Juggling Knives in London
The flight arrived on time; and the twelve hours while on board passed quickly and without incident. To be sure, the quality of the Cathay Pacific service was exemplary once again.
Heathrow reminds me of Newark International. The décor comes straight out of the sterile 80's and is less an eyesore than an insipid background to the rhythm of human activity, such hustle and bustle, at the fore. There certainly are faces from all races present, creating a rich mosaic of humanity which is refreshing if not completely revitalizing after swimming for so long in a sea of Chinese faces in Hong Kong.
Internet access is sealed in England, it seems. Nothing is free; everything is egregiously monetized from the wireless hotspots down to the desktop terminals. I guess Hong Kong has spoiled me with its abundant, free access to the information superhighway.
Despite staying in a room with five other backpackers, I have been sleeping well. The mattress and pillow are firm; my earplugs keep the noise out; and the sleeping quarters are as dark as a cave when the lights are out, and only as bright as, perhaps, a dreary rainy day when on. All in all, St. Paul's is a excellent place to stay for the gregarious, adventurous, and penurious city explorer - couchsurfing may be a tenable alternative; I'll test for next time.
Yesterday Connie and I gorged ourselves at the borough market where there were all sorts of delectable, savory victuals. There was definitely a European flavor to the food fair: simmering sausages were to be found everywhere; and much as the meat was plentiful, and genuine, so were the dairy delicacies, in the form of myriad rounds of cheese, stacked high behind checkered tabletops. Of course, we washed these tasty morsels down with copious amounts of alcohol that flowed from cups as though amber waterfalls. For the first time I tried mulled wine, which tasted like warm, rancid fruit punch - the ideal tonic for a drizzling London day, I suppose. We later killed the afternoon at the pub, shooting the breeze while imbibing several diminutive half-pints in the process. Getting smashed at four in the afternoon doesn't seem like such a bad thing anymore, especially when you are having fun in the company of friends; I can more appreciate why the English do it so much!
Earlier in the day, we visited the Tate Modern. Its turbine room lived up to its prominent billing what with a giant spider, complete with bulbous egg sac, anchoring the retrospective exhibit. The permanent galleries, too, were a delight upon which to feast one's eyes. Picasso, Warhol and Pollock ruled the chambers of the upper floors with the products of their lithe wrists; and I ended up becoming a huge fan of cubism, while developing a disdain for abstract art and its vacuous images, which, I feel, are devoid of both motivation and emotion.
My first trip yesterday morning was to Emirates Stadium, home of the Arsenal Gunners. It towers imperiously over the surrounding neighborhood; yet for all its majesty, the place sure was quiet! Business did pick up later, however, once the armory shop opened, and dozens of fans descended on it like bees to a hive. I, too, swooped in on a gift-buying mission, and wound up purchasing a book for Godfrey, a scarf for a student, and a jersey - on sale, of course - for good measure.
I'm sitting in the Westminster Abbey Museum now, resting my weary legs and burdened back. So far, I've been verily impressed with what I've seen, such a confluence of splendor and history before me that it would require days to absorb it all, when regretfully I can spare only a few hours. My favorite part of the abbey is the poets corner where no less a literary luminary than Samuel Johnson rests in peace - his bust confirms his homely presence, which was so vividly captured in his biography.
For lunch I had a steak and ale pie, served with mash, taken alongside a Guinness, extra cold - 2 degrees centigrade colder, the bartender explained. It went down well, like all the other delicious meals I've had in England; and no doubt by now I have grown accustomed to inebriation at half past two. Besides, Liverpool were playing inspired football against Blackburn; and my lunch was complete.
Having had my fill of football, I decided to skip my ticket scalping endeavor at Stamford Bridge and instead wandered over to the British Museum to inspect their extensive collections. Along the way, my eye caught a theater, its doors wide open and admitting customers. With much rapidity, I subsequently checked the show times, saw that a performance was set to begin, and at last rushed to the box office to purchase a discounted ticket - if you call a 40 pound ticket a deal, that is. That's how I grabbed a seat to watch Hairspray in the West End.
