Foggy Albion or a Complete Tour of London

(abridged)

The British Civilization

A Russian classic (forget which one) was right when he (it was a “he”) said something about “tumanny [foggy] Albion”. He failed to mention that it was also really rainy as well as very warm. The former omission was probably just to avoid too common a place. The latter, I suspect, was more because this Albion only recently became such a subtropical paradise, thanks to the global warming. Palm trees, albeit potted, are found on the streets basking in the un-victorian Christmas temperature of 50F.

But enough about this most British of topics, weather. In France, including such remote places as Martinique, they used to start the history course for little school kids with the phrase: “nos ancetres, les gaulois” [our ancestors, the Gauls]. I believe this was recently scrapped as politically incorrect. In our case however, the case of both “native” and non-native Americans, it makes sense to say “our ancestors, the Brits,” and not just because of the nice symmetry of referring to two contemporary Keltic tribes.

What, then, are the main features of the British Civilization.

Dogs and Englishmen

While in America dogs and cats are running neck in neck in popularity, there are pockets of bias. Take for example the case of San Francisco. Panhandlers, presumed to be homeless, sitting in downtown SF all have cats. Those cats are, incidentally, all red-haired, a clear indication of a conspiracy, but no more about it here. Instead, see my report from the last ever UniForum treating the secretive Rent-a-Cat corporation.

By contrast, panhandlers in London have dogs. Unlike the cat-possessing sitters in SF, who are awake asking for your money, with the cat fast asleep at the tiller, the London specimens are curled up completely together with their dogs. An especially teeming place for the English doghandler is, you guessed it, downtown. Just circle the “subway” [underground passage] under the Piccadilly Circle. They have lots of fabric to cover them, too, but clearly the dog serves a utilitarian purpose here, while the cats mentioned above were clearly superfluous if not outright detrimental. Thus I can’t discern any Rent-a-Dog conspiracy in the UK. And of course one should not forget that we are in England where the locals self-identify with mad dogs.

Obsession with perfection

John Flamsteed, the first First Astronomer Royale, was cooped up in his Greenwich tower counting stars for decades. This was to create star charts in anticipation of the time when reliable sea-going clock would be invented. Even after all those decades, having also been recognized by visit from Peter, the Asiatic Czar, he considered his work far from finished. Along comes the evil and powerful Sir Isaac Newton and forces the publication of his star catalog.

Disgusted Flamsteed buys up all he can find, 300 out of 400 published copies, and destroys them. No time to market sense whatsoever. Dr. Johnson’s multiyear work on “A Dictionary of the English Language” is another more famous, although less striking example of the perfectionist British trait.

Old New England

This heading may be too sweeping, but that London is a mega-Boston, or conversly Boston is a micro-London, is quite easy to detect. It’s enough to mention similar architecture, agglomeration of culture and tradition, the river and 2 celebrated universities nearby. Boston being a micro version, the distances there are squooshed so that instead of Oxford and Cambridge being each an hour’s ride from London, our Cambridge contains both universities and is just across the river. The place names in Cambridgeshire all sound awfully familiar and for a good reason: that’s where “OUR ancestors, the Brits” actually came from.

Soon after our return, The New York Times Weekend section styled Boston “baby London” out of the same sentiment. Still, I would stick with my designation as micro. Not every small dog is a puppy.

Oxbridge

It is remarkable to what extent the Oxbridge route refers to America, more specifically, John Harvard. He lived near Oxford, studied at Cambridge, lazed about in London, and so on. Invariably, he is called “the founder of Harvard University”, a bald-faced lie foisted on the ignorant. This is either the recognition of the younger brother who has grown taller or just shameless commerce for the yanks. The nearby Stratford, indeed, came across as a complete tourist trap, with Birthplace Coach Terminal in the center of the town. Cambridge was a bit more relaxed. In addition, we were accompanied by a native, Adrian Cockcroft. The name Cockcroft actually comes from “cock crofter” or chicken farmer and was traced by Adrian for quite a while back within the region. We were able to sample more of Ye Olde Merrie England at a post-christmas dinner in his Cambridgeshire house, with half-timbered exterior, complete with English-looking decorations including a tan old dog.

Theatre

We made two samples of the theatre scene.

Complete Shakespeare (abridged) by the Reduced Shakespeare Company

At the fancy mock-baroque white Criterion, smack in the centre of the Piccadilly Circus, three California bums make a living mocking the bard. Several years running. All 37 plays in 90 minutes. The best part was the wind-up Godzilla as a character in Titus Andronicus. Ophelia plucked from the audience, in the second act, completely devoted to Hamlet, was a close runner-up. And yes, they also repeated the whole Hamlet in one minute and then in one minute running backward.

Fractional Pushkin (enlarged)

The Golden Cockerel was lavishly staged at the Royal Opera with the Queen of Shemakha sung by a grechanka (Elena Kelessidi) born in Kazakhstan but wisely making her home now in Greece. That role was sung and looked by her pretty good. Tsar Dadon was modeled after a whole bunch of creeps from Nicholas through Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev all the way to Yeltsin. The final return scene imitated workers greetings at an October demonstration.

A gentleman, and I mean a real Engish gentleman, sitting next to us, noticed that we spoke Russian with Ben and struck up a conversation, noting that while he would have a better chance at an Italian or a German opera, the Russian text was closed to him. When told that the text is known to any Russian from childhood, the erudite old gent opined that “Pushkin is your Shakespeare”. Hooray for Oxbridge education!

The Muses (museums)

British Museum

One’s taste changes little. I took a picture of my 13-year old in front of an Elgin marble horsehead. Back home, the same horse was found posing with his then 9-year old brother, 15 years ago.

