Friday, January 12, 2007

From the Sublime to the Soho

Or, who wears leather pants, anyway ...

Ahem. And now that I have your attention again. We will get back to that topic in a bit.

When you left us, we had just finished lunch and were wet and frozen. I forgot that when you are really cold that your nose runs. Why is that? My 24 bag only contained some cheap tissues that I had been carrying around for prolly years. You know, the kind of tissues that appear to be made of compressed kleenex dust and are totally useless? I bet that Jack Bauer has tissue in his bag that doubles as a weapon. And a signaling device.

We know that the shops will be open until late. We get back on the Tube and make it back to the hotel. I change into dry corduroys and shoes. We have a quick cup of hot tea while we change, and in short order, make it back out into the afternoon. It turns out that we are almost directly across from the museum, but I did not know that. We take a roundabout route, risking life and limb crossing the street in the dark. We come in the back entrance. They don’t have any maps at this entrance, and we just set off inside the vast building, not knowing where we are going.

I am a museum geek. I admit it. I like art and will view an art gallery, but I adore museums. I was wondering if Rowan would be a good museum companion. We are generally compatible, but she is less interested in reading each and every card than am I. We split up and drift back together, discussing what we have seen. There are really no words to describe the British Museum. The exhibits are spectacular, pure and simple.

You cannot really get a feel for the scale of this chimera. The statue is floor to ceiling. It is a temple guardian. There is a matching guardian to the right. I think we came up to the knees, maybe the belly, but no more that. I don't know if you can get a sense of just how massive this thing is.

There are Greek and Roman statues, Egyptian mummies, and statues of Bast, the elegant Egyptian deity.

And coins and spoons and musical instruments and necklaces and cups and supply lists and idols and books.

In a place like this, I just trail about, as there is just too much to digest – I feel like a jellyfish drifting in a current of time and space. It is a wonderful, otherworldly feeling. I did get some terrific pictures.

We walked into a room that was full of these astonishing friezes. Some date back to Nineveh (yes, that Ninevah), in about 700 BC. I could have stayed in that room for another hour or so. The carving was astonishing. I found a series of battle scenes, with depictions of captives being led off, oddly stirring and painful. There was one underwater scene with fish and water plants. It was just unbelievable.

The museum was closing down, and it was only about five -- we thought it would be open until eight. After being shooed out of one wing, I finally asked if the museum was really closing. I found that they close off different sections, but you can still go into the more popular areas. The less popular sections are closed in a random rotation. Funny system, that. I turned a corner and saw these wonderful Egyptian hawks (or falcons -- don't know the difference). I have friend who is a falconer, and will like these. I had to stop myself from stroking the cool marble.

I think that this is one of my favorite pictures. You can see statues in three different rooms.

This is a recreation of a temple. I thought this was interesting, because there was some argument as to how the pieces went together. It is a temple for Posiedon, and the three figures are his daughters.

The carvings behind these are depictions of sea creatures. The movement in the draperies is astonishing. You can feel the sea winds blowing.

I think that this is in the Enlightenment Room -- which is all about discovery in the 18th century.

There is so much to see that we decide to come back in the morning for a couple of hours before we have to get to Heathrow. I think that we should have time.

Rowan writes:

We leave the British Museum, and I am glad to feel the cold air in my lungs. I am theoretically a cultured person – that is, I have been immersed in a cornucopia of arts-related subjects for many a year. I have much more than dabbled in literary and theatrical research, so I should be energised by museums and I am mostly not. Yikes! I ponder over this. I love early mediaeval illuminated manuscripts, and hunt for those, but vellum apart, my expectations of the museum experience remain steadfastly nostalgic and somewhat regressed. I am hoping for overstuffed elephants and slightly moth-eaten mock-ups of mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. I want to see ptarmigan, frozen in mid-peck in icy tundra. I want to fiddle with interactive displays, which make shoals of deep sea fish glow phosphorescent in a gloom of many fathoms. I want to see dignified replicas of giant sunfish, fixed like giant leaves to wall displays, and angelfish with spiky teeth and heavy metal album-artwork grins. Oh, and maybe a T-Rex or two.

This is natural history. Okaaay…so I am an apologist for paleontology and bio-diversity over archaeology and artefacts…bits of things…wee beads. I am drawn to the more blatant and sumptuous end of Creation, rather than the subtle. I am a wow-factor museum browser. I like to turn my back on museum exhibits with a frisson of unease … that they might move, and come and reach for me with a thorny paw and a roll of a dusty glass eye.

Bob says:

We walk out into the darkness and it is raining a little more heavily. Rowan and I decide to go to Covent Garden anyway. It will be going from the sublime to the souvenir, but we are up for it. We get on the Tube and get off at Leicester Square. We roam around, looking at the wares, thinking about what we will have for dinner. I am more up for something quick, but Rowan has a fit of the heebie jeebies, as everything is crowded elbow to elbow. As we are walking around, we spy a huge neon sign for Spamalot, and go over to see if there are any last minute seats. A scalper accosts us and tries to sell us tickets. I stop, as I have never been offered tickets on a London street before. Rowan is clearly horrified, thinking that I might be tempted to buy. She starts making an argument against buying what may be photocopied tickets.

The worst part of my nature engages the guy in a conversation. I have no intent to buy anything. I just want to see if Rowan is going to put me into a headlock and drag me down the street. We go into the ticket office, and they release some of the unused tickets, but we are too late to get seats. Ah, well. As we leave, the same scalper comes up to us, and Rowan takes my elbow and determinedly marches me off.

