November 17, 2008
On a day that began with rather dismal weather, I awoke to the eerie quietness of a flat that seemed to sorely miss Llew's presence. It was still only 6 am, but I decided to get back to routine, which meant spending an hour reading in bed. I have begun The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain by Gene D. Cohen, a recent birthday present from my friends Shahnaz and Mukaram Bhagat of Bombay who handed it to me personally on their recent visit to London. It is rather technical going at the moment as the author explains the workings of the brain and those parts of it that sharpen with time when the ability to make connections far from slowing the brain allows it to come up with rather creative problem-solving techniques.
With Chapter One done, I turned to my Blog and relived the joys of our Greek Odyssey in the pages I filled for the many days we spent on the mainland and while cruising through the Cyclades. I will now turn to my website and create a few pages there while adding pictures that will bring our holiday to life. Documenting in detail the great time we had together, made me miss Llew very much and I do so wish we could have spent the year together in London. I know he would have loved it as much as I am doing; but on his first day back at work in New Jersey and his undertaking of a new assignment in a new department, I did wish him the best of luck and much success. Of course, he did call as soon as he arrived at work at the start of a new day and I heard all about his return flight and the odds and ends he has left behind in my flat.
Then, I sat to grade a few of my student's essays. The sun made a brave attempt to break through the clouds while I was at it and I wondered whether I should venture outdoors. When I saw the weather forecast and realized how cold it was, however, I decided to stay put and continue with the grading. I went through half a pile before I returned to my own travel writing with the intention of finishing the lot tomorrow.
With the calls I made to my parents in Bombay and to Llew in the States and the online dialogue I had with Chriselle, it was 4pm before I quite knew it and with darkness having fallen outside, I decided to go out for some air. Walking through Chancery Lane and on to Fleet Street, I took a bus to the National Portrait Gallery. One month ago, I would have walked there and would have scoffed at the idea of taking the bus...but now that my feet are slowly healing, I am determined to lavish them with some TLC. Anyway, I love riding the buses and I do look forward to the day when I will hop, a la Bombay buses, on to the back of a Routemaster and sail down Fleet Street feeling for all the world as if I am in the Fort or Colaba area again!
I spent almost two hours at the National Portrait Gallery. No matter how often I visit, there is always something new to see. And this time, there were the infamous portraits of the Queen taken on her Golden Jubilee by Annie Lebowitz that caught my eye as I walked to the cloakroom to hand in my coat. I was struck by how aged the Queen looks. When did she grow so old? When did she put on so much weight? How did that elegant lady in her hats and pearls become so forbidding? There wasn't so much as a glimmer of a smile on her face in those portraits and I realized that she was either very bored, very cross or very unhappy the day she posed for the celebrated photographer. Shot in stark black and white, the pictures only emphasize the Queen's distance from her people and I did not care for them at all. Was it the regalia in which she had chosen to be attired that made her seem so disconnected with the viewer? Was it the setting--Buckingham Palace--with its splendour reflected in the background that disengaged her so totally from the camera? I have no clue. What I do know is that I found those portraits too solemn, too grim, too lacking in any kind of human warmth or compassion and whether this is the fault of the sitter or the photographer is hard to fathom.
I began on the second floor and went chronologically through the collection starting with the Tudors. Almost all of these people are now instantly recognizable to me through the many movies and TV shows I have watched that have documented this epoch. The rarer portraits of Dudley and Devereux, Queen Elizabeth I's alleged lovers, were interesting for the amazing similarity they showed with the actors who have played them in recent TV series. A girl passing with her boyfriend through the gallery saw the portrait of Dudley and said, "This was her boyfriend. She had his head chopped off". Whew! Imagine that! She pronounced those words so casually, almost triumphantly, and with so much relish--as if she had something to do with the Virgin Queen's decrees!
I progressed then to the more literary portraits that showcase Shakespeare and his contemporaries and called to mind the excellent lectures on the History of Renaissance Literature that I had attended in the classes of the late Dr. Mehroo Jussawala at Elphinstone College, Bombay. Portraits of Beaumont and Fletcher, Sackville and Norton, Wyatt and Sidney took me back to those undergrad classes and I thought it lamentable that other stalwart writers of the period were absent--such as Spenser and Marlowe, either because they never had their portraits painted or because none exist to be acquired by the Gallery.
In the Civil War section, I put faces to the names of those monarchs whose history I recently reviewed at the Banqueting Hall--James and Charles I, James and Charles II and their wives. I learned, for instance, that Catherine of Braganza brought to Charles II as part of her dowry not just the islands of Bombay, but Tangier in Morocco as well. I saw why King Charles spaniels are so called. It was because Charles I loved them and popularized them in his court. He is seen in his portrait posing with one such puppy in his lap. I read interesting extracts from the diary of Samuel Pepys in which he records his experiences, including the crick in his neck that he received from having to pose endlessly for his portrait. I was only able to complete seven rooms, however, when I was politely requested to return tomorrow as the Gallery was closing. I have resolved to return on a Thursday or Friday night when the gallery remains open till 9 pm. I intend to go through each of the rooms at leisure but because the space is small, I can see myself accomplishing this goal within a week.
Then, I walked briskly down Monmouth Street, stopping at Starbucks to purchase a Black Forest Cupcake that is special to the Christmas season, and arriving at the School of Oriental and African Studies where, in the Brunei Gallery, Dr. Gary Day of De Montford University in Leicestershire, was scheduled to give a lecture at 6. 30 pm on "Class in the UK". The audience consisted mainly of NYU students taking courses on British Politics and Government, but because I learn so much from these varied points of view, I try to make it a point to attend. Day's views--he calls himself a Marxist Socialist--so riled up the capitalists in the American student audience that the Q&A that followed the lecture was indignant and aggressive. In proposing a classless society in Great Britain, created through the payment of equal wages to every single person irrespective of the kind of job he did (a somewhat Platonic concept if I remember The Republic correctly) , Day met with much opposition from my students who boldly refuted his perspectives. It made for a lively evening and one I much enjoyed.
On the way back, I stopped to pick up a few essentials at Tesco and Sainsburys, then ate my dinner while watching a few old Britcoms on GOLD, the channel that has resurrected the most beloved ones. In these days of reality TV, for those of us who are allergic to such programs, this channel is a savior and I am so glad that I discovered it.