Saturday, May 31, 2008

Clear Eyes?

Scientific American is going rather ballistic over this idiotic Ben Stein movie Expelled, a Michael Moore-esque anti-science, pro-intelligent design "documentary." Columnist (and Skeptic magazine editor) Michael Shermer relates in an editorial in the print edition of SciAm (behind the paywall online) how he was interviewed by Stein for the movie (which had been misrepresented to him as a more or less objective look at the crossroads of science and religion) and how Stein pitched a nutty when Shermer wouldn't give him the responses he wanted.

The film is apparently virulently anti-Darwin and purports to show how intelligent design is being deliberately excluded from schools and universities, and that those who deign to teach it are being summarily persecuted. It's all bullshit, of course; all of the cases presented in the movie have more to them than is presented, and those who were fired were often let go for reasons having little or nothing to do with espousing "intelligent design." Even more bizarrely, Darwin is blamed for fascism and the Holocaust (funny, I thought Hitler had been behind that) as well as communism, which is ironic since Darwin was actually heavily influenced by Adam Smith, and "social Darwinism" and "survival of the fittest" (a phase not coined by Darwin but by sociologist Herbert Spencer) have been oft-used to justify unfettered capitalism. And actually, the Stalinists rejected evolution because they deemed it to be a capitalistic explanation of biology! So someone didn't get the memo, it seems.

I have not seen the movie, but it sounds pretty ridiculous. I am occasionally spammed by acquaintances who send me Internet links condemning evolution and Darwin, apparently in the assumption that the magic power of e-mail is enough to make me repent and reject a subject I have been interested in and reading about for more than 20 years. The focus on Darwin is curious; I mean, evolutionary biology has progressed a little bit since, you know, the 1850s. Specifically, genetics was unknown until the 20th century and after Darwin's death, so the mechanism by which evolutionary change happens was unknown to Darwin. In fact, I dare say that no contemporary biologist would consider him- or herself a "Darwinist." It's kind of like considering Copernicus to be the exemplar of modern astronomy. Sure, he laid a great foundation, but the field has, um, evolved since. And all the people who claim that "evolution is just a theory" obviously haven't the slightest idea what they're talking about and I would strongly recommend, oh, I don't know, maybe reading a book or two about modern evolutionary biology. (I highly recommend Jonathan Weiner's Pulitzer-winning The Beak of the Finch.) It's rather like me, who knows next to nothing about religion and who has never read the bible, challenging the Pope about Christianity. I would be quite rightly laughed out of the Vatican--assuming I wouldn't be anyway.

It's odd how this seeming war between religion and science has escalated, since it always seemed to me that science and religion are two completely different things that (ideally) should have two different purviews. Science is about objectively finding explanations for natural phenomena through empirically gathering evidence and reproducible experimentation. New evidence can and often does supersede older explanations, which is exactly what is supposed to happen in science. Religion, on the other hand, relies on faith and belief to give the believer's life meaning and provide a moral framework for proper behavior (which doesn't always seem to work out too well). I don't see that there is anything that precludes someone from being both scientific and religious; in fact, an excellent and inspiring recent book by the Dalai Lama (The Universe in a Single Atom) is the result of said Lama reading science books, visiting research institutions, talking with scientists, and ultimately finding no conflict between scientific thinking and the tenets of Buddhist spirituality--and in fact, he explicitly states that where scientific fact comes into conflict with long-held religious-based explanations of reality, it's religious belief that must change in the face of new evidence to the contrary. It doesn't take anything away from the spiritual and moral underpinnings of faith, it seems to me.

One of my early intellectual heroes was the late Stephen Jay Gould, a vocal proponent of evolutionary biology and someone who was also religious. (And, he having been Jewish, he probably would have objected to this whole "Darwinism caused the Holocaust" nonsense.) Gould never saw that there needed to be any conflict between the two camps. The trouble starts when one side starts insisting that the other needs to incorporate the beliefs of the other. And since we never hear of scientists insisting that particle physics be incorporated into religious sermons, guess which way this goes. It really comes down to whether religion should be taught in science class and maybe I'm a sinner, but I think science should be taught in science classes and religion should be taught in religion classes. A shocking idea, I know. This applies to any other topic; I would never expect Charles Dickens to be taught in high school biology class (but how cool would that be?), but I would also never expect to dissect a frog in English class (but, again, how cool would that be?).

Oh, as for so-called "intelligent design," I don't grant the premise. As someone who has a human body (it could be argued), I find little about it to be intelligently designed--and less so the older I get. And ask any woman who has ever given birth how intelligently designed the whole thing is; if you don't get a stream of lurid profanity as a response, I would be very surprised.

Album of the Day--May 31, 2008

Jesus of Cool
Nick Lowe
1978
Stiff Records
Produced by Nick Lowe

Yep-Roc Records has just released the 30th Anniversary special edition of Nick Lowe's first album (yikes--1978 was 30 years ago?!), which I highly recommend. Nick Lowe is a somewhat ironic figure; he was one of the driving forces behind the emergence of the British punk rock scene, and yet he wasn't all that fond of punk, at least in its rawest form (as exemplified by the Sex Pistols, The Damned, etc.), and always had more of a pop sensibility. He started out in the early 1970s as the leader of pub-rock favorites Brinsley Schwarz, which spearheaded a "back to basics" movement in reaction to all the progressive art rock that was around (I actually like both), which ultimately was the raison d'être of punk. When the Brinsleys imploded, Lowe went solo, and at the same time became house producer for the new Stiff Records, which signed many of the new bands--like The Damned, The Pretenders, etc. He also produced the first three albums by Graham Parker & The Rumour and all of Elvis Costello's albums up to 1982 (Lowe still turns up as bassist and producer for Costello). Lowe's 1976 single "So It Goes" (and the just-as-good B side "Heart of the City") was pop infused with a touch of punk. (And if you were listening to AM radio in 1979--as I was--there was no missing his only U.S. hit single "Cruel to Be Kind.") Anyway, his first album was eagerly awaited, and for good reason, as every track on it is a winner. (The American record label quailed over using "Jesus" in the title and released it over here as Pure Pop for Now People. And this was 1978; imagine the nutty everyone would pitch now.) The album demonstrated Lowe's pop songcraft, his trademark witty lyrics and no frills "bash it out" production style. The album opens with the almost heavy metal-y and sardonic "Music for Money," and switches gears with the new wave-y British single "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass," purportedly written while his band was opening for Bad Company, who destroyed their dressing room. There is the tender love song "Little Hitler," title courtesy Elvis Costello (who would go one better on Armed Forces with "Two Little Hitlers"), and the album closes with the almost Paul McCartney-esque "Nutted by Reality." My favorite song has to be "Marie Provost," a Twilight-Zone-meets-Night-Gallery ditty about a faded movie star of the silent era ("She was a winner/Who became the doggy's dinner") whose career goes south with the advent of talkies and who ultimately ends up being eaten by her pet dog ("That hungry little dachshund!"). The backing musicians include members of Graham Parker's Rumour and Elvis Costello's Attractions, as well as guitarists Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams--who, with Lowe, toured as Rockpile, and whose sole studio album Seconds of Pleasure will probably be album of the day very soon.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Went With the Wind

Well, this is really just too much. Dick Martin and Harvey Korman taken on the same week? Surely the inscrutable forces that control the universe can't be this cruel. Well, OK, obviously they can. But still...

It is hard to gauge the impact both Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show had on my upbringing--well, maybe someone with a degree in psychiatry could. Anyway, both shows for me were of TV's Golden Age, and it remains amazing to me that two seemingly "square" comedians like Rowan and Martin could have been the hosts of the hippest show on TV at the time. But it worked, because Laugh-In took from the past the past (the tux-clad hosts, the televisual homages to Ernie Kovacs) combined it with topical humor, a late 1960s sensibility, and pure silliness. It was rapid-fire humor--sketches rarely lasted more than a few minutes--and if something didn't work, you didn't worry, because something else would come on in a few seconds.



On the other hand, sketches on The Carol Burnett Show were long, but hardly seemed so. A favorite Korman skit of mine was their Jaws parody Jowls. The highlight of these sketches was Tim Conway getting Harvey Korman to laugh--and at 6:08, that happens. Good-luck ham, indeed.



And this sketch, "No Frills Airline" seems eerily prescient.



A couple years ago, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway toured as a duo, performing sketches and routines. Ken and I had the very great privilege to have seen them at Proctors. (Yes, we were probably the youngest people in the audience.) I seem to recall them reprising the classic Dentist sketch:



And, of course, one of the greatest comic moments in TV history, featuring Korman as Rhett Butler:

Ah, remember when television was actually enjoyable to watch?

