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Tuesday, 10/25. Disease strikes. Westminster Abbey. The verger digs Slurpees. It's "The People's Bible," y'all. The Methodists across the street. Disappointing cab. Oxo Brasserie. National Theater Bookshop. Walk across the Thames. Black Cab Wisdom.

Disease strikes. Of course. After a phenomenal day of running around and doing cool stuff and meeting cool people, now I have a nasty cold. Pretty sure there's some fever, too. GNAAAAH. But fuck it, there's more of London to explore. Pop some generic DayQuil and get out there and see it...

Westminster Abbey. Westminster Abbey is gnarly. It's the place where the modern Church of England (as run by the Queen) runs into the modern Church of England (as run by the archbishop of Canterbury) and where both run into the history of England. So you've got places where abbots buried in the 12th century are lying a couple of feet from memorials to scientists and heroes from World War 1 and Word War 2. Between the poets, playwrights, kings, politicians, scholars, and plumbers buried in the Abbey, you've got heresies and certainties of a dozen ages entombed together in a place where the god is ostensibly Christ but is actually an idealized effigy of Englishness.

The contrast between Newton's monument and Darwin's grave is striking. Newton is all decorative images of science and heroic manliness with gilded stuff in the margins and an inscription that praises his services to religion and science. Given Newton's political career and his penchant for self-promotion, this seems appropriate. Darwin, famously reticent by contrast, gets a big gray slab of rock with his name on it. Darwin didn't even want to be buried there, as I understand it—he'd intended to be buried with his family in Downe. It's hard for me to tell how much the movement to Westminster was motivated by public scientific admiration and how much it was motivated by a desire to discredit the idea that Darwin's science could in any way conflict with religion (in spite of the fact that Darwin himself, an agnostic whose skepticism was motivated in part by the cruelty of nature, clearly thought it to be the case). Maybe the Church of England was following the dictum to keep one's (philosophical) enemies close.

Either way, in my imagination the stony slab makes a mute and sullen rebuttal to the riot of faith and celebrity around it: "Don't look to me for high-flown pieties! I didn't ask to be here and if you really gave a damn about me you'd have left me with my family."

The last thing I want to mention grave-wise is the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, which I discussed at some length here. It's astonishingly moving, and it's one of the reasons I say the god of Westminster Abbey is an idealization of Englishness. Nothing else in the building comes close in terms of solemnity or in terms of the love and affection that seems to move the people who observe it. The inscription talks about the soldier's willingness to sacrifice everything for God, but I think it's clear to everyone who sees it that their fallen countrymen made the ultimate sacrifice for them.

The verger digs Slurpees. Here's the point where I brag on Sturdy Helpmeet™ for a moment. Whenever we go someplace interesting, she always makes a point of talking to the people whose job it is to answer questions, and she asks intelligent questions about interesting things, which means the docents and the tour-guides and sometimes the innocent bystanders are always happy to talk to her. I have the "don't open your mouth for fear of bothering someone and making of fool of yourself" disease, which is an intellectual deficit when wandering around in new places, so I'm extremely glad that S.H.™ is a better tourist than me.

On this particular day, she struck up a conversation with a man in a severe black robe by asking, "If you're all Anglicans, why do you dress so much like a Roman Catholic?" This man was a verger, and he explained that the Church of England considers itself the reformed Catholic church, and besides, it helps visitors interact with him properly if he dresses the part. He also explained that whereas most of the CoE answers to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Westminster Abbey answers directly to the throne, so sometimes the policies of the two congregations will be out of step. He hopes that progressive reforms (ordination of women bishops, openly gay clergy, etc.) will come more quickly to Westminster Abbey than to the rest of the CoE because the royals don't worry as much about kowtowing to the conservative elements in the Anglican communion around the world.

The verger also said that he'd spent time in Colorado, and that he really wants to go back to America because the country is beautiful and because he really, really digs Slurpees.

It's "The People's Bible," y'all. Next to the little museum within the Abbey was a kiosk advertising "The People's Bible," a celebration of the King James Bible that involves asking people from all walks of life to write and comment upon a verse or two in their own handwriting and words. (My verses are here and here. I'm afraid my handwriting's atrocious, and my comment was predictably snarky.)

Tending to the kiosk was an attractive young woman who, like the verger, also said that she'd visited the US and wanted to go to back. To South Carolina in her case, which left me a bit dazed. South Carolina? Really? She asked me where I was from, and when I said "Texas" she replied, "Yeah, you've kind of got that Southern drawwwl," which she drew out in a really sexy British-inflected way. Charmed by the idea that my Texas/American accent might actually be kind of sexy in foreign ears, I smiled and replied, "Well-l-l, Ah come by it naturally."

Men are so damned predictable. But Sturdy Helpmeet showed up before I seriously embarrassed myself.

