It was a Virgin Atlantic flight, so the plane was named Scarlet Lady, and it had a painting of a scarlet lady on the fuselage. (The people who do pinstriping on cars must really have their minds blown when they're given a 747 to do!)
I settled down with a Barbara Pym novel (getting into the mood for London), and the flight passed pleasantly enough, although I was definitely ready for some sleep by the time we got to Gatwick.
Our hotel is one of the thousands of lovely old white buildings that add so much to the charm of London. The interior is quite elegant, though a mite threadbare. We have a comfortable high-ceilinged room, with beautiful moldings and a huge window overlooking Kensington Gardens.
After a few hours of sleep, Lee got up to go explore, but I just went back to sleep. When he returned, he had found the nearest tube station and post office and had acquired some delicious plums and the theatre listings.
We had a quiet dinner in the hotel and then spent some time mulling over the theatre listings before falling asleep again.
A mutual friend had taken me to lunch at the house of W.S. (Savoy Operas) Gilbert, and midway through the meal the great man began to tell a story. It was one of those very long deceptively dull stories where you make the build-up as tedious as you can, knowing that the punch line is going to pay for everything, and pause before you reach the point, so as to stun the audience with the unexpected snaperoo. In other words, a story which is pretty awful until the last line, when you have them rolling in the aisles.Lee returned after a while, having walked from Leicester Square (where he bought theatre tickets) down Charing Cross to Waterloo Station, then across the Thames on the Hungerford foot bridge. After exploring the South Bank for a while, he came back and walked through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. He'd seen Canada Geese and Moorhens around the Serpentine. Other sights: a "mile-long" art exhibit hanging on the park railings and an Arab family strolling in the park with their bodyguard.
Well, there was Sir William Schwenk Gilbert telling this long story, and there was I, tucked away inside my brother Armine's frock-coat and my cousin George's trousers, drinking it respectfully in. It did not seem to me a very funny story, but I knew it must be, because this was W.S. Gilbert telling it, so when the pause before the punch line came, thinking that this was the end, I laughed.
I had rather an individual laugh in those days, something like the explosion of one of those gas mains that slay six. Infectious, I suppose you would call it, for the other guests, seeming a little puzzled, as if they had expected something better from the author of The Mikado, all laughed politely, and conversation became general. And it was at this juncture that I caught my host's eye.
I shall always remember the glare of pure hatred which I saw in it. If you have seen photographs of Gilbert, you will be aware that even when in repose his face was inclined to be formidable and his eye not the sort of eye you would willingly catch. And now his face was far from being in repose. His eyes, beneath their beetling brows, seared my very soul. In order to get away from them, I averted my gaze and found myself encountering that of the butler. His eyes were shining with a doglike devotion. For some reason which I was unable to understand, I appeared to have made his day.
I know now what the reason was. I suppose he had heard that story build up like a glacier and rumble to its conclusion at least fifty times, probably more, and I had killed it.
He'd bought me the current issue of Bird Watching, with a cassette tape of the autumn calls of British birds.
After a few minutes rest, he was off again, walking down Craven Hill Road to Paddington Station (camera in hand).
When he returned, we went off to dinner at a nice little Greek restaurant he had found nearby. One of the landmarks he pointed out to me was a new apartment building called Spire House. On our London map, there's an old church there. The church is now gone, except for the spire and portions of the front wall, which have been incorporated into the front wall of the apartment building.
After dinner, we studied the theatre and birding situations and made our plans for the next few days.
Once I was shod, we were off and running, going here and there to buy the tickets we'd settled on. After lunch on the South Bank, we walked back across the river (the weather is still amazingly balmy for this time of year) and then headed to Bloomsbury for a serious raid on Dillon's bookshop.
By evening, we were back on the South Bank at the National Theatre for a delightful performance of Sheridan's The School for Scandal, which we enjoyed thoroughly. (When this play was first performed in 1777, Charles Lamb wrote, "Amidst the mortifying circumstances attendant upon growing old, it is something to have seen The School for Scandal in its glory.")
Sheridan, in addition to writing plays, owned the Drury Lane Theatre (which he bought from Garrick) and was a member of Parliament. He was ruined financially when the theatre burned, but it is said that he sat in a coffeehouse watching the fire, and when a friend commented on his calm, replied, "A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine at his own fireside".
In London ... you have plays performed by good actors. That, however, is, I think, the only advantage London has over Philadelphia.
Benjamin Franklin, 1786
The train hadn't gone far before we began seeing white rock in the railroad cuts, the chalk that underpins so much of the south of England.
Lee kept spotting pheasants and mentioning them just as it was too late for me to see them, so I finally gave up on reading and joined him in watching the lovely countryside go by.
A rental car was waiting when we got to Salisbury, and we headed off south with barely a nod to the famous cathedral, which has its spire swathed in scaffolding just now.
It was a warm, sunny day, and there were flowers, especially roses and dahlias, blooming in front of almost every house we passed. The countryside here is so beautiful and so uncluttered! Though there are almost no wild areas or woodlots, the fields are very tidy and green and almost all bordered by hedgerows rather than fences. There were no billboards along the roads and no suburban sprawl outside the towns.
We kept passing through charming little villages where almost all the buildings were clearly very old. Most were of a sandy-colored stone, and many had thatched roofs. Their stone walls hugged the road and made it very narrow.
We soon realized that any time we passed a field of corn stubble we'd be able to spot pheasants feeding. There were lots of other birds, too, including magpies who scolded us for disturbing their peace.
What really made us know that we weren't in New Jersey anymore, however, were the rotaries. NJ has a zillion traffic circles, of course, but culturally they're an entirely different phenomenon. And it's not just that one goes around them in the opposite direction. As I understand it, the law in NJ is that "local custom" determines which car has the right of way in a traffic circle. (One of our colleagues has suggested that in the Princeton area this means that the most expensive car has the right of way.) The result, of course, is pretty chaotic, and often means that cars in the circle had best yield to those entering the circle unless they want to be destroyed. So, during the first part of our drive today, Lee approached the rotaries with a good deal of caution. After a while, however, it became clear that he was exasperating the other drivers. (Some even went so far as to honk softly.) It all worked much better when he concluded that he could just go with the flow and count on the other drivers to do the right thing.