But let's not forget Harvey Korman's quintessential bad guy Hedy (that's Hedley) Lamarr in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles.

The world is a much darker place today.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Telemarketing On-Demand

Here's something interesting, although it may use a definition of "interesting" hitherto unknown to humankind...

I keep getting calls to my mobile phone from the phone number 518-242-8975. They average about four a day, never a message--but then no one ever leaves a message (makes me wonder if I pay extra for voicemail--if so, I should just get rid of it). I really only ever have my mobile on vibrate mode (actually, I did have the ringer on once and when someone called I didn't recognize the ringtone and thought it was a noise on the TV...doh!) and rarely answer it unless my caller ID recognizes the caller. So when I am out and check e-mail using my iPhone, I find these missed calls. Usually I don't care, since I have found that, on the rare occasion when I am motivated to answer an identified call, 99% of them are people asking me for money. I once gave $25 to a charity, ended up on some list somewhere, and now suddenly I find myself in the middle of Dickensian London. Most of the major organs have called me (Heart Association, Lung Association, etc.) as has every disease known to man. Let's not even bring up the Democratic Party, which has telephonic stalking down to a science.

Most people I hang out and/or work with have learned over the years that e-mail, text messages, and Instant Messaging (in that order) tend to be the best ways to get in touch with me. In case you were curious. It's not that I'm antisocial...well, actually, yes, it is.

Anyway, I was morbidly curious, and decided to try to figure out who it was--without actually calling the number (I sure as hell wasn't going to do that, lest it encourage them in some way). On a hunch, I googled "518-242" thinking that maybe I can find out in what town the 242 exchange is located. Interestingly, I turned up a whole user discussion forum about the full number 518-242-8975. Turns out, it is actually Time-Warner Cable. Which is curious, because the number on my Time-Warner account is my landline number, and my land phone correctly identifies them on the rare occasion they call me. So I assume the 242 number is the telemarketing arm of Time-Warner, trying to sell me more channels I would never watch in a million years. On the day when I can purchase cable channels a la carte, I will upgrade from the 24 channels I currently get. Until then, paying for a larger package would just be money down the toilet, since I very rarely watch TV anymore that's not a DVD. Sports are about it, and even then the vile, loathsome commercials keep me from watching at any great length. (Quite frankly, I'd rather read books.)

On the subject of how the telephone has become an instrument of torture and aggravation, I have noticed that I get a lot of calls on my landline (which may not be on the Do Not Call registry, now that I think about it) that are from machines. That's no fun--how can I torture telemarketers the way I used to?

When I lived in California, back before Caller ID and the Do Not Call list, they used to call me all the time when I was cooking dinner (this was when I had a proper job and conventional business hours--ugh), so I used to harass them mercilessly. My favorite thing to do was hold the phone right down into a loudly sizzling frying pan and tell them I can't hear them over the sound of my dinner burning. Once I morally offended someone who was trying to sell me American Express's death insurance (or whatever it was called). (Apparently, if I die, the plan ensures that AmEx gets paid. Um, if I die, AmEx is on its own.) Anyway, the telemarketer told me I could sign up for a free 30-day trial membership--to which I laughed and responded, quite logically, I thought, "You mean if I die in the next 30 days, I can be assured that this plan works? What a deal!" Seemed innocent enough, but she launched into arias about how it was nothing to joke about. I assured her that it was, in fact, something to joke about, and hung up. I must have developed a reputation among the telemarketing community because the calls started to peter out of their own accord.

But I digress...anyway, back to the machines. Perhaps it's the early stages of the robot apocalypse, I don't know. But now I just get inundated by them. So if legitimate people call me and wonder why I choose to ignore the phone ringing (which is really quite distracting when you're trying to write something), it's because 9 times out of 10, it's someone or something annoying. Makes you want to go back in time and beat Alexander Graham Bell senseless with a cordless handset.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

I Continue to Keep the Book Publishing Industry in Business

As I pause in my Dickensiana, here is what I have read over the past couple of months:

A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter F. Miller
Read: March 2008
Fiction

One of the classics of science fiction (it won the Hugo Award in 1961), I am ashamed to admit I have never read it. But now I am glad I did. The book starts several hundred years after the present time, after a nuclear war has made much of the Earth a wasteland. The few people that survived have a distrust of intelligence and literacy (hmm...it doesn't sound too far in the future, does it?) and have destroyed most of the extant books. Groups of monks are the only ones who have preserved books and other relics of the past, without really understanding much of it. For example, The Monastery of the Blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz celebrates a 20th-century engineer, and a handwritten shopping list ("Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma") is a sacred document. Over the course of the book, several hundred years pass, and civilization starts to restore itself and repeat its same mistakes. It really is a wonderful book, decidedly pessimistic, but ultimately is one of those books you can't forget about once you've read it.

The World Without Us
Alan Weisman
Read: April 2008
Non-Fiction

On a related note, the non-fiction (perhaps) The World Without Us is a somewhat distressing but rigorously researched look at how long it would take the planet to wipe out any trace of our existence should humans abruptly vanish. Cheery, huh? (Well, actually...) It really wouldn’t take very long at all, especially in places like cities where it takes a great deal of effort to keep nature at bay as it is. Interestingly (and upsettingly), all the great works of humans--art, architecture, etc.--will be the first to go, while all the shit--billions and billions of tons of discarded plastic, nuclear waste, other garbage--will stick around. Makes ya proud. The upshot is that 99% of nature would be quite happy and relieved to see us go, the exceptions being, perhaps, most domesticated animals (except cats, which can easily become feral--big surprise). Definitely food for thought--and fantasy.

The Stone Gods
Jeanette Winterson
Read: April 2008
Fiction

I had to do it. I had to be recommended the Bookslut book review site. Like I don’t have enough to read! One of the titles that got a good review was the science-fiction novel The Stone Gods. It is not unlike A Canticle for Leibowitz in that it deals with human idiocy being cyclical, that as one planet is destroyed, we repeat the same mistakes on another. It's not a great book, but a quick and enjoyable read (I read it in one round-trip train ride from New York to Washington DC). It's not entirely clear (and this is intentional) on which planet it is set, or when, but a team is sent out to explore a new pristine, blue, and habitable planet. Along the way, an interplanetary love story--between an iconoclastic human woman and a female robot--plays out. And there is an interlude on Easter Island, the history of which gives the book its basic theme (and title). It's pretty funny and kind of nuts. Very enjoyable.

A Curious Earth
Gerard Woodward
Read: April 2008
Fiction

Another book reviewed in Bookslut was A Curious Earth, which is OK, but not great. When his wife passes away, elderly Aldous Jones sinks into inertia and puttering about his London home. Eventually, he eases back into life and visits his somewhat estranged son in Belgium, where he falls in with a group of artists, and falls in problematic love with one of them. He returns to London and begins pursuing leisure activities, artistic endeavours, and new relationships. It's a good book, full of nice little observations. The title, by the way, comes from an Emily Dickinson poem, "...And I'd like to look a little more/At such a curious Earth!" A little bit inspiring, a little bit funny, a little bit tragic. it's a lovely book, though falls short of being really great. And some plot points strain credulity. But still...

Odyssey
Jack McDevitt
Read: April 2008
Fiction

While in Washington DC last month, I happened to be in the hotel bar reading The Washington Post Book World and read a good review of science-fiction author Jack McDevitt's latest novel Cauldron. I had never heard of him before, but it sounded interesting. In my wanderings around DC, I came upon a Barnes & Noble and while they did not have Cauldron (or a working crypt...), they did have a bunch of his older titles, so I picked up Odyssey (2002). The premise is that, a couple hundred years in the future, there is a growing backlash against funding space exploration and travel--exemplified by the "Academy." At the same time, there are increased reports of sightings of mysterious outer space objects which are called "Moonriders." As a PR move, it is decided to send an exploration to find out what these things are. Oh, and they find out all right... I like McDevitt--he has a pretty realistic view of the future (I'd bet he's a Babylon 5 fan) although I thought the end of the book was a bit of a letdown. Still, this book was part of a multi-book series, and I like how he makes mention of past stories (even I have not read them--in fact, it makes me want to go read them). I would definitely read more of him, although I'm not in a big rush.

Well, after that sorbet, back to Dickens and David Copperfield, as I am eager to find out how he makes the Statue of Liberty disappear.

Dagnabbit!

Or perhaps "Nagdebit"...