The Methodists across the street. We can't leave Westminster Abbey without taking note of the Methodist Central Hall situated across the street. It's a huge, imposing, neo-classical pile that seems to me to have a bad case of cathedral-envy. It looks across the street at the Abbey and mutters bitchy things about the size of the Abbey's buttresses. Here's what the web site has to say about the design.
The design for this 'monumental building of Methodism' was chosen from 132 entries in an anonymous architectural competition. The rules of the competition stated that the design had to be non-Gothic and the general philosophy of the Methodist movement was that buildings were not to resemble churches. The intention was to create non intimidating but welcoming buildings so that people who had no connections with the Christian church would feel comfortable and able to enter them.

The winning design, submitted by Messrs Lancaster and Rickards of London, is in keeping with these ideas and if you look at the exterior of the building you will notice that no cross is visible, nor is there any overtly religious symbolism. The building itself is Viennese Baroque in style with Romanesque decoration. The poet Sir John Betjemen once praised the structure saying "The dome of Central Hall is a splendid foil to the towers of Westminster and the pinnacles of the Houses of Parliament".
To me it looks like the kind of place where you'd drag Winston Smith for a bout of creative re-education.

Still, it's fun to imagine a conversation between the architect and the Methodist Committee For Building An Enormous Thing.
MCFBAET:  So, we need you to build us a great big enormous Methodist thing. It's going to be in London, and we've raised a lot of money. We want it to be grand, huge, amazing.

ARCHITECT:  I'm your man. I'm thinking columns, domes, pediments, bas-relief; it'll be fantastic. 

MCFBAET:  Great! Can we have a mix of styles? Like, I think it would be really tasteful to have real columns side-by-side with fake columns, but they'll both have the same Corinthian fiddly bits on top; and some windows will have arches but others will be flat, and we'll sort of stack these imitation Parthenon-like facades on top of each other.

ARCHITECT:  Yeah! So it'll be like, Here's your classical motif, and then BAM you'll have another one right on top of it. So, what's you're location? Where are we going to build this?

MCFBAET: It's a great location. Central London, near the office buildings and convenient to the shows and the shopping. People will love it.

ARCHITECT: But what's the address?  

MCFBAET: It's right across the street from Westminster Abbey.

ARCHITECT: ...  Fuck you.

Disappointing cab. I mentioned I was sick, right? By the time we finished with the Abbey I was worn down. We stopped in a freakin' Starbucks of all things to get me some hot chocolate on the way back to our hotel because I felt like I was going to fall down on the sidewalk. I'm so ashamed. But it was convenient. At the hotel we napped for a couple of hours and then got dressed for dinner.

We'd looked up a London "black cab" company online, and we were looking forward to our first ride in a genuine black cab. But when it arrived it turned out to be a Mercedes mini-van. The cab driver was perfectly fine, mind you. We got where we were going without any trouble. But it was a bit of a let-down.

Oxo Brasserie. And where we were going was sweeeet. A casual-but-fancy restaurant on top of Oxo tower with a great view of the Thames and the London skyline seen from the south bank of the river. A competent little jazz combo was playing, the food was wonderful, and my non-alcoholic "mocktail" was very tasty (I'm sick, remember?). And Sturdy Helpmeet's drinks—high octane—must have been amazing because she had a lot of them, and I really enjoyed watching her enjoy them.

Living the high life can be habit forming, but it's an expensive habit. We tried to linger, all too aware that our time was running out, and soon we would be back in the land of turkey meatball pasta and salami sandwiches.

National Theater Bookshop. The row of cabs waiting outside the restaurant didn't contain a single "real" black cab; they all looked like minicabs. This did not suit Sturdy Helpmeet, so I proposed that we walk along the river front. Eventually we'd hit a busy street, and then we could hail a cab. But before we hit a busy street we found ourselves back at the Royal National Theater, where the bookshop was still open. We went inside and bought books.

I mean, what would you do?

I'm especially proud of Covering McKellan: An Understudy's Tale, which is the memoir of David Weston, the veteran actor who understudied Ian McKellan in the Royal Shakespeare Company's world tour of King Lear. Michael Green's The Art of Coarse Acting looks like it will be fun as well, but I haven't read it yet.

A walk across the Thames.  After the bookstore we walked across the Waterloo Bridge. It was quite cold, and Sturdy Helpmeet struggled with shoes intended more for being seen in than being walked on, but the view was perfect. On the north shore we passed Somerset House, which gave me a small frisson of delight. Ever since living on a street called "Somerset Terrace" as a kid, anything names "Somerset" just leaps out at me. (I even love the work of W. Somerset Maugham, but I like to think that that's more than just a coincidence of names.) England, of course, is chock full of Somersetty goodness. 

Black Cab Wisdom. At the north end of Waterloo Bridge we finally caught our authentic black cab on the wing, as it were, and it turned out to be driven by the author of the book Black Cab Wisdom, a fellow named Mark Solomon. He asked us to write something interesting on his clipboard, so we did our best. Otherwise we just enjoyed chatting with him on our way back to Belgravia, where we collapsed all giddy with London.

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smackshack

June 2012

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