Thursday, June 10, 2010

Summing Up? The Grand European Adventure 2010

Well, folks, I'm back in Texas and enjoying being warm again. All together I was gone 50 days: 4 to Florida; 14 on the cruise; 22 in Malta; 10 in London. What were the highlights of the trip?

1. You will probably all laugh at me, but perhaps the very finest time of all was sitting in the Palm House in Kew Gardens, drawing and listening as Chris Watson manipulated his tapes to create a new mix of his "Whispering in the Leaves" sound installation. It was great.

2. Cadiz, Spain. Cadiz is compactly situated on a peninsula, making it a great city for getting around in on foot. And we had great weather that day: sunny and warm without a roaring wind.

3. Obidos, Portugal. A lovely little walled hilltop village, and another great day for weather. This may also be the only place outside the U.S. where I saw (and bought) Lay's potato chips!

4. Listening to (and drawing) great music. Both in Malta and on the ship, I heard a great deal of classical music live. Often I sat and drew while listening and afterward gave the drawings to one or another of the musicians. That was fun.

5. Revisiting old sights. It was fun to see places (and in a few cases) people I hadn't seen since 2007.

6. Marks & Spencer cafes.

7. Meeting cruise employees from many different countries and sort of getting to know them over 2 weeks on the ship.

8. Visiting bookstores with an English slant (even in Malta).

9. The car museum in Qawra, Malta.

And what about lowlights?

1. Not getting to visit the Azores Islands because of very rough weather. On the one hand, it might have been really unpleasant trying to walk about a lovely 300 year old town in a chilly rain; on the other, it was disappointing to lose our first "land" day after a week at sea. It was raining and windy, yes, but apparently what really decided the captain against trying to dock at Punta Delgada was the size of the swells that kept lifting the ship as they tried to bring it to the dock.

2. The weather in general. It was mostly sunny (except in London), but there was so much wind so much of the time that being outside, which I love, wasn't necessarily pleasant. And the temperatures, while not truly cold, were often chilly enough to require a windbreaker (or two) and/or sweatshirt: not exactly what one wants in May after a long cold winter.

3. Some of the cruise amenities. I was disappointed that this ship focused more on in-room movie-watching than in-theatre movie-watching, which I would have preferred.

4. Listening to a squalling toddler on a multi-hour transatlantic flight.

5. Having a last-minute passport difficulty in Malta (because personnel at Fiumicino Airport in Rome never stamped my passport) and hoping I didn't miss my flight to London.

Overall, despite the fact that I never felt quite as settled and "at home" in Malta as I had hoped, it was a great trip.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

TV by the River, and Swans on the Serpentine

Today is my California sister's birthday! Happy Birthday, Jane!

And we had sunshine again today, so maybe Jane sent it from the desert. London sure needed it. I believe the temperature actually hit 75 today, but the wind was up again, so sometimes it wasn't as comfortable as yesterday. Sitting on the bank of the Thames doing a drawing this afternoon, I needed the windbreaker.

My first photo today is a mother (or father?) swan and the cygnets. I think Hans Christian Andersen was wrong: just because they're not yellow doesn't mean they're ugly.

My target on my long walk this morning was the Tate Gallery of Modern Art--or the Tate Modern, as they call it--so I went through Hyde Park and out toward Buckingham Palace, and then east along The Mall to The Strand. (I'm sure you're all following this on your maps of London!) I had walked almost the whole length of The Mall (the big street that connects Buckingham Palace up to where the Horse Guards are) when I came to The Mall Galleries. They had an exhibit of artwork involving textiles. An artist named Amanda Hislop had some small landscapes done on (or with?) pieces of cloth. Quite cool. I also had morning tea in the cafe there.

Not far beyond the galleries, near the Admiralty Arch, is the column for the Duke of York. This Duke of York is "the" Duke, the one of the nursery rhyme: "The grand old Duke of York / He had ten thousand men." He was George III's second son, so he never got to be king, and a government official who was standing there told me that "they say" the reason the column is so high and the Duke's statue so far up in the sky is so people couldn't throw things at it. Apparently he was very unpopular: remember in the rhyme what he did, he "marched them up to the top of the hill / And marched them down again."