I confess I have only ever used a debit card once in my life, the reasons being a) I am admittedly paranoid about giving stores direct access to my bank account (continue reading if you think I'm nuts) and b) I have always withdrawn the estimated amount of cash required in advance (because I only ever go to stores--especially grocery stores--with a specific list of items and I am not one for impulse buying), thus ensuring that I don't spend more than I want to.

So then, back in March, I found myself on line at Hannaford's (a local supermarket chain I like better than Price Chopper) and suddenly realized that I had forgotten to go to the ATM. As ever, the fact that my life is a tightrope walk between cheapness and laziness kicked in--and breaking out of line, going to the store's ATM, and getting back in line would take effort, plus their ATM charges me a $2.50 fee in addition to the $2.00 my own bank charges me to use other banks' ATMs. So when cheapness and laziness are both involved, well, that's a no-brainer...

So I used my debit card for the first time in my life, and a week later I see the following story in the news:
A security breach at an East Coast supermarket chain exposed more than 4 million card numbers and led to 1,800 cases of fraud, the Hannaford Bros. grocery chain announced Monday.

Hannaford said credit and debit card numbers were stolen during the card authorization process and about 4.2 million unique card numbers were exposed, placing the case among the largest data breaches ever.

The breach affected all of its 165 stores in the Northeast...
Naturally, I keep Scrooge-like tabs on my various accounts and detected no nefarious activity, but yesterday my bank, in response to this unprompted by me, sent me a new debit card.

Y'know what? I shall continue to stick with cash.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Theatre of the Absurd

No, not Beckett and Ionesco.

I just got my latest mailing from Proctors, which is a great old vaudeville-era theater in downtown Schenectady. I've been there a few times, and it's a great venue that harkens back to a time when going out was actually kind of pleasant. They have some cool things coming up: Avenue Q, which I've heard good things about, and, even better, a revival of Sweeney Todd. Might have to look into that... Of course, the way things are going in Hollywood (and on Broadway), the recent movie Sweeney Todd will likely be adapted into a musical, then re-adapted back to a movie, and over and over again. (Speaking of which, I'm waiting for Mel Brooks to turn his Silent Movie into a musical.)

However, there are also some really disturbing things coming up at Proctors. CSI: Live?!? Ooh, and with audience participation. Come and get autopsied live on stage! I swear, the poster literally says "Fun for the whole family." ("Daddy, what's all that DNA evidence in that hotel room?" Shudder...) A One Man Star Wars Trilogy?!? Even I'm not that nerdy. (Shades of George Michael Bluth from Arrested Development.) Legally Blonde: the Musical?! Oy. Now, does that mean it's going to be re-adapted back into a movie? Awesome 80s Prom? That sounds utterly horrifying. Heck, I didn't even go to my own prom in the 80s (they weren't happy when I suggested "Teenage Lobotomy" as the prom theme). And, good grief, Mark Russell is still around? Yikes.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Statistics Are a Gas

I went to get gas this morning ($3.79! zoinks!--but then in London it works out to something like $10 a gallon, so maybe I shouldn't complain). When I got back I thought it would be interesting (there being a definition of "interesting" I'm sure you are not familiar with) to track how much I spend on gas since I bought my Camry almost a year ago. Fortunately, it's easy to get relatively consistent series since a) I always put off getting gas until the little gas pump indicator light shows, then I fill the tank, and b) I always use the same credit card and I track all my credit card purchases in Excel because I am basically a high-tech Dickens character. And unless I am traveling, I always go to the same gas station.

The chart below shows how this worked out:
Remembering one of the chapters in Daniel Huff's classic How to Lie with Statistics, I can manipulate the interpretation of these data by simply changing the scale in Microsoft Excel. So on the one hand, I can see that my spending on gas has gone wa-a-a-a-a-y up in the past 11 months:
Whoa! It's through the roof! But not to worry: with only a few clicks, I can make my gas spending far less egregious:
Ah, there, that's better. Gas has hardly gone up at all.

I could also compare this to what I spent on gas in 1980 which was essentially nothing, since I was 13 years old then.

Just remember that when people use statistics and other mathematical legerdemain (or what Dr. Joe calls "calcubation"), they can prove just about anything they want to. Fortunately, I have nothing to prove and am just being silly.

Album of the Day--May 10, 2008

Yeah, it's been a while...as I get back into the swing of things...and the wonderdrug Claritin
eases my allergy symptoms...

Caravan
In the Land of Grey and Pink
1971
Decca Records
Produced by David Hitchcock

Caravan were one of the most prominent of the so-called "Canterbury scene" progressive rock bands of the early 1970s (others included Camel and Hatfield and the North) being from, well, the English cathedral town of Canterbury (also known for its Archbishop and its Tales). I was late to the Canterbury scene, having only really heard Caravan about five years ago on Aural Moon Internet radio, and rather liked them, but enver got around top picking up anything by them. While browsing in a recoprd syore in London, I came across the reissue of their masterwork In the Land of Pink and Grey for 5 quid, so how could I resist? And once I ripped it, it has not left my iPod (or my CD player, depending where I happen to be) in the past week. The opening track "Golf Girl" is a links love story about a woman selling cups of tea, "Winter Wine" is a lovely mellow fusing of jazz and folk (jolk?) tune with lyrics that likely inspired the Tolkeinesque cover painting, while "Love to Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly)" is a very catchy almost hit single-like track. The best track--and the one that I heard before--is the 22+-minute track "Nine Feet Underground" (it was all of side two on the original LP) which almost seamlessly fuses together the mostly instrumental eight sub-sections. The Canterbury groups also had nore of a sense of humor than their often more bombastic and portentous progressive brethren, which means that Caravan and others tend to have held up better over the years.

A great, mellow record, perfect for cruising on a beautiful spring day with the windows down, extortionately priced gas, and the pollen streaming in...

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Scumbags

This is just %$#@$ sick. All I have to say is, what is wrong with people?
[H]ackers recently bombarded the Epilepsy Foundation's Web site with hundreds of pictures and links to pages with rapidly flashing images.

The breach triggered severe migraines and near-seizure reactions in some site visitors who viewed the images. People with photosensitive epilepsy can get seizures when they're exposed to flickering images, a response also caused by some video games and cartoons.

I'm Not Bad, I'm Just Drawn That Way

Hmm...this sounds like a low-budget alternative to traffic cameras. Apparently an artist in NYC has the intention of drawing every person in New York City. If you live there beware:
I am trying to draw every person in New York. I will be drawing people everyday and posting as frequently as I can. It is possible that I will draw you without you knowing it. I draw in Subway stations and museums and restaurants and on street corners. I try not to be in the way when I am drawing or be too noticeable.
Maybe he could make a decent living drawing intersections and selling the pictures to the Dept. of Transportation and get a cut of the traffic ticket fee.

Hope and Gory

Oh, I don't know; this stretches even my perverse approach to toys:
Road Kill Toys
Get your Squash-plush toys while they’re still fresh off the tarmac. Twitch the Raccoon was the first to be scraped off the road. But now there’s a new not-so-cuddly toy in town. His name is Grind the Rabbit. The first 1000 Grind characters are all limited edition. Each one has a personalised toe tag, handwritten by the creator. All of them have limited edition numbers.
On the plus side, they could double as anatomy lessons...

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Tales from the Crypts

From: expats613@[domainwithheld].co.uk
Subject: Re: Why a Duck?
Date: May 7, 2008 3:04:27 PM EDT
To: rromano2@nycap.rr.com
I was disappointed that there wasn't a blogline called Tales from the Crypts.
Funny thing about that. I was surprised to find, in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (or it may have been the Trafalgar Tavern; I can't recall) that the gents "crypt" comprises a metal trough, which is reminiscent of the Carrier Dome crypts. I didn't think they had such affronts to one's dignity over there, but perhaps I was mistaken.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?

Here's proof that people who have too much money are by no means the brightest stars in the firmament--or, in fact, are rock-stupid:
A $300,000 watch? Luxury. A $300,000 watch that doesn’t tell time — and that sells out? Pure genius.

According to several news reports flagged by my friends at Luxist, Swiss watchmaker Romain Jerome just launched the “Day&Night” watch. The watch won’t tell you what time it is. That’s so yesterday. But it does tell you whether it’s day or night — helpful, I guess, for billionaire types who can’t afford windows.

As the company’s Web site boasts: “With no display for the hours, minutes or seconds, the Day&Night offers a new way of measuring time, splitting the universe of time into two fundamentally opposing sections: day versus night.”

