Postcard 26 from Robina: London, Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Jun 6, 2012

Sydney to London was a direct flight, pretty much: we had a stopover for a couple of hours in Singapore and then back on the same plane, arriving in London at 6:30 in the morning of Monday May 28, about 26 hours after leaving Sydney. I took the underground train from the airport – the Tube, they call it in London – to Leicester Square, about 20 stops and 45 minutes on the Piccadilly Line, then changed to the Northern Line for the last few stations till Kennington, just across Westminster Bridge, southeast of the West End. Jamyang, Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s center in London, is a five-minute walk from there.

Looking out from Lambeth, the district in South London where Jamyang is, to Westminster on the north bank of the River Thames. You can see the Westminster Bridge with Houses of Parliament and Big Ben just behind. Photo

I don’t get jetlag these days – but I do get tired. Before I left Melbourne I’d bought myself a ticket to the only concert in London that Esperanza Spalding was to give, that evening – in fact, I timed my arrival in London to ensure I’d get to see her. But by the time the evening came I was too tired, so went to bed instead. So who’s this Esperanza Spalding? She’s a dakini, that’s who! Well, so it seems to me. She’s a jazz musician who plays every imaginable kind of music, and sings and writes, who’s played the double bass since she was a teenager. She seems to have exploded onto the music scene, beating Justin Bieber at the Grammys for Best New Artist last year – which, apparently, prompted some of his fans to send her death threats, so distressed were they by this affront!

Jazz dakini Esperanza Spalding. Photo

One of her recent songs is a poem of William Blake’s.

Little fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

Here’s the video of her singing it.

I had a couple of days free before my scheduled weekend job at Jamyang so went to Belfast the next day and stayed with a dear friend Lynn, who runs a center there for Panchen Rinpoche. Rinpoche, who was one of the five candidates for the Panchen Lama (the previous one), has lived in Ireland for many years, with a center in County Cavan as well, in the south.

Panchen Rinpoche, who in 1946, when he was seven, was one of the five candidates for the previous Panchen Lama. Photo Jampa Ling.

The Troubles – what the Irish refer to as the years of struggles between the pro-British and pro-Irish that erupted as a result of the death of 13 at the hands of the British army in Londonderry in 1972 – seem to have calmed down these days. (Of course, there have been troubles in Ireland for centuries.) I remember that event well. I was in London at the time and, being involved in radical left politics, I joined a demonstration in protest against what had become known as Bloody Sunday. We were going along Whitehall and all of a sudden there was shouting, fighting, punching, people running, rubbish bins flying through the air, police horses rearing up. I remember it as eerily silent and slow, although it has to have been exactly the opposite. A policeman told me to move and, being stubborn, I didn’t. Too bad for me. The next thing I know is I’m being dragged kicking and screaming along Fleet Street, a policeman on each limb, then chucked into a police bus. All I remember is much self-pity and crying, and a desperate craving for a cigarette, which I was denied. (I smoked at least 60 Marlboros a day back then.) Nothing came of it, luckily.

February 3, 1972: Mourners in Londonderry walk to Creggan Cemetery to bury the dead (above); photo Belfast Telegraph. Demonstrators carry mock coffins along Whitehall in London; photo Getty Images.

Interestingly, the building that Jamyang in London moved into years ago is a Victorian courthouse that specialized in trials of the IRA during that very period. There are miniature cells at the back on the ground floor, which people stay in these days, which are no bigger than the length of a bed and a bit wider. Still visible on the wooden doors is the carved graffiti of the Irish prisoners – F–k the English!

The historic Victorian courthouse in Lambeth, which houses Rinpoche’s London center, was built in 1869 (above). The old police holding cells are now guest rooms. Photos Jamyang Buddhist Centre.

The weekend of our course was the celebration of the Queen’s 60th anniversary as monarch, her Diamond Jubilee. Millions turned out throughout the United Kingdom, it seems. One of the highlights was thousands of boats joining the Royal Barge on the River Thames.

The nine-foot Buddha in the center’s gompa, built by Peter Griffin, is where the courthouse judge would have sat; photo Jamyang Buddhist Centre.

The crowd at Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee; photo Getty Images. The Royal Barge on the Thames; photo Facundo-Arrizabalaga for the EPA. Boats bearing flags of the commonwealth; photo Suzanne Plunkett for Reuters. And the Queen waving from the palace balcony; photo Getty Images.

I had a few days off in London and had hoped for a bit of hanging out, but no time. I still had more work to do on Rinpoche’s book about helping people at the time of death, so I sat in my little back room (not one of the cells) and worked. I went for a long walk on Monday night after the festivities were over: into the West End, through Green Park, along the Mall, Trafalgar Square, and back again across the river to Kennington, not far from Elephant & Castle. Many places in London, like the Elephant, as it’s called, are named after the local pubs (“public house”). And I went out one night with Jamyang’s director Mike Murray into Westminster for a meal, then home again, taking a route along the Thames.

Green Park, one of London’s eight Royal Parks; photo George P. Landow. Buckingham Palace along the Mall, the road which runs from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace and is colored red to give the effect of a giant red carpet leading to the palace; photo FG Property Management. Trafalgar Square, famous for its pigeons. Westminster Bridge, again; photo Oasis Thames Trips. The route I took on my London walk the night after the celebrations.

I’ve just read Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City That Made the World, a very funny and interesting – and prejudiced! – history of the place by London’s current mayor, Boris Johnson. He’s quite a famous fellow in the UK: an old Etonian, like the prime minister David Cameron, and loved by some and disliked by others, like all politicians I suppose.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson and the cover of his latest book.

Such a familiar place to me, London, in many ways more than Melbourne where I grew up. The five years I initially spent in this vast, ancient city, from when I first left Australia in 1967 when I was 23, were a pretty intense time for me: I did plenty of growing up of a different kind then.

With my sister Marie in the flat we shared in London after arriving from Melbourne in 1968 (above). And in the office of the political activist group Friends of Soledad, in London in 1971, which my sister Jan and I helped run, which supported three black American prisoners charged with the murder of a white prison guard at Soledad Prison in California.

On Thursday June 7 Mike took me to Paddington Station for the overground train to the airport – 10 minutes this one took – where I got my flight to Madrid. I was scheduled to spend nearly three weeks in Spain.

London’s Paddington Station. Photo Keith Edkins.

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