Sunday, September 4, 2016
I had such an eventful happy day--but at the end of it, I was so wiped out that I did not even chat with Llew before I fell asleep while watching Beck on my laptop.
Since I am not going to be in this neck of the London woods long, I am trying to finish up my visits to places near at hand. So I finished blogging, showered, had a slice of toast with peanut butter and decaff coffee and left the house on time as I had wanted to do--at 9. 15 am. Thankfully, there were more folks on the street at 9. 15 than there had been at 8.00 am, a few weeks ago, while I had stood waiting for a bus to get to church.
Off to the Columbia Road Flower Market:
A bus to Bethnal Green came in a few minutes. I hopped in, got off at York Hall, then crossed the street to sail along Cambridge Heath Road towards Hackney. One stop later, I got off, took another bus going towards Oxford Street and after asking the driver for help to find the right stop, I got off.
A short walk down two lanes and I was at the hippest place to be on a Sunday morning in London: the Columbia Road Flower Market. This would be my third time there--the first time had been mid-week (when it was dead), the second had been on a Sunday morning, a year or two ago with Llew. On Sunday morning, this area revives with shops lining a narrow street doing brisk business. The main attraction ,however, is a street market that only sells flowers and plants. It is as if Covent Garden of a century ago has moved East. For some reason, flower-buying is associated with high incomes--you only buy flowers when you're feeling flush, I suppose. So, as a result of the flower power, local businesses that line the street have focused on high-end goods: exclusive interior design items such as glass tables and velvet cushions, items for the garden and for gardeners (such as rose-sprigged spades and trowels), super luxurious jewelry (using real semi-precious stones), high quality croissants, artisanal bread and unique jams and spreads. There are musicians busking (more shades of Covent Garden)--playing guitars and singing, there is coffee--lots of it!
I walked through the aisles filled with flowers and sweetly scented ones too. I wasn't buying any flowers myself but I was quite amazed at the prices. Everything was reasonably priced and the dealers were quite amenable to making deals. I picked up a potted cyclamen for my friend Rose to whose home I had been invited for lunch. And after an hour of browsing through the shops and the flower stalls, I bought myself a meat and vegetable-filled Cornish pasty which I munched on the way to the bus stop as I suddenly felt peckish. It was absolutely delicious.
On the Bus to St. Paul's:
I arrived at the bus stop, looked up the routes offered and found a 26 that would take me straight to St. Paul's Cathedral as that was my next port of call. I needed to get there for the 11.00 Commemoration Service for the Great Fire of London of 1666. The sermon was to be preached by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, and I was keen to listen to what he had to say.
I loved the bus ride at that still early hour of the morning when East Enders had not quite woken up. On the top front and center seat, I continued munching my pasty and watched Shoreditch pass me by. In fact, I passed the church that is in the Oranges and Lemons poem: "When will you grow rich? say the Bells of Shoreditch". This formerly gritty part of the East End has gentrified rapidly and today is host to a number of hip clubs, gastropubs, wine bars, designer outlets, etc. It is the new spot for hanging out among young folk. That gentrification has not yet reached Bethnal Green--but give it another 10 years and this place might be unrecognizable.
Commemoration Service at St. Paul's Cathedral:
The front of the Cathedral was already packed when I jumped off the bus and entered it. For a moment, I wondered if royalty was present to mark the event--but I did not think so. The service lasted 75 minutes and involved marked contribution by the choir. What was very interesting was that it included about four readings from diaries of the time (1666) penned by such well-known jotters as Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. They had a modern-day baker, a modern-day firefighter, the Assistant Mayor of London and a prelate of St. Paul's read and after each reading, the choir sang. It was very solemn and very evocative of the tragedy and horror of the Great Fire and also of the resilience of Londoners that urged them on to the create the modern city we know and love today.