What’s most impressive about the Day&Night is its complexity, given its absolute uselessness. The watch features two tourbillons — devices that overcome the ill effects of earth’s gravity on a watch’s accuracy — connected by a differential mechanism. Instead of hands, the watch has a “contemplative tourbillon operation whereby the ‘Day’ tourbillon operates for 12 hours to symbolize working life, while the ‘Night’ tourbillon takes over afterward to represent an individual’s private time.”
And this is sick:
Like other Romain Jerome watches, the watch is made in part with steel salvaged from the sunken Titanic.
Oh, good: I've always wanted to wear, basically, a sunken tomb on my wrist. What is wrong with people?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

A Tale of One City

The best day of the trip was by far last Monday—Steven and I did a Charles Dickens walking tour that I had found online.

The great thing about London is that there are all these “secret” nooks and crannies; one moment you are in the heart of the bustling 21st-century city, but then you step through an archway and suddenly you find yourself in a quiet cloister transported back to the 19th century (or earlier). Although many of the locations that Dickens knew are gone, a surprisingly many are still extant. Many of the locations focus on Dickens’ later works, which I have not gotten to yet in my chronological progress through his collected works (I am in the middle of David Copperfield [1849–50], his seventh novel and the one smack in the middle of his bibliography). Steven is a big fan of Great Expectations (1860–61) and Bleak House (1852–53).

Without ripping off the text of the online walking tour too much, here is a brief Dickens biography.

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth on February 7, 1812. His father, John, was a clerk in the naval pay office, and thus the Dickenseseseses moved about a lot as John was transferred to new posts. In 1815, the family moved to London, and two years after that to Kent, where Dickens spent a very happy childhood romping through the countryside.

The party ended in 1822 when John Dickens was transferred back to London and his income drastically cut. John always tended to live a bit beyond his means and soon found himself heavily into debt. His wife, Elizabeth, tried to help by opening a school for young ladies, but that failed. In 1824, John Dickens was arrested for debt and sent to Marshalsea Prison—where Mr. Pickwick is sent to debtor’s prison in The Pickwick Papers. Elizabeth and the younger children went with him. However, Charles was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory, which were the most miserable years of his life.

His early years are recounted in roman à clef fashion in David Copperfield—Dickens is young David, Mr. Micawber is his father, and Murdstone and Grinby’s wine bottling business is Warren’s Blacking Factory.

Charles had wanted to resume his education, but he was left to wander the streets of London, mixing with the wretched hive of scum and villainy to be found in early 19th-century London, which would later inform his books (especially Oliver Twist).

Dickens’ father was released from prison, as his mother-in-law had died and left him some money. Dickens was sent to school at Wellington House Academy but after only two years, thanks to his father’s debts, he was forced to drop out and go back to work, this time for a firm of solicitors in London’s Gray’s Inn. He learned shorthand, and soon establish himself as a shorthand writer at Doctors’ Commons, near St Paul’s Cathedral in the City.

By 1834 he was working for the Morning Chronicle newspaper and became friends with George Hogarth, the paper’s music critic. In 1835 Hogarth became editor of the Evening Chronicle, and invited Dickens to contribute to the paper. The “sketches” Dickens wrote would later be collected as Sketches by “Boz”. (As for the nickname: one of Dickens’ favorite books as a lad was Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, and, via the character of Moses Primrose—the titular vicar’s son—bestowed the nickname “Moses” on his brother Augustus. For reasons only known to children, “Moses” was pronounced in congested sinus fashion as “Boses” and eventually shorted to just “Boz.” Right. Dickens adopted this nickname himself in 1836.)

Meanwhile, Dickens had also fallen in love with Hogarth’s daughter, Catherine, and on April 2, 1836, the two were married in St Luke’s Church, Chelsea. They honeymooned in Kent, then settled into their first home in Furnival’s Inn, Holborn, which is now where the Prudential Building is located. Soon, the first installments of The Pickwick Papers began appearing and quickly became a bestseller.

In January 1837, Charles and Catherine spawned, and their son Charles was born. The Dickenseseseseses then moved to a larger house in Doughty Street—the site of today’s Dickens House Museum, and the last stop on the walking tour. While living at Doughty Street, he wrote the two books that would cement his reputation: Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. The family only lived at Doughty Street for a few years, as soon there was no stopping their reproductive proclivities: Dickens would have 10 children. In 1856, he bought the house of his dreams at Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, which would remain his permanent residence for the rest of his life. On June 8, 1870, after a day working on what would be his last, albeit unfinished, novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (or, perhaps, The Mystery of Edw—) he collapsed at the dinner table and died the next evening. He was 58.

All right—enough yammering; let’s get on with the tour.

The children off to nursery and Amy off to work, Steven and I took the Tube to the Chancery Lane stop. We exited to High Holborn Street and passed the Burger King where young Oliver Twist had a Whopper when first arriving in London, and past the O2 store where David Copperfield bought a mobile phone. We began at the Tudor-style Staple Inn. Originally built in 1576, it was damaged (like so many buildings in London) during World War II and considerable restoration was required. It is named the Staple Inn because at one time it provided lodging for wool-staplers. Oddly, it not a Staples today.

Dickens wrote about the Staple Inn in The Mystery of Edw—, and the walking tour tells us,
To experience how little this secret niche has changed since Dickens wrote those words, go right through the ancient gateway and enter Staple Inn itself. As you do so, note the warning just inside the wall on the left that warns you in no uncertain terms: “The Porter Has Orders to Prevent Old Clothes Men and Others From Calling ‘Articles For Sale’ Also Rude Children Playing and No Horses Allowed Within This Inn.”
Alas, there is just a dark rectangle on the wall where this sign used to be.

Still, the passage leads to a quiet courtyard that really does have an enchanting ambiance and sense of stepping back in time. A little further on is the building that served as the residence of the kindly lawyer Mr. Hiram Grewgious in The Mystery of Edw—. There is a stone above the doorway inscribed “PJT 1747.” Dickens comments on this stone that Mr. Grewgious had never “troubled his head” as to its meaning, “…unless to bethink…that haply it might mean Perhaps John Thomas, or Perhaps Joe Tyler.” Or even “Poultry Jests Thusly.” “Porcupines Just Tickle”?

Anyway.

We continue on past the Staple Inn Buildings into Barnard’s Inn and to another “wonderfully evocative inner sanctum.” Steven was impressed to hear that this was where Pip and Herbert Pocket had chambers in Great Expectations.

We backtrack to Furnival Street and turn into Took’s Court, which was re-named Cook’s Court in Bleak House. Number 15—renamed “Dickens House,” was where Mr. Snagsby lived and worked in Bleak House.

We walk along Cursitor Street, turn onto Chancery Lane and cross to the gatehouse of Lincoln’s Inn, which was where Dickens worked for a firm of solicitors (lawyers) when a teenager.

Lincoln’s Inn is one of London’s four Inns of Court. The redbrick building (the Old Hall) dates back to 1489, and was where the Lord Chancellor’s Court met outside of legal terms. It was also here that Bleak House opens:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollution of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out in the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships…
This passage was also the inspiration for John Carpenter’s movie The Fog, which few people realize was a rather loose adaptation of Bleak House. Carpenter took some liberties with the plot; the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce became Adrienne Barbeau chased by dead sailors wielding meat hooks. They don’t mention this at all at the Dickens House Museum.

But I digress...
Bleak House continues:
And…in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in His High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, too assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day, in the sight of heaven and earth.
There is also a chapel, open from noon to 2:30 pm (we were there before noon). The tour tells us that the chapel’s foundation stone was laid in 1620 by the metaphysical poet John Donne (1571/2–1631), who served as the inn’s preacher between 1616 and 1622. Whenever a member of the inn’s governing body dies, the chapel bell is rung to mark their passing. This death knell thus inspired John Donne to write “Never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Fortunately, it tolled not for us, so we were able to continue the tour., although the directions were a little unclear at this point. Ultimately, we did find New Square, built in 1685 (jeez, how old is Old Square, then?). This Square has changed very little since Dickens day. We pass the gardens and the gardeners shed (known in the inn as “the head gardeners castle”). The green tractor was featured in Bleak House, where Miss “Two Sheds” Flite observes, “A good tractor ‘tis. Vroom vroom!”

We pass through the gates of Lincoln’s Inn and head into Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is London’s largest square, although Steven was hoping for a triangle and I a trapezoid. It was in this square in Barnaby Rudge (1840–41) that the Gordon Rioters gathered.
The walking tour winds around the square. Did you know that it is London’s largest square? I saw a curious sign; ah, I never will master the difference between British and American English. What we call birds differ from what the Brits call birds. Here, we call them rats. Talk about two nations divided by a common tongue...

But I digress...

The tour includes a stop at the Sir John Soane’s Museum, which both Steven and I have already been to, so we bypassed it and kept on trucking.