We hadn't been driving long when we spotted our first chalk hill-figures. For millennia, Britons have been incising enormous figures on hills by scraping away the thin layer of sod and soil above the underlying chalk. These figures, which can be seen for miles, must be rescraped (or "scoured") every so often (traditionally every seven years), so that they don't become overgrown.
The first figures we came to were all from World War I. Called the Fovant Badges, they were created by soldiers from around the British Commonwealth who were stationed in this area for training. There are insignia of eleven regiments, as well as a huge map of Australia. (The Australian troops are remembered by the local people as having been particularly unruly.)
We stopped in the beautiful old town of Shaftesbury for lunch. (This is Thomas Hardy country--Shaftesbury is the Shaston of his novels.) The town was founded by Saxons, who were attracted to the site by the steep 100-foot escarpments on three sides. Many very old buildings remain. Lee was pleased to have a chance to photograph the street known as Gold Hill, a row of very picturesque houses plummeting down the escarpment, with a beautiful green valley (Blackmoor Vale) visible beyond them. We had an excellent meal in an old inn that had ceilings so low that Lee was in constant danger of concussion.
The thatched roofs we've been seeing all day are really intriguing. It's clear that the craft of thatching is still practiced with great skill and pride of craftsmanship. It appears, too, that there is some competition in the creation of decorative touches. There is an additional layer of thatch put over ridgelines and extending down a couple of feet; the lower edges of this layer are often trimmed to form scallops, zigzags, etc. Often, too, there is a bird figure (we've seen geese, swans, and pheasants) of wood or thatch or wire perched on the peak of the roof. One unfortunate trend is to enclose thatched roofs in a sort of "hairnet" of fine-mesh chicken wire, although this doesn't actually look as bad as it sounds.
On our way again, we soon came to one of the really old hill-figures, the Cerne Abbas Giant, an enormous nude male (more than 200 feet tall) holding an upraised club in one hand. (Postcards of the Giant are said to be the only pornographic material the British Post Office is willing to handle--he is certainly well endowed, but a man with such a small head couldn't possibly be bright enough to be truly interesting.)
The Giant probably dates to the Bronze Age, and he has been rescoured all these centuries by local people, despite periods when he was viewed as an affront to public morals. (He has also been subjected to a number of pranks over the years. In one case he was given an enormous brown-paper figleaf, and in another students armed with cans of green paint and white paint subjected him to a sex-change operation.)
In times of drought, it can be seen that he was once accompanied by a dog (chalk figures that have become overgrown have thinner soil than the areas around them, so the grass on them dries out and turns brown sooner). There were also once some letters between his feet and something hanging from his right hand. It is thought that he may have been converted to a figure of Hercules during the Roman occupation and that a lion's skin hanging from the right hand was added then. (Naturally, when the Romans left, the local people let the figure revert to its pre-Roman form.)
In the meadow in front of the Giant, we saw some sheep, with three sweet little lambs among them, and the lambs were definitely gambolling. The scene would have been more purely pastoral, however, had the lambs not had blue numerals spray-painted on their sides. (Number 15 was the bounciest.)
We continued on south and got to the sea at Weymouth. Weymouth looked just like Jane Austen told me it would. We didn't stop, but went right through and across a causeway to the Isle of Portland, a low, treeless peninsula pitted with quarries from which Portland Stone (a limestone) has long been extracted (e.g., for building St. Paul's Cathedral). (Portland is the Isle of Slingers in Hardy.)
Our destination was the Bill of Portland, the very tip of the peninsula, which sticks miles out into the sea. Starting from near the newer of the two lighthouses, we hiked around the Bill until the sun had nearly set, enjoying spectacular views of the sky and the sea and seeing quite a few birds, hearing more, and identifying a few, including Pied Flycatchers. From the highest points in our hike, we could look back toward the mainland and get a good view of the white seacliffs lit by the setting sun.
It was long after dark when we got back to Salisbury, where we stopped for a very good dinner of "tavern fare". (Lee concluded his meal with apple-raspberry crepes topped with clotted cream.)
Reinforced, we drove off to find the little town of Middle Wallop, which is located between Nether Wallop and Over Wallop. We're staying in Fifehead Manor, a former nunnery, portions of which date from the 11th Century. We have a lovely large room, elegantly decorated in apricot and pearl grey, with windows overlooking a very pretty rose garden.
This timeline may help with what follows:
------------------------------------------------------------------------- 4000BC 3500BC 3000BC 2500BC 2000BC 1500BC 1000BC 500BC Early Late Early Late Early Iron Neolithic Neolithic Bronze Age Bronze Age Age -------------------------------------------------------------------------
We began the day with Stonehenge!
As we drove toward it, I was looking backward at some barrows Lee had pointed out, when we came over the crest of a hill and he called out, "There's Stonehenge!"
What a sight!
We'd been warned that people are often disappointed by their first view of Stonehenge, because they'd expected it to be larger. Fortunately, we neither had that reaction at all. I've read that it used to be customary to take guests up to Stonehenge in a coach with the curtains drawn and not to open the curtains until the coach was inside the circle. That gave people the most dramatic possible first experience of Stonehenge. These days, however, one is not allowed inside the circle at all, but we still found Stonehenge to be tremendously moving.
Nowadays, you enter Stonehenge via the carpark, which is placed nicely below grade, so that it isn't visible from near the stones. A tunnel goes from the entrance gate under the road up to the monument. You are treated to a history in pictographs while passing through the tunnel. Coming up out of the tunnel, you suddenly get the standing stones full blast.
In every direction, there are rolling green hills topped with barrows and being grazed by sheep. It's nice to stop to remember that the barrows were all once snow-white, before the grass grew back on them, as were the ditch and embankment around Stonehenge itself.
