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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

London: The Bridge(s) and the Tower

You probably do not think either that London is in France, or that a trip to France properly begins there.   We have decided to start our Western Civ independent study in Britain because we have friends there we dearly wanted to visit so we found a way to work it in.

We have known them for almost twenty years, and just flew out east last year for their wedding.  For the previous three years they had lived in Beijing, and we had greatly desired to visit them there before Olympics Fever set in there, but we just couldn’t manage it.  While it appears that we decided to launch our trip to France from the wrong country, wrong city and wrong river, it makes an excellent study in contrasts, London and Paris, and the language barrier going over to England isn’t as rough as you might think.  Getting hazed by the Brits for ruining the language seemed like good preparation for the Parisians, who are notorious for their linguistic intolerance.

Our start in London isn’t nearly so big an error as you might imagine. In fact, French is one of the easier languages for an Anglophone to learn because, contrary to the opinion of all parties involved, the British are really French!  Or at least there has been quite a good bit of fraternization since 1066, when Guillaume le Batard was able to get a new epithet by winning the closely fought battle of Hastings.  For this is the French name for William the Conqueror, and he conquered England by invasion from Normandy.  He spoke French, and like many of the early English monarchs, he spent more time in what is now France than in the lands he conquered and pacified in England.  A substantial chunk of English language (60% or so) is derived from French grafted onto the pronouns, prepositions, simple action verbs and profanity left over from Anglo-Saxon. (Actually, it is a myth that all those nasty swear words for carnal acts, yucky substances and body parts are derived from Anglo-Saxon roots. They are mostly Dutch. (But don’t breathe a word of this; it will kill their mothers!) Guillaume greatly facilitated this alteration of Anglo-Saxon into ‘modern’ English.

The fact that the English and French are by now largely the same people is utterly lost on either country now.   During our lovely tour of the Tower of London, our guide was a rather gruff retired Army man now garbed as a 'Beefeater' of the “Yeoman 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.”  Oh, and his name may or may not derive from the fact that back in the good old days, the King’s Own Guard was allotted a standard ration of beef. They were also given standard allotments of pork and chicken and bread, if anyone ever called them the ‘scone eaters,’ it never caught on.  The name “Beefeaters” may also be derived from the French “beau” fighter: an excellent warrior. Or at least, that is how he likes to tell it, anyway. You’d think he would be a little more grateful then. He sums up the British opinion of France: “The place isn't so bad except for the French!”

Lukewarm francophile

The first thing you notice when traveling about the cradle of Western Civilization is that the Europeans have good public transportation.  This is not really all that surprising, they have city layouts left over from the dark ages, and they don’t really have any choice. It is no wonder that an American invented the means for mass production of automobiles. A legion of cars is the last thing a medieval city needs. And there was a moment in history where London could have developed very differently. Over half of London burned to the ground in 1666, thereby contributing mightily that number 666’s bad name. A bunch of fellows from the Royal Society, including Royal Astronomer Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and others drew up fabulous plans to lay out the city according to the new rational principles of the Enlightenment.  They had read their Descartes and used a grid, with straight wide avenues and tree-lined boulevards to promote easy transportation. The only problem was English land ownership already dated back centuries, and King Charles II, newly restored to the throne after his father had been decapitated during the English Civil War, decided that discretion was the better part of valor when it came to using royal authority to redistribute the land. So most of the oldest buildings of London are gone, but the basic pattern of development was largely unaffected by the opportunity to start over. 

Modern, inexpensive, and not just for tourists

We begin our tour of London by double-decker bus. Our friends are only arrived in London in the last 6 months, appalled at how much less they get for their real estate dollar. They do not even own a car, which is prohibitively expensive to operate in London, anyway.  The English are also solving their traffic problem by taxing privately driven vehicles so prohibitively that only the filthy rich can afford to drive in central London regularly.  That is part of their solution to the impossibly congested central city.  Another is a highly effective train and subway system system, and the famous double-decker buses.  We do our first sightseeing from the top of the latter, and I was strongly reminded of J K Rowling’s Knight Bus from the third Harry Potter novel.  Not quite as frenetic as the movie, but a thrilling way to see the city.