The show was worth forty pounds. The music was addictive; and the stage design and effects were not so much kitschy as delightfully stimulating - the pulsating background lights were at once scintillating and penetrating. The actors as well were vivacious, oozing charisma while they danced and delivered lines dripping in humor. Hairspray is a quality production and most definitely recommended.
At breakfast I sat across from a man who asked me to which country Hong Kong had been returned - China or Japan. That was pretty funny. Then he started spitting on my food as he spoke, completely oblivious to my breakfast becoming the receptacle in which the fruit of his inner churl was being placed. I guess I understand the convention nowadays of covering one's mouth whilst speaking and masticating at the same time!
We actually conversed on London life in general, and I praised London for its racial integration, the act of which is a prodigious leap of faith for any society, trying to be inclusive, accepting all sorts of people. It wasn't as though the Brits were trying in vain to be all things to all men, using Spanish with the visitors from Spain, German with the Germans and, even, Hindi with the Indians, regardless of whether or not Hindi was their native language; not even considering the absurd idea of encouraging the international adoption of their language; thereby completely keeping English in English hands and allowing its proud polyglots to "practice" their languages. Indeed, the attempt of the Londoners to avail themselves of the rich mosaic of ethnic knowledge, and to seek a common understanding with a ubiquitous English accent is an exemplar, and the bedrock for any world city.
I celebrated Jesus' resurrection at the St. Andrew's Street Church in Cambridge. The parishioners of this Baptist church were warm and affable, and I met several of them, including one visiting (Halliday) linguistics scholar from Zhongshan university in Guangzhou, who in fact had visited my tiny City University of Hong Kong in 2003. The service itself was more traditional and the believers fewer in number than the "progressive" services at any of the charismatic, evangelical churches in HK; yet that's what makes this part of the body of Christ unique; besides, the message was as brief as a powerpoint slide, and informative no less; the power word which spoke into my life being a question from John 21:22 - what is that to you?
Big trees; exquisite lawns; and old, pointy colleges; that's Cambridge in a nutshell. Sitting here, sipping on a half-pint of Woodforde's Wherry, I've had a leisurely, if not languorous, day so far; my sole duty consisting of walking around while absorbing the verdant environment as though a sponge, camera in tow.
I am back at the sublime beer, savoring a pint of Sharp's DoomBar before my fish and chips arrive; the drinking age is 18, but anyone whose visage even hints of youthful brilliance is likely to get carded these days, the bartender told me. The youth drinking culture here is almost as twisted as the university drinking culture in America.
My stay in Cambridge, relaxing and desultory as it may be, is about to end after this late lunch. I an not sure if there is anything left to see, save for the American graveyard which rests an impossible two miles away. I have had a wonderful time in this town; and am thankful for the access into its living history - the residents here must demonstrate remarkable patience and tolerance what with so many tourists ambling on the streets, peering - and photographing - into every nook and cranny.
There are no rubbish bins, yet I've seen on the streets many mixed race couples in which the men tend to be white - the women also belonging to a light colored ethnicity, usually some sort of Asian; as well saw some black dudes and Indian dudes with white chicks.
People here hold doors, even at the entrance to the toilet. Sometimes it appears as though they are going out on a limb, just waiting for the one who will take the responsibility for the door from them, at which point I rush out to relieve them of such a fortuitous burden.
I visited the British Museum this morning. The two hours I spent there did neither myself nor the exhibits any justice because there really is too much to survey, enough captivating stuff to last an entire day, I think. The bottomless well of artifacts from antiquity, drawing from sources as diverse as Korea, and Mesopotamia, is a credit to the British empire, without whose looting most of this amazing booty would be unavailable for our purview; better, I think, for these priceless treasures to be open to all in the grandest supermarket of history than away from human eyes, and worst yet, in the hands of unscrupulous collectors or in the rubbish bin, possibly.