While I was there, I heard something behind me and looked, and there went a a troop of horsemen, on their way to the Changing of the Guards, I assume. A lot of them were carrying musical instruments. I got a couple of photos, but neither was terribly good, so I won't post either. (If you want to see them, email me.)

After passing through the Admiralty Arch, I moseyed down The Strand, another famous street for readers of 19th century English fiction. I picked up some lunch for a little picnic on the river bank and crossed over the Thames on the Waterloo Bridge and turned east. I had my lunch on "The Queen's Walk" not far from the National Theatre, the IBM Building and the London Television Centre. This last explains, I suppose, a little bit of serendipity I had. There was a small crowd standing on the walk above the river and some kind of food presentation going on, with cameraman, wiring, and so forth. I asked a woman in the crowd what it was, and she explained that they were doing a live outdoor segment for the show called "This Morning." The woman in the center is one of the hosts (the male host was sitting off to the side), and the guest, a chef, is to her right and facing away from the camera in this photo: they were on commercial break, I think. Apparently the chef is pretty well-known, at least over here, but I don't know who he is.

Then, down on the river bank itself, was this guy in a kilt sculpting the words "This Morning Live on the South Bank".

From here I made my way on to the Tate Modern. The collection there includes Picassos and Dalis, as well as less famous artists of the 20th century, and of course they do special exhibits as well. There are several going on now, some of which were free (I went into those); two others cost 10 pounds each and I skipped those. One of the paintings which must be one of the most famous is one of the Monet paintings of Waterlilies. This one is quite large: I guess it must be 4 feet high and 8 or 10 feet long. There is also a Jackson Pollock, which looks like you expect a Pollock to look like, that must be about 30 inches high and at least 5 times that long. I was especially interested in the work of a Portuguese artist named Sarmento whose paintings sometimes looked sort of like unfinished sketches, and an African artist (from the Ivory Coast) who works on small pieces of stiff paper, sort of like card stock, and uses ball point and colored pencil: small drawings with various things written around them. Some kind of dream interpretation or representation. There is also a room devoted to an American artist named Ed Ruschka whose work often makes me laugh, though I don't know for sure if that is his intent. I like it a lot. One of the paintings is basically a red background with block printing on it that says something like "You must find me insane because I'm just crazy about that little girl."

It was a warmish sunny day, remember, and most Londoners don't have yards, so there were people all over the place in the public spaces, including on the lawn between the Tate Modern and the river. Right here by the museum you can also go onto the Millennium Bridge--a footbridge over the Thames that leads more or less straight to St Paul's Cathedral. I joined the crowd crossing the river and, once I was across, took pictures of two street names that caught my eye. I didn't see David Hasselhoff anywhere around this place, though:

And right near it, leading up to St Paul's, is this street. I hear people sleep good here. Hehehe.

St Paul's charges 12 pounds 50 pence to go inside, and I figured I've seen a zillion churches on this trip and the last trip so--architectural marvel or no--I skipped it again. I did sit for a few minutes in one of the garderns, resting my feet, and looking at the map. And that's when I saw this pigeon. As you all know, I'm not a fan of pigeons, but this little gal or guy sort of won my heart. Look carefully at his/her right foot:

I made a side trip up Old Bailey road, not far from St Paul's, to take this photo for those of you who are fans of British mysteries. There are two buildings labeled "Central Criminal Court," and this is the old one, so I reckon it must be Old Bailey itself.

I also took a peek in another church designed, like St Paul's, by Sir Christopher Wren, yet another St Martin (not in-the-Fields, but in Ludgate). It was nice enough: just a church.

And then it was time for the long meandering walk back to the hotel: back along the river for a while, along The Strand, past Trafalgar Square, up Regent Street, west on Oxford Street, and so forth. I browsed books one last time at Waterstone's (didn't buy anything), had one last little picnic in Hyde Park, worked on a couple of sketches at the Italian Gardens, and then back to the hotel. I think I've got the suitcase pretty well packed, and the things pulled aside that I will need in the backpack for carry-on.