The Bishop's sermon, which was the reason I attended, was very good indeed. I do wish the sound system were better--it kept echoing quite annoyingly and robbed his delivery of its clarity. Still, all said, it was great to know that the insurance system (that is a multi-billion pound business today) was only introduced to London after the Fire. The Bishop referred, of course, to the horrific destruction of the old Cathedral. The flames and the heat were so great that it melted the lead off the roof which then came pouring down upon the street in rivers and sent the stones flying all over the place. These stones, I later learned on TV in the evening, are still preserved in the basement of the building as many of them date from Roman times.
Tours of the Dome were offered to anyone wishing to avail of the opportunity right after the service and had I not had a luncheon appointment right away at Maida Vale, I'd have taken it. I have, of course, been on the dome myself in years gone by--once on my own and once with Chriselle--and it is always a fun experience to pick out London's spires, rooftops and now iconic skyscrapers and identify them, especially on a clear day. But today, I had to press on...
On the Tube to Maida Vale:
I was invited to lunch by my new friend Rose who lives in Maida Vale and who wanted me to meet her American friend, Carol, who is on a Sabbatical too from her teaching position at the University of New Haven in Maine. Since Carol's friend, Harriet, from Virginia, happened to be visiting her, she would be there too. I thought it would be fun to meet some fellow-American academics...so I looked forward to the afternoon.
As it turned out, I had no need to hurry. The Tube line from St. Paul's took me to Oxford Circus from where I switched to the Bakerloo Line going north and stepped off at Maida Vale station--a very pretty and very old-fashioned station indeed which still retains its original small tile mosaic work on the walls and its green and white alternating checkered bands of tile.
Rose lives less than a New York block from the Tube station in one of the lovely gracious old Victorian buildings that fill this area: my friend Raquel lived in a similar building at St. John's Wood on the Abbey Road Beatles Crossing and having stayed at her place on two occasions in the years gone by, I can assure you that these flats are huge and quite gorgeous inside.
I arrived before Rose and her guests returned from church themselves! For a moment, I wondered if I had the timing wrong--then I remembered that I had spoken to her yesterday to confirm our meeting. There was no other explanation: they had not yet reached home as they were out at Mass themselves. I settled myself on a low brick wall to wait and in about five minutes, they came down the road.
Lunch with Rose and New Friends:
Rose was the perfect hostess, generous to a fault. She served us drinks (wine for one, water for the other, elderflower cordial for me) and vegetable crisps that are so delicious. Needless to say, Carol, Harriet and I got on like a house on fire as we quickly discovered our mutual passion for London and our thirst to discover its last nook and cranny. They have spent most of the last month scouring lesser-known parts of the city (the Transport Depot at Acton, for instance, and the Brunel Museum in Bermondsey--where they live). From me, they learned about the Linley-Sanborne House of which they had never heard and of tours at Charterhouse. In like manner, as Rose prepared our meal, we talked about everything--the research projects we are working on, the American election, etc, etc.
Rose's lunch was lovely: she started us off with a salad plate filled with salmon mousse, tomatoes and cucumbers--artfully arranged on individual plates bursting with color. Her meal centered on Chicken Curry and rice with side dishes of zucchini and spinach with chickpeas. Everything was good and it was nice to eat rice and curry in a real Indian home! For dessert, she brought out the most appealing Pear and Chocolate Tart from M and S--which we all loved. The meal was elegant, tasty and heartwarming and it cemented the new fledging friendships that were being formed. It was hard to believe that it had turned 4.00 pm and since no one wanted tea or coffee, we got up to leave right then and there. I am delighted to have made these new friends. Although Harriet is leaving for the US soon, I hope to find a companion in Carol in October when I shall resume my city surveying again.
On the Tube to the Tate:
My next destination was the Tate Modern Museum on the South Bank of the Thames where I had made plans to meet Alisha, the lovely, talented and very brilliant daughter of my Connecticut friends, Anup and Laureen. Alisha is a management consultant for Deloitte and has been working in London for almost 10 years--and has no intention of ever returning to the US to work! I know her well from my previous stays and visits to London and when she offered to use her membership to get me into the Georgia O'Keefe exhibition at the Tate (for which one ordinarily needs to buy a ticket), I was game!