Number 65 Lincoln’s Inn Fields bears a blue plaque commemorating the building as the former home of William Marsden (1796–1867) one of the great figures of 19th-century healthcare and founder of the Royal Free and the Royal Marsden hospitals. As the story goes, in 1827, Marsden found a young woman dying on the steps of St. Andrews Church and could not get her admitted to any London hospital without a letter of recommendation. (Damn HMOs.) Ergo, he founded the Free Hospital in Greville Lane in 1828. Queen Victoria became its patron in 1837, and asked that it be known as “The Royal Free Hospital,” and it still remains operating under that name in Hampstead.

Numbers 59 and 60 date back to 1641 and are collectively known as Lindsey House, after its first owner, Robert Bertie, the first Earl of Lindsey, Charles I’s commander-in-chief who was killed at Edgehill in 1642, the first major battle of the English Civil War. A plaque also commemorates Spencer Perceval (1762–1812) the only English Prime Minister to have been assassinated: he was shot in the lobby of the House of Commons by a failed businessman from Liverpool who blamed Perceval for his financial problems. Hmm...now there’s a thought...

The building comprising numbers 57 and 58 dates from the 18th century and the grand porch was designed by nutty Sir John Soane. Dickens’ friend, business adviser, and primary biographer, John Forster (1812 –1865) lived at number 58. Mr. Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) was based on Forster. And the house was also the residence for Mr. Tulkinghorn in Bleak House.

We continue down Portsmouth Street past the curiously named Olde Curiosity Shop. The building dates from 1567 and bears the legend “Immortalized by Charles Dickens.” Well...not really, as Dickens writes at the end of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) that the shop owned by Little Nell’s rock-stupid grandfather was “long ago pulled down.” Indeed, the walking tour tells us that,
In a letter to The Echo in 1883, a Mr. Charles Tesseyman confessed that his brother, who had dealt in old china, books and paintings from the premises between 1868 and 1877, had added the “Immortalized by” appellation to his shop front for “business purposes.” Following his brother’s death in 1877, the new tenant painted over his name but left the claim displayed on the wall. Around 1881, an American journalist writing about Dickensian landmarks arrived at the shop and “straightaway wrote an article in Scribner’s Monthly … [assuring] …his readers that this was the old original Old Curiosity shop of Dickens.”
Down the street is the George IV pub. Although rebuilt since Dickens’ time, this is thought to have been the original of the Magpie and Stump, where in The Pickwick Papers, some “choice spirit” assembled and Jack Bamber tells Mr. Pickwick some bizarre and gruesome stories of “queer” law clients.

It was before 11:00 am, so there was no stopping at the pub... we do have standards, low though they be.

We backtrack to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and past the Royal College of Surgeons, built by George Dance and James Lewis between 1806 and 1813. In 1835 it was completely rebuilt by Sir Charles Barry.

In Bleak House, Mr. Boythorn says that lawyers should have their “necks wrung and their skulls arranged in Surgeon’s Hall, for the contemplation of the whole profession, in order that its younger members might understand from actual measurement in early life, how thick skulls may become!”

We actually did want to, but alas the museum was closed on Mondays. Doh!

The walking tour then says “Continue ahead back towards the gate of Lincoln’s Inn.” “Ahead back”? What? We walk back (ahead?) through Lincoln’s Inn Field, which, did you know, is London’s largest square?


We walk past the Royal Courts of Justice, which comprise the Civil courts and also the appeal courts, both Civil and Criminal of England. As we walked past, a barrister complete with black robe and wig, ran down the street and into the building, looking remarkably like John Cleese. I wonder if his client would be found “not guilcup.”

Across the street is the Seven Stars Pub, which dates back to 1602, and is named for the seven provinces of the Netherlands. By this time, it was after 11:00, so we stopped in for a pint, saying hello to the friendly pub cat.

By this time, a beautiful sunny morning had given way to “pratt weather” and it started to rain, so we moistly made our way into Bell Yard, which is the title of Chapter 15 in Bleak House.

It has changed dramatically since then (we were told; I don’t recall it myself), but it was here that the four orphaned Neckett children lived in an upper room in Bleak House. By the way, it was also in Bell Yard that Mrs Lovett had her pie shop whose ingredients were provided by Sweeney Todd...

We pass out onto Fleet Street (where I sure as heck was not going to look for a barbershop) and encounter the Temple Bar, a large monument in the middle of the road atop which sits a bronze griffin. This monument marks the boundary between the cities of London and Westminster and is where Fleet Street ends and the Strand begins.

However, this is not the original Temple Bar, which was removed 1878. In Bleak House, Dickens describes it as a “leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation.” Heh. Anyway, in 1888 the monument was exiled to Theobald’s Park in Hertfordshire. In 2004, it was brought back, restored, and now sits next to St Paul’s Cathedral.

We cross the street, avoiding the Demon Traffic of Fleet Street, and take shelter from the rain in the Childs Bank. The building dates from 1878, and its predecessor was featured in A Tale of Two Cities as Tellson’s Bank and is described:
an old-fashioned place even in the year 1780. It was very small, very dark, very ugly, very incommodious. Any one of the partners would have disinherited his son on the question of rebuilding Tellson’s. Thus it had come to pass that Tellson’s was the triumphant perfection of inconvenience.
Well, not entirely inconvenient; Steven took this opportunity to avail himself of the ATM in the lobby. No word on whether the predecessor of this ATM featured in A Tale of Two Cities—or perhaps A Tale of Two Citis, if Citibank were involved.

As soon as one enters the bank, there is glass case on the wall opposite the door in which 10 old guns are exhibited. The bank bought the guns in June 1780 to defend the premises during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots described by Dickens in Barnaby Rudge.

We backtrack along Fleet Street and head through a gateway into Middle Temple Lane. Charles Lamb once said that “a man would give something to be born in such places.” It is my intention to someday be born here. Anyway this is one of London’s four Inns of Court, where barristers have their chambers. This is yet another “tranquil oasis that has been left untouched by time and progress—which is exactly why I like it so.

Middle Temple Dining Hall was built in the 1570s and is occasionally open to the public (though not when we were there—which worked out because I had neglected to bring my old SU ValiDine card). There is a fountain, which features in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44); Ruth Pinch and John Westlock conducted an early part of their romance around this fountain.

“Brilliantly the Temple fountain sparkled in the sun, and laughingly its liquid music played, and merrily the idle drops of water danced and danced, and peeping out in sport among the trees, plunged lightly down to hide themselves.” Well, it was raining, but other than that it’s a fairly accurate description.

Steven was interested to see Garden Court, which was where Pip was living in Great Expectations.
We head into Pump Court, (the fire pumps were once located here). There is a cool sundial high on the left wall, although damned if I can figure out what the heck time it is with it. It bears the legend “Shadows we are and like shadows depart.” There is no truth that the original legend was Groucho Marx’s quote, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”
Through another archway we come to the Temple Church, named for the Knights Templar, the monastic military order founded in 1118 to protect pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem. This was their London citadel. This isn’t an Umberto Eco walking tour, so I shan’t dwell on the Knights Templar. Steven tells me that this church also figured in The Da Vinci Code, but I have shut any recollection of that book out of my mind.

We were eager to see the inside, but the Church didn’t open until noon. So we stayed out of the rain for a bit. Noon came and went, and still the door was locked...until we discovered that the proper entrance was round the other side.

As soon as one enters, one is confronted by the effigies of knights on the floor, which is a tad creepy. Still, it’s a very cool church.
Happily, the rain had stopped, so we left the church and passed Goldsmith’s Buildings and the grave of Oliver Goldsmith (1730–74), who was one of Dickens’ favorite authors. We pass Prince Henry’s Room, dating from 1610 and named after the eldest son of King James I. It was once but is no longer (drat!) a tavern called the Prince’s Arms. In Dickens’s childhood, the building was occupied by Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks, to which “perspiring Wax Works” David Copperfield was sent.

Back on Fleet Street, we come across St. Dunstan’s Church. We wanted to go into the church, but there was some kind of service taking place, so we decided not to crash the party.