What British obviously look like; Emma Peel circa 1966

The first thing you notice is that the British don’t look very, well, British!  We have learned that only 9% of the British population is foreign, but you would never guess this from the cosmopolitan streets of central London. There you may encounter people and restaurants of every ethnicity and appearance. No one in bowler hats like John Steed (nor leather catsuits like Emma Peel either, <sigh>). Almost everyone is showing a lot of skin and a great many sport tattoos. It averages 90F throughout our stay, so Londoners are surprisingly lightly dressed, and there is far more cleavage in evidence than I expected. I had expected stuffy, not slutty!  And to think my spouse wasn’t even impressed.  Compared to New York City, everyone seems pretty scantily dressed. (I would later open a copy of the New York Times and read a style column about women going topless in the Big Apple's ferocious heat, so perhaps I am merely behind the times!) The reason England seems so diverse from this perspective is that the vast majority of its foreigners live in the London area, so 45% seems like a good guess from our view of life on the streets. Compared to the US, Britain is not really awash in a sea of foreigners.  London is.

I had read historical accounts of London Bridge that suggested it was unique and not to be missed. In a misguided attempt to raise funds for maintenance, Bad King John had allowed private owners to build inns and shops on the bridge, which for centuries was the only span crossing the Thames anywhere near London. We couldn’t just visit a bridge lined with half-timbered commercial buildings up to seven stories tall every day--better not miss it!

What London Bridge obviously looks like, from an engraving circa 1660

We have resolved to visit an open-air food market very close to the site of the infamous span.  When we arrive, the market is a delight but the bridge itself is a great disappointment.  There are no battlements left with the heads of the King’s enemies rotting on pikes, and no clustered business lining the crowded road way so that it becomes nearly impassible to cross, as was the case in medieval and Enlightenment times.  It is a simple functional bridge, and no punters are risking their lives shooting the rapids between the starlings.  As romantic as the old bridge might have been, it was stripped of those buildings in the late 1700’s and entirely succumbed to commerce in the early 1830’s when the industrial revolution demanded unobstructed navigation of the Thames.  In fact, even that replacement is not the one currently on the site we are visiting.  When it was determined that the replacement was sinking and needed to again be modernized, London sold it for nearly $2.5 million.  It has been disassembled and whisked off to Lake Havasu, Arizona.  That may sound silly but it is now Arizona’s second most popular tourist attraction (after the Grand Canyon). 
London Bridge at Lake Havasu.  We didn't see this one either!

This part of the Thames is now dominated by a replica of Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, the HMS Belfast, a World War II era cruiser, and London Tower Bridge, which is a about a mile downstream.   In fact, you probably thought that was the ‘real’ London Bridge of song and story, but it is a fairly late arrival compared to the original London Bridge.  Londinium, the Roman precursor to modern London was erected on the site of the original bridge back in the first century. (The Bridge referred to in London Bridge is Falling Down was deliberately wrecked to stop a pre-Norman invasion.) One less-than-informed foreign company wanted to ‘buy’ the name of the bridge, sort of like owning a football stadium in the US. (For example the Detroit Lions play at Ford Field.  The way they have been playing perhaps Ford would consider an offer from Waste Management!)  For a brief moment some travesty like 'French Telecom London Bridge' loomed.  But when they took one look at it, they withdrew the offer.

HMS Belfast, a Royal Navy Cruiser from World War II.  The bridge at the right is London Tower Bridge, not to be confused with any bridge previously mentioned!
A replica of Sir Francis Drake's ship, The Golden Hind
Our first our trip to the open-air market was undertaken in search of a materials for a popular French meal for this evening: raclette cheese; essentially tiny self-made pizzas, baked on a coffee table top electric oven in the style of fondue. We buy Gruyere, Raclette (also the name of the cheese used), Boston sausages (one of our party is surprised to learn that Boston Massachusetts had a proper English precursor!) mushrooms, peppers and French bread.  But this is England after all, and dinner is still hours away, so we stop first for a proper lunch of fish and chips and Belgian ale. The meal was good, but we’ve heard enough about the standard English fare to know not to press our luck. This will be the first and last time we eat an idiomatic English meal.  After all, we're on a trip to France!  At the market, I flirt with a specialty foods vendor who is wearing a hot pink plastic ear around her neck, and speaking with a strong French accent.  She tells me of the practice of cutting off ears during the Revolution, and this with Bastille Day still nearly two weeks away!  I’m reminded of the line in the Le Marseillaise (the French national anthem) about blood flowing in the furrows.  Blood-thirsty lot, these French!  Oh well, it’s too late to back out now; we have paid for the trip in advance!

