"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
So said Samuel Johnson, essayist, critic and lexicographer, to his friend James Boswell in 1777. If you’ve read my previous blog — “11 Reasons to Love England: Confessions of an Anglophile” — you probably know that I think Johnson’s words are as true today as they were 250 years ago.
But what about a virtual tour of London? Can a trip to the British capital through a computer screen provide the same satisfaction one gets from being there in person? Let’s find out.
The British Museum in Bloomsbury, with its 8 million artifacts, documents and other works, is a place where “you can discover 2 million years of human history and culture.” (Much of it was gathered — or plundered — from far-flung corners of the British Empire, the largest empire the world has ever seen). Today, the museum provides a variety of compelling and engaging virtual experiences. You can walk through the museum (click the small icon of a person to get started) just as you would walk down a street! Using Google’s Street View, stop to study selected artifacts. With a click of your mouse, a pop-up appears that gives you in-depth information on each item. Can you find the colossal statue of a lion from ancient Mesopotamia? Zoom in to study the incredible cuneiform prayer to the goddess Ishtar. If you prefer a more abstract approach, you’ll love The British Museum’s beautifully designed timeline of history. It stretches out before your eyes like the neck of an enormously long guitar, with each string representing a world region. You can filter by themes like “power and identity” or “trade and conflict” — or simply flit through time at your own pace. Go back 2 million years to examine the Olduvai stone chopping tool, or explore artifacts from Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain. The pop-ups provide detailed text, audio clips and links to related items.
Are you mentally exhausted? How about some “brain food” … otherwise known as fish and chips! In this 16-minute video, tag along with guides Harry and Ju as they sample this British culinary standby at five London restaurants in their quest to find the best fish and chips in London. I love traditional fish and chips, but the crispy basil and lemon batter at The Hook in Camden looks pretty delicious. My mouth is watering!
Now it’s time for some walking. Follow your knowledgeable guide Eleana on this 18-minute educational tour through the City of London from Bank Station to Tower Hill, with interpretative stops at the Bank of England, Cornhill, Leadenhall Market (pay attention, Harry Potter fans!) and, of course, The Tower of London.
Since we’re so close to the Thames, let’s pop across to the Globe Theatre on the south side of the river to catch a Shakespeare matinee. How about the complete Richard II or Macbeth? While we’re on the subject, do you know why actors won’t utter the Scottish king’s name inside a theatre, calling it instead The Scottish Play?
A Shakespeare history or tragedy is pretty serious business. To lighten the mood, let’s take a stroll in Tooting Common. Nick Heath, a British rugby announcer, isn’t working during the COVID-19 pandemic, so instead he’s adding hilarious sports commentary to short videos of everyday life. Maybe we’ll catch his play-by-play of “ two lonely blokes in a park.”
If you’ve ever watched an episode of “Peaky Blinders,” you’ve probably struggled to understand regional British accents, and may even have wished for subtitles. London itself has a broad variety of accents, and the British Library website has a trove of sound clips and explanations to help you understand the difference between them. Take a listen to Cockney, South London and that plummy upper-class accent once standard on the BBC.
One of the great chroniclers of London life was, of course, Charles Dickens. But did you know that Dickens always dreamed of being an actor, and made a substantial income delivering public readings of his works? In this eight-minute video, Professor John Bowen of the University of York gives a fascinating overview of Dickens as a public performer, and shows pages — complete with marginal comments — of Dickens’ reading copy of “Oliver Twist.”
London has long been a city of immigrants. Since World War II, migrants from all corners of the British Empire have brought new tastes and influences to British culture, while often experiencing discrimination. Watch this short interview with author and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi ("My Beautiful Laundrette") to learn what it was like growing up in a Pakistani immigrant family.
So, what’s the verdict? Your virtual tour of London doesn’t quite match up to the real thing, but it’s pretty good if you’re stuck at home. And it just might be the inspiration you need to start planning your first (or your next!) trip to London! We hope to see you there soon!
About the Author Peter Spiers is the Senior Vice President of Strategic Outreach at Road Scholar. He is the author of “Master Class: Living Longer, Strong, and Happier,” recently selected by The Washington Post as one of the best books to read at every age, 1 to 100 (Peter’s book was selected for age 70). Spiers holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard University, an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and a master of science from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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