Thursday, August 13, 2009

London - Part Two


Don’t worry, I don’t kid myself that you care as much about my London vacation as I do, and I know I don’t have the luxury of a captive slide-show audience, and that you can alt-tab to any of a number of different PC applications the second your interest begins to flag. So I’ve tried to keep this post relatively brief, interesting, funny, macabre, and pictorial throughout. I also refrained from using the phrase “across the pond.” A word about the photos: I tried out medium size, which I'm not that happy with; you can click on these to zoom in for a better view. [Note: this post is rated PG-13 for described violence and adult themes.]

Jet lag

Jet lag hit us hard. The first few nights saw Erin and me waking up, bolt upright, variously between 1:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. This led to some atrocious sleeping in when we should have been touring London. We have come to dread bedtime, and Alexa, having come across a Magic 8-Ball in the house we’re staying in, has made a tradition of asking it, every night, “Will we sleep well tonight?” So far it’s been pretty accurate (e.g., “Don’t count on it,” “Better not tell you now”).

For me, the worst jet lag came on my third night, when I got so desperate I started counting sheep. Just counting, of course, wouldn’t be counting sheep, so I try to picture them jumping over a fence, but this can get complicated. The first few sheep were cartoon sheep. Then they morphed into these stuffed sheep toys my dad bought one year to give to certain women back in the mid-‘80s. They were almost completely round sheep, with four perfectly cylindrical legs all clustered together. Then my mind swapped these out for pretty realistic sheep, which was fine until it hit me—could these be lambs, or goats? In other words, am I doing this wrong? What’s the difference between a sheep, a lamb, and a goat, anyway? A few bearded billy goats jumped over the fence and increased my doubt. Then I got back to wooly, lamb-esque sheep jumping over, but my under-stimulated mind contrived all these crazy camera angles, and the super-slow-mo effects from “The Matrix.” Meanwhile I absolutely couldn’t keep a straight count. Despite two hours of this I never broke a thousand, even though I’m pretty sure I skipped a few hundred here and there.


The house we’re staying in is in Ealing, which is a suburb of London. (One person here said that all of the UK is a suburb of London.) But it’s not just any suburb; it’s the Queen of the Suburbs:

We haven’t yet seen any of the sites on this postcard. The official website for Ealing notes, of the Hoover Building, that an architecture critic called it “perhaps the most offensive of the modernistic atrocities along this road of typical bypass factories.” (I love this English self-deprecating impulse.) Anyway, Ealing is a fine place, and located very strategically, about halfway between the Heathrow airport and the center of London.

Mass transit

The London subway is the oldest in the world, and with around 300 stations and 250 miles of track, it’s one of the largest. We paid a bunch of money for week-long all-u-can-eat Oyster cards, and we’ve been taking it everywhere. It’s got a good website, and (my early struggles described in my previous post notwithstanding) I’d say it’s pretty easy to use. The longest we’ve had to wait for a train has been about five minutes, and usually it’s been shorter than that. (My only complaint is the cost, which is about $55 a week, compared to $45 a month for the San Francisco equivalent. Part of this is our anemic dollar, which has dropped almost 20% against the pound since March.)

Of course, the underground, being pretty utilitarian, doesn’t thrill the kids like the double-decker bus does. The bus is all Alexa talked about the first day, and we promised her we’d get home on one after some grocery shopping. When the bus that arrived wasn’t double-decker, poor Alexa wept. So the next day we fixed that, by taking the underground to Kensington Gardens and then riding double-decker buses all around the area. Here, the girls about to take their first trip:

Note how the woman in the movie billboard on that bus is juxtaposed with what appears to be a severed head. As you shall see, beheading will be a theme throughout our London visit.

We boarded the bus, swiped our Oyster cards (all the mass transit in London uses this contactless card, something Bart is just now beta-testing), and headed upstairs. I’m sure tempted to write “found my way upstairs and had a smoke,” like in the Beatles song, but I don’t smoke, and I don’t think they allow it anymore on the buses anyway. Here are the girls enjoying their front-row seats (and pretending the yellow bar is a steering wheel).

