Monday, July 15, 2013

Rediscovering Westminster-Whitehall and Discovering Freemasonry

Friday, July 12, 2013

Rediscovering Westminster-Whitehall and Discovering Freemasonry   

I awoke at 5. 30 am—not quite in time for the opening of the Chancery Lane Tube station which lies just beneath my window, but close enough. Since I could not get back to sleep, I continued writing my journal, caught up with email and before I knew it, it was almost 7. 30 am—time for me to get out of bed, wash, dress and get to 8.00 am Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Boarding the 242 bus, I got off two stops later.  I was sorry that a late-night kept my friends Cynthia and Michael away from church—but I will see them soon. The usual left side door through which I enter St. Paul’s Cathedral was closed and I was confused. Had they changed the timings of the Eucharistic service? I walked around to the Crypt and café entrance but still drew a blank. Just when I wondered what was up, I tried the other doors and there it was—the one on the extreme right was open (I learned later that the left side one has been creaking terribly and disturbing the service). Mass was held in one of the side chapels—the cathedral has so many, they can take their pick. This one was decorated with one of the brilliant mosaics for which the space is noted and Mass was said by the lovely young pastor named Sarah who has always struck me as serene and very chic—she is a fraction too soft-spoken, however, and I could barely hear her. Mass was over in half an hour and I hopped on a bus and got back home in exactly ten minutes! Unbelievable!

Breakfast and Other Miscellaneous Chores:
           Breakfast was Sainsbury Fruit and Nut Muesli that I soaked last night in a yogurt and milk mixture—it was wonderfully soggy and creamy (just the way I love it) and very delicious but much of the liquid had been absorbed by the cereal and needed to be thinned with more milk. It reminded me of the Swiss muesli I had grown to love on our Baltic cruise. While munching, I watched the BBC’s Breakfast Show and discovered that Kenneth Branagh in currently starring in a production of Macbeth in Manchester—a show that will be beamed live by the National Theater to cinemas around the UK on July 20. I resolved to ask my friend Rosemary if she would be interested in going to see it with me.
            A few minutes later, my friend Bishop Michael called to invite me to a barbecue at St. Paul’s School in the evening. Since I had no plans and was keen to meet him and wife Cynthia, I accepted the invitation with pleasure. But you know the saying: when it rains, it pours. Five minutes later, Rosemary called to find out if I would like to accompany her to see the Summer Exhibition 2013 at the Royal Academy for the Arts (RA) at Piccadilly where she is a member and can take guests in for free. It was a late-night opening at the RA (until 9.00 pm) and she could only go in the evenings after work. How about a gad about the show, she said, followed by a drink and a long chat? I explained my predicament: Although I had just accepted another invitation, I was keen to join her in taking advantage of the late-evening closing. I resolved to bow out of the barbecue as I would be seeing my friends tomorrow evening for the Hog Roast to which they had also invited me earlier. That sorted, I became excited about my evening plans.
            Sitting at my PC catching up with email and doing a bit of research to find out where I could spend my day (the Freemason’s Library and Museum drew my curiosity) took the better part of the next hour; but by 10.00am, I pretty much knew what I wanted to do: I have resolved to go through the DK Eyewitness Guide to London page by page, as thoroughly as I had covered Paris using the same series of guide books last year for the City of Light. Well, on browsing through the book, I decided that Westminster and Whitehall was where I would begin. Not that I haven’t scoured these places before, mind you; it’s simply that with the book in hand, I am led to secret corners and hidden enclaves that one would usually bypass—and it was those that I looked forward to discovering. Using a second book entitled City Secrets London, I found three venues that were in the same vicinity as Whitehall-Westminster (The Cabinet War Rooms—which I have explored earlier; Banqueting House--which I have also explored before and love; and The Horse Guards) and armed with my Oyster card, bus and Tube maps, city map, phone, camera, bottle of water and sandwich (lettuce, ham and cheese on multigrain bread), off I went for a most interesting ramble.

