Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ghosts By Gaslight--Another Walk

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I can tell by the quality of light peeking through my window blinds first thing in the morning how the day will shape--when tinged with gold, I know it will be a glorious sunshinny day. When blueish-grey, I can prepare for rain or at best, an overcast sky. I am becoming rather an expert at forecasting weather behind drawn blinds!

Phone calls to India took up a bit of my morning though I did try to catch up with email, proof read my blog entry and began to watch Bloody Sunday which came to me in the mail through Love-Films. Com. I remembered that I had requested this movie a while back, soon after I returned from my trip to Northern Ireland as the guide on the walking tour of Derry had recommended it to us. It was spellbinding--a recreation of the events that took place in Derry at the culmination of what was supposed a Peace March to protest against the interment of several members of the IRA who were being held in British jails. The film starred James Nesbit (with whom I am familiar through Ballykissangel, the BBC TV series that was set in Ireland) and Tim Pigott-Smith (who played Ronald Merrick in The Jewel in the Crown). Using a documentary technique (which does, of course, well work with historical films), the filmmaker took us through the streets of Derry on that fateful day when protesters were mowed down by the police in the names of Law and Order. I thought it ironic that I watched this movie just a few days after fresh violence has erupted in Northern Ireland with the killing of a police officer, putting in jeopardy, once again, the Peace Process which has held on rather tenuously for the past few years.

After a chat with Llew (who has taken to calling me about 10 am which is 6 am his time as they have sprung their clocks forward leaving only a four hour difference between the UK and the USA), I continued drafting my lecture for the grad students at the University of Padua. While in the course of my prep, I realized how much I take for granted when I live in Connecticut. With access here to only one library that permits me to take books home (Senate House Library at the University of London), I feel handicapped when accessing source material to substantiate my comments. I never realized how easy it was for me to borrow scholarly books, throw them in my car and drive them home--tons of them. Fairfield U Library, NYU Library, the public library systems of Connecticut State (second to none) and New York State--all these made my life so simple. And yet, it never occurred to me how fortunate I was.

When I did go to to the Senate House library this afternoon to borrow a couple of books, they were either unavailable or already out and not due back until the end of this month. Surprisingly, Cracking India, Bapsi Sidhwa's classic novel about the Partition of India, was not available in the Senate House Library catalogue, other than in DVD format. The British Library, an outstanding receptacle of information, is only a reference library. At the SOAS Library, I do not have borrowing privileges and since I work best at home, I have had to change my working patterns completely. Still, I'm not complaining...overall, living and working and carrying out research in London has been a rewarding experience and, of course, I do understand that part of the challenge of living in a foreign country is learning to cope with the new systems that govern it. But I know that I will never again take for granted the ease with which I can carry out my scholarly investigations in the States.

About mid-morning, Emma Sweeney, my Writing colleague at NYU-London, called me at home to prepone our lunch meeting as she was free of students. I showered and made my way to Bloomsbury and since the weather was so delightful, we decided to buy ourselves a sandwich lunch and eat it in the Bedford Square Gardens--something Emma said she has never done before even though we have private access to it through a key! I learned so much about Emma's life and work through this one hour together. It was important to me to return to the States having made some friends among my London colleagues and Emma has been saying for a long time, that we should get together for a coffee. I am glad we finally made it happen.

Then, I returned to my office across the street to print out some material and to keep my 3.30 pm meeting with Alice, one of our administrators, who has arranged my student trip to Constable Country, Suffolk, this coming Friday. Alice is super-organized and had a whole folder ready for me to take on the trip. I have to say that I am a little nervous about handling this trip entirely on my own as no administrators will be accompanying me. I have my fingers crossed and hope all will go well. The plan of action is that we get to Dedham in Suffolk on a coach, have coffee there, then drive to East Bergholt where we will walk along the River Stour to Flatford Mill where John Constable was based and from where he drew inspiration for his landscapes. After lunch, we will drive to Lavenham, a village that Time forgot, further north, to see the medieval half-timbered buildings that have remained untouched for centuries. I hope my own students will draw inspiration from these countryside venues to find topics for their own research papers.

After a visit to the Senate House Library where I created a bibliography from the catalog, I left Bloomsbury. Then, because it was so pleasant outside, with not a raindrop in sight, I decided to undertake another one of my self-guided walks from Frommer's 24 Great Walks in London. I chose a shorter one (two and a half miles, said to take no more than an hour and 45 minutes) entitled "Ghosts by Gaslight" and set out on bus 24 to Trafalgar Square from where I changed to bus 11 to Aldwych. From there, I walked down to the Embankment to start my walk outside Temple Tube station. It was a fascinating afternoon indeed as I saw some things I would never have noticed and learned a great deal of stomach-churning facts in the process.

Just before I entered Middle Temple (usually through small hidden wrought iron gates), I spied the Astor Estate Office, a lovely 19th century building constructed in Tudor style with a gold weather wane in the shape of a Columbus caravel. Yes, this has reference to the same John Astor who built the Astor empire in the United States and was drowned on board the Titantic. Gazing upon the building put me in mind of the unexpected meeting I once had with the late Mrs. Brooke Astor in the elevator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Monday when the museum in closed to the public. Walking rather feebly on her walking stick, she was in the company of none other than former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Both of them greeted me warmly as I entered the elevator and had a few words with me as we rode in it. Kissinger, of course, asked if I was from India and I informed Mrs. Astor that one of my favorite places to take visitors to at the Met on my guided tours is the Astor Court--the Chinese Ming Scholar's Garden that is named after her. All these memories gushed through my mind as I took in the beauty of this building, realizing once again that Elizabethan and Tudor vernacular architecture is by far my favorite.

