Review


Dear H,

The Shard is finished. This splinter of glass, designed by Renzo Piano, 1,000 feet high, with 72 floors of apartments and offices, now stands above London, the tallest building in Europe. What people are feeling about it must be very like what people felt when the first cathedral spires soared above the litde houses of medieval England.

In sunshine, its many-angled glass exterior glitters like gold in every direction. On a rainy day, low grey clouds circle it above, emphasizing the threat that seems to lurk in its sharp-edged, menacing silhouette. But at the base it evokes none of these feelings. It is planted directly next door to London Bridge railway station, a rackety old station with cabs and commuters swirling about it. When I was looking up at it from the pavement there, a cabdriver asked me if I was lost. I said, "No, I'm trying to see what die Shard looks like from below." "Big and shiny," he said. There spoke age-old England.

The odier extraordinary new London building, designed by Norman Foster, the Gherkin in the heart of the City, has now settled down as a popular landmark. I have always hated this simple-minded glass dome. Towering so much higher, it is to my mind like a rude gesture to die wonderful dome nearby of St. Paul's Cathedral. But it too can seem different from below. As my son and I were passing it one day I told him my feelings. "Ah," he said, "but it looks very huggable."

Some smaller-scale additions to London are very fascinating. They are the work of Thomas Heatherwick, a brilliant sculptor-engineer who has just had an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and whose studio produced die cauldron of fire that was lit at the opening of the Olympic Games. It was a marvellous spectacle with its circle of flames bursting from petal-shaped jets and then shooting up like a ring of enormous candles.

But there are equally remarkable litde objects by him in London that you might almost pass by without noticing. One is a set of cooling ducts emerging out of die ground in Paternoster Square, just by St. Paul's, diat has been compared to a flight of angels' wings. Anodier is a "rolling bridge" on an old canal behind Paddington railway station. Barges go down die canal and office blocks tower above it, and there, over an inlet of die canal, is a litde bridge that seems, as you walk across it, to have nodiing special about it except for die curious zigzag steel railings on either side. But at the touch of a switch, it rolls up from one side of die inlet like a hedgehog and settles as a delightful octagonal sculpture on the other side. You can see it do this at noon every Friday.

One notable beneficiary of die public events of recent days has been the Queen. The first of diese events was of course her own Diamond Jubilee on die water. The way she stood on her gorgeous barge, visibly reigning over die vast flotilla diat was going down die Thames ahead of her and behind her, really impressed die nation. Soon after it started, it began raining (and die Shard clouded up), but she stood there dll die bitter end four hours later. The Duke of Edinburgh - now 91 years old to her 86 - was perhaps even more heroic, standing beside her the whole time - and taken to hospital afterwards for a few days.

But she trumped this success with an even greater one at the Olympics opening. She agreed for die first time in her reign to be an actress. She was filmed showing James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, collecting her from Buckingham Palace, with her corgis coming down the stairs behind her. During die Olympics opening ceremony this scene was shown on television (including giant screens in die stadium), followed by a sequence supposedly showing her jumping out of a helicopter and parachuting down to die stadium below. The television cameras then turned live on to the stadium, and there she was, just making her real-life entrance. After diat she declared die Games open with a single, dignified sentence. …

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