Part Five – London Streets: Nigel, Catherine and “Me”

London subway, late Sunday afternoon and I am sitting across from “Nigel” and “Catherine.” Maybe because they are no  longer young with no time for the neurotic concerns regarding public appearance, they sleep.  They appear too tired even to mind my open observation. And I take advantage, inventing lives that I hope they won’t mind.

Nigel and Catherine are on their way home from a long day at some celebration. I discerned from other passengers that Piccadilly Circus was abuzz but I think Nigel and Catherine are fatigued from a more formal (English High Tea maybe?) affair. Catherine’s brown, wind-blown hair, falling over her sallow face is not long enough to obscure her very English nose. She rests her head on the plexiglass shield that separates her seat from the exit. And Nigel, to her right, struggling with the herky-jerky motion of the train, keeps his fine English, well-barbered head that sits atop his long English neck from bobbing forward too noticeably. He closes his eyes after finding some purchase on Catherine’s thin, painfully thin shoulder. Their dress is proper. Her frock a conservative small print, a simple knee-length linen sheath hints at a much envied figure – 10 years ago. Her slip-on shoes are not quite out of fashion  as one dangles from her narrow foot. Nigel’s suit is still well cut for his long frame even if a bit rumpled. His shoes, the timeless oxfords or wingtips belie a trace of challenge with heels worn a bit too thin at the edges. The Sunday afternoon London train stops and starts with impunity as the couple sleep the sleep of the unencumbered. (Childless. Maybe a cat or two waiting imperious and impatient at their Kensington flat). The red boutonnière in his lapel remains crisp in contrast to Nigel’s and Catherine’s combined visage; two spent, long-stemmed lilies out of water, in danger of wilting and missing their subway stop.

In spite of their threat to life and limb, I continued to take  pictures of the dull little     vehicles known as the London cab. Truth be told, I have a real respect for London cabs. Getting the chance to wear the uniform is not easy work. I was told that to be a London cab driver (a real London Cabbie) one has to spend two years studying the numerous streets and thoroughfares in and around London. Students or potential London cab drivers can be spotted on their scooters flying through traffic as they flip the plastic pages of the map book affixed to the front of their scooters. I found this remarkable but not as much as the intelligence offered by a London guide who informed us of the study done on the brain of a dead London cabbie (hope he didn’t die just for this experiment). An autopsy found a much larger part of the brain (hippocampus) as a result of memorizing over 7,000 established city routes along with all the shortcuts. Successful cabbies pass an impressive oral exam at the end of the two years. (Those dependant upon GPS devices need not apply). I take back all the mean and nasty things I’ve said about London cabs. But I digress. As I was taking pictures a group of English school children on field trip passed between my camera and the cab that was the object of my focus. I was stunned as I witnessed myself – at 10 maybe – standing in front of my lens arms spread out as if embracing life and shouting “cheese.” I moved the camera away from my face to get a better look at this young girl, hazel eyed, honey colored skin and light brown braids that were smooth with a mother’s attention in the morning but, by the afternoon, fluffy with stray strands escaping non-stop, forming a fuzzy halo about her face. I tried to catch another glimpse of her through my camera lens as she moved down the sidewalk with her classmates but I was too late. All I could capture in photo was her back and a bit of a facial profile as she entered a subway with her classmates. Even then, she moved quickly in the line from one friend to another, talking – always talking.

Part Four – No Stranger Here

Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner was not (as I had believed) the burial grounds for the many well-known writers I had studied in high school and college. In fact, according to the pamphlet we were given at the door, only Robert Browning (not Elizabeth?) and Tennyson are actually buried in Poets’ Corner (a great Jeopardy question). But, according to Westminster-abbey.org, poets Chaucer (the first poet to be buried here), John Dryden, Tennyson, John Masefield, and many writers, including William Camden, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy are also buried here. I get the feeling I should be bothered by the inconsistency but I am not. I move on to the other famous English writers who are commemorated with a statue and or engraved memorials in the floor of Poets’ Corner. Homage is paid to American-born poets Longfellow and T.S. Eliot, although Eliot became an expatriate using his British citizenship to write with his “American mind.” Eliot’s epitaph on his memorial reads, “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living”. After reading this I was struck with a renewed sense of admiration. What every good writer/poet has in common with the greats that rest in Poets’ Corner (aside from abilities to extract all potential power from the written word) is their ability to impact human nature in perpetuity; Shakespeare with his therapeutic carvings into the human heart and Mathew Arnold with his prescient take (Dover Beach) on the moral chaos soon to be wrought by the industrial revolution. The messages, coded often in poetry, can be taken as lessons, harbingers of portent – for good or ill. We ignore the beauty and knowledge found in these and other writings at our own peril.