Then, I was in Middle Temple, enjoying its garden that is slowly reviving with dozens of yellow primroses filling its beds. I must remember to return here in the summer to take in the beauty of the roses as they promise to be quite stunning indeed. Then past the lovely fountain in the quiet court and the lovelier ornate Elizabethan Dining Room (closed to the public, alas), I was in one of the loveliest courtyards in all the Inns of Court--the Pump Court. Once destroyed by a fire, it was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. Everywhere attorneys, in the process of closing up shop for the day, were hurrying past me. I reached the round Temple Church, associated with Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, but it was closed and I could not take another peak at the effigies around which his plot is based.

Just around this church is the tombstone of Oliver Goldsmith (which explained why the adjoining buildings are named after him). It is a very nondescript tombstone indeed, green with moss and slime and but for a plaque set into the ground, one would never know that this wonderful playwright of the Comedy of Manners lies buried here. I will never forget an absolutely fabulous production of She Stoops to Conquer that Llew and I saw at the renowned Abbey Theater in Dublin a few years ago. It was certainly one of the funniest, most rambunctious plays we have seen together and we had thoroughly enjoyed Goldsmith's great work.

On to Fleet Street next, I was instructed to leave the old City of London behind past Temple Bar and enter the City of Westminster! How interesting! This reminded me of the excellent brief History of London by Ian Wilson (a present from my English friends in Connecticut, William and Caroline Symington) that I had started to read on the flight from the States in August. It is quite easily one of the best books on London I have read and it explained the presence of the sculptures that adorn the city streets marking the boundaries of the old medieval 'cities' that lie within the modern-day City of London. There is one such monument right outside my window on High Holborn that indicates the limits of the City of London--my building falling within the City!

The facade of the George Pub was next pointed out as one that often fools visitors into believing that it is much older than it is. Actually a Victorian pub, it is constructed in Tudor style. However, it was a favorite watering-hole of many famous hacks of Fleet Street and some literary giants such as Dr. Johnson, Boswell, Thackeray and Dickens. Just a few steps ahead, right opposite what the book describes as the "grandiose" buildings of the Royal Courts of Justice (where high profile cases are fought, such as the McCartney-Mills divorce proceedings!) on a little island is the Church of St. Clement Danes--so-called because it was built by a Danish regiment based in the city many centuries ago. A plaque outside, right besides a sculpture of Dr. Samuel Johnson, gives important details of the many renovations carried out upon it, not least being its reconstruction after battering by bombs during the Nazi blitzkreig of World War II. Inside, I found a choir at practise, their voices rising up to the exquisite plastered ceilings. This is a truly beautiful church, now dedicated to the Royal Air Force. It completely fifty years as an RAF church last year. What I loved best about the church was that it is the place referred to in the ancient London rhyme that goes: "Oranges and Lemons, says the Bells of St. Clements". However, when I looked up the internet to read more about this church and its literary associations, I discovered that the lines refer to the Church of St. Clements in Cheapside and that most of the churches mentioned in the poem were destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666. So, I remain confused...

Out on Fleet Street, once again, I was told to proceed to the Bell Yard. There I found myself attracted by a sign that indicated 'Afternoon Teas available in the Old England Pub'. I had to see this place for myself as it had a very interesting exterior--up a few stone steps. Inside, I was stunned. This is one of the most beautiful pubs I have seen, its huge brass chandeliers lighting up an extraordinary number of paintings all over the walls and ceiling. It was about 5. 30 when I got there--the end of tea-time or I might have been tempted to order a cream tea! However, there was already an assortment of patrons sipping their first pints of the evening and after taking a quick picture, I stepped out only to make an astounding discovery.

Sweeney Todd, known as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, ran his sinister business from this venue. In the process of grooming his male clients, he slit their unsuspecting throats. He would then drag their bodies down through an underground passage to his mistress, a Mrs. Lovett, who ran a pie shop next door to him. Business boomed as everyone flocked to buy her delicious pies, little knowing that they had become cannibals! I was absolutely stunned by this but then I remembered that I had heard the name 'Sweeney Todd' before. I remembered vaguely that it was a play on Broadway and that my friend Amy Tobin had mentioned to me on our visit to London last year that she had recently seen a movie (that was set and shot on Fleet Street) about a murderous barber.

Well, this was it! This was the spot where the gruesome murders took place and where the bodies were disposed of! The Bank of England Pub has a plaque that tells the story but ends the account, jocularly, with this line: "We are very proud of our pies". Reading up the story online, I have also made the discovery that scholars have found no historical evidence to suggest that such a character ever did exist--it might simply be one of those gruesome elements of oral folklore that originated in Victorian times and have survived into the present.

Shuddering somewhat, I turned right towards the Church of St. Dunstans-in-the-West. I love the peculiar names of these old London churches--they often have their location built into the their names! The church was closed but the book drew my attention to an old gold faced clock on the wall and to the two characters that stand "making half-hearted attempts to strike the bells" (according to the book) alongside them every time the clock strikes the hour! I have decided that I must try to see this spectacle for myself...but on another occasion.

I was tired and hungry and walking almost three miles had taken its toll on me and I needed to get home to eat something and relax. I bought a Lebara top up voucher for my cell phone at Sainsburys and got home to unwind over cold cider, some Stilton and a bag of chips (or 'crisps' as they say here) and while I was at it I did something I haven't done at all since I arrived in London--I sat on my bed nibbling and sipping and reading The English Home magazine, to which I have a subscription in the States. It was an old issue that I had brought with me from home in August and hadn't yet opened! This took me back to my favorite form of relaxation--kicking back with a lifestyle and decorating magazine. I was so full after snacking that I had just a bit of bread with balsamic-olive oil dip and at 9. 30 found myself feeling so sleepy that I went straight to bed!

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