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Once Upon a Time in London

By Philippe BESSON Sofitel London St James

There’s a crowd in London this June afternoon. The streets are adorned with flags flapping in the breeze. Before the stately facade Buckingham Palace, proud red-clad guards are as unflappable as ever atop their fine mounts. Barriers have been erected to control the throngs of onlookers who have converged for what is expected to be a sumptuous parade. The monarchy’s full panoply of pomp has been deployed in honor of the day’s guest, the sovereign of an exotic, far-flung kingdom rich with the splendors of the Orient. Protocol is most dear to the queen. She knows that her country is best governed and her subjects ultimately won over by a scrupulous respect of secular law and an uncompromising adherence to pageantry and pomp. Her authority, otherwise, is unquestionable. The throne has been hers for so long. The truth is that in England it’s the women who have always been most resilient: Once they assume the reins of power, they don’t relinquish them. The men, on the other hand, preoccupied by their mistresses and quick to go to war, are prone to violent and premature deaths.

A curious, although slightly distracted, young man has made his way into the crowd. He is French, yet it was from Belgium that he arrived three weeks ago, from Antwerp, to be exact. There, he had embarked on a Great Eastern Railway steamer, and, after a breath-taking 15-hour crossing — he was not yet accustomed to the beauty of the sea and its endlessly elusive horizons — he arrived in Harwich. At that point, he boarded a train, which passed through languid countryside en route to the capital. This is not his first visit. He knows the city, a teeming and industrious metropolis in a frenetic race to modernity, the upper classes errified by the expansion of the working-class quarters. He had once lived in London for a few months. He had worked there. Now he has returned. He rents a small, furnished room in the northwest, near Camden Town, at 8 Great College Street. His landlady is named Mrs. Smith. Are English landladies ever called anything else? He feels good there, it’s a street with old-fashioned charm, lined with row houses and impeccable gardens. He should hate its provincial flavor, given his love for the commotion of cities. Yet it’s the opposite: He is able to write there, the cries of children at play and merchants hawking their goods filling the air.

Today he was drawn to the parade by the festive atmosphere. And the throng had sparked his interest: He loves the common people and the crush of the crowd. At first he doesn’t notice a blue-eyed youth with reddish hair who has drifted into the crowd not far from him. In this month of June 1873, his attention is focused on the imminent arrival of the cortege bearing Queen Victoria and her guest, the Shah of Persia. It’s also the month of June. Nearly a century and a half later. Elizabeth’s birthday is being celebrated today, although she was born in April. But since 1748, the birthday of an English monarch has always been celebrated on a Saturday in June. For no other reason than because there is a greater chance that at this time of year the saluting of the colors will not take place in torrential rain or thick fog. The monarchy bows only to the laws of nature. Indeed, the queen’s guard is now approaching in glorious sunshine. They march in perfect step and the band plays the anthem with appropriate solemnity. The queen will soon review the troops. I love such unwavering rituals. I love the idea of their permanence amid upheavals and convulsions of the ever-changing world. I love the grotesque grandiloquence of it all, as humanity doggedly pursues its road to ruin. I notice a young man among the onlookers, a few meters from me.

So he is a redhead, with milky skin. He is 20 years old. He comes from Holland. He is the son of a pastor, claims to have had a “cold, somber and sterile childhood,” and has been living in The Hague for nearly four years. There, he feels alive, frequenting artists and drawing. And, most importantly, he works for an art dealer. Which is why he is in now London, having been transferred to the local branch of the art dealer Goupil, his employer. It’s a promotion for him, and he now earns more than his father did at his age. It’s also an opportunity to perfect the English that he learned at school.
He had arrived only five days before. Europe’s young bohemians have all been flocking to London, fed up with life on the Continent and dreaming of a new world that seems to be dawning here. The young Dutchman has been staying in a furnished room, but he will soon move out in favor of a boarding house that will provide both room and board. Since his arrival, the city has been captivated by the Persian monarch’s visit. So, his drawing materials in hand, he had made his way to the parade, guided first by seeking directions and then by following the clamor of the crowd. He does not feel completely out of place in London, however, for The Hague is similarly agitated. The two cities are ports, and their feel is familiar to him. But he notices that the scale is different. Everything is bigger in London, more vibrant. The city’s dimensions and flow excite him. Turning his head, he notices a strange fellow wearing an odd sort of limp top hat that is a bit crushed and tattered. It’s difficult to say his age. He looks like an adolescent who has grown up too fast, as if he were trying to look older than he is. He immediately thinks:
“This fellow is certainly not English.” He finds this amusing, and also reassuring, for it means that he’s not the only foreigner in the crowd. He decides to move closer to him. At that moment, the cortege can be heard in the distance. Horses nay amid the halting cadence of their hoofs on the pavement, the sun glints in the gleaming helmets, even the flags seem to snap
more vigorously in the warm wind that has suddenly gained force. The young Dutchman asks, “You’re not English, are you?”, to which the other, turning toward him, replies in French, “It’s really that obvious?” The Dutchman smiles, pleased to learn that he was not mistaken and also delighted to hear French, which he also speaks. With an unidentifiable accent, he introduces himself:

“My name is Vincent.” The other youth tips his head and says simply, “Arthur.” So it goes. Two young men, 20 years old, two voluntary exiles, have just met in London, city of infinite possibilities, as summer begins to unfold and the monarchy unfurls its grand display. The story can begin. They know what we don’t know: They know that they are alike, that they are both passionate, tormented, unaccomplished. They know it because they have recognized each another. For the moment, however, they are still nothing. Almost no one has read the poems of Arthur Rimbaud. And Vincent Van Gogh has not yet begun to paint The calm has returned and I’m writing. In my luxurious hotel room, at a walnut desk with a vase of red roses, I’m writing. I’m writing of the fortuitous encounter in the British capital between the greatest French poet and the greatest Dutch painter. They were born one year apart, they will die one year apart, each at the age of 37. I have always been struck by that coincidence. I know that they had the same lifespan by chance, and that by chance they were united chronologically in the grand sweep of history, but I nonetheless like to think that chance is sometimes akin to destiny.

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