Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Royal Excitement, Bloomsbury and a Barbecue

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

            I have finally been awaking at a decent hour—that is to say, about 7.45 am (as I did this morning). The upside is that I feel well rested; the down side is that I am not really getting much work done. Today, certainly, with the royal excitement over the birth of an heir, I did none. But even I can be permitted to take a day off to participate in the general international jubilation, right?

Participating in a Historic Happening at Bucks House:
            So when I switched on the telly and discovered that people had already begun congregating outside Bucks House, aka Buckingham Palace, to catch a personal glimpse of the official announcement of the birth of the Prince of Cambridge on the easel set in the front yard, I decided that, being in London at such a time, I needed to mark the event in some way myself. Juvenile? Of course. But, like I said, this is one of those times when you throw all sorts of post-colonial reservations about decorous behavior to the wind and adopt the mob mentality. I am an unashamed Anglophile and I am a tourist in London—I combined the worst of what those labels imply and set out, after brekkie (Walnut Bread with Peanut Butter and Wensleydale Cheese with Ginger with Tea) and off I went on the Tube to St. James’ Park to join the dizzy throngs.
            There was a very orderly queue when I got there—but within three minutes, something crazy happened. The police removed the barriers that were keeping the frenzied crowds at bay behind the Palace gates where a golden easel had been sent up with the birth announcement. And because I happened to be right at the barrier actually questioning a bobby to find out how long the wait in the line would be (to take a close-up picture of the easel), I was right in the front—standing right at the gates, really really close to the easel. It enabled me to take clear pictures of it both with my camera and my Iphone and to compose my shots so well that I was able to get the front façade of the Palace as well as the guards wearing their traditional bearskin hats and a bobby walking officiously up and down past the gates. It was a right royal crush trying to get out of there once I had finished taking my pictures, but it was so worthwhile. The crowds at the gate were at least eight deep by the time I managed to worm (literally) my way out.
            Not content with my pictures and wondering if there were people congregated around the statue of Queen Victoria for a reason, I asked a bobby for more information. He replied, “Sorry Madam, but your guess is as good as mine. We are never given any information”. I took a few more fun pictures at the statue of the crowds at the gates as well as of The Mall sporting colorful Union Jacks from every flagpole and I soon realized that they had massed there for the Ceremony of the Changing of the Guard. I had had my share of royal excitement for the day as well as personal participation in a historic moment. I had something worthwhile to tell my grand kids someday—so off I went.

A Walking Tour of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia:
            I walked about 6 minutes to Green Park, took the Tube from there to Russel Square and began my walking tour of Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia (from DK Eyewitness Guides). These tours are simply amazing. Although I am pretty much stomping familiar ground, they are introducing me to elements of the city that I had not previously known and forcing me to take note of the littlest details that tickle the history and literary buff in me. For example, I soon realized that Russel Square is probably named after Bertrand Russel who lived in Bloomsbury and whose residence is marked with a blue plaque. Well, I could be mistaken, but I think not.
            Anyway…I arrived at Russel Square which is one of the largest London squares and is dominated by the red terracotta façade of the Russel Hotel which was designed and built by Charles Doll. It is a stunning confection of pillars, wrought-iron and collonaded balconies and friezes that represent cherubs prancing around. Inside, I was assured the magnificence continued—so, of course, in I went to the lobby with its lavish marble décor and trim, its chandeliered staircase—so wide it could easily accommodate a grand piano—and its lovely wall sconces. Needless to say, I used the loo there and continued on my exploration.
            Across the gardens of Russel Square I went, past the statue of Francis, Duke of Bedford, to whom this vast acreage once belonged (and after whom neighboring Bedford Square is named). He is depicted with a plow and sheep at his feet as he was a country fellow who reveled in such pursuits. I walked down Bedford Street and arrived at Bloomsbury Square that gave its name to the literary club of sorts that was formed in the early 20th century known as the Bloomsbury Group and numbering among its members such luminaries as Virginia Woolf and her sundry relatives—(siblings and in-laws) and philosophers such as Russel, biographers such as Lytton Strachey and artists such as Dora Carrington—although none of them lived around this square (most lived around neighboring Gordon Square). .     
            I sat on a garden bench for a while, then spied the flag and the sign of Le Cordon Bleu along one of the streets—in I went as I have been familiar with this name for decades (as a child I used to read my Mum’s issues of Woman and Home magazine that often mentioned the Cordon Bleu School of Cookery). I went inside and found it to be a cooking school indeed. Unfortunately, I will not be long enough in London to take one of their courses which go on for a few weeks (although I would dearly love to do so). Instead I contented myself buying some of the very reasonably priced goodies in their show cases and then walking out.
            The rain had begun—never thought I would be grateful for rain, but it immediately brought down the temperature in sizzling, humid London and made it much more bearable. I took shelter in a newsagents shop and ended up buying a copy of The Times in order to preserve its front page with the historic royal news. A few minutes later, I was at the entrance of the Church of St. George, Bloomsbury, which is one of the masterpieces of Nicholas Hawksmore who was a pupil of Christopher Wren. The church, alas, was closed, so I could not explore the inside—but I paused long enough to note the mausoleum-like tower and the gigantic sculpture of the lion and the unicorn at the very top. Visiting this church was on the top of my list and I was sorry I was unable to get inside.
            By this point, I was close to the British Museum—so I walked one road down and reached its impressive gates and railing. There were huge crowds in its forecourt but I could not linger as I had a meeting at New York University just next door with the Director there.