And then tomorrow: that long long flight.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sunlight? In London?

Today two amazing things happened: 1] I wore shorts; and 2] I used my sunglasses. Yes. In London.

Why? you ask. 1] The temperature exceeded 55 degrees Fahrenheit; and 2] the sun shone. Yes. In London.

I actually felt like a human being. I was able to sit OUTSIDE and draw without getting wet or feeling like a stalactite. And when I say, "The sun shone," I don't mean it shone for 12 minutes; then didn't shine for 37 minutes; then shone for 6 minutes; then--Well, you get the idea. The sun shone virtually the entire day. Thank you, high pressure system.

And the high temperature today? 70. Yes. In London. Two degrees ABOVE NORMAL. I had not felt 70 degrees, OUTSIDE, since May 23 or 24. Amazing. The temperature was right about what they had predicted, but the amount of sunlight was actually HIGHER than they had predicted. Amazing.

When I left the hotel of course, about 9:30, it was NOT 70 degrees. 60 maybe. But I wore shorts anyway, and a windbreaker. And I carried the other windbreaker in the backpack, AND the umbrella. I didn't dare believe that I might actually need neither of them all day. When I got to Marble Arch park, a half-mile or so away, I actually took the windbreaker off, even though it was still a bit chilly, and sat on a bench in the shade to draw. Sitting in the sun would have been nice, of course, but it's difficult to draw on white paper if you are squinting against the sunlight. I drew the huge horse-head sculpture, and a little scene involving two elephants (one mostly hidden) from the Elephant Parade. Here's that sketch, in small form:

After drawing a while, I went on to Marks and Spencer (Oxford Street west) for morning tea, then moseyed on to Grant & Cutler, a bookstore that specializes in non-English language material, where I browsed a while without buying anything. Remember that I still haven't finished the two Spanish books I bought in Cadiz, since I've mostly been reading English. Then I went to Marks and Spence (Oxford Street east) for a jacket potato and tea for lunch. THEN I went on to my easternmost point for today: the Sir John Soanes Museum. This is a house-museum, established by act of Parliament in 1833, a few years before Soanes died, since the museum is what he intended for the house after his death. (He didn't have to move out before he died.) Soanes was a very prominent architect, with plenty of money, and his house actually occupied 3 previous addresses. It's full of his collections: pieces of old sculpture and buildings, a bit of ancient pottery, over 6000 books, paintings--LOTS of paintings, and so forth. In several places on the ground floor, there are grates in the floor, which I thought might be for ventilation purposes or for hot air from fires in the basement to rise up through (like the Romans did), but one of the employees told me that they were actually to allow natural light into the basement!

My next goal was Foyle's bookstore, a really big bookstore on Charing Cross Road, where I thought I might stumble across something I really NEEDED to buy, and where I might finally buy the poetry book "Dart" by Alice Oswald, which I've been intending to buy for a week now. The easiest way to get from Lincoln's Inn Fields, where the Soanes Museum is, to Charing Cross Road put me near Covent Garden, so I figured I ought to go ahead and make the detour and see if there was anything there I should look at. Along the way I came by this huge building, which I had noticed the other day, but hadn't known what it was. Apparently it's the Masonic hall--I'm not sure of it's official name. I don't know if you can tell from this photo, which I took kind of leaning and looking up at it, but it's quite imposing.

Well, there wasn't anything special as far as I could tell about Covent Garden nowadays--it's just shops and restaurants--but there was a couple of acrobatic sorts out on one of the open areas putting on a show. If you look carefully, you might be able to tell that the woman to the left is balanced on a straight-line ladder.

There was also a woman off to the side, in the shade near one of the buildings, with her easel set up doing a small painting--probably about 8 by 8 inches--of Covent Garden: it was going very well and looking quite nice.

Once I got to Charing Cross Road, I noticed this sign which made me think of my friends the Comptons, though they might not appreciate the designation "OLD".

Many of you will remember the book and movie "84, Charing Cross Road." Well, if you look way over to the right in this photo you'll see the blue 82. That's Charing Cross Road. I took the photo the way I did because I'm sort of guessing that the Pizza Hut occupies the space that may once have been both 83 and 84 Charing Cross Road. Was there actually a bookstore at # 84, once upon a time, or was it all fiction? Your guess is as good as mine.