Irene and I took in the ballet Giselle at The Royal Opera House in the afternoon. The building is a plush marvel, and a testament to this city's love for the arts. The ballet itself was satisfying, the first half being superior to the second, in which the nimble dancers demonstrated their phenomenal dexterity in, of all places, a graveyard covered in a cloak of smoke and darkness. I admit, their dance of the dead, in such a gloomy necropolis, did strike me as, strange.
Two amicable ladies from Kent convinced me to visit their hometown tomorrow, where, they told me, the authentic, "working" Leeds Castle and the mighty interesting home of Charles Darwin await.
I'm nursing a pint of Green King Ruddles and wondering about the profusion of British ales and lagers; the British have done a great deed for the world by creating an interminable line of low-alcohol session beers that can be enjoyed at breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner; and their disservice is this: besides this inexhaustible supply of cheap beer ensnaring my inner alcoholic, I feel myself putting on my freshman fifteen, almost ten years after the fact; I am going to have to run a bit harder back in Hong Kong if I want to burn all this malty fuel off.
Irene suggested I stop by the National Art Gallery since we were in the area; and it was an hour well spent. The gallery currently presents a special exhibit on Picasso, the non-ticketed section of which features several seductive renderings, including David spying on Bathsheba - repeated in clever variants - and parodies of other masters' works. Furthermore, the main gallery houses two fabulous portraits by Joshua Reynolds, who happens to be favorite of mine, he in life being a close friend of Samuel Johnson - I passed by Boswells, where its namesake first met Johnson, on my way to the opera house.
I prayed last night, and went through my list, lifting everyone on it up to the Lord. That felt good; that God is alive now, and ever present in my life and in the lives of my brothers and sisters.
Doubtless, then, I have felt quite wistful, as though a specter in the land of the living, being in a place where religious fervor, it seems, is a thing of the past, a trifling for many, to be hidden away in the opaque corners of centuries-old cathedrals that are more expensive tourist destinations than liberating homes of worship these days. Indeed, I have yet to see anyone pray, outside of the Easter service which I attended in Cambridge - for such an ecstatic moment in verily a grand church, would you believe that it was only attended by at most three dozen spirited ones. The people of England, and Europe in general, have, it is my hope, only locked away the Word, relegating it to the quiet vault of their hearts. May it be taken out in the sudden pause before mealtimes and in the still crisp mornings and cool, silent nights. There is still hope for a revival in this place, for faith to rise like that splendid sun every morning. God would love to rescue them, to deliver them in this day, it is certain.
I wonder what Londoners think, if anything at all, about their police state which, like a vine in the shadows, has taken root in all corners of daily life, from the terrorist notifications in the underground, which implore Londoners to report all things suspicious, to the pair of dogs which eagerly stroll through Euston. What makes this all the more incredible is the fact that even the United States, the indomitable nemesis of the fledgling, rebel order, doesn't dare bombard its citizens with such fear mongering these days, especially with Obama in office; maybe we've grown wise in these past few years to the dubious returns of surrendering civil liberties to the state, of having our bags checked everywhere - London Eye; Hairspray; and The Royal Opera House check bags in London while the museums do not; somehow, that doesn't add up for me.
I'm in a majestic bookshop on New Street in Birmingham, and certainly to confirm my suspicions, there are just as many books on the death of Christianity in Britain as there are books which attempt to murder Christianity everywhere. I did find, however, a nice biography on John Wesley by Roy Hattersley and The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. I may pick up the former.
Lunch with Sally was pleasant and mirthful. We dined at a French restaurant nearby New Street - yes, Birmingham is a cultural capitol! Sally and I both tried their omelette, while her boyfriend had the fish, without chips. Conversation was light, the levity was there and so was our reminiscing about those fleeting moments during our first year in Hong Kong; it is amazing how friendships can resume so suddenly with a smile. On their recommendation, I am on my way to Warwick Castle - they also suggested that I visit Cadbury World, but they cannot take on additional visitors at the moment, the tourist office staff informed me, much to my disappointment!
