In a cold, dark winter, when the sun breaks through and there’s a five inch patch of warmth and light on the floor, a cat will find it and lie in it as long as it lasts.
My ray of sunshine, quite unexpected, was to spend three days in London with Mr. Right, the first stretch of days we’ve had alone in years. I won’t try to say we “deserved” it, but the patch of light was there, briefly, and I’m beyond grateful that we were able to curl up in it while it lasted.
We walked a lot. We talked a lot. We thought a lot. And, long-winded though it turned out to be, this is what I want to share:
The British Museum seemed like a good place to warm up (it wasn’t) and see some cool stuff (it was!). With our hats and coats and often mittens still firmly in place, we wandered through the Assyrian wing, marveling at huge mystical beasts of stone and carved slabs bearing the portraits of brutal men deeply impressed with themselves but yet looking pretty much identical to each other. They don’t look brutal or deeply impressed with themselves, smiling and holding out their arms as if in offering, but from the waist down they are covered in regimental lines of cuneiform helpfully translated on the signs below as saying things like “I slaughtered them all and painted the hillsides red with their blood.”
We wandered the Greek statuary, admiring bathing Venus and reading with interest the British Museum’s pamphlet on “The Parthenon Controversy”, in which they calmly — although with evident discomfort — argue that it is right and just and good for the world that half the statuary from the Parthenon is housed here and not in Greece, as the Greeks would like it to be. We looked at the Rosetta stone, picking out the cartouches that enclosed the names of famous ancients, the key that broke the phonetic code of heiroglyphs.
We saw so much statuary from the Roman Empire, but I spent the whole time puzzling over where was the stuff from the Republic period? (It was only day one in London and already the weight of imperial history was starting to get me down.) And we saw a fascinating, tiny special exhibit called “Defacing the Past”, which displayed coins and statuary whose faces had been broken or scratched off to condemn the memory of hated (murdered) emperors. A custom I had never given much thought to, they point out how it persists to the modern day, with examples of Saddam Hussein’s statues attacked and Gadaffi’s face scratched off of paper currency.
In the Egyptian wing, the smooth clean lines of massive pharaoh faces struck me with their beauty and the story of a giant stone sarcophagus caught my attention: carved for the last native-born pharaoh, it was never used for burial because that pharaoh got driven into exile before his death; instead, it was used as a ritual bath in a mosque (they drilled some drainage holes in the bottom) which later became a church.
If there’s one thing I will always remember from my limited travels near the Mediterranean, it’s the way buildings were always being converted from mosques to churches and vice versa. Same with the Roman and Greek temples. We humans like to fight about our gods.
Later, at the National Portrait Gallery, I lingered at a huge painting of a dramatic scene, but failed to take a photo of the description, so this is from memory and I might have slightly garbled the details: In the sunshine, Peace is represented as a lactating mother, squirting milk from her breast into the mouth of a chubby baby Prosperity. Also enjoying the warm light and appealing greenery of the countryside, the female figures of the Arts and, I think, Justice approach Pax with smiles and arms full of good things. In the dark and stormy background, the angry god of War, sword drawn, attempts to reach Peace… but Wisdom, also in the form of a woman, fully armored, fends him off with her shield.
People have known what’s what with people for a good long while. We just haven’t got a foolproof defense yet.
When I asked Mr. P if there was anything he wanted me to bring him from London, he had said, “A picture of the Crown Jewels… and a snow globe.” (Lucky he understood the Crown Jewels themselves weren’t possible, but it turned out a postcard was the best we could do — no photography allowed. Snow globes, on the other hand, are very easy to come by.)
In search of the Crown Jewels, therefore, we walked 6 miles to the Tower of London on our second day, much of that on the river walk beside the Thames. Benches and lamp posts screamed “Empire!” through every symbol worked into their design. I raised an eyebrow in particular at the benches supported by regal resting camels.
On the other hand, at regular intervals the railing on the river side was interrupted by a portion of high stone wall with a metal bas relief plaque mounted to it. One had a portrait of the senior engineer who constructed London’s new sewers (a crucial achievement for human health and, therefore, prosperity), another honored a poet, another a journalist.
I was a little apprehensive about the Tower tour, to be honest. The whole concept of execution makes me sick, and I knew that was a big part of the Tower’s history. Turns out, it’s also the part of the Tower’s history most easily sensationalized, and which the tour guides share with gusto. Interesting, though, that the UK banned capital punishment in 1965 (we, much to our shame, have not) and that the tour guides are in fact Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary. To become one, you have to retire with honor from at least 22 years of military service. This all leads to a strange mix of stories and attitudes throughout the tour. Starting with a rich description of a typical execution day, in which the assembled tour group is heartily encouraged to play the “very loud” part of the drunken crowd shouting “Huzzah!” or “God Save the King!” as the guard mimes lifting a severed head and shouts, “Thus to all traitors!” (I refuse to play along, but I don’t think anyone noticed my silent protest.)
“At least we don't take kids to public executions as entertainment anymore,” I mutter to Mr. Right as we enter the gate for the rest of the tour. I remember realizing I was going to have to do a lot of on-the-fly editing while reading Peter Pan to the kids years ago; the first page describes the thoughts of young children drifting off to sleep, “public hangings” being listed as one among many perfectly normal bedtime thoughts.
We have come so far.
As the tour goes on, the stories get more specific and the mood gets more somber. We hear about the boy princes who were brought to the Tower by their uncle for their “safety”, then (allegedly) murdered and their bodies disappeared, although two child skeletons were discovered two hundred years later and presumed to be their remains. This is told somewhat in the manner of a ghost story, but with a strong layer of condemnation for the presumed murderous uncle, Richard III, whose own ignominious end became clearer in 2012 when his body was discovered buried beneath an asphalt parking lot.
