New Year’s Day offers a grand parade, and we saw most of it from Piccadilly, in front of the Ritz Hotel and the Royal Academy. About half the parade was American high school marching bands with uniformed color guards and majorettes, sprinkled with a few American or state flags: Florida, Wisconsin, Virginia, Nevada—swirling one after another. (Was there a band from every state?) Brass instruments gleamed as kids high-stepped past us in nippy weather: pony tails and big smiles so distinguish them as uniquely American! American dentistry and orthodontia on display! What a wonderful fun way to fill hotels here, when a million Brits seek holiday sun and/or family fleeing the cold, and business lulls! Many aunties and siblings were in attendance in the crowded streets, bundled against raw winds.
A friend was visiting with her church choir, so I attended their St. Paul’s sung service, then met their hired coach at Victoria Embankment Gardens at towering fortress-like Thistle Hotel. Its dull gray hillside facade fronted colorful flowerbeds above the flowing River Thames filled with busy excursion boats. We drove to Canterbury with a guide: that iconic Tower Bridge, built in 1894 next to the famous Tower prison, can open its huge drawbridge in just one and a half minutes. (Many Americans mistake this for “London Bridge” which was long ago sold and relocated to Arizona!)
We passed through the square mile of The City with its 605 banks, where worldwide gold, diamond, and petroleum prices are set daily. We passed the Docklands, once stuffed with warehoused rarities like elephant tusks, tea, and tobacco, now converted to yuppie lofts. Strikes, railroad connections, and competition from Rotterdam sapped the once world-famous docklands, which today is home or work to almost 200,000 nearby. Across the river, Greenwich is the home of the clipper Cutty Sark, (it sailed at a clip) and the place where Charles II decided longitude would henceforth be marked, thus the Grand Meridian. The guide pointed out Mr. Harrison’s memorable clocks marking Greenwich Mean Time; they sit high on a grassy hill above the smog. The king’s hunting dogs may once have been kept on the Isle of Dogs nearby, but today a giant printing company pumps out 33 newspapers. Chinese immigrants in the area brought opium dens, frequented by many, including Oscar Wilde. Wapping gave a name to the wappers, bloated corpses found floating along the Thames. Sayeth the guide!
England’s “Millennium Dome” across the river, largest anywhere, closed January 31 and ended as an embarrassment. It’s a big White Elephant with an uncertain future—and it really is white, with slanted poles poking skyward through it, like a huge big top or pincushion. Still for sale, it lured 6, but not the expected 12 million visitors. Bills needed paying. High visitor prices at the end of the year were greatly reduced, and souvenir items likewise. Prior industrial tenants in the east end had contaminated the ground so badly that, although a foot of earth was removed to build the Dome, it’s deemed safe only for occasional visits. To build housing or safe daily workplaces, three feet of earth need removal.
Soon our bus windscreen revealed out destination: Canterbury, its cathedral towering like a mountain over the town. Anglo-Saxon King Ethelbert of Kent was baptized there by Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury, in 597. Romans became Christian when it was the required state religion, but faith waned after Danes invaded and Romans departed. The pope sent reluctant Augustine with forty monks to preach and they started at the top, with Bertha, daughter of the King of Paris, Ethelbert’s Christian wife. The king gave Augustine his palace, now the nave of the Cathedral. Religion remained strong nearly 600 years later when Thomas Becket was assailed by four knights in 1170. They’d heard exasperated Henry II demanding to be rid of his former good friend Thomas, who on return from six years of exile immediately began riling church-state politics.
Thomas wasn’t ordained, but Henry wanted him elected by the monks when the old archbishop died. The monks didn’t like Thomas, yet Henry made him a priest, bishop, and archbishop. He was the king’s man -- until he became the Pope’s. Henry, in Normandy, (England ruled half of France then) was too late to stop his knights after his exasperated utterance; they were already crossing the channel bent on murder. They entered the cathedral of the stubborn chancellor-now-Archbishop. In those days it was sacrilege to bring a naked sword into a church. One sword blow removed the top of the martyr’s head. Another attacker lost the tip of his sword, later placed in the center of an altar. Thomas was a big man, perhaps 6’4 or more; he was found to wear a scratchy hairshirt under his monk’s habit and 3 sheepskin coats. The gory history was told by a surviving monk witness. Miracles began soon after, and Thomas à Becket was canonized in 1173. Pilgrims come to this day.
