Our trip is progressing wonderfully. After leaving Bath we went up to the Cotswolds for a few nights and hiked a lot. The countryside is beautiful there and we took footpaths through fields, viewing the horses and sheep as we roamed from town to town. Over here the public footpaths cross private property in a way that would be impossible in the US, and we never got a dirty glance except from a couple of the sheep. But you know how hard it is to read a sheep’s eyes. If the eyes are windows to the soul then I’m afraid all I saw was lamb chops.We had a guide one day who drove us through the countryside and took us to some fabulous lookouts and a couple of villages where they shot the epic Downtown Abbey. I know this show had a lot of fans, including the Fabulous Miss K, but somehow it never quite grabbed me. I tried watching an episode early on in the series but at the start of the show I watched they showed about 7 maids fluffing pillows for 10 minutes. Somehow it didn’t grab me.
We also visited Blenheim Palace, which was out-of-control huge and awesome: Two thousand acres with lakes, streams, gardens and really a lot of china inside. I always like visiting these old castles (much more than churches which I avoid for satanic reasons) because you can get great decorating ideas. Now I’m seriously considering adding some gold leaf in our dining room. I’ve already ordered some giant cannons and a couple of humongous bronze lions for the front porch. They should arrive by the time we get home.
From there we cruised through Oxford for a night and a day. I think it’s a pretty magical place. I had wanted to show it to FMK since I visited about 15 years ago. Coming from years in academia it does feel a bit like hallowed ground and the fact that it’s where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis drank together weekly and Alice in Wonderland was written makes it all the more cosmic. These guys really pushed the borders of mystical fiction and storytelling. We also took time to visit the Oxford Comma Museum where they’ve enshrined a lot of memorabilia about the famous punctuation mark. We were surprised to see a lot of grammar lovers lined up at the ticket office all hepped up and excited to see this famous pause.
From there we trained on into London. Along the way we passed through this town:
If you’ve ever wondered where all the dorks come from now you know. On the other hand maybe this is where all the Deepdeners go to do some serious dorking. We just buzzed through the town so I didn’t really have a chance to investigate. Maybe it means something totally beyond my pale. But I’ve noticed you run into stuff like that all the time here. They put these letters together like they are real words but we all know they really don’t have any meaning. Keep in mind these people claim to speak English.
We arrived in London and moved into the AirBnB we had rented for the next six days. This is an intense city and there are a lot of people here, most of them looking at their cell phones as they walk down the street. Its actually quite eerie and its a wonder they don’t have more pedestrian accidents because no one is looking at what’s going on around them.
Since we were setting up house we hit the local supermarket to get a few basics. It’s nice not having to eat out every meal so we usually get in some breakfast stuff and snacks and then only eat out once a day. First choice was picking out some oatmeal and we had these two choices:
So my choice was to eat the one that made me look like George Washington in drag or pick the one that would make me look like a young Sean Connery with an olympian physique but would also turn me into a bad speller. I opted for door number 2.
Over the six days we were there we did three things: Walk a lot because it was really fun, go to museums, and see a lot of plays. We didn’t actually visit Buckingham Palace though we kept going by it on our walks from our flat to the museums and plays. That turned out to be pretty handy because I soon came to have admiration for the how the British run their country. In my mind I had been preparing a list for ways they could improve this country (fix the driving thing, drop a few vowels from some of their words, etc.) It turns out that on the gate of the Queen’s they have a suggestion box. I think they had it made at TapPlastics but they gilded it and you can just drop off your ideas for how to make things better for the country and every day one of those bear-hat guys in red brings the Queen your suggestions and then she fixes it for you. It’s hard to tell from this picture I took because the box is basically clear plastic with a little gilding but the Royal Suggestion Box is over on the right column next to the gold thingie.
We also happened to see three plays while we were there and that was a surprise for us. Our first day there we were walking through the West End where the theaters are and we passed in front of Apologia, which starred Stockard Channing and one of the daughters from Downtown Abbey. Because it was the day of the show we were able to pick them up for the price of a bowl of haggis. Then we sat in our seats and we were approached by a woman who asked if we would prefer to sit in the center in the third row. We thanked the seating fairy, picked up our jackets, moved up front and saw a great play.
The next night we went to see the Book of Mormon. For this we had bought tickets before we came over. There has been a mountain of stuff already written about this musical and I won’t go into any details here, but I will say that I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard at anything as I did at this. And I’m a guy who generally has no use at all for musicals. I avoid them like the plague and if the truth be known when I was young and got taken to see The Sound of Music I think its the only time I ever rooted for the Nazis…. anything to make that family stop singing, Please.