Subsequently, I crossed Millennium (aka Wobbly) Bridge on a day when the whole of the city's tourist crowd was filled with excitement. Later in the evening, the recreated City of London 1666 which presently stood on a barge on the Thames would be set alight and burned--an eerie re-enactment of the burning of the city 350 years ago. Alisha and I would have loved to actually watch it happen and she suggested the Members Lounge at the Tate which we thought would have late opening hours.
Bhupen Khakkar and Goergia O'Keefe at the Tate Modern:
I hooked up with Alisha outside the special retrospective exhibition on the works of Bhupen Khakkar. I have seen loads of O'Keefe's works on several occasions--in New York and at the Georgia O'Keefe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. What I really did want to see was the Khakkar as he is a very well-reputed Indian artist whose work I have rarely seen.
The Khakkar exhibit is very powerful indeed. It features the work of an artist who died a few years ago and who belonged to the Baroda School of Painting. His work exposes his own demons--his struggle with his homosexuality, his battle with prostate cancer that took his life, his longing to fit into the sophisticated world of international art despite his humble beginnings, etc. His canvasses are large, his colors explode in vivid hues, his Indianness is plainly evident in the motifs he selects--mariegold flowers, coconut palm fronds, etc. to flesh out his backgrounds. As an introduction to his work, I found it vastly interesting.
With half an hour to spare before the museum closed, we moved on to the O'Keefe exhibit which had many more visitors. I really do hope I can return to it later in October--for although I have seen most of the canvasses on display, her work is so compelling that one is seized by a desire to pause before each one and contemplate it. We walked rather speedily through the various Rooms to take in her changing subjects--flowers, fruit, adobe houses, the mountains that surround Santa Fe, etc. It was all very nicely done. Yes, I do think I will return...
A Walk Along the Thames Embankment:
Left with very little energy, after what had been an eventful day already, I wondered whether it was wise to take up Alisha's suggestion that we walk along the South Embankment to try to find a spot to see the London 1666 barge. Alisha had to meet a friend and could not stay for the burning which would begin at 8. 30 pm. I certainly did not have the stomach to stand for another two and half hours. And there was simply nowhere to sit until then. If one had not grabbed a spot at the occasional pub or restaurant that lined the quay, there was no way to watch the spectacle other than by lining the banks and bridges.
We walked on as far as the other side of Blackfriars Bridge. And there it was--the same barge I had seen moored on the north bank of the Thames yesterday, was anchored in the middle of the river where the burning would occur. We took several pictures, waited by a parapet for about fifteen minutes as we caught up on news and then decided to cross the Thames on Blackfriars Bridge and get to the Tube station. We both decided to watch the spectacle on TV.
Back Home and on TV:
I found a No. 25 bus stop headed to Bethnal Green, Alicia found the Tube stop and we departed with plans to meet again when I get back after my research stint in Oxford. I find Alisha great company as we share so many interests in common. We will definitely do some theater shows and opera in the future.
Back home at exactly 7.00 pm, I found that I was exhausted. I immediately prepared a dinner plate for myself--salad with lettuce and frozen veg in a balsamic dressing, pork sausage, soup. And as I ate, I watched a live telecast of the burning of the barge and, believe me, it was a chilling experience. Interviews with David Best, the kids and homeless folk who were part of the project, employees of Artichoke, the production company that masterminded the spectacle, personnel from St. Paul's Cathedral, etc. were part of the live program and I was thoroughly thrilled that I watched it as it happened live, just a couple of miles from where I was seated. And no, I have no regrets that I did not watch it in person as it would have simply been too much for my feet to take.
I watched Beck on TV and dropped off to sleep as I watched because I was so tired. It had been a fruitful and very busy Sunday and as the commemoration events of the Fire on this packed weekend come to an end, I am so pleased that I was so involved in so many of them as much more than just a bystander.
Until tomorrow, cheerio...