I’m seeing it for the first time, it is just as I saw it years ago in the opening scene of Lawrence of Arabia. Except, I can now see the stone the staircase is made of, black, with copper-coloured rivets planed smooth. They might be mock-fasteners, but they look very good, sleek like the tall black doors made of English oak.
The journey should begin at St. Paul’s, of course, and the next steps should cover the Square Mile. After that, my heart will guide my legs about the rest of London. “This should be a long relationship,” the heart has determined. “I need some time,” the mind pleads, “let me think this through.”
But they’re excited, each as much as the other.
I began the journey in the crypt, and stopped altogether before the Duke of Wellington’s sarcophagus. A halting start to an ambitious plan to know London. An omen, but I’ll not worry.
Arthur Wellesley was twenty-nine when he fought under General Baird’s command in the Fourth Mysore War against Tipu Sultan. On May 4, 1799, the English stormed the fort of Srirangapattana, having managed to breach it after some eight weeks of siege. Tipu fell that night, and they didn’t know they’d killed him. Seeing in the morning that they’d taken the capital but not the sovereign and they went searching for him and found him under a heap of carcasses. Wellesley was made Governor of Mysore; a child was installed on the throne. The very same Wellesley rode sixteen years later to Waterloo as the first Duke of Wellington. And now, here he lies, before me in this moment, raised a bit, in a stone casket which can pack ten men.
Tipu Sultan was forty-nine when the bullet got him. I’ve often called Tipu to mind when I’ve needed courage. His father Hyder Ali was tall, and Tipu was short, yet he was his father’s equal in war. Before this Cornish granite casket for the Duke of Wellesley, which is even bigger than the faux sarcophagus of Alexander the Great in Istanbul, Tipu diminishes to a dot in me. I linger a while longer and name my emotions; I let them be.
Why do graves of the great move one so? From St. Paul’s I went to Westminster Abbey following St. Paul’s Walk along the Victoria Embankment, pausing in the Park before young Byron in stone, and the bust of Sullivan with the plaintive lady embracing the plinth. A young black man was speaking to Sullivan from a bench a few meters away. I stopped also at the apartment above Gordon’s where Kipling lived and wrote The Light That Failed. It is Saturday and tourists have taken over the Westminster Bridge, and a thin stream of joggers negotiate the crowds. Seeing tourists posing before Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square I realise how useful are monuments. They bring in the tourists and, correctly deployed, they keep them out of the life of the locals.
In line for a ticket at Westminster Abbey, I pass the plaque for Sir Eyre Coote. After Tipu’s father Hyder Ali had won a decisive battle against Sir Hector Munro of the East India Company, Governor General Warren Hastings sent Coote after Hyder Ali. Coote checked Hyder Ali, but never decisively defeated him. The Company took Mysore only after Baird and Wellesley defeated Tipu Sultan.
Most visitors in the Abbey are Latinos and Italians today, and they listen rapt to the audio given them, deeply interested in the Henrys and the Edwards and the Georges. I listen too, but I am more interested in the grave of Mary, Queen of Scots, and I stand tiptoe to confirm the likeness of her mask to Vanessa Redgrave. At prompt number 14 on the numbered map I tire, and long for coffee outdoors though I know there’s no sun there and it could be raining.
But then I come to the Poets Corner, to names I know, and names I’ve known and forgotten, names of people I’ve read, and not read. Names I love for good reason, and names I love for no reason. I grin and I sense the grin looks foolish. I frown when someone rubs her boot on Thomas Stearns Eliot, though I realise she is loving the name like that.