So on the 3rd day realizing we had been so fortunate the previous two nights, we said lets go see one more. We were able to get tickets to see the hottest play in London, The Ferryman. Suffice it to say its the best play I ever saw. Absolutely amazing with surprises, laughs and tears. It really was shockingly good. I don’t know if it will come to the US, but I hope so.
We also visited the British National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. Hands down this is my favorite art museum and I’ve visited it every time I’ve come here. In particular they have two Caravaggios that have always knocked me out. I got tipped off to them the first time I came here when I asked a guard what his favorite painting was and he sent me off to experience them. They’re incredible. So when we arrived this time I made a beeline for them, and found out they’d been rotated out and were in storage. Actually it was fine because there is so much good art here.
Have you ever had an experience where you turn a corner in an art museum and suddenly and very unexpectedly you’re looking at a painting you’ve known for many years. Perhaps it has touched you in some way and you’re shocked to finally and at last and out-of-the-blue be face-to-face with it. The only other time this happened to me was at the Chicago Art Institute when I walked into a room and suddenly I’m looking at Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic (probably the most parodied piece of art in history except for the Mona Lisa) and then I turn around and in the same room is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. I had a very similar experience here at the British National Gallery. I was looking at the paintings when all of a sudden I’m looking at this:
This has been one of my favorite paintings for many years. It’s a painting by Gainsborough of his two daughters. The love and sweetness of a father for his daughters is almost overwhelming in this picture. To me its breathtaking. And there they are chasing a butterfly, a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of childhood. Besides its inherent beauty and awesomeness, the painting is “important” for a couple of reasons. About twenty years ago I was asked to give a guest lecture on the history of childhood at a conference. This wasn’t actually anything I was prepared to do, so I began to research it and decided right away to use the history of children in art as the basis to develop the idea. Actually the concept of “childhood” is relatively new, really taking shape in the 1700s with Rousseau and his contemporaries. What art shows is that children were always portrayed one of two ways prior to that time. First, they were shown as cherubs, angels dancing in the sky, or even as the Little Baby Jesus (yes that’s my favorite Jesus too). Alternatively they are shown in formal portraits of the aristocracy, essentially as tiny adults. It wasn’t until Gainsborough’s time that we really see children as children. This painting was the forerunner of acknowledging childhood as a specific and special time. So, you get the picture (literally in this case). Here’s a picture I know and love and there it was in right in front of me. Terrific.
I was so excited I decided to take this selfie, my very first one:
Weirdly enough there was only one other photograph on display in the National Gallery and it’s of The Fabulous Miss K and me on our third date (she says it was the fourth date but I’m pretty sure she’s wrong.) I have no idea how they got a hold of this.
Enough with the National Gallery. The other big museum we visited was the British Museum (you’ll never guess how they decided to name it that). This is the most enormous museum in history and is famous for it’s collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts as well as their Greek and Roman collection. They have over five million objects on display but because FMK and I were limited to a single afternoon we were only able to see about two million of them. I know that a lot of folks find this kind of museum stuff boring so I’ll keep it brief and only show a couple of items that caught my eye.
This object probably caught my eye because I like wearing hats and it was beautiful I like the little metal ears on it. But what was so fascinating was the inscription which you can’t see from this view. Chiseled in cuneiform (have I mentioned that I minored in cuneiform) on the front of the helmet were words that translate into Make Mesopotamia Great Again. How sick is that?
The second item is this:
Yes, this is an Egyptian game It appears to be kind of like Chinese Checkers only the Ancient Egyptians didn’t know about the Chinese, so I don’t know what they called it. Maybe Moroccan Checkers? But what’s really weird is where they found this game. Inside a dead guys tomb so he could play games when he was dead. Now I’m sure we’ve all given some thought to our mortality and being in heaven but did anyone think they’d spend all eternity playing Ancient Parcheesi? Maybe its not any weirder than playing a harp forever but I just never figured you’d go to heaven to play games. So I’ve got to wonder who do you play Ancient Parcheesi with? I mean you’re not in that pyramid with other people are you? Does one dead person get to win for all eternity and the other dead person loses forever? What happens if you cheat? I mean its too late to get sent to hell.
Here’s another thing in the museum that I think they got wrong:
Although they chose to label this as an actual dead Egyptian mummy I’m actually pretty sure this is the body of Gollum, retrieved from the Mountain of Doom in Mordor.
Finally, did you ever wonder what really happened to the Supremes? Dreamgirls doesn’t really tell the full story.
One final word regarding museums (never to be mentioned again in this blog unless I feel like it). There is one museum I will never visit, nor can I figure out who would visit it and why anyone felt the need for this museum. It really exists. I walked by it today. It’s located in Keswick in the Lake District where we’re staying now (more to come about that later). I think it should be erased.
After six days in London we’ve gone back to the countryside and we’re now in the Lake District near the border with Scotland.