Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Packing & Posting, An Organ Recital and the Bank of England Museum

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Life returned to legal London this morning as Holborn sprang up like a phoenix from the ashes of the long holiday weekend. As folks rushed in and out of the Tube stairwell to the closest coffee shop or their electronic offices, I continued reading The Order of the Phoenix, then went to my kitchen to do some cooking. I pulled out all the items from my freezer and the vegetables I bought last evening, and concocted two pasta dishes: with Ham, Asparagus and Peas and with Peppers, Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Prawns. With the addition of my home made chicken stock and single cream, they both turned out rather well. I filled them into my Tupperware containers in small lots (the better to freeze them with) and then turned to the serious business of getting packed.

I spent simply ages on the phone trying in vain to find out how my vintage desk could most economically be shipped to the States. I had very little success as both Fedex and UPS informed me that they simply do not have boxes large enough to accommodate my bureau. While they are willing to pick up from my residence, they needed me to do the packing.

Finally, at the advice of Matt, the dealer who sold me the desk in Hampstead, I zeroed in on Hedley Humpers, a company that specializes in shipping antiques around the world. They gave me a quote that hit the roof but they will deliver right to my doorstep in Connecticut, they will create a special wooden crate made to measure for my bureau-desk and they will take care of the packing so that I need not worry at all about breakage. It seemed like a good deal and I have to now figure out how to get the bureau to their warehouse in Acton as that will save me a hundred quid!

Martha arrived on duty this morning and brought me a load of boxes in different sizes. With Arben's help, I was able to figure out the exact dimensions of my purchase. In the midst of the growing load of boxes that are rapidly filling with my books, I rushed off at 12. 15 to take the bus to the Church of St. Lawrence Jewry, near the Guildhall for one of their 1.00 pm Tuesday afternoon organ concerts.

St. Lawrence, Jewry, Church:
It didn't take me long to get there at all. A quick canter from the bus stop to the Church got me inside a magnificent Anglican Church that has been around on this spot since the 1100s. Named for the martyr who was tortured over an iron grill, the second part of the Church's name derives from the fact that it is located in a part of London that was once the heart of the Jewish ghetto (that is before all Jews were driven out of the city by Edward I).

The church was destroyed completely during the Great Fire of London in 1666 when Christopher Wren redesigned it. Worship continued in the church until the mid-1940s when it was, once again, almost entirely gutted by the blitz. Reconstruction using Wren's original plans then began but the church no longer functions as a parish. Instead it is a guild church of the Corporation of London and there is a special seat in the very front reserved for the exclusive use of the Lord Mayor of London. Go for it Boris!

A large number of people had already taken their seats and awaited the beginning of the recital. I had the time to inspect the more significant details of the church such as its sparkling ceiling with elaborate gilded plasterwork, the splendid carved oak screen (the work and design originally being undertake by Grindling Gibbons, of course), the reredos with its smallish painting and the marble baptismal font at the back that dates from the 1540s. The spanking new stained glass windows (made in the 1950s) feature a number of saints from the Christian pantheon while at the back, there is a very evocative window that memorializes the work of Wren and Gibbons. The pews are also quite wonderfully carved and I was very pleased to find an opportunity to see the interior of this church as the concerts are the only occasions on which it is opened to the public.

The Organ Recital:
A large number of London churches hold free lunch-time concert recitals and they are a very good way by which to get into these historical venues. At the Church of St. Lawrence Jewry, the concerts are named in memory of one John Hill who played this church organ at all services while spending 40 years of his life as a banker at HSBC. Following his death, the bank offered sponsorshop for these recitals which bring young international organists to London as Hill was always keen to introduce new talent to the public. The concerts held on Tuesdays in May and June have attracted a large number of organ enthusiasts and sitting right behind me was Steven Green, Group Chairman of HSBC Holdings.

Mareile Schmidt was the featured organist today. She was a tall, very slender woman with a lovely smile. She currently teaches music in Koln, Germany, and it was with a heavy but very charming German accent that she introduced her program--ingeniously it was themed around the Biblical line: "And the Spirit of God moved on the surface of the Waters". Hence, all her pieces had water connection. She chose compositions by Handel and Bach and lesser-known composers such as Louis Vierne, Jeanne Demessieux and Olivier Messiaen whose atonal work was very reminiscent of the compositions of Phillip Glass--not surprisingly, he is a Modernist.