Rambling in Westminster-Whitehall:
            I took the Tube to Westminster after making one change and found myself gazing up at Big Ben Tower—it was a most exciting experience, this first glimpse of the Tower in this unexpected fashion. From that point on, I could not stop clicking. I have realized that I have started to look at the world, during my travels, with a camera’s eye: trying to figure out the best angles; how to create the cleverest composition; how to include the most unusual background, etc. And this visual dimension brings me enhanced pleasure in discovering new sites. So I photographed Boadicea, one of England’s earliest queens, astride her chariot on the Embankment, the London Eye on the South Bank, Embankment Pier from where tourists board vessels to cruise the Thames and the new Scotland Yard buildings right opposite the Tower designed by Norman Shaw. I requested passers-up to take my picture on Westminster Bridge with the clock tower in the background and, likewise, I took pictures for so many people who requested my assistance. I discovered from my book that Big Ben is named after Sir Benjamin Hall, Chief Commission of Works when the bell was hung in 1858. Since that date in the hoary Victorian past, it has kept time for the nation with its distinctive musical bongs. 

Perusing Parliament Square:
         My walk took me to Parliament Square where I photographed each of the heavyweight statesmen whose sculptured likenesses decorate its periphery: Winston Churchill, Jan Christian Smuts of South Africa, David Lloyd George, Peel, Derby, Nelson Mandela—some were concealed by scaffolding (such as Lincoln).  Parliament Square is abloom with vivid purple lavender growing lushly in raised flowerbeds and photographing the monuments (Big Ben, St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey) against the fragrant fronds buzzing with drunken bees was a real delight.
I crossed the street back to architect Barry’s Houses of Parliament with their flamboyant carvings of creatures, real and imagined. Barry designed the buildings after the original structures of Whitehall Palace (as it was then known) were destroyed by a fire. Only Westminster Hall and a small tower (known as Jewel Tower which is across the street) remains of the medieval buildings. I arrived at the Sovereign’s Entrance where I posed for a picture: it is the only entrance through which the monarch is permitted to enter and not without asking for and receiving the permission of the House. The Queen goes through elaborate protocol twice a year when she is invited to attend Parliament—she is never at liberty to go there whenever she pleases in the way that any of us, lesser mortals, might do!
            I was disappointed to find that Auguste Rodin’s monumental sculpture The Burghers of Calais that usually decorates the park at Westminster Palace Embankment is traveling. Its plinth looked wan and empty without its bronzed Frenchmen. Crossing the street, I spied a giant sculpture which looked like the work of Henry Moore on the grass near Jewel Towel—which I also circled. When I had purchased the London Explorer Pass, four years ago, at the time of Chriselle’s visit in early 2009, she and I had climbed Jewel Tower and viewed the exhibitions inside. Past Jewel Tower, I reached tiny St. Margaret’s Church, a real jewel of a place with a rich history that is often overshadowed by the towering (literally!) reputation of Westminster Abbey next door. It was in this church that Henry VIII married Katherine of Aragon, his Spanish first wife—a magnificent stained glass window above the altar bears witness to this event. Here too Winston Churchill married the love of his life, Clementine Rozier, and here Walter Raleigh (he who had laid down his cloak over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth I to step over) lies buried just near the altar. The gilded Tudor altar piece is simply stunning. I was fortunate enough to catch the Free exhibition entitled “Picture the Procession” which featured photos of Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London brought together by Westminster Adult Education Services. In the case alongside, there were the church marriage register open to the entry for the Churchills. 
            Serpentine queues outside Westminster Abbey had to be seen to be believed. I am glad I wasn’t one of the tourists getting hotter by the minute as the mercury climbed to the mid-80s today—28 degrees in London measurements. I peeled off my jacket and continued my walk to Dean’s Yard, the lovely quiet patch of park which one enters through twin towers known as The Sanctuary, a medieval safe-place for those escaping the law. Dean’s Yard is characterized by structures in varying architectural styles from Tudor to Baroque. Across the street, the Beaux-Arts style Central Hall—today the Central Methodist Church—stands proud and pretty. I crossed the street to make a right on Great George Street past the Cabinet War Rooms which City Secrets London describes as one of London’s best-preserved and most atmospheric places—and I agree. It is where Winston Churchill and his Cabinet ministers holed up during World War II as they strategised with Roosevelt on how to defeat Hitler—Clementine Churchill who refused to be parted from her husband during this challenging time has her own little bedroom down there and very feminine it is too compared to the utilitarian spaces of the chaps.    
            I hung a Left on Whitehall and reached the Cenotaph which was shrouded in renovation scaffolding: “We’re Getting Ready to Remember” it said. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there is a moving ceremony held here each year (Armistice Day in the UK, Veterans Day in the US) when poppies truly come into their own as the flower of Remembrance and the Queen lays wreaths to remember the fallen of the two World Wars. This monument designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens is one of my favorite in the city and after seeing the monument last year at Thiepval in Picardy, France, that he designed to remember the Missing of the Somme, I have even more affection for it.
            Almost opposite the Cenotaph is the entrance to 10 Downing Street, residence of Britain’s Prime Minister. Tourists swarmed around for a glimpse and a few lucky ones with pass-invitations were in the actual precincts that are heavily guarded. I managed some rather surreptitious pictures but that was it. The street gets its name from Sir George Downing (1623-80) who bought land near Whitehall Palace and built a street of houses of which four survive. When King George II gave No. 10 to then PM Sir Horace Walpole in 1732, it became the customary residence of the country’s Prime Minister—and maybe the most photographed stoop in the world.
            Across the street once more, I moved towards Banqueting House with the intention of using its facilities—only to be informed that the place was closed to the public in preparation for a huge exhibition that is slated to open on August 14. I adore the Peter Paul Reubens’ ceiling inside this Inigo Jones double-galleried structure and its poignant history (Charles I walked to his execution through this building that he had constructed in honor of his father James I who is featured in Reuben’s painting) always brings a lump to my throat.
            Across the Street, the Horse Guards had their share of attention—everyone who is anyone has a picture in front of one of the horses at the entrance to the vast compound which is the venue for much showing off during the ceremony known as the Trooping of the Color.  
            Then I was across the street again at Trafalgar Studios inquiring about tickets for The Hot House starring Simon Russel Beale who I have seen on screen and whom I would like to see on stage. Tickets are available, it seems, so all I have to do is consult my calendar. My feet were aching my this time, so I hopped into the Tube (the Black Northern Line) to get to Covent Garden after walking underground for what seemed like endless miles! My idea was to get to a museum that had intrigued me when I had begun some searching on the internet—the Freemason’s Library and Museum at Great Queen Street in Holborn off Kingsway.