Notably, St. Dunstan’s clock dates from 1671 and is said to have been the first clock in London with a double-sided face, and the first to have the minutes marked on the dial. Every 15 minutes, two stone giants strike the bells alongside the clock. In David Copperfield, David and his eccentric aunt, Betsy Trotwood, make a journey to see the giants strike the bells. The church also plays a major role in Dickens’ Christmas novella The Chimes.
Around back of the church in a little alcove are three of London’s oldest statues, which once stood over Ludgate (or Lud Gate): King Lud and his two sons. Lud was the legendary founder of London.
The next stop on the walking tour sounds inviting: “dive into the grim, dark passageway named Hen and Chickens Court.” We did, and found ourselves in “a chilling, claustrophobic courtyard, where beneath your feet, hefty iron grilles cover precarious drops into mean looking cellars where all manner of horrors might be lurking.” Why are we here? Well, this is the back of 185 Fleet Street where Sweeney Todd—“the Demon Barber of Fleet Street”—had his shop. Sweeney Todd was fictional, of course, but his tales first appeared 1847. The stories centered around his habit of killing his clients and carrying the them via an underground tunnel to Bell Yard, where Mrs. Lovett baked them into meat pies. (When I was a kid, we saw the musical in Boston starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury—it remains one of the only musicals I can stand. I have not seen the recent movie.)

Oddly, we started getting hungry at this point—a meat pie would go over very well at this point. We headed back out to Fleet Street and pause outside the 17th-century gatehouse of Clifford’s Inn, which features in a passage from Our Mutual Friend. (John Rokesmith, having followed Mr. Boffin along Fleet Street, asks if he would “object to turn aside into this place—I think it is called Clifford’s Inn—where we can hear one another better than in the roaring street?” Mr. Boffin “glanced into the mouldy little plantation, or cat-preserve, of Clifford’s Inn, as it was that day, in search of a suggestion. Sparrows were there, cats were there, dry rot and wet-rot were there, but it was not otherwise a suggestive spot.” How inviting!)

We backtrack to Fleet Street and head into Johnson’s Court (as in Samuel Johnson of the dictionary), whose house is nearby. (We visited there when I was in London in August) This also means that the next stop on the walking tour is my favorite pub in all of London, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese which, as it turns out, was also a favorite of Dickens’.

The walking tour tells us:
Rebuilt in 1667, this rambling tavern of creaking floors, cosy rooms and snug corners, possesses a timeless ambience that keeps the contemporary world firmly at bay. Portraits of those who have worked and supped here over the centuries gaze fondly down from its dark wooden walls. Dr Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—to name but a few—have all ducked beneath its low beamed ceilings to absorb its 17th-century atmosphere. Dickens, too, was a regular, and the table to the right of the ground floor restaurant’s fireplace is said to have been his favoured place.
We had lunch there, and I got to sit in Dickens’ spot.
We are also told that:
This is believed to have been the pub that Dickens had in mind when, following Charles Darnay’s acquittal on charges of high treason in A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton invites him to dine: “Drawing his arm through his own” Sydney leads him to Fleet Street “up a covered way, into a tavern… where Charles Darnay was soon recruiting his strength with a good plain dinner and good wine.”
I may even have eaten the original Scottish roast beef that Dickens ate.

Fed, beveraged, and de-crypted, we set out for the remainder of the walking tour. We, sadly, leave Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and head toward Gough Square, behind the statue of Dr. Johnson’s cat. We head onto Printer Street, Little New Street, and onto Shoe Lane toward the Holborn Viaduct. Naturally, we cannot but keep repeating, “Why a duck?” Here is where Fagin’s den of iniquity was located in Oliver Twist. It’s gone now (pity), removed when the Holborn Viaduct—the world’s first flyover—was built in the late 1860’s. Why a duck?

We head back to St. Andrews Street and St. Andrew’s Church. As we exit the church and cross over St Andrew Street, we “paus[e] by the trees to glance back at the church clock, just as Bill Sikes did in Oliver Twist, whilst telling Oliver it was ‘hard upon seven! You must step out.’” Are we complete dorks, or what?
We cross the road and turn onto Holborn to head to Steven’s favorite building in London: the Prudential Building. It was here that Charles Dickens took out a home insurance policy—no, no, no, that’s not true. Actually, the Prudential Building was erected on the site of Furnival’s Inn, where Dickens lived from 1834 to 1837. It was during his tenure here that he began The Pickwick Papers. A bust of Dickens marks the location.
Even without the Dickens connection, the Prudential Building is pretty impressive, one of the last great Gothic revival building (it was built in 1879). Prudential relocated in 2002, for reasons passing understanding. Perhaps the insurance premiums for the building were too steep.
Anyway, we went back to Holborn and continue, as the tour tells us, “until just before you arrive at the Cittie of Yorke Pub (it has a clock outside).” It did not have a clock outside, and to console ourselves over this lack, we thought it best to go in and have a pint.

Refreshed, we turned into Gray’s Inn to South Square. Note that this is not the largest square in London, which is still Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Gray’s Inn Hall (built in 1556) is on the opposite side of South Square. In Pickwick Papers, Dickens writes, “Clerk after clerk hastened into the square by one or other of the entrances, and looking up at the hall clock accelerated or decreased his rate of walking according to the time at which his office hours nominally commenced.” In The Uncommercial Traveller, he writes, “I look upon Gray’s Inn…as one of the most depressing institutions in brick and mortar, known to the children of men.” Jeepers, what a grouch. But then, this is where he was stuck working for lawyers in his youth; Number 1 South Square was the office of Ellis and Blackmore Solicitors. I think we all have similar reactions to the locations of horrible jobs we have had.

And then, finally, we head to Doughty Street where the walking tour ends at the Dickens House Museum. He moved there in March 1837, and by the time he moved out in December 1839, he was world famous.

We tarried in the gift shop, where I picked up a copy of Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens biography—though, for some reason, only the abridged version is still available. (Discussing the writing of A Tale of One City; The Pickwick Paper; Bleak Apartment; Great Expectation; etc.) The woman in the gift shop was nonplused by my suggestion that they sell souvenir Charles Dickens beards.

The walking tour over, Steven and I repaired to a nearby pub, where we got to talking with the Australian barmaid. She had only been in London a short while but found it a bit too “mellow” a city for her liking—but this is exactly why I like it (she was also in her early 20s while I am 40, which could have something to do with it).

It was getting on toward 2:00 pm, and Steven had to go pick up the kiddies, so I continued on, visiting some bookstores (including an excellent science-fiction bookstore on Shaftesbury called Forbidden Planet—but then I think all science-fiction bookstores have that name). I also found a great record store near Charing Cross Road called Fopps where I found some classic British progressive rock for £5 apiece (even at $10, that’s still pretty good). Yeah, I know I can find anything I want online, but I truly enjoy browsing in book and record stores and finding random things that I had been looking for. Alas, even in London, book and record stores are disappearing; things are just getting less and less fun. I stopped at a pub or two to review my loot, then made one last foray to the Apple Store on Regent Street to check e-mail (nothing urgent—quel surprise). Then back to Hackney.

I flew back on Tuesday; another uneventful yet pleasant flight (some turbulence over Nova Scotia was little upsetting, but other than that, nothing horrible). The baggage took a while to make it up to Baggage Claim, and I made it to NJ Transit and then to Amtrak with about three minutes to spare.

Back in Saratoga, the weather for the last three days has been more London-like than it was in London.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Throne for a Loss

On Sunday, we packed Godwin, Bella, and me into the back of Steven’s VW to head to Hampton Court Palace in Surrey. It was at one time where the British Royals hung out from the time of Henry VIII to George II. The drive—only 19.4 miles as the crow flies (says Google Maps)—took several hours.

A word about London traffic: “Ahhhhh!!!!!” Now, I absolutely love London. Of all the cities (predominantly American) I have visited, London is by far my favorite. If I were ever to live in London (and don’t think I haven’t ruled out the possibility), and if I were to have to drive, I would probably jump off the top of the London Eye. London traffic is absolutely brutal. It makes Los Angeles look like...um...a place where there isn’t a lot of traffic (metaphors fail me). Part of the problem is that, unlike U.S. cities, London—or England in general—has no equivalent to the interstate system, or those high-speed bypasses you get in U.S. cities that let you zip around them. So in London, you are always on surface streets, stopping for lights, trying to maneuver around buses and lorries loading and unloading things into shops, and so on. So getting anywhere takes forever.

The story of London’s Congestion Tax is worth mentioning, especially as Mayor Bloomberg attempted to replicate it in New York City. In order to drive into Central London, you need to pay a fee—£6 for a passenger car (SUVs are about £20, although I saw very few SUVs in London). The theory was that this would spur more people to use public transport. A nice idea, except that the money was supposed to have been used to expand public transport, which didn’t happen, so the buses and trains got more and more crowded and less and less reliable—and more and more frustrating. (It also tended to punish those who commuted in from areas outside London that are unreachable by public transport.) In a word: the congestion tax didn’t really help all that much. Or, if it did, I would hate to have tried to drive there before the tax!