The next day we go to the Tower of London.  This promises to sate our desire for viewing out-of-date military fortifications, (come on, you know you want it, too!) and the Crown Jewels (frankly these don’t see a lot of use anymore, and since the Tower stopped being a royal palace, a prison, the mint, a zoo, and a place of execution, they have to use it for something!)  Actually, the Tower is now used rather like the Queen's Own Attic, with a great deal of interesting, but not very useful, stuff displayed there which would ordinarily just be lying about and gathering dust.  

White Tower is the dunjon in the middle. The Crown Jewels are housed in the large building in front of it.  The castle looks like it is guarding London Tower Bridge, but the span was not built until 1894.

There we see Henry the VIII’s own armor, complete with so much space for the Royal Private Parts that the suit constitutes a masterwork of propaganda.  No military opponent facing Henry would doubt the King’s ability to sire an heir to his kingdom--even from the far end of the jousting field!  Perhaps he would even be frightened into dropping his lance which is probably not as long as the anatomy in question!  Also displayed is a fine collection of edged weapons given to various English monarchs by foreign admirers.  You never know when His Majesty might need peace pipe or a matched set of Afghan ceremonial swords such as were used to cut his army to pieces on their retreat towards the Khyber Pass!  Not all of these Kingly gifts were so gracious.  If you had in mind bankrupting your royal competitor in the Great Game, you could always send him… big game.  That is how the Tower came to be the residence of lions, elephants, rhinoceros, and other non-indigenous species.  Now the only non-human wildlife are the Tower Ravens housed there since the medieval cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth repeated a legend from the 6th century suggesting that England would fall if the ravens ever left England, and later this morphed into the superstition that the White Tower would crumble and England fall if the ravens left the Tower.  Since the time of Charles II, (1660-1685) six are kept there.  Superstition or not, the British are still leaving nothing to chance; the Tower Ravens have their wings safely clipped!

Roomy enough, Your Highness?

When evaluating the question of whether it is really good to be King, it is worth considering the Crown Jewels.  The British state was the proud recipient of the largest perfect diamond found to date (in South Africa, then a British colony), the Cullinan.  (In this case, it is good to be mining company owner!  The uncut rock was named after him.)  It was divided into nine faceted gems, the largest ‘flawless’ faceted diamond ever.   The Star of Africa, is now part of the Scepter with Cross, which was refashioned in 1907 to accommodate it after the Transvaal government bought the stone and gave it to Edward the VII for his birthday.  “Happy Birthday, mate, and no hard feelings for the Boer Wars!”  The sole function of the Cross and Scepter is that the monarch holds it during his/her coronation, and the rest of the time it sits on display as visitors to Jewel House are whisked by on a conveyor belt before the assembled Crown Jewels.  The last royal coronation was held in 1953, for her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.  This was before the vast majority of her current subjects were born.  It was also one of the very first news events I recall.  I caught it on a newsreel as a part of some Disney movie presentation.  Actually, not many of us remember seeing newsreels anymore in the old movie houses.  Our beefeater sports a big ER II insignia on his black and red costume:  Elizabeth Regina II.  Actually, he wasn’t born then either!

The Cullinan Diamond, before it was cut.
The Cross and Scepter, featuring the Star of Africa.

We have come to the Tower of London for an odd and typically geeky reason; Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle!  In the later part of this trilogy, one of the main characters initiates a plot to storm the Tower of London in an effort to destabilize the English currency.  At the time, the outer courtyards surrounding the White Tower contained the Royal Mint, and our protagonist was there to steal the pyx, a box containing the standard coins used to insure quality control of the English currency.  So we are eager not for tales of Anne Boleyn’s royal beheading (the only one done by sword, according to our guide, and so swift and painless that her severed head was held aloft still scanning the gallery and mouthing who knows what lost words!)   The pyx, however, is nowhere to be found, and our guide, who lustily reported the story of Anne’s death, knows little about it.  If the pyx is no longer in the Tower, where is it to be found?