And then on to Foyle's. I spent a good while here--maybe an hour, maybe 45 minutes--looking more at the poetry section than anywhere else. The poetry section is quite large, larger than you're likely to see almost anywhere in the US, but of course the emphasis is English. And it's interesting to see the differences and who is considered important enough to be on the shelf and so forth. Poets who are hardly read at all anymore in the US are represented by one or more books--folks like Walter de la Mare, for example, or Mervyn Peake, who is known almost exclusively as a novelist in the US, or W.S. Graham, who has hardly ever been published in the US--and it's interesting to see an American poet like Wallace Stevens represented by "Harmonium", his first book, published almost 90 years ago, and not in print in the US as a separate book but only as a part of his collected poems. Some authors--not a lot--are represented by books from American presses, not English editions, and others which are available from different presses in the two countries look better in their English editions: Faber & Faber makes much more attractive and elegant poetry paperbacks than Random House does!

Anyway, whether being practical was the best thing to do or not, that's what I did. I bought "Dart" (which is available in the US only as part of a "selected" poems by the author) and resisted other temptations. Of course I still have tomorrow. . . .

As I made my way back toward the hotel, I made another stop at Marks and Spencer for afternoon tea, and here I succumbed to a different temptation: I bought a white linen long-sleeved shirt. I had noticed it at M&S before, and today I decided I could use another button-down shirt, especially something as light and cool as these are supposed to be. (Why any man needs a light and cool shirt in England is beyond me, but in Texas I HOPE it will be hot!

I've got to tell you: it was SO nice to be able to be outside without being cold or wet or both. It was so nice to sit in the shade and draw. It was so nice to walk down Oxford Street, on the SUNNY side of the street, and feel warm without feeling hot and sweaty under the multiple layers of jackets necessary to avoid feeling cold and miserable. It really was like being human again.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

39 Steps, Tips for Pedestrians, and Horrible Weather

People make fun of Icelanders for allegedly believing in brownies, an idea which costs them nothing and hurts no one. But no one makes fun of the English for spending millions (or billions?) of pounds on sun screen and sunglasses, two items that no one ever needs in the British Isles. You know how the SPF works. If you're wearing SPF 30 and spend an hour in full sunlight, you get only 2 minutes of "exposure"--your exposure is reduced by a factor of 30. Now since in England it is completely unheard of for the sun to shine more than 2 minutes in any given hour (and normally it will be far LESS than 2 minutes), England is itself officially SPF 30!

Here are the daily high temperatures beginning on May 25, last Tuesday, when I arrived: 63, 59, 61, 66, 61, 64, 61, and (today) 55. You will notice that only ONE DAY has even approached the so-called normal high of 68, which is itself no great shakes. And that English sense of humor you all love so much? They are predicting 69 or 70 for tomorrow! HarharharHAHAHAharharhar.

This morning, not being a banker's holiday, the laundry was actually open. I was actually able to leave off my jeans for washing, an important consideration since July 27, 1913, was the last time it was warm enough in London to wear shorts, and since in today's rain the front of my khakis got wet all the way up to the bottoms of my pockets (that is, the top of my thighs) as I walked back to the hotel this afternoon. Now of course this "express" laundry won't have my jeans ready for me before 5 p.m. tomorrow, but that's the breaks. I assume it will take at least 24 hours of continuous rotation in a dryer for the jeans to dry after being washed.

After leaving my jeans off at the laundry, I headed back toward the British Library where I hoped to get some clarification (including cost) about getting some kind of electronic photocopy of one of their books. Along the way, I veered into Regent's Park, which I passed yesterday, but had never visited before. On a nice day, it might have been a nice walk. Today of course the drizzle started up about the time I got as far into the park as I intended to go and as I turned back toward the east to go on to the library.