By the way, today is the London mayoral election and Ken Livingstone, the incumbent, is the one who had initiated the Congestion Tax and, in many ways, the mayoral race is kind of a referendum on it. (As I look at today’s BBC Web site, Labour—Livingstone’s party—is having a bad time so it doesn’t look good for Livingstone.)

Anyway, back to our journey. We passed over the Blackfriars Bridge south of the river, drove past Waterloo, Elephant & Castle, Clapham Junction (“I never thought it would happen with me and the girl from Clapham...And so it’s my assumption I’m really up the Junction” —Squeeze), Brixton (“You can crush us/You can bruise us/But you’ll have to answer to/Oh, the guns of Brixton” –The Clash), Wimbledon, and, after several hours, we finally arrived in Kingston, a posh suburb, and decamped to Pizza Express for lunch, then headed over to the Palace.
By the way, they did not allow photography inside the palace, so my apologies for the sparsity of pictures.

The earliest buildings that comprise Hampton Court originally belonged to the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem, a religious order founded in the 11th century. They acquired the manor of Hampton in 1236 and used it as a storage and administrative center for their various agricultural estates. As it happened, the Hampton estate was located between two royal palaces, and it wasn’t long before royals began dropping in, and Hampton Court soon became a rather posh guest house.

By the early 1400s, though, the royal palace at Byfleet was abandoned, and Hampton Court saw a drop in royal visitation. The Knights Hospitallers started renting out Hampton Court around this time. One of the first tenants was Giles Daubeney, a courtier who rented Hampton Court in 1494. Daubeney would become Lord Chamberlain to King Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Henry VII and the queen visted Daubeney at Hampton Court and soon there was no getting rid of them.

After Daubeney’s tenancy was up, in 1514, the Knights Hostpitallers granted a 99-year lease to Thomas Wolsey, then the Archbishop of York and soon to become a Cardinal and Lord Chancellor of England. He was also a close friend of the new king, Henry VIII, although historians are unsure if it was Cardinal Wolsey who procured giant turkey legs for Henry VIII. (It should be pointed out that Henry VIII was actually quite fastidious in his dining habits and was likely not in the habit of clutching giant turkey legs, as he is usually depicted.) Anyway, Wolsey built a large palace complex at Hampton Court, adding private chambers for himself, as well as for Henry VIII, Queen Katherine of Aragon, and their daughter Princess Mary. Wolsey knew which side his bread was buttered on... He also added a large chapel (well, he was a Cardinal).

Poor Wolsey. Although he was criticized for his lavish lifestyle (the Catholic Church being known for its spartan and humble trappings, of course), he had the bad luck to be a high-ranking Catholic during the wrong reign. We all know the story: by the late 1520s, Henry VIII was eager to divorce his wife, as she seemed unable to provide Henry with a male heir, though not for want of trying (and we’ll let the imagination run wild on that one—better get the airsickness bag...). The Pope didn’t grant the divorce and in 1528 the King broke with the Church and took Hampton Court and York Place from Wolsey.

Henry poured the then-equivalent of millions of pounds into making Hampton Court his palace. The official Web site tells us:
There were tennis courts, bowling alleys and pleasure gardens for recreation, a hunting park of more than 1,100 acres, kitchens covering 36,000 square feet, a fine chapel, a vast communal dining room (the Great Hall) and a multiple garderobe (or lavatory) - known as the Great House of Easement - which could sit 28 people at a time. Water flowed to the palace from Coombe Hill in Kingston, three miles away, through lead pipes.
All of Henry’s six wives came to the palace—though ostensibly not all at the same time, which would have been awkward, especially since some of them had had their heads removed.

In 1547, Henry died. His three surviving children—the 9-year old Prince Edward, and his older sisters Mary and Elizabeth—would each rule England, and would each occupy Hampton Court. Fortunately, Henry had done so much work to the place that the remaining Tudor monarchs had little need to expand on it.

James I was the first Stuart monarch, ascending to the throne in 1603, and was a bit more happy-go-lucky than Elizabeth, which isn’t all that hard I wouldn’t think.
The palace served as a venue for plays, dances, banquets and court masques and amongst the assembled guests was one William Shakespeare. He was booked as one of the newly liveried ‘King’s Men’ to produce his plays in front of a royal audience. The early Stuart court was notorious for increasingly lavish theatrical entertainments: for intoxicating, and occasionally intoxicated, revels.
James’ son Charles (Charles I, who ascended the throne in 1625 and ruled until his reign ended, um, abruptly) revolutionized the royal collection of paintings and sculpture with major acquisitions from Europe. Alas, in 1647, he was deposed by Parliament and brought to Hampton Court as a prisoner. I guess a gilded cage is still a cage. He eventually escaped (why would anyone want to escape from Hampton Court Palace?) but had his head removed in 1649.

Bloody Puritans. They seized the palace in 1645 also removed all the finery from the Chapel Royal. Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector reserved the palace and some of its principal treasures for his own use and enjoyment.. Of course he did.

In 1660, the monarchy was restored during what was cleverly called the Restoration, and Charles II ascended the throne in 1660. He preferred Windsor Castle, but sometimes deigned to go slumming at Hampton Court. He built a set of lodgings at the south-east corner of the palace for one of his mistresses, Barbara Villiers, and her illegitimate children by him. (No word on whether the builders shopped at Restoration Hardware.)

William III (who became king in 1689) and Queen Mary II (together they were William and Mary, who have won several NCAA championships) commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to rebuild Hampton Court. Jeepers, Christopher Wren must have been the hardest working man in architecture in the seventeenth century. Is there anything he didn’t design?

Wren originally wanted to demolish the entire Tudor palace, except for the Great Hall. Alas, there wasn’t time or money, and Wren had the rest of London to build, so he had to be content with rebuilding the king and queen’s main apartments. William wanted rapid results, as he wanted to have his friends over to watch William and Mary play football on Thanksgiving, but, because of the speed of building and the crappy quality of the mortar used, a large section of the building collapsed, killing two workmen and injuring 11. “The subsequent inquiry deteriorated into bitter squabbles.” I can imagine.

In 1694, Mary died, and William was devastated. (Also, William and Mary had lost the Atlantic 10 championship, which didn’t help). Work on the palace thus stopped, leaving the new buildings as an empty brick shell with bare walls and floors. Finally, in 1697, William rededicated his thoughts and money to palace building, this time with less carnage. And thus Hampton Court was transformed into a Baroque palace.

O, cruel fate: William did not live to enjoy his new palace. After a bad fall from his horse in Hampton Court Park in 1702, he died.

His successor Queen Anne was primarily attracted by the hunting at Hampton Court Palace. Anne, though, preferred Windsor Castle, but she did have work done on Hampton Court for her consort, Prince George.
Anne did have time to introduce some startling new paintings, showing a semi-naked George disporting with sea creatures, into the Queen’s Drawing Room.
OK, then.

Alas, George died in 1708, and work stopped.

The Georgian kings (George I and II) were the last to use Hampton Court as a royal palace, 1737 being the last year that a royal family used the palace.

When George III decided not to avail himself of Hampton Court, everyone said he was mad. Little did they know...

For a while, Hampton Court served as “grace and favor” apartments for people who were in good with the monarchy (well, I guess it beat the Tower of London, which was typically the other alternative...). In 1838, Queen Victoria ordered that Hampton Court Palace “should be thrown open to all her subjects without restriction.” And she was not amused.

Today, “Conservation and restoration of Hampton Court Palace continues. The vast majority of the palace buildings are now either open to the public or used as office space and store-rooms, although a small group of grace-and-favour residencies remain.”
So there.

By this time, it was getting late, and we still had the 19-mile, two-hour drive back home, during which we all slept.

To be continued...

Thursday, May 01, 2008

London on Five Pints a Day

On April 22, I ventured back across the Pond to visit Steven, Amy, Godwin, and Bella in London. The trip out was uneventful and, dare I say, fairly pleasant (cue Andrew Bird’s “Fiery Crash”). I do rather like British Airways; being able to check in online and print my own boarding pass saves a ton of time at the airport.

Stupidly, a month or so ago while waiting at the Albany airport for my mother’s delayed flight from Newark, I signed up for a Clear card which prescreens people so they can whiz through special lanes at airport security. Their raison d’être is to “add predictability” to your flight. Something in the back of my mind suspected it was a bad idea, but I tend not to listen to my own brain sometimes. I specifically asked if they had a Clear lane at Newark’s Terminal B (the international terminal) and they said “Yes,” and their literature even mentioned it. Imagine my surprise when I got to Newark airport’s Terminal B and found no Clear lane. So much for predictability. Oh, well. Another lesson learned: never believe anyone who is selling me something.