The concert lasted 45 minutes and was a very enjoyable experience for me as this is the first time ever I have attended an organ recital. Apart from hearing the instrument played in church during servcies, I have never heard it played purely for listening pleasure and I have to say it was a lot of fun.

When it ended, I had a chance to inspect the interior features of the church and its architecture and then made my way out towards the Guildhall Art Gallery which lies in the same complex. Only I discovered that though I thought I lived within the old 'City of London', my taxes are paid to Camden--and, as such, I wasn't allowed free entry. The clerk told me to return on Fridays when entry is free to all.

The Bank of England Museum:
Since I was so close to the Bank of England, I decided it would be a good time to take a look at its museum--besides, I had always wanted to set foot inside the bank. Only, I made a funny discovery! The building that I had long thought was the Bank of England building wasn't so it all--it was the Royal Exchange Building now filled with luxury stores such as Loro Piana (who sell beautiful cashmere stoles, Hermes whose silk scarves I covet and, as I found out for the first time, Jo Malone whose cosmetics and fragrances are my passion!). I had to spend some time browsing through this marvelous space before I crossed the street.

Sir John Soanes' Bank of England building lies catty corner to the Neo-Classical grandeur of the Royal Exchange Building on her own little island. I haver to say that it looks more like a fortress than a bank--which I guess is what it is when you consider all the gold bullion stashed in the vault way down in the bowels of the earth beneath the bank's foundation.

I found the entrance to the museum easily enough, discovered that it was free, and then spent the next couple of hours wrapped up in the process of learning all about the history of banking in England. It was in 1694, for instance, that the Bank of England came into existence through the goldsmiths, who had, until that time, made extensive loans to merchants and the Crown. You can see them in their black top hats and cloaks looking for all the world like a bunch of Flemish aristocrats, in the many early paintings in the museum--this is not surprisingly as it was among the Dutch that banking first originated. These goldsmith's notes, originally receipts for coin deposits, circulated freely as a form of paper money (because they carried the words "or bearer" on them meaning that they could be passed on from one person to the next). This is why paper money is also referred to as a "note"! These indeed became the forerunners of the banknotes we use today. I found this early information fascinating.

As I walked through the history of the bank, I found out about the sorting and destroying of soiled or defaced notes (something I once did personally in the Cash Department of the Reserve Bank of India in Bombay where I had worked while pursuing graduate studies). I saw the powdery remains of destroyed notes--grey-green confetti--in a glass case. I saw an early chest, dating from 1700, a forerunner of the modern-day bank vault. I saw the Bank's silver and, perhaps most fascinatingly of all, I saw a bar of gold bullion weighing 13 kilograms (which, I discovered is 2 stone--so now I finally know that 1 stone is 7 kilograms or 14 dd pounds. The English still funnily enough weigh themselves in stone and I have always wodnered what to make of this measure of weight!). It was so heavy that I barely managed to lift it up. Yes, you could actually handle this gold bar--imagine how awed kids must feel in this space!

I understood what is meant by the Gold Standard which was adopted in Great Britain in 1816. It formally linked the value of a pound sterling to a fixed quantity of gold and a new coin, called the sovereign (because it featrued the head of the monarch on it) was circulated the following year. This gold standard played a key role in international trade throughout the 19th century and was finally abandoned in 1931.

Of course, a lover of literature and literary history like myself will usually find some gem in every museum that most takes her fancy and the Bank of England's Museum was no exception. I made the startling discovery here that Kenneth Grahame who started his career in the bank as a humble junior clerk made his way up the ladder and in 20 years (at the age of 39) became its Secretary. It was while he worked in the bank (just like T.S. Eliot worked in a bank while writing poetry!) that he wrote his books, the most famous of which is, The Wind in the Willows, one of my most beloved of story books as a child. There is a whole section devoted to Grahame which includes a signed first edition of the book (Llew would have loved that) as well as correspondence between him and key figures of the bank. It was with some sadness that I learned that he resigned rather suddenly (his letter of resignation is on display) and though he cited failing health and nerves as the reason for his decision to do so, the real reason was that he was bullied by one of the bank's Directors, one Walter Cunliff whose full sized portrait in oil hangs on a wall in the lovely Rotunda, perhaps Soanes' best interior feature in the building with its beautiful caryatids (sculpted Greek goddesses) that encircle it.

