Traveling through my own non-linear narrative
Reflecting on 20 years of history while retracing the steps of my past
During my recent return visit to Great Britain, I couldn’t help but continually feel history’s transformative impact over the past two decades since I lived in central England.
In the mid-late 1990s, I attended the University of Warwick, on the border of Coventry, a West Midlands industrial city, and Warwickshire (pronounced War-ic-sher), the historical, pastoral home-county of Shakespeare. While I have been back to London and the UK several times over the years, this was my first visit retracing the steps of one of the most illuminating and transformative periods of my life.
Coventry and Warwickshire are the opposites of English life. When my parents would tell Brits while traveling in the UK that their daughter was living in Warwickshire studying Shakespeare, the reply would always be something positive like “Oh how lovely! What a delightful opportunity!” However, when they said that I was living in Coventry, my parents were surprised and amused when they continually received the exact opposite response, along the lines of “That’s horrible! Why would she live in such a wretched place!”
Coventry has a reputation of being, for lack of a better word, the armpit city of England. Some of that stems from the old British phrase “to be sent to Coventry” which means to deliberately ostracize, ignore and avoid someone. So if a Brit says “I’m sending you to Coventry,” they are essentially saying “piss off.” So those of us who lived there would often joke that “you can’t send me to Coventry because I’m already here!”
Frankly, I loved living on the border of these two contrasting worlds that was also an easy day-trip train ride to London, which I traveled to regularly. During this recent visit, I felt extremely grateful that I was able to live in a part of England that exposed me to such a broad spectrum of British life.
While Coventry is where Lady Godiva rode naked in the streets on horseback a millennium ago, its recent history of being flattened by German bombing during World War II takes center stage upon visiting. Its two most notable sites are the Coventry Cathedral and Spon Street, the only historical structures in Coventry’s city centre that survived its decimation in 1940.
When I first arrived back in 1996, Coventry was the first place I felt the lasting power of war in the present tense. At that time, war from an American’s perspective was something that only happened on the other side of oceans, from the World Wars to Korea and Vietnam to the 1990’s Gulf War and Rwandan genocide. Returning in 2018, I couldn’t help but reflect on all of the conflict and technological changes that have engulfed and connected all corners of the world since then.
As soon as I got off the train I felt all sorts of unexpected memories return that had been buried in the back of my mind. Walking through the familiar train station toward the city centre, I tried to orient myself to identify the details that felt the same and all that had changed. Recognizing the striking spire spike through the skyline, I felt compelled to walk straight to Coventry Cathedral.
What makes Coventry’s Cathedral so distinctive is that it consists of two structures of contrasting beauty. The old cathedral includes the ruins of all that survived the bombing — the tower, spire and outside walls. The spire is the tallest structure in Coventry and the third tallest cathedral spire in England. The new cathedral, built adjacent to the remains of the old, is a modernist symbol of post-war reconciliation. The dramatic interior includes a beautiful patchwork of colorful abstract stained glass. A wistful smile came to my face while recollecting my fond memories performing in the new cathedral with my beloved university choir.
The open air interior within the ruins of the old cathedral remains one of the most inviting and potent war memorials I’ve ever experienced. During my recent visit, I arrived during lunchtime on a beautiful sunny day, so the benches were filled with office workers enjoying their meals outside. It felt like a peaceful park sanctuary away from the generic-ness of the bustling small city. I spent time appreciating the public art sculptures that I didn’t remember seeing during my previous visits so many years earlier. The more I settled into the uniquely pleasant and poetic environment, the more I absorbed and reflected.
This beautiful space invited me to sit, ponder and appreciate how my adult life has evolved and intertwined with history. I realized that the last time I was in that spot in 1997 was just four years before the world forever changed during that bright blue September Tuesday in New York City. I was working in Rockefeller Center that morning when the planes struck the Twin Towers just four miles away. I recalled walking downtown toward the billowing smoke where the towers had stood on my way home to Lower Manhattan that evening. I lived surrounded by the intimacy of the attacks’ aftermath in the weeks, months and years to follow.
The memorial where I was currently sitting was the place that introduced me to the intimacy of war, and just a few years later it literally invaded my neighborhood. I never would have conceived when I was studying theatre, music and literature in England that I would transition my career to spend more than a decade working for the Associated Press, covering so many of the world’s greatest conflicts of the new millennium.
