Thursday, August 27, 2015

Thea said

 Today's quote from my six-year old granddaughter,
"Kids are totally cool, but not grown-ups.  The only reason grown-ups are cool is cause they're so easy to annoy. You can frustrate them and then they put you in your room and you get to be by yourself for awhile. And then you can make plans to run away and get all the candy in the world. I've gone bankrupt for candy."

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

UK walkabouts

Wild parakeet - Greenwich Park, London
One of the wild
green parakeets of London
(Note: I've gone a little wild with the formatting this time so please leave a comment if this layout doesn't work on your screen. Thanks.)

Here's a list of the main places we've visited, in order since Bath, with a few photos and notes thrown in for good measure.

Chair and photo of
1960s "middling class" with
photo of parallel world look-alikes.
Parallel world look-alikes

Geffrye Museum of the Home
is housed in a building that was  built in 1714 as an almshouse for the poor. A series of period rooms along the hall that is the spine of the building allow visitors a peek at the homes of the 'middling class' from 17th century to the present day. In the modern section, reduced to one photo and a chair, I came face to face with a 1960s version of myself and two of my children. The likenesses between them and us was mind-blowing, definitely time shifting, parallel world look-alikes.

The Queen's Horse Guard.
The horse didn't like it
and neither did the guard.
Buckingham Palace and, of course, no photos allowed. The tickets were pricey but seemed like a must-do, given that we've been hearing about the place all our lives. We were prepared for it to be a total bust but it wasn't. In fact, it basically  fulfilled my wildest childhood fantasy of what a palace should be. And, having recently visited Brighton Pavilion, we had fun identifying treasures Queen Victoria had taken from there. Also, the highly theatrical, over-the-top decor of the music room and other less formal chambers, designed by George IV's personal architect John Nash was, simply put, mind-blowing. It was also interesting to see photos of the Queen and Prince Philip with the Obamas and other notables in the room where the state dinners are held. As for the photo of Swami and the Horse Guard, don't blame him. I put him up to it. He was every bit as uncomfortable as the horse. It was stupid of me to get so close and the guard let me know it with a masterful withering glance. Blocks later, I still felt like an asshole.

The Reckless Sleeper
by René Magritte

Tate Modern - We both really enjoyed the Poetry and Dream exhibit. It had works from some of my favorite painters, like René Magritte. And then there was the inevitable black painting and the white painting, some garbage, a broken chair suspended from the ceiling, an unmade bed in a corner, and even two sacks of sand all posing as art. I could not, did not contain myself.

"Art"at Tate Modern
Unmade bed
Stuff "art"
Tate Modern, Britain

Our art crawl through Europe has led to some interesting discussions about the current state of art or "art". This morning M. sent me two good links to articles on the subject, one at 3quarksdaily and the other at Commentary Magazine, How Art Became Irrelevant. Both are definitely worth a read if you're interested in the subject.

 Dotted line marks old Prime Meridian.
Solid white line marks the revised Prime Meridian.

Toeing the old
Prime Meridian line

Greenwich to see the new Prime Meridian Line as it has moved 330 ft (101 metres) to the east. The usual crowd of people was there lined up to be photographed straddling the old line where (we thought) East met West. Then we walked over to the  approximate new place where, using modern GPS technology, researchers have determined 0° longitude actually runs. According to London's Daily Mail, "it now cuts across Greenwich Park near a bin". Also we saw several deer and lots of crows, seagulls, magpies, squirrels, the lovely green wild parakeets, a grassy mound that's supposedly covering Roman ruins and walked the tunnel under the Thames.

Minerva dreaming - Greenwich Park, London
Minerva contemplating the crows
in Greenwich Park

Swami and Rembrandt
at Kenwood House

Walked Hampstead Heath and visited Kenwood English Heritage House, a 17th-century country manor where we saw, among other paintings, a self-portrait by Rembrandt and works by Hals, Turner and Vermeer. Swami especially liked the Rembrandt and the Hals.

Winchester Cathedral  Of course, the cathedral is ancient and grand. Here we took the tour. Our guide, one of several volunteers, was wonderful. She delighted us all with fascinating, quirky details about the history of the cathedral. The whole town of Winchester is built on a peat bog so, over the centuries, the massive cathedral was slowly sinking into the ground. In the early 1900s, it was in danger of collapse so a deep-sea diver by the name of William Walker was hired to do the repairs. Walker's job was to go down below the cathedral's base and find solid ground. At that point, bags of concrete were lowered down to him and, every day for six years, he worked in the total and utter dark far below ground, building a foundation. One hundred years later, Winchester Cathedral still sits firm on the foundation he built and the head from his diver's suit, a photo and plaque telling the story hold a place of honor within.