Walking slowly back and forth around the stones was a great pleasure. There weren't very many other people there and they were all quiet, so it was easy to edit them out. (It wasn't quiet, however, because there were many Jackdaws flying about and calling.) The light mist was just the right sort of weather to be seeing Stonehenge in, though I'd like to have been able to see it by moonlight too.
Despite all the pictures I'd seen, I was still struck upon seeing it by the incredible workmanship, especially in the one remaining run of three contiguous lintels. The lintels are not straight slabs, but are curved to fit the circle. They are fitted to the uprights with mortise-and-tenon joints and to one another by tongue-and-groove joints. The stones that haven't been vandalized still fit so well that one can't see light between them.
It was a pleasure, too, to be able to stand along the axis of the monument and imagine the sun rising over the Heel Stone at the Midsummer Solstice. It seems well proved that the stones were oriented to the solstice and even that they were realigned over the long life of the monument to compensate for the drift in the position of the solstice sunrise. However, I've decided to disbelieve the more complicated astronomical theories, after reading of a tongue-in-cheek demonstration of how to use Stonehenge to calculate the dates of Easter and Passover (which actually works!).
We were pleased to be able to make out the beginning of the "Avenue", the road that led from the entrance along the axis down into the next valley.
A very short history of Stonehenge:
After much gazing and photographing, we reluctantly made our way back through the tunnel and out to the carpark. We got there in time to see the "Official Picket" setting up for the day. This was a young man dressed as a Druid or Celt or some such. His "Official Picket" sign was hung from a big sword stuck into the ground. He was trying to persuade people not to pay to enter Stonehenge, because Stonehenge belongs to the people. Personally, I'm happier with having the stones protected; a century ago visitors regularly came armed with hammers to chip off pieces as souvenirs.
After leaving Stonehenge, we drove a couple of miles to "Woodhenge", the site of a very large circular building dating from about 2300 BC. Woodhenge is one of the many prehistoric sites discovered as the result of aerial photography. The ditch and embankment that once surrounded the building had long since been plowed almost level with the surrounding ground, but a 1925 photograph showed six concentric rings of dark spots in a crop of wheat. (The soil here is so thin that crops grow much better over silted-in holes; archaeologists have learned to read these "crop marks".) These dark spots were determined to be above holes made for large wooden posts that are most reasonably interpreted as having held up the (probably thatched) roof of a building. The grave of a three-year-old child was found in the middle of the structure. It is thought that this may have been a dedicatory burial; if so, it is one of the few pieces of evidence for human sacrifice in Neolithic Britain. The postholes are now marked by concrete posts, and there is a flint cairn over the grave.
As we drove on, we continued to see more and more barrows, and there were many other Neolithic sites that we just couldn't stop to visit.
The villages in this area seem to be as old as the ones we saw yesterday but they are mostly of red brick, rather than stone. There are even more thatched roofs than yesterday and at least as many roses.
Driving along, we passed the Pewsey White Horse, which was carved in 1937 to replace an earlier horse that had become overgrown. (Horses seem to be the most common hill figures. There have also been Red Horses in areas with clay soil.)
Shortly after that, our road crossed the Kennet and Avon Canal. We stopped to go down the steps next to the red brick bridge and walk along the canal for a bit. There were several canal boats anchored along the edges of the canal just short of a turning basin. The brick arch of the bridge, a utilitarian object designed by an engineer, no doubt, was wonderfully graceful from below.
Much of Salisbury Plain in now devoted to military installations, and we found the frequent "Tank Crossing" signs along the roads to be a good deal less charming than the "Lyrebird Crossing" signs we remember from Australia, but they did bring to mind the delightful Flanders and Swann song about the armadillo who fell in love with a rusting armored tank abandoned on manuveurs on Salisbury Plain.
Early in the afternoon, we reached Avebury, another mind-bending circle of huge standing stones surrounded by a ditch and an embankment, but very different from Stonehenge. The first earthwork at Avebury was done about 500 years after the first earthwork at Stonehenge, during the period when Stonehenge was abandoned. Avebury is on a much vaster scale, however. The diameter of the earthwork is about 500 yards, almost five times the diameter of Stonehenge's earthwork, and the ditch is much deeper. Indeed, the Avebury circle is so large that part of the village is built inside it.
The two stone circles are also very different from one another, although Avebury's stones are also sarsens dragged from Marlborough Downs 9 miles away. The stones of the Avebury circle were not "dressed" but were left their original shape and were not surmounted by lintels. The stones are free standing, widely spaced in a circle near the ditch. (There are smaller circles in the middle of the site, as well.)
The Avebury monument was completed by about 2000 BC and remained mostly unchanged until the first half of the 12th Century, when the people of Avebury were led to attempt to destroy the stone circles, viewing them as the work of the Devil. Over a period of two centuries, many stones were pushed over into pits and buried, but many were re-erected in the 1930's through the efforts of the wealthy heir of a marmalade business. One of the restored stones is now called the Barber Stone, because in 1938 when the (35-ton) stone was raised from the pit into which it had been pushed, the skeleton of an itinerant barber-surgeon was found crushed beneath it. The barber's iron scissors were found beside him, as was his pouch containing coins dating to about 1320.
In the 17th Century, more stones were pulled down, but to be used for building materials or to make ploughing easier. Today, it's very obvious, looking at the "avenue" of two parallel rows of standing stones leading from the Avebury Circle to the Sanctuary (a site very similar to Woodhenge) a mile-and-a-half away, that the gaps begin and end at property lines defining cultivated fields.
We spent about half an hour walking in the Circle, enjoying the contrast of the bright green sod and the massive tan stones. We were accompanied mainly by sheep and Jackdaws. Two workmen, who wanted to put a bright orange barrier up around one of the stones, waited politely while Lee finished photographing it and then apologized for "ruining the view".
Later we walked around the village for a while, savouring the nice old houses. Before leaving, we visited a crafts display in the village and bought a beautiful little ammonite fossil, polished on one side and left natural on the other. (They had some even more beautiful, really huge ammonite fossils, too, but even though I once "collected" a piece of Middle Devonian coral reef that took five men to carry--I'll never forget Lee's saying hopefully, "You're kidding, aren't you?", when I suggested it would look splendid in our garden--I balked at the idea of having to carry one of these huge ammonites about with us for the rest of our trip.)
