Saturday, September 26, 2015

Bombs v. Scones: the Gender Divide in Hatton Garden

Our oldest mutual friend -- by which I mean the one we have known the longest, because he actually
introduced us -- is visiting. He discovered that Phil was teaching a course on World War I, and this happened to coincide with his current enthusiasm for that historical event. It was a timely if unlikely coincidence, and it immediately became clear that he must come to London and experience the city's centenary exhibits and displays.

David and Phil (and Dave's sidekick, Flat David) spent a

Churchill's lunch table (he
breakfasted in bed on cereal,
bacon and eggs, and a cutlet)
remarkable amount of time at the Imperial War Museum. A few days later, they took four hours to go through the Churchill Rooms, a labyrinthine underground bunker where the Prime Minister sheltered during the Blitz, directing the government and the war effort while eating three meals and taking two baths daily. It features some of his more memorable quotes:
While Churchill was visiting in Arabia, the king apologized for the lack of wine, explaining that his religion demanded that he drink no alcohol. Churchill replied, "My own religion requires me to drink alcohol three times a day."

When asked why he continued to serve in Parliament at the age of 90, Churchill responded, "I've always liked staying in the pub till closing time."
A man after our own hearts.

World War I pilot
Today Phil and David are off to the Air Force Museum, which surely no other tourists have ever visited. They'll go 45 minutes by tube to see planes and bombs and aviator gear, with special exhibits for both world wars.  I will be remaining at home, baking scones and binge-watching the entire BBC 20th anniversary showing of Pride and Prejudice (yes, the good one with Colin Firth. I feel your envy). My half hour in the World War I gallery at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich gave me enough war for my entire stay here.

As a result, I have begun to wonder: is this a gender thing? As males, are Phil and David genetically programmed to enjoy looking at guns and reading about battles, as an essentialist might claim? Or is this a cultural construct, started in infancy and reinforced through visits to Toys r Us and automatic recommendations on Amazon and Netflix?

And then I realized what I've done by even venturing to pose this question on the Internet.

The door is now locked, the electronic curtains drawn. I await the trolls. My only hope is that since nobody reads this blog, my daring to suggest that men like mortar shells and women like pastry shells, whether by inclination or inculcation, will go unnoticed.

And really, I'm pretty sure it's just that the two of them are obsessive nutcases.*

Our pub this weekend is a repeat: the Lady Ottoline. Though testosterone leaked
from the Rugby World Cup game playing in the corner, the genteel surroundings
and strong IPAs managed to feminize the atmosphere.

Flat David prefers cider
 *In case you're either an essentialist or a cultural constructionist, you should know that at this moment, Phil is cooking a lovely lamb stew for dinner, and David is all a-flutter to watch Downton Abbey tomorrow night.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Soothing the Savage Breast

It's been a week of music and shrinks. There was also some restoration comedy in there, which befits a post that begins with a Congreve quote. And no, it isn't "savage beast." Look it up if you don't believe me.

After his class on Wednesday, Phil was offered a free ticket to an early eighteenth-century comedy by Farquahr, The Beaux' Stratagem. Despite the pelting rain he took it. He bussed to the National Theatre and saw an excellent production of the sentimentalized seduction farce. The drama students from the London Programme were delighted by the play, but Phil overheard two other young people from another university discussing it afterward.

Student 1: That's three hours of my life I can never get back.
Student 2: We could have been watching Lord of the Rings!


Thursday dawned bright and sunny, and I headed off to the Foundling Museum to meet Sue and her great-nephew Alfie for something called  Bach and Baby. Alfie is an actual baby, so we didn't feel out of place. We went into what is called the Handel room -- for good reason, as it is festooned with paintings of Handel. It turns out that both Handel and Hogarth were great contributors to what in their day was a foundling hospital. The room was filled with mums and babies -- babies crawling, wailing, toddling, listening intently. A pianist played Beethoven and Grieg, and the babies reacted in a variety of ways: singing along, shrieking, dancing, falling asleep. Alfie was transfixed -- slightly by the music, and enormously by the cute baby sitting next to us, who had mastered clapping.
We had coffee afterward in the museum café (where they piped in Handel, of course), and then strolled with Alfie through the nearby park, where walkers are only allowed if they are accompanied by a child.