At some point on the walk to (or from?) the library, I passed this big plaque/carving, built into the wall of a building. Since many of you (myself included, nowadays) like Dickens's work quite a lot, I thought you might like this photo:

In case you can't read the notice, it says, "While living in a house on this site Charles Dickens wrote six of his principal works, characters from which appear in this sculptured panel." I think that's probably Little Dorrit and her father at the upper right, and maybe Oliver and his grandfather just right of Dickens, but you'll have to decide who the rest are.

When I got to the library I found out that the book I was interested in was on site there, rather than elsewhere, so that, if I wanted to go through the procedure of applying for a reading room pass and waiting for the book to be brought up from storage (about 70 minutes), then I could go ahead and see it today. So I did that: got the reader's pass (good for this whole month) and put in my request for the book. Then I left for lunch while the book was being found, and that's when I found out why I had trouble closing my umbrella when I entered--the shaft was broken! Of course. So I held it sort of not-quite-completely opened and made my way back to Euston train station for a little lunch. While there I bought another umbrella, from one of Lou Ann's favorite places--Boots Pharmacy. (I think I have already managed to bend the shaft of this new umbrella, apparently while trying to shake the excess water off of it before going inside one place or another: who would have thought that an umbrella was so hard to make?)

Back at the library, I got my book: "Ximenes, The Wreath and Other Poems" by J.W. Polidori, published in London in 1819. Polidori is mostly famous for having written "The Vampyre," published anonymously in 1816 (and mistakenly thought to be Lord Byron's work) and then in book form under Polidori's name in 1819. I've been working Polidori into my Maltese werewolf stories, so I wanted to take a look at this book. There is another book of poetry too, called "The Fall of the Angels", which even the British Library doesn't have a copy of! Anyway, the book looks like pretty standard Romantic period poetry, not worth much study, though I would like to read "Ximenes", which Polidori called "A dramatic action," i.e. a play for reading rather than staging. As it turns out, I can get the library to create a photocopy of this for me, but it will cost somewhere between $40-45, so I'll have to decide if I want to do that or not.

After leaving the library for good, my general goal was to reach the TKTS stand and see about getting a discount ticket to the matinee of "The 39 Steps". I didn't have to hurry too much, as the play began at 3 and it was not yet 1:30. Miracle of miracles, the rain had sort of tapered off during some of this walk, and I didn't have to have the (new) umbrella opened the entire time. I stopped into a bookstore I passed by chance, which seemed in some ways sort of like Half-Price Books, with both used books and remaindered books in stock. I bought a copy of a "brief life" of the author E.M. Forster who wrote a couple of novels and several stories which I like very much. Even if you haven't read Forster, you have probably seen movies based on his novels: "A Room with a View" (my favorite), "Howards End," "A Passage to India" and "Where Angels Fear to Tread." Not too many blocks farther I came to the London Review Bookstore. I didn't have a lot of time to spend there, and mostly browsed poetry, but it looked to have perhaps the smartest selection of books of any store I've been in in London. It is very near the British Museum, so I guess it's just a matter of walking one way or another that explains why I haven't seen it before.

Finally I made it back to Leicester Square to TKTS and asked about the matinee: they had a "very good" seat that cost 25 pounds, and a not so good seat for 14 pounds, so I went for the not-so-good. "The 39 Steps" is a kind of spy novel, almost one hundred years old and set right before World War I. Hitchcock made it into a movie and--judging by this play--he must have set it in the '30s, instead of the '10s. (I don't believe I've ever seen the movie, but I'm sure some of you have.) For this new stage adaptation, they have gone for comedy, so that the story is still a spy thriller, but it's played for laughs. There are only four main actors in the company: the male lead, who plays the bored Englishman who learns of the attempt to smuggle top secret information out of England; the female lead, who plays the two main female roles, the first of whom informs the male of the conspiracy and is killed for her efforts; and the other two men, who play all the other roles, including the females. One of these guys is really quite funny, especially when playing an old woman dressed in a knee-length skirt which shows the dark socks and garters from his male clothing. There is some clever staging, especially the use of a translucent curtain, lit from behind, while the players manipulate various stick figures to show actions too complicated to stage. In another scene, the male lead is trying to escape while carrying the female lead across a storm-swollen river (hey, that was appropriate for today!). The river is represented by a blue sheet the other two actors are shaking and rippling along the floor, but when the 'hero' tries to cross they lift it up as high as his waist and drive him back. The third time they do that, instead of acting defeated by the river, he simply tells the other actors to stop it and they drop the sheet and let him cross. It was funnier than it sounds, I'm sure.