Leaving Avebury, we drove a short distance to Silbury Hill, an enormous artificial hill covering about 6 acres and thought to have been as much work to build as Stonehenge. It's not just a pile of dirt; underneath the smooth surface there is a stone construction rather like a step pyramid, but round. Silbury dates from about 2750 BC and is of unknown purpose. (If it's a tomb, none of the excavators have been able to find the burial.) Archaelogists have determined, however, that the work was begun in late summer, because the ants in the sod underneath it all had grown wings for their late summer mating flights, just before being squashed under a 40-meter pile of chalk. (The sod had been cropped short by grazing sheep.)
Nothing taller than Silbury Hill stood anywhere in prehistoric Europe.
At the end of the afternoon, we managed to work in one Iron Age site, the Danebury hillfort, once home to a group of about 300 Celts. It's located at the top of a 469-foot-high chalk hill, the top of which was extensively reworked to form two massive rings of embankments. Anyone who wished to enter could either scale the steep embankments at the mercy of the defenders on top or go peaceably through the gate that was approached via a twisty little passage in the embankments, also at the mercy of the defenders on top.
Danebury has been extensively excavated by an Oxford professor and there are discreet signs here and there explaining the uses to which each area was put. Mostly, however, it is just a quiet wooded hilltop. We saw only two other people while we were walking about the ramparts working out for ourselves how the inhabitants had lived.
This was really the first chance we've had to stroll in a woods. There were many birds; it would have been a lovely place to spend an afternoon quietly birding.
On our way down the hill, I stopped at a place where a new sign had been put up and gathered up a small piece of chalk for our rock collection. (I was able to buy a small piece of bluestone at Stonehenge this morning, too.)
We got back to our inn just in time to shower and change for dinner. (The towel rack in our bathroom is cunningly tied into the radiator, so that the towels are deliciously warm.)
The meal was extraordinary. I think I shall remember the chocolate mousse (and the entire day) for the rest of my life.
Documentary references to the Uffington horse go back at least 900 years, but it may well be much older than that. The highly-stylized horse figure is similar to horses on Iron Age coins, and the horse itself is just below an Iron Age hillfort called Uffington Castle. However, archaeologists argue for both earlier (Bronze Age) and later (Saxon) origins, too. But it hardly matters--the figure is very old and very lovely.
Horses, always horses! How the horse dominated the mind of the early races, especially of the Mediterranean! You were a lord if you had a horse. Far back, far back in our dark soul the horse prances.While at White Horse Hill, we finally got a pheasant to let us close enough to get a really good look. It stood still for a minute or more not more than six feet away from us. A few minutes later, Lee spotted another one and tried stalking it with his camera, but when he got almost close enough for a good picture, it ran off and hid way down deep in a ditch full of brush and wouldn't come out again (though we could hear it rattling around down there).
D.H. Lawrence, 1930
We were soon back in civilization, in the midst of Salisbury trying to find a place to park. We ultimately gave up, drove to the train station, returned our rental car, and took a cab to the Cathedral Close, a large walled area (the equivalent of several square blocks) containing the Cathedral itself, the extensive lawns that surround it, and a number of houses, some dating back to the 14th Century. One enters the Close through a very interesting medieval gate.
The Cathedral is acknowledged to be the finest example of English Gothic, and it was built in only thirty-eight years, beginning in 1220.
It is certainly very beautiful, but unfortunately the exterior, like those of many of Europe's other great limestone buildings, has been very extensively damaged by acid rain. Some of the sculptures are no more than faceless lumps now, and the exterior stone is so eroded in general that one almost expects to find scree slopes at the base of the walls. (In fact, there did seem to be quite a few pieces of gravel there, but I assume they sweep them up.) We were told that much of the stone on the spire (at 404 feet, the tallest in England) is so corroded that one can poke a finger through it.
I don't like to think about the people who levered so many of the lentils off the sarsen ring at Stonehenge (so they'd smash to the ground and break up into pieces suitable to use as building stone), but seeing this Cathedral in such a state is even more heartbreaking.
The Cathedral is being repaired, but it looks like an almost hopeless task. One hopes they'll at least be able to stabilize the spire before it can collapse.
The interior, on the other hand, is in excellent condition and is really marvelous, very light, very uncluttered. One can see the entire length of the building to the radiant blue contemporary stained glass windows (on the theme of Prisoners of Conscience) behind the main altar. (The original windows were removed by a misguided 18th Century "restorer", who also tore down the belltower.)
The building is obviously greatly cherished today. One sees this not only in the desperate efforts to raise money for repairs (for two pounds you can engrave your signature on a piece of lead sheet that will later be part of the new roof), but also in the stunning modern embroideries of the altar hangings and in the many examples of modern calligraphy that adorn the interior. (Both the embroideries and the calligraphy made me feel like a country bumpkin.)
There were, of course, many very interesting tombs. The one that made the greatest impression on me was that of the first man to be buried in the Cathedral, William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury, bastard son of Henry II, and witness to the signing of the Magna Carta. (The Cathedral owns one of the four extant copies of the Magna Carta.)
Another interesting sight: England's oldest clock (still working), built in 1386.
Before leaving the Cathedral, we stopped in the gift shop and got a videotape about the restoration effort and also a reproduction of a stone ceiling boss from the Cloisters, all dragons and daemons, carved from stone removed from the Cathedral during the repairs.
We walked around the Close for a while, admiring the houses and their rose gardens and then went to the Wiltshire Museum, which is also in the Close and which contains many of the finds from excavations at Stonehenge and the surrounding barrows.
One interesting item in the exhibit was a piece of one of the Stonehenge sarsens in which the broken off tip of a deer-antler tool was still embedded.
I keep being surprised at how beautiful the highly polished late Neolithic stone tools and weapons are and at how primitive the pottery is and at how dramatic the change was when, after not so many centuries, suddenly there was bronze and a tremendous increase in wealth and artistry, and the graves contained splendid gold artifacts (and more weapons than ever before).