After I returned home, Phil set out to meet Klauser in Hampstead for a visit to the Freud Museum. I will not relate his mishaps on public transportation, though you might note my use of the plural. He did arrive on time, and found the museum fascinating. The study
is pretty nearly an exact replica of Freud's study in Vienna, whence he had to flee the Nazis in 1938. He brought all his furniture with him to London, including the famous psychoanalytic couch, and his daughter Anna reconstructed the Viennese office for him.

On Saturday, another warm and sunny day, we took Sue and Klauser to the priory church of the order of St. John, rather confusingly across the street from the museum (see previous entry). A group of student musicians, the Wild Street Ensemble, was giving a concert of Baroque music -- Bach, Scarlatti, and Handel. I am a huge fan of the baroque (if it ain't baroque...); my knowledge of and interest in history, art, and music more or less end with the start of the eighteenth century. We sat in the pretty church interior and heard some lovely music. Phil liked the Scarlatti guitar solo, Sue preferred the soprano, Klauser
admired the Bach cello soloist, and I thought the mezzo had a beautiful voice. We all agreed that the flautist was superior (some of us also found him slightly attractive). Then back to the apartment for dinner -- butternut squash soup and, as Sue's choice, sauteed calves liver, which Phil cooked with onions and pancetta. I must tell you, dear reader, that I ate my portion. The onions and pancetta were delicious. A pleasant sherry, chosen at a sherry tasting (this is what we do when we're not at the pubs), a spectacular burgundy courtesy of Klauser to wash down the liver, and a port to accompany poached pears with creme fraiche and honey left us quite a ways beyond replete.

Here are a few peculiar events that have happened this week.
  • Our oven decided to blow all the fuses in the apartment. The apartment managers showed up a couple of days later with a new microwave, though our microwave was fine. They left the new one and then brought us a shiny new oven as well.
  • The internet company came to replace our router, which was working perfectly. The new one did not work. A certain amount of yelling resulted.
  • I ordered a polka-dotted raincoat from an online store, and received instead a pair of black suede sandals. The oddest thing is that they are my size. Those of you who know my feet will be aware of how unlikely this is. Unfortunately I don't need sandals. Also they are ugly.

And our pubs for the week:

the only pub in the neighborhood where the rugby enthusiasts
hadn't completely overrun the place for the Rugby World Cup

named after Lady Ottoline Violet Anne Morrell,
my new hero - elegant, and one of our favorites


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

In Society

While we've been flitting from museum to museum, we've also seen quite a number of people (besides Klauser, of course). Our social lives got a jump-start with an email from the London
Programme headed URGENT! It was a command (voiced as a request) for an appearance at a reception for the Programme board, to take place at a swanky hotel in Kensington -- 90 minutes from the time we received the email. Not knowing if I was invited, Phil decided to err on the side of license, so we quickly dressed in our finest and hopped on the Tube -- and got off at the wrong stop. We walked across Kensington Gardens, which was actually worth getting lost for, and found the
hotel. Inside, the Board members were seated in a small, glassed-in room, presided over by the Fordham Provost. There were no other spouses. It was a little awkward. But a few glasses of excellent Sancerre and some outrageously tasty hors d'oeuvres made me feel much better about the whole thing, and in fact we had a lovely time. The Provost, having no idea who I was, invited me to join the new Jewish Studies program at Fordham, but I gracefully declined.

The next evening Michael Kelly, a charming Irishman who is in charge of the accommodations for both faculty and students, stopped by to see how we were getting on. At that point I had mastered the washer/dryer and dishwasher (the dial goes backwards, sort of like driving on the wrong side) so
we told him we were quite happy with the apartment. Michael told us some amusing stories about students and, especially, their mothers, whom he called "the Egyptian problem." We were a little afraid this was an ethnic slur of some sort, but he elaborated, saying, "It's all about the mummies." There was one mum, for example, who telephoned from the US five times to ensure her son's room would be cleaned -- and then showed up with him to clean it herself.