A Meeting at NYU:
            Since the leadership at NYU has changed since I taught there and since I am doing so much of my research and editing work on our campus where I am being ably assisted by the staff (especially Ruth), I thought it would be a good idea to meet the current Director Gary and thank him in person for enabling me to use the campus facilities. My meeting was at 12. 30 pm and on the dot, he came downstairs to the lobby to meet me and to graciously escort me into his office where he offered me a glass of sparkling cold water. I was very touched by his chivalry and his thoughtfulness.
            I had expected our meeting to me short—just a courtesy visit, really—so I was surprised and thrilled that it went on for over an hour because Gary was so interested in my research project about Britain’s Anglo-Indians and wanted to discuss it at length with me. I discovered that his background in British Law (he is a lawyer) made him familiar with the British Nationality Act of 1948 around which a great deal of my work in the UK is based. Our discussion was wonderfully productive—Gary is well-versed in Linguistics as well as we spent a great deal of time talking about the recent evolution of the English language through the influx of immigrants in the UK. We also talked about Global Migration (I teach a course on the subject at NYU) and the changing face of the UK since it joined the EU. Overall, I was simply delighted to have met a man who seemed genuinely interested in my areas of field research and contributed richly with his views and ideas.

Off to the British Museum:
     Of course, once our meeting was over, I simply had to spend a while at the British Museum re-visiting some of my favorite objects there. I headed straight to the Rosetta Stone, then to the Bust of Rameses II and on to the Lely Aphrodite which has only recently been loaned to the Museum’s collection through the Queen to whom it belongs.
       A few steps ahead, I entered the vast custom-built hall that was constructed to accommodate the Elgin Marbles—so-called because they came into the possession of Great Britain through Lord Elgin. They had once decorated the top of the Acropolis on the Parthenon mountain in Greece but after being struck down by an earthquake, they were found strewn around the base by Elgin. He arranged for their sale through the Turks who had then temporarily held Greece. There has been a long raging controversy between Greece and the UK—Greece wants the Marbles back, the UK has refused to part with them on grounds that the country does not possess the right space in which to keep them protected. Greece has responded by building the new Acropolis Museum in Athens especially designed to house the carvings. The UK continues to turn a blind eye and deaf eye to their pleas and has ignored Greece’s good faith attempts to preserve the Marbles for posterity. And so it goes on: the international impasse. 
          My own particular favorites are those of the pediment of which only a few fragments remain—but what amazing fragments they are! I swear that horse breathes out of those flared nostrils! Having actually been to Greece and stood on the Acropolis, I love imagining what these works might have looked like in situ.
          Downstairs, I visited the giant carving from Easter Island and then I made my way outside to the café of the Senate House Library of the University of London which was just across the road. I settled down with a mocha latte and a scone with butter (alas, they had no jam—and a scone without jam is like a day without sunshine, as far as I am concerned—in other words, pretty dull). Still, it filled me up and got me fuelled for the next lap of my rambles—a visit to two museums.