One last observation before we quit the Tower.  Its construction was begun in 1066 by, you guessed it, a French person, Guillaume, the newly yclept ‘Conquerant.’  Some of the stone that made its dunjon; White Tower, so white is a classic French limestone brought across the Channel from Caen, which we will be visiting in just a few days.  The White Tower was originally a bit of a propaganda piece in itself, a symbol of William’s control over a recently vanquished population.  Now it is thoroughly rehabilitated, as British as curry--according to a recent opinion poll, the iconic British cuisine!  Take that, India!

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Why go to Europe?

About 15 years ago there appeared a popular bumper sticker, which I rather liked:  “Question Authority.”   A little inquiry could do a body good, I thought, and I liked it even better when it was followed shortly thereafter with another:  “Why Question Authority?  They don’t know either!”  If you were smart enough to ask them the best questions, what did you intend to do with the answers anyway?

I have always thought that the generic American attitude towards Europe was rather like this epigrammatic discourse.  We are fond of telling ourselves we form a nation of immigrants, although about 25% can trace our ancestry to someone on the Mayflower.  I will leave it for you to work out how, if you do not consider the original colonists just another bunch of immigrants in the first place, both of these ideas need not be mutually exclusive.  But the idea that we are all descended from ancestors who would rather be here than there lends a certain face validity to the idea that we might collectively consider this the better place to live.  After all, our forbearers voted with their feet!

Yet we are also always looking back in the European direction, whether for 18th century Paris fashions, European philosophies, the 1960's British invasion in music, or their approval of our role as the remaining world superpower.  We have brought over their political philosophies, their religions, their slavery, their common law, their military ideas, their imperialism, and in the twentieth century, their wars, and fashioned them our own.   For the dwindling percentage of us who identify with white culture, the Europeans are our roots, and refashion ourselves as we may, we cannot escape feeling like their children.  They may not know anything, but we ask anyway.  For many years, “world history” was primarily the story of European men and their misadventures that it took until the 1960’s for academia to seriously question just how limited a view this really was. 

So is there really is a simple answer to the question:  Why go to Europe for vacation this summer?  ‘The Euro was way down against the US Dollar!’  Like many such answers it would be correct as far as it goes, which is not very, but it has the virtue of sounding very American.  We like simple questions and direct answers.  Europeans probably do too, but they are not known for it!  Unfortunately, we made the decision before the Euro tanked, so any illusions of frugality here are functions of good luck rather than prescience.

Another simple answer is because we have friends who asked us!  We owe them a great deal for some of the best features of this trip.  My colleague’s wife always wanted to go to France, and for her it partly is a ‘roots’ thing.  He and I do some work together, so he had high credibility, and I knew how he thought and how it would be fun to talk about our trip experiences together.  Also, part of the cost could be written off!  We are going on business!  And kidding aside, they were very responsible for the idea of river cruising;  my wife and I never though of ourselves as the cruising sort, whatever that is.  Now that the trip is over and the whole idea worked out fabulously, we still aren’t up for a big ocean cruise anytime soon.  But this was different, and our traveling partners sold us on the idea. 

But even giving our companions full credit, they could not have sold us on cruising the Yangtze or the Congo, or even the Mississippi.  My wife and I had already been to Paris together for 15 days a decade ago, and it was our best trip to date as we considered investing in this one.  Way before that, I studied French for 4 years in high school.   We like the cuisines of France (yes, there are several rather different ones!)  The fact that they are not actively killing each other in the streets probably had something to do with our decision; it is a common factor in all our previous vacations that we went to places which were relatively safe.  Notwithstanding, we would see someone dead in the street!  Finally, the French reputation for love cannot be entirely ruled out.  I guess subconsciously we felt that any country that lends its name to oral sex has to be worth a second visit.  Never mind the fact that in France, they blame those practices on an altogether different nationality.   They never even agreed to having their name used, let alone took out a trademark!

We went to France because we suspected they knew something about how to live life to the fullest that it might be harder to learn here.  This blog is about what we found.