Swami and Minerva enjoying a sunbeam
at Almshouse of Noble Poverty
The Hospital of St. Cross and Almshouse of Nobel Poverty is not a hospital in today's sense of the word but a medieval poor house also located in Winchester. Known as "England's oldest and most perfect almshouse", it still functions as established around 1135 by Henry de Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror. Noticing that we were a little underwhelmed by the grounds, one of the Brothers invited us to a tour of his quarters. He explained that being chosen to live at the Noble Almshouse depends "entirely on how you look, how you fit in. That's it". He started out at St. Cross as a porter and had been working there for about three years when a resident died and he was invited to become a Brother. I can see why. He was a gentleman, a singer and a member of the choir. He was also a cat lover. Several photos of his cat and cat decor brightened his tiny apartment. But the Brothers live a very simple life at the Noble Almshouse. They are not allowed pets so, these days, his beloved cat Effie lives with the Bishop. My memory of him is both sweet and sad.

Cambridge - King's College Chapel and Fitzwilliam Museum

King Henry VIII - Cambridge
King Henry VIII
in Cambridge

King's College Chapel was built by a succession of kings but Henry VIII finished it in 1515 and, for me, his presence overshadowed the rest. That's probably because I have fairly limited knowledge of English history. In any case, it is an amazing place though it seems more a tribute to kingly glory than heavenly. Ok, a massive Ruben's masterpiece hangs over the alter but the alter itself is otherwise quite plain. And I wonder if anyone has ever counted all the swords, crowns and other royal symbols chiseled into the towering walls, pillars and ceiling.

"At the Cafe" Degas - 1876
"At the Cafe" Degas - 1876
Fitzwilliam Museum
And then there's the mile high wooden screen that separates the nave from the alter Henry had installed to celebrate his marriage to Anne Boleyn. It's stained dark red brown, I am sad to report, by ox blood and, originally contained a carving of Anne's head and another of a woman hanging by her hair. In Henry's day, hanging a woman by her hair until it separated from her scalp was common punishment for I don't know what. M. Lee suggested perhaps for cooking a bad meal. The portrait of the woman hanging by her hair remains but Henry commanded the portrait of Anne's head be removed after he had her beheaded at the Tower of London.

The Fitizwilliam was nice but only a few pieces really stood out. "At the Cafe" was my favorite but, when it comes to Degas, I'm easy.

Me, Lee and Swami
on the Tames at Limehouse
Walked along Regents Canal to the Thames we were amazed to see all the narrowboats. Until now, we didn't know about the labyrinth of waterways running through the island. There are some 2200 navigable miles of canals and hundreds, if not thousands, of hand operated locks to move the narrowboats up and over hills on their way through the countryside at 2 to 4 miles an hour. Very cool if you're not in a hurry.

Frank and the walkie talkie

I'm trying to finish this while sitting at St. Pancras International. We're leaving England now and headed to Ghent, Belgium, where we'll be for the next week. Ok. M. Lee, Swami and Minerva are here with me but this morning I feel a bit the way my grandfather must have felt on his seven voyages around the world, alone and far far away.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Poetry Unplugged

London - Poetry Unplugged's open mic night tiny basement room
Poetry Unplugged's cave
Poetry Unplugged is the only open mic I've read at in London. It's not because I like the room which is the tiny basement of the Poetry Cafe. Yes, it has a certain funky charm but it also gets very crowded, stuffy and extremely hot. And it's not because everything read at Poetry Unplugged, or any open mic, spoken word or slam event, is wonderful because it's not. It's because Poetry Unplugged is early enough, it's not held in a shitty, noisy bar and, for the most part, the people who show up to read there are not pretentious dicks who swagger through their own reading then leave.

The credit goes to the MC, poet Niall O'Sullivan. He does a wonderful job of keeping things interesting, fair, fun and moving. That said, included below is a review of the event which, to my delight and his credit, Niall posted on his own blog.
One of the worst evenings I’ve ever endured was at an event called Poetry Unplugged. About 50 people were crammed into a sweaty basement, all perched expectantly on orange plastic chairs. How nice, I thought, to see such an enthusiastic audience for poetry. As one figure after another leapt up to read their doggerel, the truth dawned. They were all here not to listen, but to perform. They would suffer each other's poetic rants, but only for their moment of glory. A woman in a red wig recited a poem about her vagina. A man in a blue jumper did a lengthy lament on lost love. It was a very long night.
Duh. Of course people are there to read but it's not the feeding frenzy this nube describes. Generally people are pretty open to each other at readings but come on! Why wouldn't that include a little quid pro quo? Yet, for all the years I've read at these things, I am still prone to what is sometimes breath stopping shyness. At the reading two weeks ago it hit me full force. By my second poem I basically caught up with my breath but that night I never fully got into the words.