Strangely, I do not feel like a stranger in Westminster Abbey, even as I make my way to the chapel feeling an urgent need to light a candle for my mother who, as a Canadian, was baptized (as were five of her six children) in the Church of England. It felt right.
Making my way through the chapel, it was not hard to visualize the royal wedding that has occurred just a week before. The chapel is a festival of ornate carvings resembling icing delicately draped on internal spires that wave high about the statues of the sainted and exalted. I was drawn to the new statuary in the frieze just outside the chapel doors, a row of stone figures intricately scrolled and presented to match as best as possible the original architecture of the Abbey. One statue in the frieze looked incredibly familiar. I took a look through my camera lens bringing in the name inscribed at the statue’s base. King. Martin Luther King is honored in Westminster Abbey. I snapped more pictures of the entire frieze as one prefect came over and explained that Martin Luther King and Father Romero along with others are honored in the group known as the 20th Century Martyrs. Church of England. Nice. And, as if nice needs balance, there was the King’s throne (different from the throne in the movie, the King’s Speech) on display while being restored. It was explained that, long ago, the boys from the elite boy’s school close by used the church for retreats and sleepovers and, in the time-honored tradition of all young punks, graffitied the hell out of the 16th Century gold gilt that covered the throne. I couldn’t get close enough to read any of the writing but I could just imagine, Thomas and Elizabeth forever, William 1936, or free Huey P. Newton (just kidding on the last one).

I felt at home in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, maybe because touring it offered a pleasing respite from the proverbial pillage and plunder that remains the history of the human animal. I believe history repeats itself because human nature does not (to any meaningful degree) change. Alas.

Stranger in a Stranger Land – Part Three

It seems the better part of man’s entire existence has been all about dominance and maintaining that dominance for posterity. In this respect, the British Museum’s display of ancient history did not fail to amaze. Stone statues and furniture suggest a hard existence for those whose job it was to fashion these. Being part of a collective that has a history of enslavement, I don’t have to ask what kind of life I would have had in say, early Egypt. From this point of view I moved from one artifact to the next paying homage to the slaves who built them. Pillage and plunder was the (X-Box?) game de jour. Considering that the bulk of these artifacts were found, borrowed or otherwise appropriated from ancient deserts and cultures, England appeared to be quite forthcoming regarding the provenance of many pieces. I marveled at the granite tombs that today would make great hot tubs (my husband is all about function and purpose). The Balawat gates held sway in the corner of the lower museum floor. An imposing 20 feet high, the gates were reconstructed from the palace of Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC). Balawat or ancient Imgur-Enlil, Iraq was a large center of activity with what was thought to be strategic importance. Balawat was decimated with the end of the Assyrian empire, circa 614-612 BC. More pillaging, plundering and loss. I watched the young school children on field trips as they passed the many statues – the boys giving knowing looks at the statue of young King Tut with his tutor – which has a hole where his penis should be. The boys found this particularly funny and before long one daring young soul, after the teacher turned her back, went up and put his hand in the opening. The girls and boys giggled at their new hero. Many of the male statues were fairly anatomically correct (size seemed to matter in some cultures, in others…not so much). But I found it interesting that fertility symbols were expressed through statues prominently displaying male organs. I did not find a statue of a pregnant woman. Maybe I need another day in the museum.

Westminster Abbey offered more recent history (relatively speaking). As I walked in and among the stone carvings and casks of kings and queens and their families, it became clear, after reading inscriptions, that the politics of church and dominance form a solid foundation for English culture. Today’s English propriety appears to have been whittled from a history of attack, parry, retreat, pillage, plunder and pontification of the beneficence of the empire. What is it with power? If lust for it always comes to naught then our young culture doesn’t stand a chance – history being what it is.