I also realized that there is so much similarity in the bureaucratic hierarchy of the Bank of England and the Reserve Bank of India. The head of both banks, for instance, is known as the Governor, and both boast a Board of Directors--they are called Executive Directors in India. Again, I suppose this should not have surprisied me considering that we inherited a system of banking from the British together with those of jurisprudence and education, post and telegraphs, railways, customs and excise, army and police.

A cartoon explains where and how the bank received her nickname--The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. It came from a cartoon that appeared in a contemporary newspaper that satirized William Pitt The Younger's liberal war-time spending that requried him to dig deeper and deeper into the pockets of an ageing old lady. The cartoon is on display in the museum together with life size caricatures of Pitt and his arch opponent Charles Fox who debated with him endlessly in the House of Commons on the sagacity of the incurring of so much national debt.

There are scores and scores of bank notes and coins in ther museum, each set portraying the heads of the monarchs under whom they were minted. In the adjoining shop, you can purchase sets of coins (they make valued christening gifts) and all sorts of items connected with banking, including a lovely set of old fashioned nib pens that I loved. The place was crawling with kids who found something or the other to catch their fancy and there were so many excited exclamations all around me as I surveyed the exhibits. It is truly an interesting place to visit and I would strongly urge anyone even remotely associated with banking to visit this museum. Many thanks to the anonymous reader of this blog who drew my attention to this museum and recommended that I visit it. I am very grateful indeed.

Packing and Posting Nightmares:
Then, I was back home, worrying about all the packing I had to do and books I had to ship out. On impusle,I decided to go down to the Post Office which is just six shops away from the entrance of my buuilding, with one of my 5 kg. boxes to find out how much it would cost me to mail it to the States using their Special Rate for books and printed paper. The line at this Post Office is always long and it took me about fifteen minutes to get to the counter, when I discovered, to my utter horror, that it would cost me 45 pounds per box! Can you imagine? I doubled checked with the clerk that it was the Special Rate she was quoting and when she said yes, I beat a hasty retreat out of there thinking that I really ought to be far mroe choosey about which books I will mail--especially if I want to have enough of my shipping alloowance leftover to mail the desk I bought.

Well, I returned home when it occured to me that perhaps there is a better rate for sea mail (or what is called Surface mail in this coutnry). I tried to find the information online through the Royal Mail website but did not succeed, so back I went to the Post Office, I stood in the queue for another 15 mintues and discovered, from the same clerk, that there is such a thing as Priority Mail which will allow me to ship a maximum of 30 kgs of books and printed material for 168 pounds in one lot. That makes it a little cheaper and I decided to go for that. I will now have to reopen my boxes and become far more judicious about which books I will take back with me and which ones I will leave behind.

Surveying my New Digs:
I merely had the time for a shower before I had to set off again, this time to keep my appointment with Jack who was going to hand over the keys to me of the new place into which I will be moving at the weekend. He was waiting for me outside the gate and we spent the next hour in the flat as I learned the ropes--which keys go where, how kitchen applicances worked, how to turn the boiler on and off, how to work the remote controls on the TV and the DVD player and the blinds, how to log on to the wireless internet (did not succeed there as I need to make some adjustment on my computer which baffled both of us). I think I have all the information now under my hat and much as I am sorry to leave this cozy little one-bedroom flat, I am excited to be moving into a penthouse that is filled with modern art and medieval antiquities. Indeed, there is a Maggi Hambling oil painting right above my bed--a rather strange portrait of someone surrounded by a cloud of smoke that emanates from his own cigarette!!! The canvas is three-dimensional--there is a pack of cigarettes attached to it with the legend Smokers Die Younger very prominently displayed on it. I became acquainted with the work of Maggi Hambling at the National Portrait Gallery where her self-portrait, done in her funky signature style, presents her with a signature cigarette dangling from her fingers. This space is Huge, my apartment being the only flat on the entire floor, and I can't imagine myself rattling around on my own in it. But, like everything else, I suppose I will get accustomed to it slowly.

Back home, I felt really tired again (I am certain these are withdrawal symptoms) as I have rarely felt depleted of energy. I ate my pasta dinner, sent out a few urgent email responses, then got into bed and went straight to sleep.


Fëanor said...

Ah, very good, you went to BoE Museum. Btw, you might also enjoy the guided tour of the Royal College of Surgeons' Hunterian Museum. A curator guides tours every Wednesday at 1pm. Good stuff!

Rochelle's Roost said...

Hi Feanor:

I have already been to the Hunterian Museum though I did not take the guided tour. For an account of my visit, please see this earlier post in my blog entitled 'Museums and the Macabre'.