Anyway, we arrived at Heathrow (happily not Terminal 5, which brings to mind the Monty Python song “I’m So Worried,” which includes the lyrics, “I’m so worried about the baggage retrieval system they’ve got at Heathrow”) on time, although it took some time for the airport to send out a stairway (memories of Arrested Development). I heard on the car radio that it was St. George’s Day, which could explain all the English flags I saw fluttering from windows (not the Union Jack, but rather a red cross on a field of white), although dorky me initially wondered what the deal was with all the Swiss flags. Ahem.

I spent Wednesday hanging about the house and recovering from jet lag (as was Amy, who had just returned from China an hour before I got in). Played with the kids, and Godwin and I bonded in a special way when he threw up on me.

Thursday I had an appointment with the head of the St. Bride Printing Library for some preliminary research I am doing for a potential book on the history of English printing. They had a very fast WiFi network, which let me keep up on e-mail, as I was unable to access any other WiFi network in London (except at the Apple Store on Regent Street). And despite what the woman in the AT&T store in Wilton Mall said, I was not able to use my iPhone in London to make calls. Another lesson learned: never believe anyone who has already sold me something. Still I have to admit that it was extremely peaceful to be completely disconnected. We do become slaves to these damn devices, don’t we?

Anyway, Version 1.0, fresh off the boat from his world cruise, happened to be in town at the same time, so we wandered about London, Covent Garden Market, and got vaguely lost in Mayfair, although I did hear tales from the high seas.

On Friday, S, A, G, B, and I took the bus into the City and had dim sum at a very good restaurant in Chinatown, then wandered down toward Parliament Square. I was hoping to get to tour Westminster Abbey, which I had missed last time, but we arrived too late. We were all rather tired, so we grabbed a cab and headed back to Hackney. (Gotta love London cabs...they don’t reek, they’re clean, and the driver knows where he is going, unlike almost every cab I have ever taken in an American city.) And another mystery solved: there is a sign in the back of the cabs that reads “Red light indicates doors are secured,” which explains the title of an Arctic Monkeys song.

On Saturday, Amy had to work and Steven had to look after the kiddies, so I set out to explore by myself. I had an idea of checking out a presentation at the Royal Observatory’s planetarium on black holes, but I didn’t get there in time, which was just as well, because the weather was perfect, so I was not inclined to sit inside. I had lunch at the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich, overlooking the Thames, and had a respectable cheeseburger and a pint of bitter. Pubs.com tells us that The Trafalgar Tavern was built in 1837, the year Queen Victoria came to the throne. In the 19th-century, it was a hangout for senior members of Parliament. The pub was refurbished and re-opened in 1965.

I then decided to walk along the Thames Walk, which veers away from the river and then disappears into a park. It was at that point that I got lost in Lewisham, which seemed like the kind of place one really shouldn’t be lost in. (Then again, this wasn’t the States, so the chances of being randomly stabbed and shot were slim to none; drive-by sarcasm was likely to be the worst I could expect.) Fortunately, I had bought a pocket map of London in Greenwich so it was easy to figure out where I needed to go.

In my wanderings, I came across this road sign. I have no idea what it means, but I think we could all use it at some point:
I ended up at the Surrey Quays, which is a big shopping center just south of the river. Wandering quayside, I came across an inviting pub called the Moby Dick and had a pint of Fuller’s London Pride ale.

My energy cells recharged, I checked my map and found a nearby Tube station on the Jubilee Line. My goal was to take it to Waterloo Station (“Millions of people swarming like flies ’round Waterloo Underground” –The Kinks). However, the Jubilee Line was not running, so I had to take a bus instead. There was a stop at the Tower Bridge Road, so I got off and walked over the Tower Bridge.

The Tower Bridge—often confused with London Bridge (which is thoroughly unremarkable)—was opened in 1894. It is called the Tower Bridge as it is located adjacent to the Tower of London. It spans 800 feet across the Thames, and is a hydraulic drawbridge, and was open as I was crossing it.
Once across, I walked past the Tower of London, then turned west and stopped at a wonderful little pub called the Hung, Drawn, and Quartered and had another pint of Pride.
I continued on, seeing another odd street sign:
“Weak subway”? For a minute, I thought I was in Los Angeles. But I digress...

I continued toward the Monument, which was designed by Christopher Wren to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666. It is 60.6 meters high, said to be the exact distance from its base to where the fire started in Pudding Lane. The monument plays a role in Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit and you are allowed to climb to the top. However, it is in the midst of a refurbishment when I got there, and was thus closed, although boasted creative use of large-format graphics.

It was then on toward Blackfriars (where David Copperfield worked for Murdstone and Grinby) but also one of my favorite London pubs, The Blackfriar, which has one of the greatest interiors of any building, let alone a pub.

Blackfriars refers to a region of central London, and the name was first used in 1317, deriving from the black outfit worn by Dominican Friars who moved their priory from Holborn in 1276. The priory was eventually closed in 1538 during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the monasteries. Later, one of the buildings became the Blackfriars Theatre (which was almost directly opposite Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre across the river). The building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. The area is now the location of Blackfriars Underground station and the bridge-head for Blackfriars Bridge. And, of course, the Blackfriar pub.
Pubs.com tells us:
This narrow wedge-shaped pub is jammed against the railway line at Blackfriars. It was built in 1875 near the site of a thirteenth century Dominican Priory, which gives the area its name and was the inspiration for the pubs design.

The exterior of the building has jutting wrought iron signs for each bar and the pub's name is proudly displayed in mosaic tiles. A more recent addition is a statue of a large laughing friar above the main door.

Though unusual and pleasing, the exterior does not prepare you for the extraordinary interior. The immediate impression is that of an extravagantly ornate church, or scaled down cathedral, every inch decorated in marble, mosaic or bas-relief sculpture.

The walls, clad in green, red and cream marble, are covered with illustrations of merry monks. Above the fireplace, a large bas-relief bronze depicts frolicking friars singing carols and playing instruments. Another called 'Saturday Afternoon' shows them gathering grapes and harvesting apples.

Three low arches lead into a smaller bar which is like a chapel, this was added after the First World War. Below a beautiful arched mosaic ceiling, are mottos of wisdom, such as, 'finery is foolery' and 'don't advertise, tell a gossip'. The detail here is amazing, even the light fittings are carved wooden monks carrying yokes on their shoulders, from which the lights hang.

The Black Friar’s interior is literally a work of art. It was begun in 1904, with sculptors Nathaniel Hitch, Frederick T. Callcott and Henry Poole contributing to its splendour. This pub is a lasting testament to their skill and craftsmanship. In the 1960's Sir John Betjeman, who later became the Poet Laureate, led a campaign to save the Black Friar from demolition. Thanks to him and his supporters we can still enjoy this delightful pub.
I had a pint of Fox’s Knob, a lovely Highgate brew, and continued down the Victoria Embankment. Across the river, I spied the London Aquarium—bearing the sign “Robot World.”
Oh, no! They’re coming for the fish now!

My next mission was to find—at Vince N.’s instigation—the London home of Number 6 from The Prisoner: Number 1 Buckingham Place (and that’s a hint for all you would-be Prisoner fans).

On the way through St. James Park, I came across someone who was feeding the wildlife and had made quite a lot of little woodland friends. This is a Gary Larson cartoon in the making...

Thanks to my handy pocket map, I found Buckingham Place, which is a very short street near Buckingham Palace. I tried to recall the opening titles of The Prisoner and frame my pictures as best I could. They painted the door...
One block over, directly behind Number 1 Buckingham Place is a small comfortable pub called The Cask and the Glass. Well, I was there...

It was getting on to dinner time and I thought I would a) get to the Apple Store in Regent Street to check e-mail and see if there was anything urgent going on that I should know about and b) try to call Steven and Amy and let them know that I was not going to be home for dinner. No wonder everyone is on mobile phones; I could not find a phone box that a) wasn’t disgusting and b) worked. Either they accepted my coins and then did nothing (meaning I was out 40p), or it accepted my coins and did nothing but complain about not being able to dial the number I had entered, even before I had entered anything, or it just spit my coins right back out at me. Well!

By this time, I needed to visit a crypt (a euphemism for the gents’), so I found another pub called the Glassblower and availed myself of their facilities. And, well, while I was there...

I ended up on Carnaby Street, home of The Kinks’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” and had dinner in a pub called Shakespeare’s Head. I was near Regent Street so I popped into the Apple Store and checked e-mail (as I suspected, nothing urgent). By then it was getting late and starting to rain, so I headed toward the Tube and back to Hackney...

To be continued....