The Museum also has on display quite a few works of art dealing with Stonehenge, ranging from Punch cartoons to a highly melodramatic Turner watercolor of a shepherd and his flock killed by lightning striking the stones. (Shepherds and sheep are mandatory in any painting of Stonehenge.)
Leaving the Close, we walked back to the train station, stopping here and there to admire the wonderful flower gardens. We got back to London (and back to Lancaster Gate) too late to do much besides have dinner at a little Indian restaurant nearby and fall into bed.
Let us build so great a Church to the glory of God that those who come after us will think us mad even to have attempted it.
Dean and Chapter of Seville
July 8, 1401
One of the things I read was a little book about pheasants. Reading it, I suddenly realized that while we were out in the country we never once spotted a female pheasant. There were probably as many females as males, but their camouflage was too good for us. Rats!
Lee was out and about all day (as you might have guessed). When he returned, he told of seeing the Albert Memorial, Royal Albert Hall, Imperial College, Kensington Palace, and the Orangery.
Walking through the park, he had seen a man pulling a large model ship (on a little trailer), so he had followed him to the Model Basin and photographed him launching his beautiful model.
He'd also tried, with no success, to photograph a cute little bird that turned out (after he'd looked through our British bird books) to be a Robin (a small grey bird with a bright chestnut patch on the front of its chest, totally unrelated to our American Robins).
Late in the afternoon, off we went to the National Theatre for an early dinner and a lecture by Douglas Adams (author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).
The audience for the lecture was liberally sprinkled with HH fans. One near us was wearing the souvenir T-shirt from Disaster Area's most recent concert tour. Another was passing out membership forms for ZZ9-Plural-Z-Alpha, the Hitch-Hicker's Guide to the Galaxy Appreciation Society. (I've extra copies, if you want one.)
Adams was there to promote his new book, Last Chance to See..., but did such a soft sell that he almost forgot to mention that the book exists. What he talked about was saving animals from extinction (also the topic of the book).
This was a subject he said he'd never thought much about, other than a sort of general feeling that it was too bad that plants and animals are going extinct, up until The Observer sent him to Madagascar to write about a very rare lemur. Although he didn't say so, I assume that they were inspired to send him by this passage from So Long And Thanks for All the Fish:
He tried to think nice thoughts about lemurs instead, which was exactly the right thing to do because he couldn't at the moment remember precisely what a lemur was, if it was one of those things that sweep in great majestic herds across the plains of wherever it was or if that was wildebeests...After much struggle, he and the biologist The Observer sent with him finally found one of the lemurs. The first time they saw it, they had only a 10-second glimpse, but that transformed Adams. Since then, he has been going around the world tracking down rare species and hopes that by writing about his experiences in an amusing way he can get more people interested in what he calls "the twig problem".
Lemurs are very easy going, he said, and they survive today only in Madagascar because Madagascar broke off from Gondwanaland before the monkeys had evolved. Monkeys are very different from lemurs--they're adventurous and competitive and they do things with twigs. The monkeys outcompeted the lemurs in the rest of Gondwanaland, but the lemurs were safe in Madagascar until about 1200 years ago, when "due to great advances in twig technology", the monkeys (ourselves) got to Madagascar and began outcompeting the lemurs there, too.
What he feels we need to do to address the twig problem is for humanity to go through one more step in our progressive "humiliation" of the last few centuries, i.e. the process of learning first that we don't live in a geocentric universe and then learning that we don't even live in a heliocentric universe, but rather that we live on "an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet" "far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm" of what is just another galaxy.
The next lesson we must absorb is that the little blue-green planet doesn't belong to us either.
He told of seeing Komodo Dragons and the Kakapo, "the world's largest, fattest, and least-able-to fly" parrot, as well as the lemurs.
He ended up on the note that we have no right to play God and decide that certain species are of no use (to us) and can be dispensed with. "We are currently tossing three species a day off the planet." He was momentarily boggled at that point when a member of the audience asked him whether we should save the smallpox bacterium. After a struggle with himself, he replied, "No".
Then, to the great delight of the audience, Adams read the scene in which Marvin the Paranoid Android talks the Frogstar Scout Robot Class D into shooting away the floor it's standing on. He played the three parts, the narrator and both robots, in three different voices, and it was truly memorable.
After the lecture, we lined up outside for the book signing, and we actually got to chat with Adams for a moment or two. He had mentioned during his lecture that he's recently read (and really liked) Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (he suggested that Meryll Streep should play the Origin of Consciousness when they make the film). Our being from Princeton led to a bit of chat about Jaynes, during which I politely didn't tell him what a completely wrong-headed book I think it is. At any rate, since Lee and I both went through the line, we ended up with one copy of Adams' new book autographed "to Melinda" and another "to Jim" for our eldest nephew.
As soon as we got through the line, we had to rush back into the theatre, because we had tickets for a performance of David Hare's new play Racing Demon, which is about an Anglican vicar in a London parish that has a mostly Jamaican population. It was very touching and very funny. We both really liked it. (I think my favorite line from the play was one spoken by one of the other priests, slightly tipsy from unaccustomed Tequila, who, when he was asked whether the Archbishop had arrived, replied, "No, I don't think so. I haven't heard the clanging of brass balls.")
What the museum had on display was a cast of the real fossil, of course, but that was OK. The thing that struck me immediately was that all these years I've been carrying around in my head a completely wrong idea of the size of Archaeopteryx. It's much smaller than I had imagined, about the size of a pigeon, but with longer legs and neck.
Archaeopteryx was a (probably direct) ancestor of modern birds that lived 150,000,000 years ago. It had wings much like those of modern birds, except that a couple of the fingers were still mobile and, in fact, had claws that could be used in climbing trees. It had a long tail, rather like a lizard, but feathered. Its feathers were indistinguishable from those of modern birds. It had a "wishbone" like modern birds, but had not yet evolved the sternum, so it had only a limited structure to which the pectoral muscles could attach. Thus, Archaeopteryx could probably fly, but certainly didn't have strong flapping flight.