Uncle Monkey, Ugly Bear, Clarence and NaNo manuscript
Uncle Monkey, Ugly Bear and Clarence
discussing my NaNo manuscript
This week I was more at ease. The difference? Before reading I acknowledged my nervousness to the audience. Simple, right? No. When I got to the mic it was all I could do to glance at people and whisper, "I'm really nervous". Still it was enough to break the tension. It also helped I read Jazz which is more a performance piece than anything else.

I extracted it from the NaNoWriMo "novel" I wrote a few years ago. In fact, thus far these four paragraphs are all I have used from that entire 50,000 word manuscript. No worries. I may even write a second one some November. I loved banging through a month of crazy intensity, 2000 words a day, the world be damned, though no doubt it helped that I had zero expectations and no plot. I naturally share the NaNo point of view, "No plot? No Problem!". 

The cafe is now closed until the first of September. We leave London in about a week so that's it for me this time around.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Time travels and so did the Romans

Growing up in America, old was anything over 100 years. Over the last ten+ years I have had to seriously revise my thinking. But nothing has so changed my point of view as this trip, beginning in Spain where we saw early human artifacts dating back 1.3 million years.

We were not invited in for tea

Last week we visited four more historic sites just outside of London. The first was Canterbury, an area that has been inhabited since prehistoric times.

The Candle marks were Thomas Beckett
was murdered by followers of King Henry in 1170.

Of course, like every country around or near the Mediterranean in the first century, one day the Romans showed up and built their customary grid, theatre, forums and baths. By 597, Canterbury even had the beginnings of its Catholic abbey.

Swami at Canterbury Cathedral, Great Britian
Canterbury Cathedral today

And, of course, about 1000 years later (1534), Henry VIII kicked the Catholics out, appointed the first Archbishop of Canterbury and made Canterbury the Rome of his newly minted Church of England. These days the cathedral and the entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Roman tiles with paw prints and thrown stone
Paw prints and a thrown stone?
Did the potter  throw the rock at the dog?

Another day we took a train to St. Albans, not a UNESCO site, but like most of Europe, built on Roman ruins. On a walkabout, we came upon the Verulamium Museum and what a pleasant surprise. It's small, but very well curated, and full of treasures from Roman Verulamium and medieval St. Albans upon which the St. Albans of today is built. My sentimental favorites were the tile and potsherds with paw prints left by dogs when the clay was still wet, about a 1,000 years ago. Judging by the deep impression of this dog's paw, I'd say the drawing accompanying the sherd is pretty accurate.

Cardinal Wolsey exposed - St. Albans Cathedral, UK
Click to read
St. Albans side of the story

Wikipedia, generally my go-to site for unbiased information, let me down here. Their mention of Cardinal Wolsey's church reforms is shockingly different than the detailed account displayed on a wall inside St. Albans cathedral. There, in plain and bitter language, a much different tale is told.

Swami and friends at St. Albans
Swami and some old acquaintances

On the brighter side, the 800 year-old street market had the purse I've been looking months for and only £10. Plus Swami ran into some old acquaintances though I wasn't too sure about the middle guy.

Abney Park Cemetary 409 - London
Graves in the gloom

We also spent an afternoon wandering around one of London's "Magnificent Seven" cemeteries, Abney Park. Opened in 1840, compared to the Romans, it's new but the graves are disappearing beneath a wilderness of nettles, blackberry bramble, ivy and trees right in the middle of London. It's deliciously forlorn. I loved it. M. Lee not so much.

Village of Bath, UK
Village of Bath
the low, roofless building
without a roof is the Roman baths

And lastly we visited the village of Bath, so named for the thermal hot springs baths established there in the first century by, you know, the Romans. Except for the occasional newer home, Bath remains as it was rebuilt in the 18th century, a peaceful little Georgian village so, along with the Roman baths, the entire area is a World Heritage Site.

Roman bath - Village of Bath, Great Britian
Romans bath at Bath,
one room among many

Being such accomplished engineers, the Romans get credit for developing the springs although this was a sacred site for the Celts almost a thousand years earlier. But for all their Roman expertise, even at the sacred Bath, the occasional passing critter managed to leave a paw print or two in the tile.

Ancient Roman bath, Britian
Swami and Minerva enjoying a Roman bath

The Verulamium Museum, St. Albans

And, of course, the brilliance of the capstone is that the arch needs no mortar yet will stand for a thousand years.