There is an enormous crypt (1096) below the restored Perpendicular-style nave with Romanesque and early Gothic stained glass windows. There are dogtooth designs cut on some pillars, stylistic remnants from Sicily’s Arabic culture. The church suffered two major fires and rebuilding in various styles. Cromwell’s horses were once stationed in the nave, when many stained glass pictures of Christ’s ancestors were deemed popish and then smashed. Bombs in 1942 were Germany’s answer to Cologne’s bombing, but today the magnificent cathedral still awes visitors and houses liturgical rituals with its historic ghosts.
There was once an infirmary, school, a library that produced famous illuminated manuscripts and always many prayers by black-robed Benedictine monks. (Unlike others, they did no manual labor, but prayed 7 or 8 times a day. The cloister where they read daily breviary prayers still offers a beautiful stroll to visitors.) There is a refectory where the silent monks ate as chapters of Benedict’s rules or the Bible were read. The room is ninety feet long, with stained glass windows. You will find no bones or relics of Thomas. Henry VIII had them torn from their crypt shrine 350 years after Henry II’s murder plans, and relics removed, when he plundered churches in the 1530’s. Thomas Becket’s bones were burnt and his ashes scattered. An egg-sized ruby went missing, but 26 carts of jewels, gold, and silver thanksgiving offerings were transferred to the king. Some of the 50 monks were pensioned, and others stayed to run the cathedral, their successors in place today. The crypt holds tombs of the Black Prince and Henry IV. There is also a Huguenot chapel, still used on Sundays by descendants of French Protestants, who preferred to emigrate rather than face burning at the stake by Catholics. French schoolchildren come for day trips to practice their English, and the souvenir shops keep busy.
In the late 1300’s, due to miracles, Canterbury was visited by more pilgrims than any other site in England. One way to pass time on the lengthy pilgrim journey—four days travel from London--was to tell stories, and Geoffrey Chaucer wrote those in English, not Latin. He died in 1400, an ambassador, MP from Kent, soldier, clerk, son of a wine merchant and brother-in-law to the Black Prince. A museum has animatronic figures from those tales. The Wife of Bath, married five times, was clearly debauched: in those days, one knew her instantly by the telltale gap between her front teeth. Nearby the Knight rode with his squire. The genteel Prioress used a Chanticleer rooster and hen for her sweet love story. Smells of burning coal and sounds of annoyed complaints (“Bedbugs! Mud!”) fill the air. Birds sang, dawns dawned, and chamberpots nearly emptied overhead, all computer assisted. I must reread Chaucer!
We also visited a Roman museum; there are many artifacts in the area. Long ago an arena, basilica, forum, baths, and many buildings stood nearby, with terra cotta tile roofs and mosaic floors like those in Italy. Some glass, pottery, and building material fill a museum: mannequins in sandals and rough tunics worked in reconstructed homes and shops. Children could don the museum’s woolen cloaks and reassemble pottery shards, and match seeds and tools to their proper uses.
At 5:30 that afternoon the choir in white surplices over black cassocks sang evensong in the now dim cathedral quire where once only monks prayed. Victorian carved pews held needlepoint cushions. Choral harmonies and beautiful enunciation echoed and swelled in the huge space around us, and the organist alternated between thunder and serenity. Several psalms, a Magnificat, responses, and a closing hymn later, we braved wind and rain to the bus: choir members struggled with wildly blowing vestments. Nobody brought wine for the return trip, alas, but we made it anyway, with a bit more commentary from the guide!
The pope visited Canterbury a few years ago, meeting to pray with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who lives in London’s Lambeth Palace. Many beautiful historic vicarages are being sold these days, because C of E churches can’t be assisted by tax monies, yet are expensive to maintain. A recent proposal to lessen VAT on church repairs was vetoed by Brussels, which adds to the irksome list of disagreements in the European Union. Some British citizens wish to pull back from it; these arguments will go on for years.
Enough of religion! In the vigorous church of Mammon, Mike and I attended a one-day Harrod’s cardholder sale. After-Christmas and June sales are the best ones here; items are seldom discouinted, as in American stores. Card holders get an extra ten percent off regular and sale items. Nordy’s uses real piano players, but Harrod’s uses electric pianos for real music in various parts of the store. Mike and I wandered around and bought a few things, and fought through dense crowds until we came to the exit, when our new duvets for the guest room set off loud bells. This was quickly noted by three uniformed policemen standing behind doorway metal detectors. They were pleasant, but firm! Although we had the receipt, a woman from bedding was finally summoned and we avoided the slammer. Don’t try a five-finger discount! And if you think Harrod’s is merely a store, you are quite wrong. Yet, as of January 1 of this year, all royal crests have been stripped off the front of the building, denoting that no royals now use it. The Dodi and Di saga continues, and the Queen shuns the store that once stayed open one evening each year for her private Christmas shopping.
