Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sumptuous London

Courtauld Gallery courtyard

London was sumptuous. The city has invested a lot of budget and effort into restoring its buildings. The patina of soot that still blanketed the city when I last visited (about 25 years ago) and that had been there since the industrial revolution, has been stripped off to reveal the former Victorian splendour.

Newly cleaned façades.

People keep asking us what we liked best about the city. Matt was most impressed by the city itself. He had expected something vaguely similar to Montreal, with an old city and a slightly dated modern center. What we found was an extensive central area where the overall style dates mainly from Victorian times, and a modern city that is on the cutting edge of contemporary aesthetics. Both convey enormous affluence. Paris is bustling and old but a little run down, New York is vibrant and at the same time it seethes with seediness and nouveau riche superficiality, Montreal is pleasant but let's face it, we are a bunch of peasants from the colony. Bogota is frankly Third World. Outside the British Museum we saw a man sitting on the ground with a couple of bags nearby, typing something on a laptop. From that moment our standing joke became that even the homeless in London have laptops.

The Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern, seen from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral.

William's choice was the Tate Modern. We went twice. His favourite sections were cubism, modernism, and surrealism. He also enjoyed Camden Market and the glimpse of "punk" culture, although to be honest there were more tourists in evidence at the market than punks.

Assyrian temple art at the British Museum.

My highlight in London was the British Museum. I had not gone on my two previous trips to the city, and I was completely blown away by the breadth and depth of the collection. Those empire builders were certainly busy little collectors of historical and cultural artefacts. The temple carvings from Assyria and the Persian city of Nineveh are unequalled. Every room held treasures beyond belief, from the Rosetta Stone that unlocked the key to hieroglyphic writing, to the intricate mechanics and elaborate decoration of early clockwork. The British Museum is huge and even though we went twice, we only saw a few sections.

The Great Hall of the British Museum.

What impressed me most was not the size of the collection, but the quality. The museum displays the best examples of its genre. I can understand why many countries are protesting in an effort to get their national treasures back. While I don't condone keeping world heritage in foreign custody, at the same time I acknowledge that the British Museum has done a service in collecting and conserving artefacts that would otherwise have ended up in the hands of private collectors and lost to the world or, worse yet, melted down and recast in the case of precious metals (the fate of most of the pre-Columbian gold that was shipped to Spain to be transformed into pieces of eight). The underlying debates here refer to ownership, the legality of the acquisition process, care and custody of the items in question, both in the past and the present. Should the treasures be returned to their countries of origin? Who "owns" them? Who has the right to keep them? It is a complex issue. My ideal solution: If the British would be willing to renounce ownership without giving up possession and declare the museum a repository for the cultural heritage of humanity, administered by the United Nations.

Another place that we visited was the British Library. It was my first visit to the library and I was completely overwhelmed by the exhibit of rare books. From the Beowulf manuscript (the oldest known work written in the language considered to be Old English), manuscripts by John Donne and Philip Sidney, the original manuscript of Alice's Adventures Underground (better known by its subsequent title Alice in Wonderland) and Charles Dodgson's diary in which he comments about meeting the charming Liddell girls, manuscripts by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Virginia Woolf (whose house in Tavistock square was not far from our hotel), handwritten lyrics the Beatles' songs Michelle, Yesterday, and Help jotted down on scrap paper and the backs of envelopes, early printings of Shakespeare's plays, and the pièce de resistance: a Gutenberg bible.

We also enjoyed a small exhibit called the Britain at War Experience, which is a look at what life was like in Britain during the Second World War. The museum is interactive and very family friendly. We sat in a bomb shelter and listened to the chatter of "our neighbors" talking about how the war was going and expressing their concerns about the bombings. As an island, ensuring the food supply for the population was an enormous concern for the government and this was reflected in the campaigns urging people to grow as much food as possible in the Victory Gardens and the distribution of recipe books for meatless meals. The boys tried on uniforms from the period. Matt, almost 16, looked pretty credible as a young man in uniform. I could easily picture how boys like him would turn up at the recruiting office and claim to be 18. William was less convincing!

Matt and William dressed for war.

Things we missed because there just wasn't time: Greenwich (I've stood with one foot on each side of the equator; I wanted to visit zero longitude too!) The Hampton Court Palace in Surrey; and Kensington Palace. There just wasn't time for all of these state visits. The rebuilt Globe Theatre: I really wanted to see the theatre but it is not open to the public when there is a performance under way, and we were not able get tickets to a performance either.

Don't go to London without a: One-week Transit Pass. It was really nice to meet up with my friend Sally from book club. She was staying at her family's apartment, around the corner from our hotel. We were able to pop out to the pub a couple of times, which was nice because I would not have gone by myself.

What we saw, in summary:
Picadilly Circus
Westminster Cathedral (Wed, 4 Aug)
Parliament, Big Ben
Imperial Museum of War (Thurs 5 Aug)
The play We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre
Tower of London (Fri 6 Aug)
Tower Bridge
Britain at War Experience
Tate Modern Museum
Windsor Castle (Sat 7 Aug)
Victoria and Albert Museum
Harrods Food Court, a museum off food!
Buckingham Palace (Sun 8 Aug)
10 Downing Street (sort of, it is blocked off to the public)
British Museum
British Library
Courtauld Gallery
Camden Market
St. Paul's Cathedral (Mon 9 Aug)
The Monument
The London Bridge Experience
British Museum (again)
Thames River Cruise

Thames River Cruise

1 comment:

Anzo said...

ABsolutely FABulous! You've made me so jealous. I love London and haven't been there for ages. I want to book a ticket now. XXOO CousinAnna