The first Archaeopteryx fossil was found in 1860--a single, perfect feather a hundred million years older than any bird then known. The next year, a fairly complete fossil skeleton was found, with clear impressions of feathers. (This is the fossil known as the London specimen.) The fossil was so clearly that of an animal intermediate between reptiles and modern birds that its discovery two years after the publication of The Origin of Species seemed too good to be true. The following year, an even more complete, beautifully preserved (and wonderfully graceful) Archaeopteryx was found. That became known as the Berlin specimen. Since then, four other, less complete specimens have been found, all in the same lithographic limestone in Germany.
The Museum also had on display a cast of the counterpart of their fossil. (When a rock is split along a bedding plane to reveal a fossil, the "part" is the half that contains the fossil, and the "counterpart" is the half that has the impression of the fossil, which can sometimes show detail not apparent from the "part" alone.)
Even better, they had a cast of the Berlin specimen! It was as beautiful as I had known it would be (if smaller).
They also had a stuffed Archaeopteryx, or, well, a simulated stuffed Archaeopteryx, which they'd done in rather parrot-like green feathers with touches of red and blue. They'd made its teeth and the claws on its wings quite conspicuous, but it was still undeniably a bird.
While we were there, we decided to go through their extensive collection of real stuffed birds from around the world. This exhibit was very interesting, but more than a little moth-eaten, and many of the birds we knew from life were markedly faded. (One gets the feeling that the staff of the museum is doing a splendid job of holding it together with really inadequate funding.) There was one display case devoted to extinct birds. I'd never seen a Passenger Pigeon before. The Dodo on display, like the Archaeopteryx, was simulated, but still caused me a pang.
A quick lunch and a bit of book buying and we were off to the Barbican Center for the Royal Shakespeare Company's performance of Moscow Gold--A Glasnost Play. This play has apparently not been a real success, but we found it fascinating. It represents an effort on the part of its two left-wing authors to come to terms with the collapse of Communism. Though it's been described as "Gorbachev on Stage", the play actually begins before Gorbachev's era and then portrays his rise, the fall of the Wall, the Revolutions of '89, and so forth. There was a good deal of wry humor:
Q.: Is Marxism scientific?Lenin keeps dropping in to give Gorbachev advice and to plead with him to bury him decently before the crowds pull him out of his mausoleum.
A.: No, if it were they would have tried it on animals first.
The staging was very interesting, particularly the use of the machinery of the revolving stage, which was left bare and visible, and was the path through which many of the characters entered and left (suitably enough for aparatchiks).
The play ends with Gorbachev's assassination.
Then the character who plays the author stops everything and produces another ending, in which the aged Gorbachev and Raisa are pondering whether Russia should ship grain to the Americans in view of their worsening human rights record.
The play is to be taken to Moscow in a few months. One suspects that Raisa may not be pleased to see the character Raisa refer to herself as "the Czarina".
Feeling rather drained, we revived ourselves with a nice dinner at a French restaurant near Picadilly and then strolled for a while in the Leicester Square area. The roads near the square are closed off to automobiles in the evening and were full of people. We stopped in front of the Swiss Centre for the glockenspiel performance. (Up until then, I don't think I'd had a clear picture in my mind of exactly what a glockenspiel is.)
Then it was time for another play, Return to the Forbidden Planet, which is billed as "Shakespeare's lost rock masterpiece". This was pretty light-weight stuff, but still amusing, an amalgam of Shakespeare dialogue and the great rock music of the past, wrapped around a space fiction plot. It made a good contrast to the afternoon, and we enjoyed ourselves.
As we were walking from the tube station to the Zoo, I spotted an office of Hotblack Desiato, the real estate agents. Naturally, I asked Lee to take a picture of this Hitchhiker's landmark:
I had this appalling overblown rockstar character, and I couldn't come up with a name for him. Then I saw an estate agent's board up outside a house. Well, I nearly crashed my car with delight! I couldn't get the name Hotblack Desiato out of my mind. Eventually I phoned them up and said, "Can I use your name? I can't come up with anything nearly as good!" They said fine. It hasn't done them any harm, except it's terribly unfair, as people keep phoning them up and saying, "Come on, it's a bit cheeky, nicking a name from Hitchhiker's to call your estate agents by, isn't it?" And they were a bit upset, when I moved back to England, that I didn't buy my house from them.Since we've been in London, there have been articles in the newspapers about the Zoo's extreme financial distress. In fact, things are so bad that they are developing a plan for dispersing a substantial portion of their collection to other zoos. This is really a pity, especially in light of the very good job they are doing in breeding rare animals. My strongest impression of our visit was of the signs in front of enclosure after enclosure giving the birthdates of the baby birds or animals on display there. (Over 100 endangered or vulnerable species are involved in the Zoo's breeding programs. They've already succeeded in reintroducing some species into the wild, among them Pere David's Deer bred in England and now reintroduced in China.)
Douglas Adams, 1988
We went first to the Snowdon Aviary, a wonderful big walkthrough aviary. We spent about an hour there, leaning this way and that from the pedestrian bridge, trying to spot all the kinds of birds kept there:
We didn't find the Andean Terns until feeding time. Then, all of a sudden, there was one sitting on the bridge railing a few feet away from us, just asking to have his picture taken. He was a handsome dark brown bird with a big red bill and dramatic white "eyebrows" of feathers extending beyond his head. After a while, we spotted another carrying some food up into the steel beams that support the wire mesh roof. Soon the one we'd been watching followed. Going closer, we saw that they have a nest at a junction of the beams. There was some grass hanging out one side and a tail hanging out the other. Judging from the tail, which was all we could make out, their baby is just about grown. It was an exceedingly precarious nest, but probably no worse than the nest they'd have on a cliff face in the wild. This seems to have been an unofficial baby; at least there is not yet a sign about it.