Notes to future: Don’t talk during language (Latin) class – then you might be able to understand the Rosetta Stone. Oh, and seriously, if you want to pass on your culture millenniums hence then you should build it out of stone – marble and granite are nice. Buy a Lo-Jack for your culture so some war-mongering toad with a Napoleon complex can’t hijack your valuables.

A Stranger in a Stranger Land – Part Two

The 11:30 p.m. trans-Atlantic flight from Toronto to London is called the red-eye for a reason. I slept about four hours but sleep was of little concern once in London. London is a lot like New York City albeit funnier accents. The city is a teeming cultural polyglot; England, paying it’s colonialist debt to places like India, Australia and any number of African countries. It is a debt paid in citizenship. I find myself in danger as I shade my eyes from bright sunshine (I thought England would be gray) as I stand on a street corner looking at people, inventing lives they might or might not want. I lose balance stepping off the curb. The blaring horn of a London cab gives me just enough time to get to safety. (These guys eat their young – I’m sure). It would not be the first time I would step off the curb and forced to run for my life across the street. London cabs don’t slow down. This rule must be written in bold ink in their instruction manual. Also, I should say that London cabs – real London cabs are ugly. I mean really, really ugly. Ford Fiesta’s have a Rolls Royce beauty by comparison. A twenty London cab pile-up could only improve their looks. There are no other cars in London that look like the London cab. If a reason exists for the ugliness of the London cab (like there’s not enough ugly to go around etc.), I certainly did not find it on this trip.

A Stranger in a Stranger Land – Part One

On May 17th I pondered the purpose of fear as I walked through the airport in Rochester, N.Y. beginning the first leg of a London, Paris vacation. Fear is an emotion designed to protect the species I suppose, setting the fight-or-flight mechanism in play. The fact that we are quite removed from having to run from the likes of wildebeests should render some fears moot. I think though, being 35,000 feet off the ground and traveling at over 600 mph over the ocean, that fear might be necessary; a warning even. Traces of fear stay with me as I enter security, I inspect the heels of my shoes as I push my belongings through the scanner, I look at my passport photo again checking for anything that could spell “foreign individual with bad intentions.” My hair is a different color. Fear returns in full. I am selected for the full body scanner. As a full-bodied individual I force a smile at what the visual might produce, happily no rips in my underwear. I wonder if this device can tell if one’s underwear are clean? I step out of the cold, impersonal scanner leaving my deepest, darkest secrets to be scoffed at by some young punk with a bad crew-cut. Then it’s on to board a small “puddle jumper” only in this case the puddle is Lake Ontario. Now, I am in my personal flight (not fight) mode as I take a seat in the small cabin and see the prominent display of propellers. I had a Pontiac in college that held more people than this. I think of all the things I did that might bode ill for the safe outcome of this leg of the trip; I changed my FaceBook profile picture – I had said I would leave my mom’s picture as profile for the whole month of May – she’ll understand. Then again, maybe she won’t and will want to talk to me face to face. Fear compounds. (I’m getting on a rickety plane after dissing my deceased mom on FB – I’m toast). But I did stroke the Foo Dog that sits on my front porch before I left the house (how many times, even or odd number?). I tipped the shuttle driver nicely. I let the woman with three kids go ahead of me in the security line. Okay – balance. It’s all good. I buckled my seat belt and waited for the last passenger to fill the empty seat not far from mine. Finally, the person shows up and our trip gets rolling. It was, thankfully, getting dark as we flew over the very large Lake Ontario but by the end of the hour flight it was still light enough to see the co-pilot reading a map as the pilot patiently explained to us that we would be in a holding pattern for a while due to fog in Toronto. One needs a map for a holding pattern? I shut my eyes tight trying to think of something to allay my fear. I was humored with the image of the very late last passenger; A hefty, middle-aged English woman standing at the front to the plane shaking the rain from her English sheepdog hair yelling in her English Cockney, “where’s my seat?” (as if she wasn’t close enough to spit on it) “whosoever’s in my seat better move their arse!” Oh the queen’s English indeed.

Mornings

Mornings: a blank sheet of paper

Waiting patiently

For letters

Each

D
r
o
p
p
e
d
Upon

The needy page

As the road

Inclines

Before us

A fine coda

For day’s end