Visiting Warwick Castle really made for a great day out. The castle, parts of which were established by William the Conquerer in 1068, is as much a kitschy tourist trap as a meticulous preservation of history, at times a sillier version of Ocean Park while at others a dignified dedication to a most glorious, inexorably English past. The castle caters to all visitors; and not surprisingly, that which delighted all audiences was a giant trebuchet siege engine, which for the five p.m. performance hurled a fireball high and far into the air - fantastic! Taliban beware!
I'm leaving on a jet plane this evening; don't know when I'll be back in England again. I'll miss this quirky, yet endearing place; and that I shall miss Irene and Tom who so generously welcomed me into their home, fed me, and suffered my use of their toilet and shower goes without saying. I'm grateful for God's many blessings on this trip.
On the itinerary today is a trip to John Wesley's home, followed by a visit to the Imperial War Museum. Already this morning I picked up a tube of Oilatum, a week late perhaps, which Teri recommended I use to treat this obstinate, dermal weakness of mine - I'm happy to report that my skin has stopped crying.
John Wesley's home is alive and well. Services are still held in the chapel everyday; and its crypt, so far from being a cellar for the dead, is a bright, spacious museum in which all things Wesley are on display - I never realized how much of an iconic figure he became in England; at the height of this idol frenzy, ironic in itself, he must have been as popular as the Beatles were at their apex. The house itself is a multi-story edifice with narrow, precipitous staircases and spacious rooms decorated in an 18th century fashion.
I found Samuel Johnson's house within a maze of red brick hidden alongside Fleet Street. To be in the home of the man who wrote the English dictionary, and whose indefatigable love for obscure words became the inspiration for my own lexical obsession, this, by far, is the climax of my visit to England! The best certainly has been saved for last.
There are a multitude of portraits hanging around the house like ornaments on a tree. Every likeness has its own story, meticulously retold on the crib sheets in each room. Celebrities abound, including David Garrick and Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted several of the finer images in the house. I have developed a particular affinity for Oliver Goldsmith, of whom Boswell writes, "His person was short, his countenance coarse and vulgar, his deportment that of a scholar awkwardly affecting the easy gentleman. It appears as though I, too, could use a more flattering description of myself!
I regretfully couldn't stop to try the curry in England; I guess the CityU canteen's take on the dish will have to do. I did, however, have the opportune task of flirting with the cute Cathay Pacific counter staff who checked me in. She was gorgeous in red, light powder on her cheeks, with real diamond earrings, she said; and her small, delicate face, commanded by a posh British accent rendered her positively irresistible, electrifying. Not only did she grant me an aisle seat but she had the gumption to return my fawning with zest; she must be a pro at this by now.
I saw her again as she was pulling double-duty, collecting tickets prior to boarding. She remembered my quest for curry; and in the fog of infatuation, where nary a man has been made, I fumbled my words like the sloppy kid who has had too much punch. I am just an amateur, alas, an "Oliver Goldsmith" with the ladies - I got no game - booyah!
Some final, consequential bits: because of the chavs, Burberry no longer sells those fashionable baseball caps; because of the IRA, rubbish bins are no longer a commodity on the streets of London, and as a result, the streets and the Underground of the city are a soiled mess; and because of other terrorists from distant, more arid lands, going through a Western airport has taken on the tedium of perfunctory procedure that doesn't make me feel any safer from my invisible enemies.
At last, I saw so many Indians working at Heathrow that I could have easily mistaken the place for Mumbai. Their presence surprised me because their portion of the general population surely must be less than their portion of Heathrow staff, indicating some mysterious hiring bias. Regardless, they do a superb job with cursory airport checks, and in general are absurdly funny and witty when not tactless.
That's all for England!