I don’t remember if the Rosetta stone was as mobbed back then as it was now. We could not even get a glimpse of it at first. 10 minutes later, having tried to find the right trade-off between the size and the price of the fake one at the gift shop right next to it, we noticed that the crowds disappeared. I snapped a picture and dropped the fake.

Tate Gallery

Pre-Raphaelite Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, painted Ophelia floating in a stream all covered with flowers. What a horror show.

African-UKinian Chris Ofili painted gay and colorful figures covered with beads, sized from floor to ceiling, but he also decorated them with all-natural, although glazed and bead-encrusted, pieces of elephant dung. In spite (or because) of that, he was awarded last year’s Turner prize and was granted a personal show at the Tate. At least those dungees don’t need to be sculpted: they come into the world already shaped by their creators.

National Gallery

Just to list a couple of items would be enough:

Arnolfini Couple

Battle of San Romano

Pictures from the Underground (tube)

When from a shallow “subway” you enter the actual tube and the train is slowing down in front of you, a stern voice warns you “Mind the gap!” It’s not a jean store advertising, rather they try to draw your attention to some imminent danger, but what?

The Angel line is cockney train. It’s shabby and grimy. The whole end of the car was filled with somewhat sooty and more than somewhat drunk lads conducting vivacious conversation. Apparently, they were on a hunt: any lady or even lass who happened nearby was immediately offered a seat with nary a chance to refuse. To be sure, they offered seats to us too, figuring we were a family. No harm, overall, but just a bit of a tad scary excitement. No real hooligans, these chaps. No wonder on the same day a Russian managed to cross the Chunnel from England to France on foot, and lived to tell the story. He was probably bored by the mild-mannered English bullies.

On the same line, heading back, passengers’ chivalry provided a big black dog, apparently traveling alone, with a whole bench-length of sitting space.

It is said the anglichanin mudrets will invent all manner of machines to help out in a hard task. Maybe… But when an elevator at our own Gloucester Station broke down it stayed that way for the whole day. And this was Piccadilly line!

The tube has a much higher proportion of disgusting advertising boards than in America, showing such vistas as a hole in the sole, ugly faces and other nauseating body parts. Is it the British character, or have I just forgotten the New York subway? You will certainly not find this stuff in Boston.

I suppose it’s the character. On a train from Cambridge to London, two late-teen girls, who might even look good if they gave it a try, spent their time getting merrier and merrier pouring something into their cups from a brown bag they did not much bother to conceal. They were turning into those ads (or maybe rats) more and more as the train chugged along.

The Thames cruise or 3 Humen in a Boat (to say nothing of the 200 others)

A boat departs from the Westminster Palace every hour. This is a tour of the beauties of the Thames shores, said beauties ranging from plain to ugly. It was not a tour boat, mind you, with no licensed guides on board. Yet the working class “volunteer” commentary of the boatmen saved the trip. A crewman’s cap passed around at the end was barely enough to hold the gratitude. Example of the commentary: “See this concrete monster on the left – government project. But don’t worry, no tax money in it – all from the lottery. No my money in that one however”.

A few of the more offbeat landmarks along the shores:

OXO building. No advertising or signs were allowed along the embankment but OXO company found a way. Its art deco tower has vertical letters OXO as an ornament.

Millennium Dome – a scary-looking humongous spiked tent just beyond Greenwich where lavish spectacles are planned for, you guessed it, the coming millennium. It would have to survive till Y3K to have an appropriate use again. A giant boondogle formerly supervised by Peter Mandelson, a gay (in more senses than one) and flamboyant now ex-minister rumored to be the James Carvell of the Labour Party. He was rapidly disgraced and dismissed, even as we were sightseeing, for some shady little affairs: a misly $.5 mil in inappropriate loans. Immediately appointed ambassador to Germany for European unity (what the hell does that mean?).

Canary Warf – an 800ft tall fallic obelisk that toppled Olympia & York and scarred the redoubtable Paul Reichman – the tallest building in Britain. This monster overlooking the rising Millennium Dome on the other shore (but also the harmonious Royal Naval College) now deserves ** (two stars) by Michelin!

Greenwich

Home of the observatory (remember the poor John Flamsteed, the victim of I. Newton), the Naval College (now decommissioned) and the Queen’s house. That’s where Elizabeth of the latter Hollywood fame actually spent many of her years.

You can have a picture of yourself astride longitude zero and get a certificate to that effect. You can also see an exhibition on the history of the daunting longitude problem and its varied solutions over the ages. How about a Dog Watch one: get a bunch of dogs and a supply of Sympathy Powder. Make a careful cut with a dagger on each dog’s skin. Send all dogs, with pinches of powder, out to the seas, one per ship, but leave one dog in Greenwich. Any time a dagger is dipped in powder and then the Greenwich dog’s wound, all the dogs anywhere will feel its pain and howl. Voila, clock synchronization!

Oh, by the way, in Greenwich they say (and sell) lots of stuff proclaiming “Millennium begins here!” What about the 180 meridians of Eastern Longitude? Ben thinks however that proper marketing overcomes such a trifling obstacle.

Eating in London

Bombay Brasserie

Read the name, it’s “brasserie” stupid. The food is Indian but the price is French. Top place not to miss in London. We did.

Light of India

Indian food (excellent), Italian price (and presentation). This was our Ritz.

ASK

Food – Italian, price – just a tad above pizza, ambiance – post-modern (whatever that means). Service – attentive. They even smooth out, figuratively speaking,
the broken glass, a result of Ben’s games with place setting.

London has lots of restaurants pretending to be totally French. Menu is written by hand in French. Forget it!