Well, when I left the theater, about 4:45, can you guess what it was doing? Raining again. And this time it just went on and on, and somewhat heavier than earlier. I made my way toward Marks & Spencer to have supper and passed another author sign along the way:

After my light supper (supplemented by oatmeal back at the hotel) at M&S, I left in--can you guess?--more rain. You will be pleased that I didn't actually strike and fling bricks at any of the people on the sidewalks standing in the way and slowing everyone down in the rain, but I can't say I wasn't cussing at them under my breath. I am not a very nice person after I crack under the strain of way too much awful weather, made worse by people who seem determined to trap you in it as long as possible.

And so here are your tips for pedestrians in London:

1] You have no rights. Don't make the mistake of thinking that you do. If a cab or bus driver wants to jump the curb and smash you flat, he will. There will be investigation into your death. There will be no charges filed.

2] The fact that there are WALK/DON'T WALK signals at major intersections means nothing at all. The signal will show WALK at best for 30 seconds every hour. Even if motor traffic is stopped all four directions, the DON'T WALK signal will still be lit. If you insist on waiting for the WALK signal, it will take you 6-8 hours to walk half a mile and, on a day like today, you will certainly catch pneumonia in the process. You HAVE TO CROSS against the light, most of the time. Of course if a cab or bus driver smashes you flat when you are doing so, see 1] above.

3] If at all possible, the traffic engineers of London will make it impossible to cross a street in one go. Crossing a major street can actually involve using four separate crosswalks with four separate WALK/DON'T WALK signals, none of which will be timed to operate together. In this situation, if you insist on waiting for the 4 separate WALK signals, it can take you as long as 4 hours to walk 150 feet. A prime example of this is Hampstead Road at Euston Road.

4] London sidewalks are not actually designed for walking. They are designed for standing upon and handing out advertising flyers and free evening newspapers; OR for parking your baby buggy, longways across foot traffic, while you carry on a conversation with someone else with a baby buggy 15-20 feet farther down the sidewalk; OR for standing four abreast in a family group and preventing any movement in any direction.

By the way, London is quite an international city, and I don't know how many languages you might hear spoken on the streets. What is more remarkable than the non-English speakers, however, is the prevalence of English speakers from whom you cannot understand more than 1 word in 50. There are big, tough-looking men on the streets of London, who give the impression that they have played on rugby leagues all their lives, but have played AS THE BALL, and who speak English with no consonants at all: it's all vowels and glottal stops. But then why not? One is bound to suffer psychological damage when the cumulative lifetime total of hours of actual sunlight one has experienced is a single digit number.

Which brings up the issue of "sunrise" and "sunset". By this time of year the gap between "sunrise" and "sunset" is at least 16 or 17 hours. The trick, though, is that the terms are entirely metaphorical. When the percentage of time the sky is covered by cloud is equal to the reputed purity of Ivory soap (99.44%), the odds of actually seeing the sun as it climbs up or down the horizon are not high. "Sunrise" means: that time at which the clouds begin to seem less dark; and "sunset" is of course the opposite: that time at which the clouds get even darker.

In Malta my daily routine was 85% eating and walking; here in London it is 85% eating, walking and removing or reassuming multiple layers of clothing. It is possible to be comfortably warm INSIDE. It is NOT possible OUTSIDE. Outside there are two conditions: cold and hot. If one is sitting or standing still, one is cold, despite that four layers of clothing one is wearing. If one is walking at a rate of 4-5 miles per hour, then one is hot if one is still wearing those four layers of clothing. If one removes one layer, then one is cold again. At this point, I can feel no hesitation in making this recommendation: if any one of you ever hears me again utter the words, "London is a wonderful place," even if I attach the qualification "despite the weather," you are instructed to wallop me in the head with a shovel and bury me alive.