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Being the second half of Monday, 10/24. Caffe Cinos. James Hutton. Primark. Talking Turkey. Down House, home of Darwin. The Queen's Head. Snuff. Toku.

(Sorry about the long delay between updates. Blame scotch, the Sith, and Cardinal Richelieu.)

Caffe Cinos. Whereas the outward journey to Wested Leather seemed to take forever, subjective time being drawn out by my state of nervous anticipation, the return to town happened in a flash. In no time at all I was back on Swanley's main thoroughfare, and my first stop was a little hole-in-the-wall called Caffe Cinos, where I had a lovely cup of coffee and an adequately excellent banana to celebrate my acquisition.

James Hutton. While listening to the early morning voices of Swanley's manly men enjoying manly morning meals, I pulled Stephen Baxter's Ages In Chaos: James Hutton and the Discovery of Deep Time* out of my backpack and read a chapter. This is Baxter's account of the life and times of James Hutton, focusing on Hutton's considerable contributions to the founding of the science of geology by a lifetime of gathering evidence to show that the earth must be vastly older than Biblical accounts imply. I wanted to get my head out of the world of fantasy science—the supernatural archaeology of Indiana Jones—and back into the history of real science, since the next stop of my day trip would be the home of Charles Darwin.

And Hutton makes an interesting bridge between these two worlds, because as Baxter shows, Hutton was not a modern scientist in the sense of trying to keep spiritual and physical theories separate and compartmentalized. Like so many of his contemporaries, Hutton was working from a theological premise, assuming that the world must be designed to operate for a purpose by a creator. But what purpose? Being an Enlightenment Deist rather than a Biblical literalist, Hutton was willing to let the visible character of the world shape his idea of what a god must be like, and so he concluded that the geological behavior of the earth must be the way it is for the purpose of creating and restoring topsoil, which in turn is needed to sustain life on the surface. 

Erosion, deposition, volcanism, uplift—the earth is a great machine, in Hutton's eyes, designed to make sure that plants and animals can live on its surface. And although we know better today than to indulge such arguments from design, in Hutton's case it gave him the breadth of mind to see in the rocks what most of his peers could not: that the world is terrifyingly, dehumanizingly old. His keenest enemies accused him of blasphemy and atheism, charges that hurt Hutton worse than any wrangling over evidence and mechanics ever could.

But he and his supporters eventually won the day, and they laid the groundwork for Darwin, establishing the deep time needed for a process like natural selection to do its work.

Primark. I left Caffe Cinos and took the train back towards London, stopping at Bromley along the way. In Bromley I could catch a bus to Downe, the village near Down House, Charles Darwin's home. But the bus runs on the hour, and when I arrived I'd just missed it. To kill time I wandered up the street and purchased possibly the cheapest instances of hat and scarf to be found in the UK from a place called Primark. But the hat kept the sun off my head, and the scarf kept kept out the chill wind even though it shed lumps of acrylic everywhere like a cheap artificial cat with mange.**

Primark itself reminded me depressingly of American thrift-store chains full of bored employees and distracted customers, precisely the kind of atmosphere you go on holiday to avoid. But it had cheap stuff.

Talking Turkey. A short time later I was on the bus to Downe. The Bromley business district gave way to affluent neighborhoods which gave way to country roads, and as we meandered towards the end of the line I was addressed by an old man speaking broken English.***

"Charles Darwin's house, you go? Please, where to get off...not sure. You tell us, OK?" He was the vocal half of a retired Turkish couple vacationing in England, and he wasn't sure when would be the right time to get off the bus. I agreed to help.

Agreeing to help instilled a funny change of mind in me, and I resented it a bit. Previously I'd been content to drift, trusting that I knew enough to get off at the right stop and confident that even if I turned out to be wrong it wouldn't matter. I'd just wander around for an hour, see some new stuff I'd never seen before, and catch the next bus. No pressure.

But now I was responsible for this nice old couple, and I didn't want to let them down, so I rose from my seat and wobbled my way to the front of the bus. I checked with the driver where we should get off for Darwin's house and wobbled back. I reassured my new friends that I knew what I was doing, and we settled in for the rest of the ride.

