Friday, August 17, 2007
I got a good look of both San Francisco and London from above on this flight. San Francisco (well, at least the part not covered in the fog bank), is tight and compact. And the hills don't look nearly as steep when viewed from whatever thousand feet we were at. London, on the other hand, sprawls, seemingly without end, in all directions. I've flown in before several times, but didn't really notice until now exactly how immense this city is.
I'm staying with Sarah, an old college friend from Leeds University. My flight was an overnight, so I'm a little bleary, and only getting blearier as the day progresses, despite Sarah's best efforts to ladle a constant stream of black tea into me. We spend the afternoon strolling around the leafy bits of East Dulwich, including the overgrown Victorian Nunhead Cemetary. I'll go see anything Victorian. I sneak a cat nap right before tea, which allows me to stay up until around 23:00, which I really shouldn't have done, because I wake up on my second day feeling all sorts of terrible. Eye-popping headache, nausea, and sweats. Then chills. Then sweats again. I manage to drag myself out of bed to dig through my luggage to find some ibuprofen. I try wandering around the flat, including a spell perched on the edge of the bathtub, waiting for myself to throw up - it never happens. There are foxes living in the garden below the flat, so I spend some time at the kitchen window waiting for them to put on a morning appearance. That doesn't happen either, but the sunshine makes me feel slightly better. Being anything than horizontal is starting to become difficult, so I just stumble back to my clammy sleeping bag and crash out for another two hours. I don't know what I had, but it's gone by the time I wake up again. I don't feel like tempting fate by putting anything in my stomach, so I skip breakfast and caffeine - a dicey decision, since I'm hopelessly addicted to caffeine, and get enormous headaches if I don't have any. Since I've already had the enormous headache, I'm hoping it just evens out, and my skull doesn't explode. I hop on a bus to meet another college friend, Charlotte, in Covent Square Garden.
The last time I was in England was just over three years ago for Charlotte's wedding (on her grandmother's dairy farm, how nifty is that), so we have a lot of catching up to do. We wander the rooms of the National Gallery, getting yelled at by one of the staff for pointing too closely at something. This guy was taking his job seriously, because he also yelled at the next couple who looked (and pointed) at it. Protecting art is good, but he must be exhausted by the end of the day. Some day he's probably going to startle some poor sod into jerking their hand forward, rather than back. We admire the Dutch painters, wondering why they always include a dog in their work. And I visit one of my favorites here, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. Morbid subject matter aside, it's a beautiful painting. You can almost reach out and untie the laces on her bodice. I spent a lot of time at the National when I was a student, and on more recent trips. It's a great base in London - cafe, telephone, toilets, postcards, art. What more do you need?
Well, if you need modern art, then you go the Tate Modern. Right by the Thames Millennium Bridge, it's housed in an old brick power plant, dominated by one huge chimney. The enormous entryway doesn't have an installation right now, so one can appreciate the vastness of it. I think it's a rather clever design, with big steps that you can crash out on and people watch when the art has tired you out. Highlights of this trip is the room of Rothko's that were commissioned by a restaurant, but which he then withdrew. They are displayed in proximity to one another, and in the muted light that they were intended to be seen. And the Francis Bacon's - he doesn't appeal to all, but he does to me. The Modern has some particularly disturbing ones. But I didn't see any Pope's Head versions, the freakiest of them all.
And I took a picture of an enormous cheese wheel at Neal's Cheese Shop. Too bad it won't fit into my luggage. And too bad it's a crappy picture.
As evening rolls in, and Charlotte rolls out to go home, I spend some time wandering about and getting lost. Or, not getting lost; evidently all roads in London lead to Trafalger Square, because I manage to return to it three times without trying to. Actually, while trying to get somewhere else. I suppose my London navigational skills can stand for some improvement.
The next day is my final day in town for this leg. The one place I really want to go is to the temple of craft - the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The collection of the V & A would take a lifetime to scrutinize and examine. I'm going to have to do with only a few hours. Sarah and I trawl the rooms of fashion, musical instruments, ironwork, metalwork, stained glass, and furniture, and we're barely scratching the surface. After our brains are full of craft, we head to Euston for the closing hour of the Wellcome Collection of medical curios, and other oddities. Surgical instruments, a ram's head fashioned into a snuffbox. Muybridge prints, a lock of hair from mad King George (the third? don't quote me), more than one rather grim vanitas, glassware, a Chinese doctor's sign made almost entirely from strands of human teeth. I'll be going back there again.
It's worth mentioning that all these museums I visited, and so many more in London, are completely free. I don't know if I've ever seen this in the Bay Area, although I know DC's Smithsonian, the closest parallel I can think of, is free. Londoners are lucky duckies to be able to visit these objects whenever they choose, and consume the collections in nibble-sized chunks, rather than a massive brain-clogging chew. Or to be able to visit a favorite piece often. Would I go sit in front of The Execution of Lady Jane Grey once a month only to find some unseen detail I hadn't noticed before? Sure I would. Who wouldn't?
Coming up next: Gosh, Rome is hot.