Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Saatchi Gallery and a Farce in Hampstead

November 12, 2008

Just this morning, I said that I ought to go out and seek the Cenotaph that becomes the focus of Remembrance Day ceremonies in London. Well, guess what? Today, Llew and I were riding the Route Number 11 bus (upper deck, front seats), when we passed by the monument at Whitehall. Just past the Horse Guards, we saw an obelisk covered with scarlet poppies and I said, "Oh my God! There it is". And sure enough. A group of people were examining the many poppy wreaths scattered around the base of the monument and as our bus sailed by, we resolved to stop there later in the day.

And that was exactly what we did on our random rambles in London today. We had breakfast at Paul's Patisserie on High Holborn which has the best almond croissants and the best hot chocolate in the city. But because their confections are pricey and calorie rich, I save the treat for times when Llew is with me in London.

Then, crossing Chancery Lane towards Fleet Street, we found the great medieval door open--the one that leads into Middle Temple, where Gandhi was once a barrister. It was inevitable that I led Llew into the quiet dignity of those leaf-strewn pathways, past ancient buildings whose stone and brickwork never fail to entrance me. There, in the empty late-autumn gardens, we came upon the round Temple Church created in 1185 by the Knights Templar who were entrusted with the task of guarding pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land during the Middle Ages. The only round church in the country and built in imitation of the Temple in Jerusalem, Temple Church featured dominantly during the bloody Crusades and, more recently, in Dan Brown's fascinating novel The Da Vinci Code where the secrets of the Holy Grail are concealed in the faces of the many gargoyles and effigies of knights that encircle the old stone walls. The church was closed but we discovered that there was a free organ recital later than afternoon and we decided to return to enjoy it and to allow Llew to survey the historic place of worship which I had examined on a previous visit to London a few years ago.

So we got on the bus and reached Chelsea instead in order to see the Saatchi Gallery of which I had heard so much but had never visited. It was a particularly glorious day. Though winter has arrived in London, we were warm as toast in the layers that we had thoughtfully piled on to combat the cold. The bus stopped on the King's Road right in front of the gallery and we were pleased to have it almost entirely to ourselves but for a rather enthusiastic group of high school art students.

I discovered that the gallery has no permanent collection--its exhibits change periodically so that there is almost always something interesting to see. Today, we walked through six galleries devoted to New Art from China--exhibits that took us through paintings, sculpture, collage, models in resin and silica gel. Most of them were deeply disturbing and stark in their presentation of life in modern-day China though there were a couple of black and white oil paintings of Chairman Mao that brought a smile to my face--such as the one of Mao on the terrace of Peggy Guggenheim's pallazzo in Venice that I had visited with my friend Amy Tobin earlier this year in March. There was Peggy Guggenheim sprawled on one of her deck chairs with her signature pekingese on her lap with a smiling Mao looking on indulgently. Another one featured Mao in the Royal Coach with the late Queen Mother--sometime in the 60s, perhaps. But for these occasional canvases, however, the show was uniformly depressing and we gladly left the precincts to emerge into the bright sunlit morning as we went out in search of edible goodies at Waitrose.

On the bus back, we hopped off at Westminster Abbey whose lawns were covered with small pine wood crosses and poppies, each inscribed with the name of a relative who had died in the many wars in which Great Britain has been involved. So many people passed reverentially by, pausing to lay a small poppy wreath by a special cross or to whisper a prayer in front of one of the giant poppy wreaths that were adorned with the crests of the regiments to which these brave men and women belonged. It was an extremely moving scene, indeed, and the next best thing to being present yesterday at the ceremonies themselves. At the Cenotaph further down the road on Whitehall, Llew and I joined the few visitors who paused to contemplate the flags and the wreaths that commemorate the fallen dead and to take photographs by which to remember these peculiarly moving British traditions.

By the time we got back on the bus home, we missed the organ recital--in fact, we arrived at the very last minute; but Llew did get a chance to tour the church and read a bit of its thousand year history. Then, we got back home for lunch and a nap.

I had discovered by this point that NYU did have an extra ticket for Llew to a play entitled In The Balance that was to be performed in the evening at the New End Theater in Hampstead. I had signed up to attend this event weeks ago but was not sure that Llew would be able to accompany me. When Alice from NYU got back and told me that Llew was welcome to join us at the play and for dinner at Tinseltown, a neat restaurant near by, we decided to ride the Tube to Hampstead for a very entertaining evening in the midst of many of my students and some of my British colleagues.

Tinseltown served us a typically American meal that included hamburgers and milk shakes--and ooohhh, what delicious shakes those were! Llew chose to have Chocolate Hobnobs, I chose a Ferrero Rocher--yummmm! We sat down in the midst of my loquacious students who were still jubilant about the Obama victory and couldn't stop talking about it. In fact, Jessy, one of our students from Kentucky, is actually going to be at the Inauguration and at the Inaugural Ball in February and we were just so excited for her!

Then, we were trooping into the theater to watch a hysterically funny farce on the American family, its idiosyncrasies and its follies in the midst of election fever. No production could have been more timely, what with the excitement of the election that we just went through and the anticipation as a new historic President enters the White House. What was marvelous about this play was that the British playwrights had managed to enter into the American psyche so perfectly and that the British actors who played the parts did such a fine job at portraying those characters on stage. I am certain they were nervous about the authenticity of their American accents in the company of a theater full of critical American university students. Luckily for the entire cast and crew, the audience seemed to love the exaggerated antics of the characters and the rough and tumble that accompanied the highly stereotypical characters and situations created by Ray Kilby and John Steinberg. Llew and I laughed non-stop through the evening and on our way back on the Tube thought how fortunate we were to have enjoyed such a lovely day together in London.

Earlier in the day, I had called my parents in Bombay to wish my mother on her birthday and to tell them how much we had enjoyed our travels in Greece. Naturally, they wondered how my feet had survived the endless stomps through classical history and my dad, being the God-fearing man he is, reminded me to thank God for allowing me to enjoy such a demanding trip despite my affliction. I told him that I couldn't agree more and that I had said my thank-yous many times over on the flight back to England.

And so at the end of our first day together after our return from a marvelous holiday, I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to have this time to share London with Llew doing some of the things that we most love.

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