A Twenty-Year-Old Letter from London: Memories, Midlife, and the Millennium

the United Kingdom Marga Ortigas Places Prose

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Let me paint you a scene — it is still one of my favourites in the world:

I am sitting in the Royal Festival Hall overlooking the South Bank.

The Thames slips by peacefully as a handful of pedestrians scurry past.

This is London, in 1997.  No Millennium Bridge, no London Eye.  No maddening crush of tourists along the river.

It’s a rather chilly spring afternoon and the sun is hidden, but the sky is bright.

Everything is blue – and grey.  But bright.

The wind is singing winter goodbye, and the plane trees wave their branches in joy.

Mr. Clarinetman is back, busking at his post by the rubbish bin — I lingered by him earlier to see if he would play some Lerner and Loewe

…he used to play “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face” a lot… but that was two years before.  When I was visiting.

I remember.

He remembered me.  He winked.  Then, smiled.

He played “Summer of ’42“.
Or was it “Alfie“?
I forget.  It was unimportant.

It wasn’t Lerner & Loewe.

I finish my cup of mocha from Aroma.  Decaf.  I’ve found caffeine keeps me up all night.
Odd that.  Never used to happen.  But since moving to London a year back — I’ll stay in bed at night with my eyes shut, and my soul gallops into far-away galaxies.

It’s exhilarating.  It’s exhausting.
I sleep with pen and paper beside me now because the angels who choose to play with me are not bound by time.  They come when they please, and move my hand irrespective of the clock.

Four a.m.  Five a.m. — I’m putting the pen down having scribbled endless pages of frightening prose.

They sing sometimes.  Sometimes, they shout.

Either way, after delayed sleep and rising, they stand there staring at me.  Words.  People.  Gems.   They’re my friends now.  I like them.  They have given me my silence by filling it.

And they have given me space by populating it.

I am making sense now — or should I say sense is making me?

So why am I writing you?
The angels said to.

The book market under Waterloo Bridge along London’s South Bank.  (Photo by Charlie Read on Unsplash.)

I am sitting on the South Bank, with my books, and my pen, and my paper.  I have so much work to do – and yet I have spent the last few hours swimming joyfully in the book market.

I come every weekend.  It clears the mind and allows you to listen.  Just listen

On my walk here today, I passed bus-loads of tourists again on the Albert Embankment.  They seem to be multiplying as summer draws closer.  Japanese, mostly.  Usually.  You get the best view of riverside London from there.  (I am so grateful to live just minutes away…)

But the tourists today weren’t Japanese.

Clutching uniform tour group bags, the motley mob of different Asians swarmed forward to take photos.

I remembered what that’s like.

I slowed down.  I thought I might see myself in their eyes — but I was no longer like these visitors.

London is my home now.

How quickly time flies.
How quickly we do.

I tried again.  I looked at each one of them and smiled into their eyes — searching for a glimmer of me glancing back.
It wasn’t there.

Not an ounce of recognition for a fellow traveller.

It was as if I wasn’t there at all.  The young girl who had just moved here from a small tropical country thousands of miles away — was invisible to them.

But under London’s bright grey skies, I was not as unobservant.

Oh what a glorious gift it is to finally be able to see!  The vistas of the mind are beyond any map the imagination can fathom.

Or should it be the other way around?

Either way.

How quickly memory grows cold.  How easy to go blind.

So why did the angels tell me to write?

It is the weekend.  I am on the South Bank and I have so much work to do.  One flatmate is on holiday.  And the other has gone shopping.  I have to soak in Winterson’s wonderland, and taunt myself with quantum mechanics.  Seriously.  It’s for school.  It’s for me.  I can’t complain.

I am happy.

So why am I writing you?

Because it is the longest I have been away from where I come from — and I wonder if my loved ones will recognise me.
It’s the first time I recognise myself.

Trafalgar Square, London.  (Photo by Mike Lacey on Unsplash.)

Why am I writing?  Because wings are fragile and light and quick.  And I write to thank you.  To thank them.  For being points of light in the quantum wave of my being.  For constructing a past and a home for winged-creatures to perch on.  For understanding texts aren’t institutions, and interpretation is a gift.

For binding the book, but knowing that pages are loose-leaf…

I know now the expanse of a Name.  Of what we conceive as identity.  It has the limits of our imagination, and the magic of our sight.

I can see now.  I can write.  There is more of me in these words than I can ever hope to say.

The angels are smiling now.  And I wanted to say thank you.

Because one day — maybe in twenty years — I may forget that I am a traveller.  Exhilarated and exuberant.  Gifted with the miracle of sight.  I may forget about the dusty diamond skies over London, and the jubilant twinkling trees by the Thames.  I may become too accustomed to life’s face.

And I will need to find these words then — like scavenging for seashells crushed along the shore.  Each sliver an echo of eternity — a seemingly modest beat
in the symphony of life.


I just found a letter I wrote to my parents from London’s South Bank twenty years ago.

Let me paint you a scene.Photo by Mike Lacey on Unsplash.

About the Author:
Marga Ortigas is a journalist and podcaster who has worked for CNN International and Al Jazeera.

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