Pico Iyer: Dividing the Kingdom


Pico Iyer wanders London and ponders the uncertainty at what England will become @ Granta.

Places don’t change easily inside our heads. We rarely allow them to. So often they’re just the way they were when we first knew them, much as my old school friends, whether captains of industry or grandfathers now, are always the scruffy, shifty, misbehaving boys I first met at fourteen. If you’re surrounded by a place, you don’t notice its changes; and if you’re exiled from it, you refuse to accommodate the ways it’s grown if they don’t fit the story you tell about your life.

Growing up in Oxford I looked out the window and saw low grey skies and red-brick walls, a deeply fixed and bounded place. ‘Can’t complain’ was the brightest affirmation I heard; ‘could be worse’ spelled almost ecstasy. My parents, eager products of British India, took me to see Lear at Stratford and we all noticed the power the old patriarch wielded at the play’s beginning, even if he was notionally dividing up his kingdom. We didn’t see that the broken, weeping, almost posthumous king at the end might be closer to the spirit of the land around us.
We moved from north Oxford to southern California in 1964 – when I was seven – and suddenly I noticed that living in the future tense could be as treacherous as living in the past; it was ideal so long as you were young and on the move, but it could be exasperating if ever you wanted to lay foundations underneath your feet. Small places were more conducive to enmities and smugness, I came to see, as soon as I was in the devouring open spaces of the Far West, but they were also home to idiosyncrasy, a sense of fun and to privacy.

I went to see Lear again when I returned to school in England, and now it spoke to me of how Britain treated its imperial stepchildren; the old king was cruelest on those innocents who loved him most. These days I fly back to Britain and see another Shakespeare play unfolding in which everyone is in disguise, princes as vagrants and fools as wise men, boys as women (though played by boys), and all reminding us daily that the course of true love, even when it comes to empires, never did run smooth.

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