And we hear, of course, of the wives of Henry VIII, along with several others of “noble birth” who were executed in the courtyard of the Tower, rather than on the hill outside. Curiously, the guards mention the “trumped up” charges against these women, but not the amoral character of Henry VIII himself or the issue of producing (not producing) heirs. The thing that came through most strongly — from the facts of the stories (nobles executed within the walls instead of outside) and the manner of telling (focusing on the point of view of the executed royalty here, where outside the point of view was more that of the crowd and the executioner) and the presence of a very modern memorial on the sight — was the visceral understanding that some people’s deaths at the Tower were more regrettable than others because of their social status, even as it seemed to be held as basically inevitable that their status had condemned them to death because… that’s just how power struggles worked back then.
The tour ends in the chapel a few yards from the execution site. “Gentlemen” are reminded to remove their hats, we are all asked to turn off our phones before entering and to treat the space with respect. We quietly shuffle into chairs over stones so worn that you cannot read the names, can barely even tell there were ever names there at all. We look at the alter as we are told that beneath its steps lie the murdered wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, as well as the sixteen year old “uncrowned queen” Lady Jane Grey and her eighteen year old husband, Guildford Dudley, both executed after Bloody Mary (murderous daughter of the murderous Henry VIII) seized the crown.
But our guide doesn’t want to leave us glum! He is soon back to humor, if not quite free of gore, and sends us on our way.
Which finally brings us to the Crown Jewels. Housed in a much larger exhibit than I would have expected, paid for by the diamond giant De Beers (insert tone of moral questioning here), several rooms of immersive multimedia displays are devoted to impressing on us the history and meaning of the Jewels, the coronation ceremony, and by extension the monarchy itself. What hits me most is the heavy use of Christianity, not only in symbol (I’m so used to seeing that cross on top of the crown, I might not have even noticed that), but explicitly in much of the exhibit’s explanation. The coronation ceremony is a “christian worship service of deep history”. A gleaming gold orb, encrusted with jewels and topped with a cross, is placed in the newly crowned monarch’s hand as “a symbol of christian leadership”. There are way more gold and jeweled objects than just the couple of crowns I always imagined, and there are crosses everywhere.
On the way out, special custom-made (duh) travel cases for various pieces in the collection are laid out above a reminder that the jewels are “working treasures”, used in ceremonial roles by the royals on a regular basis. Start to finish, the Crown Jewels experience feels like really expensive pro-monarchy propaganda. Interesting, though.
Then we walk through the several floors of the Tower itself, but I have to say I’m somehow disappointed that it’s all laid out as a museum, mostly of armor, with no trace of what it might have been like when people lived there (although you can step into one of the garderobes and imagine chilly royal behinds relieving themselves into the air two stories above the ground).
Finally, a walk around the circular monument in honor of the executed, which you must walk around if you want to read the inscription:
Gentle visitor pause a while, where you stand death cut away the light of many days. Here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life. May they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage under these restless skies.
Reading about the memorial just now, I find that the inscribed names include everyone executed on the site, the royalty and also the three Black Watch soldiers killed by a firing squad of their fellow soldiers for what sound like pretty thin charges of mutiny. The piece was unveiled in 2006, by which time we’d come far enough to make it possible to honor them side by side (possible, but clearly not expected, if you read the artist’s statement). As far as I can tell, though, no mention of the WW1 and WW2 spies which were the last executions within the walls. So I guess capital punishment is no longer morally acceptable, but still the historical deaths of traitors and foreigners are less regrettable than those of native criminals, which are less regrettable than those of noblemen, which are less regrettable than those of queens.
One more stop…
The Churchill Museum. In the cramped basement of the Treasury building, you can walk through the rooms where Winston and Clementine Churchill and a small committed staff lived (it feels a bit like a submarine) and worked through the war. You feel the shock of dawning modernity, with a secret transatlantic telephone to the White House hiding in a closet while decisions were made in a large technology-free room papered with maps pinned to the wall in curved array to cover the whole word, while Churchill himself and all the others slept in tiny beds next to wooden tables holding porcelain washing pitchers and the weather above ground was reported by the manual changing of wooden signs in the hallway.
A Nazi propaganda poster in the exhibit area is still clear in my mind: a thin woman slumped over a bare table, reaching for an empty bowl, surrounded by her thin worried children. A cartoon Churchill, fat and smugly chomping a cigar, leers over them from behind and a slogan in French splashes across the bottom. I can’t read it but I’m pretty sure the message was, “That nasty well-fed Churchill is starving you French people!”
It’s a dirty trick, hurting people and then telling them someone else is to blame.
So, we stayed a little too long at the war rooms and hit a crush of people on the underground which caused a little stress about getting to the airport on time, but I didn’t miss my flight so all’s well that ends well, right?
I’m listening to this really interesting book, The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, and reading a useful book called Crucial Conversations, which is how I spent most of the flight, but then I opened my phone and caught up on the tweets that had loaded before we took off. So the last hour or so I was awash in a flood of tidbits about the chaos brought on by the muslim ban. I was upset. I thought hard about how to ethically go through customs and border control during this crisis. But by the time I’d landed, I’d decided to behave as I always do, then find the protest after clearing customs. I thought I’d have to hunt for it. But as soon as I walked through the exit doors, hundreds of people were lining the walkway, chanting and waving and holding signs of love and welcome. It was the best most patriotic homecoming I have ever had.
I cannot overstate the power of seeing so many people willing to give up their time and comfort and take on unclear risk to stand up for their values and their fellow humans. This is the weirdest time I have lived through and it is seriously scary, but I am in awe of how massive numbers of us in America and around the world (London was in the streets bigly the day after we left) have reacted with love and courage and reached out to each other to fend off despair.
We always will be stronger together.