The Petrie Museum of Egyptology:
         I have heard a great deal about this museum for years—it is a part of the University of London (known as UCL), but somehow although I taught classes for a year in a building pretty close to it, I had never entered it. I spent more than an hour there focusing only on the Top Ten items that were pointed out to me by the friendly assistant. The museum is free and attempts are being made to give it more exposure and publicity and some guides asked me to participate in a survey after my visit—which I gladly did.
            The items that caught my eye were: The world’s oldest garment (a child’s blouse, made of linen, about 5,000 years old). Needless to say, it very fragile. I also saw two full-length tunics, also made of linen, not as old as the child’s blouse, but about 3,000 years old, all the same); a Nubian ebony wood carving (that happened to be the favorite item in the entire collection of Petrie who was an archeologist and Egyptologist and who brought back all the items in this collection from his various ‘digs’); a bead dress, designed for a pre-pubescent child that has acquired erotic innunendos; beads from a necklace made of semi-precious stones that might once have been worn by a pharaoh; a large bowl with an intact human skeleton in it (used for a ‘bowl burial’) and a few painted funerary masks. The great novelty aspect of these objects lies in their age and their manner of near-perfect preservation. To see all the thousands of items on display would take weeks—to see only the highlights is really the best way to make use of short stretches of time.

The Grant Museum of Zoology:
            I left the Petrie and looked for the Grant Museum of Zoology which is in the same general area and also belongs to UCL. Here too, in this wonderful place filled with natural history specimens most of which are preserved in formaldehyde in glass jars, I asked for a brochure giving Highlights. I was given a useful leaflet containing the Top Ten items and here is some of what I saw: a collection of preserved brains of a number of animals; a jar full of preserved moles (I had no idea moles were so small); glass creatures created in Czechoslovakia since real ones could not be preserved—they are truly exquisite and real works of art and craftsmanship; giant deer antlers, the entire skeleton of a real anaconda—the world’s largest snake that kills its victims by choking them to death. I found this place fascinating although science and zoology are not really my particular areas of interest. There were skeletons of every conceivable creature—the whole skeleton of a hippopotamus, for instance.
BT Tower Goes Festive:
        Outside, I got a great view of the British Telecom Tower. All day it has been beaming a message that went around the circumference of it saying “It’s a Boy”. There are also images of storms flying around it that bring a touch of whimsy to the royal birth. Because I was far from the Tower of London, I did not hear the Gun Salute but I have seen the fountains in front of the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square turn blue. It is a truly festive time to be in London and all the conversation on the Tube and in the buses has to do with this long-awaited baby. Long may he reign!
            I sat myself down then for half an hour in the front court of the main Neo-Classical Building of UCL with its imposing dome and its Greek columns and its vast plinth. I needed to rest my feet and while away some time before I moved on to my next appointment at St. Paul’s Cathedral.    

A Barbecue at St. Paul Cathedral:
            My friends Bishop Michael and his wife Cynthia had invited me to a barbecue for the staff of three major London churches: St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey and Southwark Cathedral. I had attended this event about two years ago and had enjoyed it immensely. I arrived at their place at 6.00 pm and in a few minutes, we made our way to the grounds of the Cathedral. This time too I made some lovely friends and had some absorbing conversations. I met British lawyers, a Classics teacher, an HR specialist, the cross bearer at the services, a French chanteuse (singer) from Paris. The food was plentiful and delicious—the British have completely embraced the concept of the barbecue which, I know, about 30 years ago, was not on. Globalization and Global Warming have contributed to the popularity of the Cook-Out and now it is not unusual to be invited to such an event.
            I started off with a cold beer because the weather is still pretty muggy and then moved towards the lines snaking around the food tables: burgers, goat cheese and leek patties (delicious), Cumberland sausages served with brown sauce, remoulade, green salad with balsamic vinaigrette and grilled corn on the cob. Everything was made more tasty by the fact that we were eating it outdoors under the great dome of Christopher Wren. Dessert was ice-cream doled out in many flavors by ice-cream men who manned ice-cream carts. It was cute and very old-fashioned. Of course, everyone ate too much and as the evening wore on, it was time for me to say goodbye to my friends and take the Tube back home to St. John’s where I reached about 9. 30 pm.
            I spent the rest of the evening taking a shower, writing this blog and planning out my work and sightseeing program for the next few days. It was a lovely day and all the excitement of the birth of the heir kept me wide awake long into the night. It was about 3. 45 am when I finally was able to get to sleep.     

1 comment:

Natalya said...

Am super curious about your book- sounds like it will be a very interesting one! Do not forget to notify me when to buy it and then, of course, I will need your autograph as well;-) At least one book on my tiny little bookshelf will have author's signature! (not to suggest that I am not a book lover, I just prefer reading e-books)
Museum of Egyptology seems like a lot of fun, I need to keep it in mind to visit one day.
warm hugs from New York City;-)
PS I was also excited about the Royal Baby;-)