A couple of days later we had our first social engagement at the apartment -- lunch with Klauser and our friend Wash, who was in London scouting locations for a new film. It was then that we discovered our buzzer system doesn't work. Wash, who is British, pronounced the apartment "very English." We decided to be pleased about this. And the following day, we had dinner in the neighborhood with the very generous Dean of Faculty, who oversees the London Programme, at an excellent Spanish/Moroccan restaurant.

Phil went to yet another London Programme social event several days later -- a sumptuous reception brunch at the South Kensington townhouse of a wealthy Fordham alumna and her husband. He described the setting as worthy of the scene in Gloriani's garden in The Ambassadors. But unlike in a James novel, there was a crude accident, and he committed it, knocking over a table and sending a glass of red wine flying -- all over one of his students. There was much daubing with paper towels and many apologies.

Phil didn't teach last week; he had his first field trip, to Blenheim Castle, the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough and the place where Winston Churchill was born. (I didn't go but will relate what I was told.) There was a WWI hospital on the grounds (as in Downton Abby.) It is VERY big. There were some minor problems loading up the students onto their bus during rush hour, and
some more problems keeping track of them on the grounds ("like herding cats," someone said), but Phil delegated responsibilities. One student was put in charge of not getting lost (after Phil got them lost). Another student was in charge of taking photos (after Phil's camera broke down again).

The tour focused on Blenheim during the War and was, I am told, well-done and informative. All 39 students made it back onto the bus, which then drove to Oxford. Sabina, who works with the London Programme and lives in Oxford, gave the students information on various sites, which they largely ignored as they headed off to the nearest pubs. Phil and Sabina toured Oxford, with Sabina pointing out locations Phil hadn't seen in his previous visit some decades ago -- including Sommerville, the college where Vera Britton studied. (She's the author of the WWI memoir Testament of Youth, and the subject of the wonderful film of the same title.) At the end of the tour, Sabina took him to the oldest bar in Oxford, the Turf, with ceilings so low it looked like it could have been inhabited by hobbits. In the garden was a sign that said, "This is where Bill Clinton used to drink, and where he smoked but did not inhale." Thomas Hardy also drank there. No idea if he inhaled.

Our final social outing is a little hard to describe. We were instructed to appear at Klauser and Sue's apartment in Hampstead for an "entertainment." Nearly breathless with anticipation, we took a bus and found our hosts in aprons, with a wonderful smell of smoked fish permeating the rooms. Klauser had made a delicious kedgeree, an Anglo-Indian dish with smoked haddock, rice, and a variety of
Indian spices. We sat, plates in lap, while Klauser turned on the  television and introduced us to the Proms, a 120-year-old tradition of daily summer concerts in the Prince Albert Hall featuring all sorts of music, from traditional to innovative, from jazz to boogie-woogie to classical, and then some. This was the final night of the Proms (so named because people in the front of the hall stand and can walk about, or promenade), which is a little different from the other nights.

The conductor was an American -- the first female conductor at the Proms. She was from Baltimore and gave a moving speech about gender, income, and racial inequality, noting her belief that music can help level the playing field. We listened to a brilliant 23-year-old pianist, an original choral piece called "Athena Awake," Puccini arias sung by a remarkably attractive German tenor named Jonas Kaufman, whose voice could give Pavarotti's a run for
Jonas Kaufman. Yes indeed.
its money. Then the program moved into populism. We heard a Copeland tune, sang along to "The Sound of Music," and watched in disbelief as the Prommers bobbed up and down energetically, wearing very peculiar hats, to "Pomp and Circumstance" (aka "Land of Hope and Glory" -- everyone knew the words). Then what seemed to be the whole of England -- similar concerts were going on in Hyde Park, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland -- sang "God Save the Queen." Several times. There was much waving of flags. It was equal parts bizarre and poignant (maybe giving a slight edge to bizarre). Very entertaining indeed, showing
us a side of the reserved British that we hadn't known existed. Now when we see the buttoned-up three-piece-suited gents in the neighborhood, we will imagine them bobbing up and down in those hats and smile secretly to ourselves.

And our pubs:

The Cittie of Yorke

Its cavernous Victorian interior

the Exmouth Arms, where we were the oldest patrons by several decades

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Whole Bunch of Museums

It's been a while. I do apologize. It's not that we've been too busy for you (though we have). It's not that nothing has happened (much has). It's just that I'm writing phonics at an inhuman clip, and by the end of the day I want nothing more to do with the keyboard. Plus Phil has to write his lectures on our one computer. But I will catch up, I will!