Moving on to Historic Spon Street, I passed the Lady Godiva statue and walked through Coventry’s comfortably tacky and dingy central shopping area. Coventry’s only surviving block of medieval cottages and pubs can feel like a snapshot within Shakespeare’s nearby Stratford-Upon-Avon, but without the hoards of tourists. I couldn’t help but laugh about the biggest change to Spon Street over the past two decades. A giant multi-story Ikea now towers over and dwarfs the historical gem of a block, a dramatic symbol of 21st century capitalism.
Warwick University always took pride with its reputation as being of the most modern of the UK’s most prestigious universities. However, it had undergone so much construction over the past two decades that it no longer felt like the place I called home. Potently, the building where I lived had been razed, and the spot where I slept was a literal hole in the ground within a gridded construction site.
While reflecting on that spot that now only exists in my memories, it felt incredible recollecting with my smartphone in hand that I had lived in that flat without neither a phone nor shower (we only had a bathtub with an attachable hose and sprayer). When I lived on campus, the only way I could “call” someone was to literally walk over to where they lived or worked and knock on their door. I frequently had to leave written messages under doors, in mail boxes or with neighbors/colleagues. The only way to call my parents was to go to the swath of public pay phones in the crowded student union and call collect.
At the time, I felt so privileged to have access to email, unlike my older brother and sister who had to rely on snail air mail when they studied abroad just a few years earlier. I used the DOS Pine program installed in the computer lab on the other side of campus to write and receive correspondence in real time with my family and friends across the globe. Granted, this was the only time in my life I lived without a phone, and lacking access to a functioning land-line was an anomaly on campus. But still, this was just two decades ago! It’s amazing to realize just how quickly the Digital Revolution has completely transformed the world.
With so much change and changing perspectives and perceptions spinning in my mind during my visits to Coventry and campus, my return to neighboring Warwickshire reminded me that however much the world can change, there are still beautiful aspects of life that can remain relatively unchanged.
While my bus route from Coventry to campus had reversed from a counterclockwise circle to a clockwise direction out of the city centre, my equally familiar bus route from campus to Royal Leamington Spa in the heart of Warwickshire felt exactly the same. With several parks, gardens and a “Parade” of early 19th century Regency architecture, Leamington was where the majority of off-campus students lived. It served as my sanctuary to shop, go to movies and make my transfer to Stratford for my research studies. To my joy and tremendous sense of comfort, lovely Leamington in winsome Warwickshire looked and felt exactly the same as it had 20 years earlier. It felt familiar and comfortable, as though I had returned to a beloved time capsule full of peace and harmony.
The moment that brought me back to the specificity of 2018 occurred days later when reviewing the most popular nonfiction books at Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Gone were the celebrity memoirs and political tell-alls of the recent past. Filling the void was a spectrum of emotionally-fueled titles that proved we are living in the volatile age of Brexit and Trump. The prevalent sense of crisis among travelers who buy books in international airports dominated the shelf. Of the top nonfiction titles at a WHSmith in Gatwick Airport, the vast majority reflected the inner turmoil overwhelming those still struggling from the aftermath of the 2016 elections.
The titles as captured in my photos of the bookshelf, which I’ve categorized by perspective:
• F*** You Very Much
• The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck
• Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment
• No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need
• Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
• The Psychopath Test
• Talking with Psychopaths
• Talking with Serial Killers
• Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist
• Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think
• Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery
Seeking Answers through History:
• Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World
• Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
• Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
• The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors
• The Short History of Germany
• Kindness: Change Your Life and Make the World a Kinder Place
• Mindfulness: Be mindful. Live in the moment.
• Shine: Rediscovering Your Energy, Happiness and Purpose
• Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
• The Rules of Life: A personal code for living a better, happier, more successful kind of life
• The Rules of People: A personal code for getting the best from everyone
• The Little Book of Results: A Quick Guide to Achieving Big Goals
Seeing that snapshot of book covers served as a reminder that we’re living in an unresolved moment in history. We are experiencing it together, but each in our own way. We all seek out support to calm the roller coaster of our inner turbulence that too often stems from outside forces.
And as I was reminded while retracing the steps of my past, our relationships with history and ourselves continue to evolve with time.