Disclaimer and confession. I'm ashamed to confess that I don't remember the names of the Turkish couple. I should have written them down at the time, taken photographs, something...but I'm such an introvert and so terrified of imposing on others, so uncomfortable with seeming to pry into someone else's business, that I didn't take the time to establish any connection that would last beyond our brief acquaintanceship. Therefore, for convenience's sake, I will pick a name from the Wikipedia list of Turkish surnames and call my couple Mr. and Ms. Arat.

Down House, home of Darwin. If Swanley reminded me of Texas bedroom communities and suburbs, the village Downe reminded me of the kind of picture-perfect BBC English village that's guaranteed to contain either an eccentric doctor with an offbeat sense of humor or a secret hellmouth that produces a never-ending supply of murderers for the local sleuthess. The Arats and I hopped off the bus in the middle of town and started walking up another perfect country lane, following the signs to Down House.

"Charles Darwin is my intellectual hero," Mr. Arat said. "I think he might be the greatest scientist who ever lived. What about you?"

I allowed that Mr. Arat might be right, but that I'd hate to rule out people like Newton and Einstein entirely. We started naming names of great scientists that we admired. I told him about the book I'd been reading about James Hutton, and he made some appreciative noises. (Mrs. Arat didn't speak English, as far as I can tell, but she seemed to be enjoying her husband's enjoyment of chatting up a sympathetic foreigner.)

After a few minutes of comparing scientists like kids swapping baseball cards, we arrived at Down House, which was closed.


The Queen's Head. Somehow we had all missed the part of the English Heritage web site that explained that after the summertime, Down House was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. So we admired the bits we could see from the road and then walked together back to town, where we settled with pints in The Queen's Head and had a conversation that went something like this. 

Mr. Arat: "So, where are you from?"

Me: "Texas, in America."

Mr. Arat: "Ah, Texas. Very famous."

Me: "Famous for some of the wrong things, unfortunately."

(I'm half convinced that the world hates Texans because of President Bush. But one of the gratifying effects of travel is that you learn not to take yourself quite so seriously. Believing that your home state is important enough to be hated just because of a famous imperialist douchebag or two is precisely the kind of vain self-involvement that produces imperialist douchebags. Mr. Arat shrugged off my self-deprecating remarks.)

Mr. Arat: "And what's your education, if I may ask, to make you so interested in Darwin?"

Me: "I have a bachelor's degree in philosophy. Not the most practical thing in the world..."

Mr. Arat (his face lighting up): "Really! Tell me, who is your favorite philosopher?"

Me (feeling bashful): "I know this isn't very original, but I'm really, really fond of Friedrich Nietzsche, even though he was kind of crazy."

Mr. Arat (spins in a circle doing a little dance): "Yes! Yes, my friend. Shake my hand! My favorite work is, how to say it in English [mumbles something]."

Me: "Also Sprach Zarathustra?"
Mr. Arat: "Yes! Crazy man on mountain, death of God!"


               "So, tell me. Do you believe in God?"

Me: "No sir, I don't."

Mr. Arat (does another little dance): "Shake my hand! Of course, a follower of Darwin and Nietzsche would not believe in God."

The conversation went along like that until the bus came to return us to Bromley. He complained about American involvment in Turkish politics; I nodded in sympathy. I asked about Turkey; he rhapsodized about its coastlines. He talked about the grave of Marx and asked if I was a communist; I gave him a funny look, suddenly realizing that if there's anything more problematic in my American brain than being an atheist, it's being a communist. But we talked about it and decided that Marx's criticism of capitalism was useful even if his vision of utopia was unworkable.

Ms. Arat watched all this gab with tolerant amusement.

Snuff. The bus returned us to Bromley and I caught the train to Victoria Station. At the bed and breakfast I grabbed some coffee and shortbread cookies and settled down to read Terry Pratchett's Snuff while waiting for Sturdy Helpmeet™ to return from her own adventures. (Fellow Americans: did you know that there's a "Waterstone's Edition" of some of Pratchett's books that has extra bits in it? Squeee!)

Toku. Dinner was Japanese food at a place called Toku on Regent Street south of Picadilly. Best miso soup I've ever had.

* Ages in Chaos might be the same book as Revolutions in the Earth, just reissued with a different title.

** The kind of cat a really poor person might own in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

*** It's really not fair, is it, to describe someone else's language as "broken" when I can't speak theirs at all.

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smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)

June 2012


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