The Freemason’s Library and Museum:
            Knowing nothing about the Freemasons except what feeds on rumor, I thought it would be a good idea to find out more by visiting the beautiful towering building on the corner of Long Acre and Great Queen Streets in Holborn. Their website informed me that free guided tours were available throughout the day and I was quite excited to get there in time for the 2. 00 pm one.  I was given a Visitor’s Pass upon entry and told to sign the book. Instructed to climb one flight of stairs to the Library/Museum, a guide would arrive in a few minutes to lead us on the tour, I was told.
My first impression of the building was one of awe. The walk up the stairs is majestic: wide marble balustrades, thick star-patterned carpeting, beautiful chandeliers—they led to a wide corridor that led to the library filled with showcases crammed with all sorts of items from badges and medals to china. The number of visitors swelled by the second—many were French, judging from their conversation and the women appeared more enthusiastic than the men. The guide arrived in a few minutes—a short stocky chap with a bald head, very reminiscent of Mr. Pickwick. If I thought the tour would be edifying, I was sadly mistaken. For one thing, the guide had such a heavy Cockney accent, I could barely understand what he was saying. Secondly, he said nothing at all about Freemasonry—so I was more mystified than ever. Frequent references to royal family members who have served as Grand Marshalls were made and their oil-painted portraits hang upon the walls of the grand rooms that comprise the interior. It seems that Prince Edward is the current Grand Marshall and the longest-reigning one in its history.
What was really special about this visit for me was the magnificent interior of this building. Its rooms are simply gorgeous: the ceilings exuberantly painted, the marbled paved corridors palatial in appearance, black wood paneled rooms, so rare as the trees have become extinct in Tasmania from where it was transported. In the Memorial Room to the Wars, there is  a beautiful chest with a scroll containing the names of all Freemasons who fell in battle. It sits just below a splendid stained glass window that is a tribute to the men and women of the armed services. There are ornamental doors so heavy—each side weighs over a ton and half—that with magical engineering can be pushed open with a single finger! Throne-like chairs sit in sprawling halls until finally you arrive at the Grand Temple with more gold-throned chairs and an exquisite ceiling. Overall, this is not a place in which to learn anything about the Lodges and their doings—it is not called a secret society for nothing, I suppose. But it is a great place in which to marvel at the amount of money that Freemasons seem to possess and the generosity with which they give to their Lodges.
I don’t know whether it is jetlag or all the travel I have done in the past couple of weeks but by 3.00 pm, I was nodding off in the Grand Temple while the guide droned on unintelligibly—so I decided to abandon my plans to go to my office at New York University at Bloomsbury to print out some material. Instead, I took the Tube from Holborn station to Chancery Lane for a much-needed nap. I usually shut my eyes for 20 minutes exactly but this time, I slept for more than an hour. I jumped up at 4. 15 pm to shower and get dressed for my appointment with my friend Rosemary whom I know as “Roz”.