The rest of the Zoo's aviaries were equally intriguing. They have an emphasis on African and Southeast Asian birds, with a very complete collection of pheasants and a very good collection of owls. (They have more than 300 species of birds in all.) My only disappointment was that I'd been hoping to see a Hoopoe (a fairly rare European bird, a large tan bird with striking black-and-white striped wings and a very tall black-and-tan crest), but there were none anywhere (except on the cover of Salman Rushdie's new book). We've yet to see a European Goldfinch either, but that's probably our fault--at least there was an aviary that claimed to house Goldfinches, though we couldn't spot them.
The day had started out warm enough that Lee was in shirtsleeves, but the temperature plummeted through the morning. We stopped at one point to buy him a handsome London Zoo windbreaker and then warmed ourselves with good home-made casseroles in their cafeteria. That kept us going for long enough to visit a few more aviaries and to see the baby Black-footed Penguins (6 and 8 days old) in their incubator. (All but one of the Zoo's dozens of penguins were born here.) At the stork and heron aviary, we watched two wild Grey Herons try repeatedly to get in through the wire mesh roof. Across the way was a Bateleur Eagle and her almost grown chick, who is the only one known ever to have been raised by a single parent.
By the middle of the afternoon, it had grown so cold that we finally gave up and caught a taxi back to our hotel without having seen the last two aviaries (flamingos and pelicans). I left still feeling sorry for the mother gibbon we'd seen sheltering her baby from the cold wind high up at the top of her cage.
After a nap huddled beneath all the blankets, we spent a quiet evening, eating pizza and writing postcards. We're still wondering whether the keepers at the Zoo have found their Golden Mongoose. (His open enclosure was definitely empty, but we're pretty sure that's who we saw curled up asleep in the dry moat around the elephant compound.)
We'd never been through the rooms devoted to British prehistory, so we decided to spend most of our time there. The collection of Neolithic and Bronze Age artifacts is extensive and impressive. One of the real beauties is the Rillaton Cup, a wonderful little gold cup dated to about 1500 BC that was found in a burial mound in Cornwall. The cup was beaten out from a single ingot of gold and corrugated to give it strength. Its graceful shape is similar to the beakers of the Beaker People of that period. When it was found in 1837, the cup was declared to be "treasure trove", which meant it belonged to the King. It was finally given to the Museum on permanent loan, after Queen Mary was shown an engraving of it and remembered that George V had used it to hold his collar studs.
There is also an extensive display of items from Roman Britain, including the body of the Lindow Man, the celebrated sacrificial victim whose body was preserved by natural tanning after it was thrown into a peat bog.
The part of the Roman Britain display I found most interesting was the collection of wooden writing tablets discovered in 1973 in Vindolanda near Hadrian's Wall. The 200 tablets, the oldest group of written documents yet found in Britain, date from about 100 AD. They were in a military camp, but include both official business and private letters of officers and enlisted men. (The first found was a letter to a soldier from a faraway relative listing the items of clothing she was sending to him.) The tablets are very thin (1-2 mm) sheets of wood. The writing is in ink, in some cases in very elegant calligraphy. Nothing like them had been found before, and new preservation methods had to be developed very quickly once they were found, because the ink started fading as soon as it was exposed to light. Archaeologists believe that there are many more tablets waiting to be discovered as soon as further work can be funded.
(The archaeologist who found the Vindolanda tablets thought at first he had found a pile of wood shavings. Then he saw the writing on the wood. "If I have to spend the rest of my life working in dirty, wet trenches, I doubt whether I shall ever again experience the shock and excitement I felt at my first glimpse of ink heiroglyphics on tiny scraps of wood".)
We had allowed some time for re-visiting old favorites, too. For me that meant the Assyrian exhibits. I've been in love with Assyrian art since I was a teenager, and there's no place better to see it. In the 19th Century, Britons working under dreadful conditions looted an incredible collection of massive stone sculptures from Assyria. (One can be glad they did, given that local authorities at the time were burning the huge gympsum sculptures to make plaster.) So now, the Museum has rooms full of enormous human-headed winged bulls and wonderful reliefs showing lion hunts, foreigners bearing tribute, and, of course, many battle scenes. (My very favorite is the relief of foreigners from the west bringing apes to the king, from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II.)
On an entirely different scale, there is a room full of exquisite little ivories from Nimrud, mostly panels that once decorated furniture. These are in a variety of styles, Assyrian, Phoenician, Babylonian. (There is even a panel showing Assyrian soldiers looting such furniture from a defeated city.) Most of the panels were found cast aside in burnt palaces, left behind by looters who had torn the furniture apart to get the gold fittings.
One disappointment was that the new exhibit of the origin of writing was not yet open. I assume that this will show the progression of:
Lee's choice of a place to visit again was the Magna Carta display. The Museum has two of the four extant copies, one of which was badly charred in a fire a few centuries ago (and its huge wax seal reduced to a blob). The same display case includes the Papal Bull that was issued a few months after the Magna Carta annulling it and threatening excommunication of anyone who tried to enforce it.
In the next row over was a display case we hadn't seen before, titled "Beatles Loan". It contained the original manuscripts for the lyrics of Help, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Yesterday, Ticket to Ride, and others, in John's and Paul's handwriting, some obviously written on the back of scrap paper. There was a nice commentary in the display that said that many of these songs will be sung and hummed as long as there are humans. I suppose the Assyrians thought that, too, of course, but maybe we really will have continuity of our culture from now on, if we can manage to survive at all.
After some rather extensive book buying in the Museum bookshop, we visited the giftshop, where I resolutely did not buy the wonderful red cat carrier with black Egyptian heiroglyphics in adoration of cats.
After resting at our hotel for a while, we headed off to the theatre district for dinner and a performance of Les Miserables. It was beautifully staged, and we enjoyed it thoroughly.