We obtain a couple of souvenirs for the kids, and I am happy to get two of the Underground umbrellas for a good price. I talk to the young man at the counter. He is from the Middle East -- can't remember where. He has family in Orange County. We talk about Disneyland, which he would like to see. He would like to emigrate to the US, but says, somewhat ruefully, that he thinks that he will not be welcome. I tell him that he is very welcome, but I understand his concerns. We talk a little about the US while Rowan checks out the various items with the Union Jack. She has an unexpected fondness for it, despite being a Scot. I enjoy the incongruity of the moment. I am an American in London, talking to a young man from the Middle East, waiting for a Scot to find English tchotchkes.

Rowan writes:

It is dark and cold, but London is still very much a-bustle. We are on a souvenir hunt in theatre-land. The incongruity of this is not lost on us. We are very interested in finding out what is going on in the theatres surrounding us. We genuinely are. The neon signs proclaim shows which we would love to experience, if we but had more time. Indeed, we hover in the box-office for any last-minute tickets available for “Spamalot”, and are hassled by a persistent ticket-tout. I see that the fab Derek Jacobi, who I loved in “I Claudius”, is starring in a stage-version of, “A Voyage round my Father.” Wowzers! We have no more time to view, but the vibe is great – it is wonderful to walk the streets of Covent Garden and soak up the atmosphere this rainy evening.

We are on a mission. A low-brow artefact hunt. We are hunting down souvenirs with great mercantile efficiency. Bargains, baby, bargains! We are tough and critical, and not to be miss-sold a plastic London taxi in a snowstorm, for a penny more than we need pay. It is huge fun. I love delving in the realms of the tacky – the eye-blistering vistas of pillar-box coin banks, Union Jack shorts, toffee-tins shaped like the Tower of London, with sell-by dates long passed. And chocolate too – chocolate London monuments. I wonder if Traitor’s Gate tasteth great. I buy a nice quality but clearly much disparaged rag doll, from a basket of her sisters. For her throwaway price, she has wonderful red satin strides and a cool “London” t-shirt. My daughter will love her. For my son, I buy a large inflatable “Big Ben”. I have a nice bargain-hunty glow.

We pass on from shop to shop, looking at mugs, putting them back. We are looking for great Underground souvenirs, and see some nice ones, but nothing which grabs us in particular.

There are a whole series of little open-fronted shops, and we are drawn along the line, always hoping to see something different and perhaps cheaper, in the next one. Bob spots an umbrella sporting a map of the underground on the inside of the canopy. It is extremely cool. We have seen these in Bloomsbury, retailing at an unappealing sum, and they are less than half-price here. There is only one on display, though. Bob approaches the seller and asks to buy two, only to find that it has been wrongly priced. She stands her ground, and produces a masterly display of efficient yet well-mannered negotiating skills, worthy of a trader in a Moroccan Soukh, which has the salesman trumped. He offers her two umbrellas at the knockdown price. As a British person, I do not possess the genetic code for bargaining, and stand back and admire Bob’s abilities in that arena. (Actually, the haggling was pretty low-level. I think that I just surprised the salesman. I only bargain if there is no price on the item. – bob)

We are hungry, and drift along the crowded streets, looking for something to eat. There are lots of tiny colourful eateries, serving pizzas and falafels, and noisy pubs. I am hit by a wave of shyness about going into one of the tiny places, and we move on, looking for somewhere else. We pass through Soho, and see some very curious shops. One bears the legend, “Dirty White Boy.” I do not venture to peep in the window, just glimpsing a cowboy hat and a pair of what looks like leather jeans. (I had noticed that we were getting into a progressively smutty area. I did not draw Rowan's attention to all of the sex shops that we passed. I have to say that Soho has nothing on Las Vegas. There was not a be-thonged buttock in sight. -- bob)

Bob says:

We finally make it back to Bloomsbury and decide to have dinner at the Thai restaurant that we found on the first night. I introduce Rowan to Tom Ka Kai, which is just about the perfect soup. She is game, and we share a plate of Pad See-Ew. Yum. We are tired and it is late. We have been on the go all day, but are pleased because we have managed to use our time well. In this one day, we have been to All Hallows Church, the Tower of London, the British Museum, and Covent Garden. We have to leave tomorrow, but our flight does not leave until two thirty in the afternoon.

Once back in the hotel, I put my sopping wet corduroys into the trouser press to dry them and feel very much like a British business executive. I also figure out how to use the radiator, which makes me feel very smart. Rowan suggests that I put my shoes and socks (both pairs) on the radiator to dry them, and I do. We do a little organizing and rearranging of luggage, to save having to do it in the morning. Rowan curls up in bed with Ray Bradbury’s latest. I take a little piece of my Lush bubble bar, toss it into the almost scalding water and make a tower of nice-smelling bubbles. In two seconds, I am reading in the tub and thawing out my icy extremities. It is pretty much bliss.

Tomorrow – British Museum and Heathrow and thence back to Edinburgh.


A mom in the 'burbs said...

How fun! Rowan--Bob is truly the most polite haggler you will met. She is confident and firm, never a raised voice. I am learning her ways...

The British Museum sounds so fabulous! I have museum envy! Must go!

Dr. Bob said...

burbmom, we are going. we will have a great time ... I am ready to go back. So many things that I did not even know were there ...

Rowan said...

Yep, I must learn too, Mom in the 'Burbs, but I will perhaps need to wait for gene therapy. Brits just do not haggle. I can see how it pays off, though.(Clicks heels and salutes Bob's polite haggling skilz)

The museum is indeed fabulous. The Natural History Museum is meant to be truly superb as well. And it has a t-rex...