Summer Exhibition 2013 at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly:
            Jumping back on the Tube, I could not believe that I reached Piccadilly in less than 20 minutes—the convenience of my Holborn location never ever fails to fill me with amazement and delight at the ease with which I can get around and the little time it takes to get anywhere. No wonder I had loved living in this building and feel so grateful to my friends who have let me have their flat in their absence.
            Piccadilly was strung with purple banners proclaiming the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee—I have yet to make sense of it (still thought it finished last year). And the entrance to Fortnum and Mason sports a green-covered tea set—some allusion to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, perhaps? I will have to find out. Into the lovely quadrangle of the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) I went for the annual Summer Exhibition which has been held here for 200 years. Every year, artists are invited to submit their work which is then judged by a panel comprising members of the Royal Academy. If selected, their work is shown during this exhibition that attracts huge crowds.
I was delighted to see my friend Roz again. We paused for a quick cuppa in the café at the entrance before entering the fabulous mansion—one of the few 18th century London mansions that survived the blitz. The rooms are sumptuously decorated with lavish use of gold leaf on ceiling moldings We spent the next couple of hours simply enthralled by the entries. There was every conceivable form of art on display—from paintings and sculpture to wacky installations and architectural models. Some of the work was hugely impressive and much of it was very affordable indeed—especially if you remember that these artists, twenty years from now, might be very significant names indeed. However, brilliant though the show was, it seemed endless and after traipsing through London for miles and after a long day at work, both Roz and I were ready for a sit-down in the Members’ Café. With her glass of wine and my beer, we had a lively chinwag and caught up on all our news. We also checked calendars and made plans to return to the RA for the “Mexico” exhibition which undoubtedly features the work of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera which I would love to see. Meanwhile, Roz was very enthusiastic to join me in seeing Branagh in Macbeth—so we will be headed there on July 20 after she gets us tickets. And we have plans to see some London theater together. What a great month I have in store!         
It was after 10.30 pm when I got home to fix myself a dinner of Brocolli and Cheddar Quiche and a small salad washed down with Ainsley Herriot’s Spicy Butternut Squash Soup. At 11.00 pm, when I was frankly nodding of, I switched the light off.

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