Over the past couple of days I've been gobbling down a really interesting new book about Supernova 1987A (Supernova: the Violent Death of a Star, Donald Goldsmith, Oxford University Press, 1990). It was rather pleasing (as a minor member of the anonymous hordes who sometimes must spend their nights and weekends struggling to keep our fragile network hung together) to come across this passage:
Bahcall was emerging from two of the most intense weeks in his life, two weeks filled with calculations, hopes, rumors, and finally confirmed reports. The calculations dealt with the number of neutrinos produced by a supernova, of the number of neutrinos that might reach the Earth, of the efficiency of the Earth's neutrino detectors. Bahcall had heard about the supernova on February 24, a few hours after Brian Marsden had given Kirshner the news. Most of the scientists who work in universities or university-affiliated research institutions routinely send messages to one another via "Bitnet", a national electronic computer linkage system that allows each of the thousands of users to send messages ("electronic mail") to whomever they choose. (The name refers to the "bits" of information that computers process, but arose, with typical computer humor, as the acronym for "because it's there".) For two weeks, Bitnet had become Bahcall's line of consciousness, as he sent and received message after message to and from those in the "neutrino game", using the telephone only for his most complex interactions with his fellow scientists.Early in the afternoon, we headed off to the South Bank for a performance of Arthur Miller's somewhat autobiographical play, After the Fall. It was really well done, very gripping. Maggie, the "Marilyn Monroe part", was played quite touchingly by a beautiful young black woman named Josette Simon. (Of the several British actresses whom we've seen doing nude scenes over the years, she was the only one who managed to do it without looking embarrassed.) Miller says that one of the motivations for Maggie's death in the play (of an overdose of sleeping pills) was to separate her in his mind from Monroe. But then, just as he was finishing the play, Monroe died in the same way.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this production was the set. The stage was bare and black and almost completely filled with a graceful black conical spiral. Since the play is almost constant flashbacks, this allowed the characters to appear quickly at different levels of the spiral and disappear as quickly. It was very effective.
We had an elegant dinner before a window overlooking the Thames and then walked to the Old Vic for a performance of Sartre's Kean, or Disorder and Genius. Sartre's work is a rewrite of an earlier play of the same name by Alexandre Dumas pere. It is about the great early 19th Century Shakespearean actor, Edmund Kean, a man of unsurpassed extravagance and theatricality, a thoroughly lovable rogue, the despair of his servant and creditors, the darling of all the ladies.
Kean is a wonderful part. Kean and his pal the Prince of Wales are both pursuing the beautiful young wife of the Danish ambassador, while Kean is being pursued by numerous creditors and a young heiress who wishes to become an actress. (She is a disaster in the play within the play, but has the level head that Kean needs around him.)
The great French actor Frederic Lemaitre, for whom Dumas wrote the part originally, was so upset at having it played by someone else after he retired that he had posters put up all over Paris declaring, "Le veritable Kean, c'est moi". As written by Sartre, it's an even better role, because it's also very funny, and Derek Jacobi gave truly a virtuoso performance. We hated for it to end.
Then we were off to the Hayward Gallery for an exhibit of the works of the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida, massive works of stone and metal. (The Hayward had to be reinforced before it could show Chillida's works.) We both liked the exhibit very much, especially the section devoted to Chillida's large public works (portrayed via models, studies, and a videotape). Probably our favorite was a work called Wind Combs, a series of large curved prongs made of rusted steel set into rocks in the surf on the coast of Spain. (The plaza from which this work is viewed has several blowholes through which the sound of the surf can be heard. Chillida claims that the idea of creating these blowholes is the only practical idea he has ever had.)
Next came a rather bizarre performance of Moliere's Tartuffe. The story had been moved from France to India, which allowed for very colorful costumes and dancing, with lovely Indian musical instruments. Unfortunately, although it was all very imaginative, the humor had been totally lost. We were somewhat relieved when it was over.
We grabbed a quick meal and dashed off to our next event, a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut, which proved to be a delight. Vonnegut came across as a warm person and showed a nice, self-deprecating humor. He outdid Douglas Adams in soft-sell, not once mentioning that he was there to promote a new book.
His talk was divided into two sections. First came what he called An Atheist's Palm Sunday Sermon (which he had actually delivered at a church in New York). It was an attempt to explicate the text, "The poor ye shall have always with you", which he believes has been used too often to justify exploitation of others. After suggesting that there is a good likelihood that the original text was corrupted or mistranslated early on, he went on to interpret what Jesus was really saying (in response to Judas's complaint that the ointment being used on Jesus's feet should instead have been sold to raise money for the poor) as, "Don't worry about it, Judas; you'll have plenty of time to take care of the poor after I'm gone" (knowing, of course, that Judas was about to betray him).
Vonnegut then turned to a discussion of what he believes "is the basic cause of discontent in modern life", that "we've all absorbed thousands of hack stories with happy endings". He said that after he "was a great war hero", he became an anthropology student, and he read lots of stories collected by ethnographers and wondered why they were all so flat, in terms of happy or unhappy endings. He illustrated this, tongue-in-cheek, with a blackboard and chalk, drawing charts of the progress of the plots of various folktales and works of fiction. (Hamlet came out as flat as the folktales.) He concluded by saying that his grandfather, a well educated man, probably hadn't absorbed the plots of more than a hundred or two stories in the course of his life, while we are bombarded with hundreds every year, leading us to come to expect happy endings in our own lives.
In response to a question, Vonnegut said that he didn't know how a young writer today can get enough capital together to afford the free time to write (other than by inheriting or marrying it). When he was starting out, the magazines had a very high demand for short stories, which is how he financed his first novel. Today, the magazines are dead and grants are given only to "proven winners", so he feels that if he were starting out today, he would not dare marry.
After quickly getting Vonnegut's autograph on a copy of his new book Hocus Pocus, we rushed off to a performance of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. The Crucible tells the story of the Salem witchcraft trials as an analogy for the attack on the American intelligentsia by the House Un-American Activities Committee and is basically a study of the concept of "The Big Lie".
The longer I worked the more certain I felt that as improbable as it might seem, there were moments when an individual conscience was all that could keep a world from falling.The play is very moving, and this was an excellent performance, altogether stunning. I wept a great deal.
Arthur Miller, 1987
It was raining very lightly when we came out of the theatre, but we decided to walk back across the Thames one more time anyway.
We leave for home in the morning.
Love to you all,