The workmen continue apace -- their own pace. They are apparently putting up balconies on the front of the building, which means we're entirely swathed in scaffolding. They work furiously and loudly for 15 minutes, and then silence. When we look out the window, we can see that it's time for one of the dozen or so tea and cig breaks.

We've visited a lot of museums in the last 12 days. A LOT. One
day while I worked, Phil went to the British Museum, which is a ten-minute walk from our flat, and free. He focused on the Mesopotamia rooms, which were three of the many hundreds of galleries the museum boasts. So when Phil and I went back this week, I started there, and he went on to Egypt to view the mummies and the many Japanese tourists taking selfies of themselves with the mummies. I've never paid much mind to Mesopotamia, though it's in the news constantly. Turns out there's quite a bit that went on there lo these thousands of years ago, including the development of a Babylonian library inscribed in stone that just happens to contain ALL THE KNOWLEDGE.

We also visited the local Museum of the Order of St. John. The Order began in Jerusalem
during the Crusades as a group of healers, but quickly found itself competing with the Templars. So they got a bit warlike and fought until they were evicted from Jerusalem. They went to Acre, then to Cyprus, and then Rhodes, and finally Malta, which thrilled us for reasons that will become clear at a later date. They remained focused on the healing arts (with a side of war), opening hospitals here and there and establishing the city of Valletta. They moved through Europe, building hospitals and other structures, and put up a priory in England in the sixteenth century, which is now our little
museum. They were in evidence during World War I, which thrilled Phil (there's a small exhibit, of course, to commemorate the centennial) and in World War II. And they still exist, responding to emergencies with their ambulance corps. There was an original Caravaggio hanging on one wall inside, and we were startled to learn that he was a member of the Order in the early 16th century -- but not so startled to learn that he became a member when he'd fled to Malta after murdering someone, and then was kicked out of the Order for excessive fighting.

Because we plan to host three formal(ish) teas for the students, we thought we should buy some real tea. We went to the original Twinings tea shop, which is also a small museum. It was established in 1704. There we had a tea tasting, set up just like a wine tasting. The teas we tried were unlike anything I'd ever tasted before. Even their "special" Earl Grey was blended with jasmine and so had a completely new flavour. We bought three kinds of loose tea, unaware that they were entirely the wrong kinds to serve to young novices of the tea service. But more on that later...

We walked to St. Paul's -- a cathedral, of course, not technically a museum -- which is very close to us. It costs a ridiculous amount to enter, though, so we're saving it for later, with visitors. In fact, if we can get ten together at once, we get a discount rate.

Our final museum for this stretch was the Dickens House, for which Klauser joined us. This was CD's home in the mid-1830s during his first stint of wealthiness following The Pickwick Papers. It was where Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist were produced, and three of his ten children were born. The house was done up very evocatively after a huge overhaul.

We found the Surround Sound a bit taxing (I kind of liked the clip-clop-of-horses-outside-the-windows effect, but the dinner-table-chat effect was too
much). But seeing the great man's own desk and chair, the art that hung in his house, the letters 
a grille from the Marshalsea
debtors' prison, where Dickens' father
(and Little Dorrit's) was incarcerated
written with his hand, was really moving. We realized, too, after reading a description of how much Dickens liked to dress in fashion, especially where "colorful waistcoats" were concerned, where Klauser finds his own sartorial inspiration. While Phil and I are wondering if we should turn to jeggings and snug tops to keep up with the fashionable London set (answer: probably not), Klauser has reverted splendidly to the early Victorian era.

Our pubs for the week, all within five minutes of one another:

The Bleeding Heart, famous for offering to make patrons
"drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pennies"

The One Tun, a Dickens haunt where Bill Sykes goes to get drunk in Oliver Twist

The Old Mitre -- a pub hidden at the end of an obscure alleyway,
built in 1546 and held up by a cherry tree that
Queen Elizabeth danced around with Sir Christopher Hatton

Pear cider and beer in the Old Mitre