Here we are in front of Kensington Palace (which we didn’t tour because it’d have been like fifty bucks):

Tower of London

The next day we toured the Tower of London, a famous fortress, palace, and prison built during the 11th and 12th centuries. We arrived just in time for a guided tour by a guy in a Beefeater costume. We were forbidden to photograph the tour guide, who was an ornery, funny former military man (twenty years in the service being one of the requirements for being a Tower tour guide). His lecture focused on the executions that went on in the Tower and on the adjacent Tower Hill. I hope my kids weren’t paying attention, because here is my best stab at rendering his most interesting tale:

ooooo“How many of you have heard of James Scott? Nobody? Good. You will, after what I’m about to tell you. He led the unsuccessful Monmouth Rebellion, attempting to dethrone James II, and was sentenced to be publically beheaded. Now, in London in those days, a public beheading was considered entertainment. All the schools were closed and families would pack a picnic and head out to Tower Hill to watch. It was a grand day out for all but one person.
ooooo“The executioner wasn’t actually paid anything for doing this job. His pay normally came from the person being executed, kind of like a tip paid in advance. It was thought that this payment ensured that death would be swift and merciful. But James Scott, being a nobleman, refused to pay anything. Whether or not this was the reason, the execution did not go well. Normally, one blow of the axe took the head clean off and that was it—it was stuck on a spear and paraded around and the thing was done. But in this case, the first blow came down on Scott’s shoulder blade. He turned his head and said to executioner, ‘If you miss again, I cannot guarantee I will remain still.’
ooooo“Unfortunately for him, the next blow landed on his head. The one after that hit the neck, but only went in about two inches. All told it took about half a dozen blows to finish him off. And for some reason, instead of putting his head on a spear they sewed it back onto his body and paraded that around. Probably all your children will have nightmares now. By the way, I’m available for babysitting.”

I won’t go into the vivid description of the beheading of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise should you decide to rent the DVD.

Not all of the tour focused on executions, of course. For example, our guide described how Sir Walter Raleigh spent thirteen years imprisoned at the Tower, and was tortured daily (“by having his wife in there with him, and all she wanted to talk about was feelings”). And there was this tidbit about ravens: for superstitious reasons, Charles II issued a royal decree that the Tower must always have ravens. Specifically, it must have six at all times. Today, perhaps as a response to 9/11, it has nine. We saw a couple of them.

We went through a breathtakingly long line to see the crown jewels. There were loads of scepters and crowns and whatnot, encrusted with so many jewels they looked fake. The jewels must have been much more impressive before little toy-vending machines and Cracker Jack prizes came along.

Then we went to the “Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill” exhibit. From this picture, you can get an idea of one of the more surprising features of his armor:
They didn’t allow photography in the exhibit, which is a real shame, because the, uh, athletic cup feature of the armor was extraordinary. The armor itself was very interesting and sophisticated, but couldn’t help taking a back seat to the, uh, generous endowment provided for Henry VIII’s junk. Was he known to get, er, stimulated during battle?
Finally I realized what was going on. This was a guy who must have had a pretty big ego—after all, he created the Church of England, breaking all ties with Catholicism, just so he could marry Anne Boleyn—and was certainly ruthless, having had two of his wives beheaded. If I were building armor for him, the last thing I’d want to do is appear to underestimate the size of his, uh, packet. And once the armor was ready, I’m sure Henry VIII wasn’t about to say, “You made the cup too big. I don’t need that much room.” Anyhow, the best I can do for a photo was this one, taken in the gift shop, of some lesser man’s armor. Note that the, uh, pouch in this armor isn’t nearly the size of what Henry VIII’s armor had. Note also how this other tourist seems to be admiring it.

The other noteworthy thing about this exhibit was the last suit of armor built for Henry VIII, when he was in his forties and looking to wear it in a tournament of some kind. All the dimensions were given for each suit, so we know that his waist had gone from 36 inches to 48. Not that we needed the numbers: the suit was astonishing in its girth. Jack Black would have been swimming in it. It was really sad, actually, looking at the giant belly section, immortalized in steel. That poor king. And what’s worse, he was so dissipated and slovenly by this point that he never even wore the suit. Ah, "th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame” (to quote a decidedly more slender 16th-century Englishman).

It’s hard to guess how much attention my kids were paying to the Tower tour. I can tell that Lindsay did grasp something of Henry VIII’s importance, because last night she said to me, “Fa-fa, it’s time to ask the Henry the Eighth Ball if we’ll sleep well tonight!”

Tower environs

After leaving the Tower, we had lunch and then walked around the area. (A note about the food in London: this will get its own blog post in the next week or two.) First we checked out the Tower Bridge. This is a much bigger deal than the London Bridge of the children’s song. (They’re very close together, both crossing the Thames.) The Tower bridge has a drawbridge for the taller ships. Photos:

From there we found some groovy church with a rock sculpture. The way the kids flocked to that rock, you’d think they’d been starved of play, which I guess they actually had:

In any other place this church would probably be a pretty big deal, and maybe it is, but there are so many groovy churches in the London area I can’t keep them all straight. From here it was a short trip to the replica Globe theater, built on the original site where Shakespeare’s plays were performed. Tours cost money and we didn’t go in. We proceeded to the Tate Modern to check out some modern art. Actually, we went there because it was free and we badly needed a restroom. We did check out some of the exhibits, but the really cool-sounding ones cost money. Photography is not allowed in the Tate so I have nothing for you to look at except its Orwellian exterior. If you grasp that Alexa’s evident enthusiasm is ironic, then you will doubtless agree this would make a good album cover:

Buckingham Palace

The next day we set out to watch the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace. We’re not huge fans of the royalty, nor of quasi-military procedure; rather, this was more of a literary pilgrimage, based on our love of the A.A. Milne poem:

oooooThey’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace -
oooooChristopher Robin went down with Alice.
oooooAlice is marrying one of the guard.
ooooo“A soldier's life is terrible hard,”
oooooSays Alice.

(If you have kids and haven’t read this poem in When We Were Very Young, you need to go get that book, and its companion Now We Are Six, before I report you to the authorities.)

We waited in line for over an hour at the gates of Buckingham Palace, among vast throngs of other tourists. Had they opened the gates at any point, it probably would have been like the concert stampede scene in “Pink Floyd – The Wall.” But at no point did they open the gates. At the appointed time, a lot of soldiers in funny hats arrived, many of them playing instruments, others carrying machine guns with bayonets, others comprising a marching band. They paraded around out front and then entered through a side gate.

The actual changing of the guard was very complicated, with no play-by-play from anybody, so we had no idea what was going on. It lasted for a really long time, and it was hard for Erin and me to see anything. Our kids had a great view from our shoulders; Alexa got this shot:

About the only other thing of note is that the band played the song “Dancing Queen” by ABBA. At that point, exhausted, we left. After lunch, we headed over to Westminster Abbey:

It cost fifty bucks to get in, so we didn’t. (Note that the coolest museum in the U.S., the Smithsonian, is free. Just sayin’.)

Across the street was the House of Parliament. The tall tower is where, according to Erin, all the paper copies of the laws are kept. Of course these could all fit on a single DVD, but that’s not the point. Anyhow, this is a huge complex of buildings that was really hard to get into a single photo. Between the first two, you get the idea. More about the third photo later.

Here’s a close-up of Big Ben, which you doubtless recognized in the previous two photos:

The London Eye

From here we walked across the Westminster Bridge and headed down to the London Eye (originally called the Millennium Wheel), which is basically the world’s largest Ferris wheel, if you could call it that. According to the official website it was built in 2000 “as a metaphor for the end of the 20th century.” (Based on how much it cost to ride—about $3/minute for our family—I’d say there was another motive as well. By my rough calculations, I’d guess it brings in about $500,000 per day.) Until about a week ago I’d never heard of this thing. I have to say, it’s pretty dang cool. It took seven years to build. It weighs 2,100 tons. It takes you about 450 feet up. It takes half an hour per revolution. And what’s especially impressive is that passengers, 25 to a pod, get on and off without the wheel having to stop.

Before our “flight,” as they call it, we watched a “4-D” movie promoting it. (Why they promote the thing after you’ve already bought tickets is beyond me.) The 4-D technology involves a special, enhanced version of 3-D glasses:

What’s special about the glasses is, obviously, that they look so good. But they’re not actually involved in the 4-D aspect of the technology. Here’s what 4-D is all about: you watch a movie that has several 3-D elements, like a seagull flying in your face or bubbles swarming at you out of nowhere, and the bubbles are—get this—real! So what you think is a super-hi-tech illusion is actually, well, what you’re really seeing. (I cheated by removing my glasses at a key moment.) For some reason you also get splashed with water during the movie. Maybe this is a sanitary way of conveying the idea of seagulls defecating on you.

Anyway, to focus solely on the 4-D bit is to fail to appreciate the real cinematic integrity of the film. It pays patent homage to “The Red Balloon,” using a non-narrated, dialog-free story of a little girl going on the London Eye with her father. What we see is from her perspective (if she had a helicopter for parts of it), and at the end she gives her dad a big hug: a stark contrast to her reserved, almost Germanic coldness at the beginning. The message is not hard for an experienced, insightful moviegoer to interpret: if you take your daughter on the London Eye she will love you a little more. Does it work? Yes, I think so. My children do seem to love me more, now that they’ve been on the London Eye and I’ve answered their questions about the movie.

But with no further ado, here are the photos. One London Eye photo you’ve already seen: the third House of Parliament photo above.

If this were truly a full-service blog, I’d include all the photos I took, annotated to show the great many points of interest. But I pay for server space on this blog, and besides, I’m tired, and you’re tired, so let’s just wrap this up. Stay tuned for my next installment, Oxford & the Cotswolds, coming soon to albertnet.

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