Oatmeal. Porridge. Whatever you call it, to cook it properly, you soak oats, water, and salt overnight before throwing more peat on the fire beneath it. A recent flurry of Letters to the Editor adds that one may continue to add fresh pinches of meal as it boils, to assure a complete gamut of textures. You can cook up a week’s worth if you like, and cut off some for each day. Proper traditional utensils are a birchwood bowl and horn spoon, but that writer adds that his wife prefers him to save his breath to cool his porridge, microwaved these days. Some think that it’s best enhanced by a treakle well: while seated, you raise a fully charged spoonful of golden syrup as high as possible above the dish, and aim for the exact center. You might miss. Yet another aficionado suggests gilding the lily by adding slices of peach. Up to you! Quaker Oats deserves thanks for not making us cook breakfast for 45 minutes!
Britain’s National Health Service is in the news again, this time not about the doctor who killed nearly 300 patients, usually old ladies. No, it’s dust bunnies the size of real bunnies: of 700 hospitals, 250 received the lowest mark in basic cleanliness. One in three hospitals fail basic hygiene, and 5000 patients die annually from diseases picked up in hospital. Need you ask why I’m waiting for hip surgery in the US? But a friend came back here to have her baby, since private care is excellent. I go to Physical Therapy for my hip, and the Queen is paying the bill. I’ve learned to my horror that I’m failing Walking 101! With limited hip flexibility, I thrust my right pelvis forward, lift my heel early, don’t bend my big toe, and drop a shoulder. I noticed none of these things on my own! Quasimodo or Tinkerbell?
We watched the eclipse of the moon from our cold rooftop. The gleaming gold ball, suspended in a clear night sky, changed to fuzzy darks at the base, slowly creeping to engulf the entire sphere with peach, pink, and red as the moon rose higher and higher. For a long time, the top arc stayed a clean, icy blue-white. It was easy to feel insignificant and ponder religious beliefs and taboos associated with the planets. Diana the virgin huntress must have been very pleased with the show; it’s not often she gets to outperform her sun twin, Apollo.
The British Museum is huge. Sutton Hoo treasures were there, from a ship burial in the Dark Ages, found on the east coast of England. Most of the items decayed in the damp wood of the ship, but shields, pots, swords, and a purse cover are there. KCWC sponsored a tour of the collections that lasted three hours, less about a ten minute coffee break.
A friend and I saw the musical Witches of Eastwick while her husband was in Germany and Mike was in Paris. It’s Updike’s novel, same as the one as used in the US movie, and at one point three women swoop and fly all over our heads in the auditorium of the Royal Drury Lane theater! There is also a spectacular collapse of the town church, with white pillars falling, smoke rising, and lightening flashing. It’s dramatic staging, and at the very back of the auditorium, you can visit vast banks of computers used in the light and sound effects. One of the stars was Luci Arnaz, daughter of America’s I Love Lucy star.
Local stuff: the morning-after pill is dispensed here from the school nurse for kids as young as 11. They will be counseled first; Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. Other children got their kicks by climbing into large clothes driers, forcing laundromats to use more closed circuit TV cameras. Britain already has CCTV cameras at apartments, roads, stores, offices, and parks: on a walk on any day, you’re photographed 200 times. The Times reports that it requires a salary of £100000 to rent even a single bedroom flat in the desirable areas of the city.
Chelsea/Knightsbridge, Kensington, and South Ken require over £106000 on average. There is concern that British workers are pushed out by foreigners who receive rent assistance from their employers—as we and many acquaintances do. The Navy and University augment Mike’s salary or we could never live here. The London tube, Underground, which will carry over a billion of us (a third of commuters, 90% of all tourists) breaks every 16 minutes, and 1 in 12 escalators is always out of service. Some trains run less frequently now than in 1940. The mayor called in a New York consultant, but fares have risen. A strike is scheduled.
This picture is incomplete without sound effects! Bah--beh--and lamb bleats in spring.
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