The fact that the high holy days of Judaism fell during our time in London gave me an opportunity to visit and pray at several different synagogues. On Rosh HaShanah (the New Year), I first went to the Central London Synagogue in the morning. It is the Orthodox Synagogue which we visited as a class. Most of the congregation wasn’t participating in the service so it didn’t really feel very spiritual. Part of the celebration of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the shofar blown. A shofar is a hollowed out ram’s horn and it has been used to communicate in Judaism for thousands of years. I was able to hear the shofar at the Central Synagogue so I was glad I went there for that. Later in the day I headed out to the Northern suburbs of London. I attended an afternoon service with one of my flat mates from my year in Israel. His synagogue was also Orthodox but I felt a lot better about that prayer experience because everyone was participating and seemed very focused.
For Yom Kippur I had a unique opportunity to attend the only Independent synagogue in the UK. The Belsize Square Synagogue was originally founded by German immigrants but has since evolved and incorporated a number of other types of Jews. However, it still hangs onto its origins in the German Haskalah. Haskalah means enlightenment and it is the name given to the beginnings of the Reform movement. The movement began in Germany and was later adopted in the United States and elsewhere. Reform Judaism holds that a Jew should be entirely educated about the whole of Jewish law but then should be allowed to choose those elements of practice which are individually meaningful. In the United States, this is often perceived as a lax sect of Judaism and so, in most congregations that I have experienced, the members end up being mostly secular Jews and largely uneducated about Judaism in the least. At Belsize, however, I met a strange and unexpected contradiction. The service had the most obvious characteristics of a Reform service in the U.S. It had both a choir and organ and was given to churchy tunes at times. You see, the origins of the Haskalah were in a desire for German Jews to emulate their German Christian counterparts. This is evident not only in choir, organ, and tunes, but also in things like synagogue architecture and design. A Reform shul is far more likely to have pews instead of chairs, for instance. At first glance, Belsize Square appeared to be akin to Reform, in fact, the synagogue belonged both to the Reform and Liberal streams of British Judaism at different times but eventually decided it had to be independent. As I sat in services Friday night and all day Saturday, it became obvious why it was so different. The synagogue and community are amazingly traditional in their practices and attitude towards the service. I also noticed how well Jewishly-educated the whole of the congregation seemed to be. While I don’t usually go for the choir and organ, I was able to find more respect for it in the context of this shul because it seemed supported by more than just a desire to remain Jewish while acting as Christian as possible. The service was informed by a desire to remain close to the roots of the immigrant community which founded it but also to remain inextricably tied to traditional Judaism. I’ve never come across a synagogue and community like Belsize in the United States.
The first time I walked into a pub in London it was a bit like entering an alternate universe where everything is foreign and strange. It was almost like a bar scene in Star Wars. I was with a group of friends and we spent the first five minutes walking back and forth from table to bar, unsure of what to do. We stood awkwardly at the bar then awkwardly at our table, then back to the bar only to stand awkwardly a bit more. Eventually, we managed to be served which is better than I can say for a couple of times at the very beginning when, at the barman’s request, I sat down at pubs but then was never served. I still haven’t quite worked that one out. What I do know is that it was awfully confusing to be in a pub for the first couple of weeks that I was here in London.
The learning curve quickly flattened out and at the beginning of week three the pub became an event done by habit with hardly any thought involved. In that way, adjusting to pub culture is a microcosm of my acculturation into being British. At first you feel kind of weird about things but eventually they become second nature. Having visited probably over fifteen pubs since I’ve been here, I now feel qualified to make my own pub requirements like Orwell did. If I could design a pub it would:
Have good American beers (sorry for this one, Professor Qualls). I’ve become accustomed to drinking lots of delicious IPAs and Stouts which I haven’t been able to find in pubs in London. One really good IPA on draught would do wonders for my homesickness.
I agree with Orwell on this one: a pub absolutely needs a fireplace or three. Not only should a pub have a fireplace but it should also have dark wood paneling, plush carpets, and comfy couches arranged around heavy wooden tables. All of this adds to the antiqueness and hominess of the pub.
A logical extension of such cozy décor is something I’ve been told some pubs do as the days grow shorter. That is, pubs should have available delicious wintery hot drinks: hot chocolate with Bailey’s or peppermint schnapps, warm mulled wine, and hot cider with cinnamon sticks. As Fox talks about, the pub almost serves as a place of asylum, a neutral ground where the other rules of British culture melt away. Nothing would be better in helping them melt away than a nice warm alcoholic drink. England’s climate begs for it. I look forward to that in the winterier months.
Lots of good games. I realize that this might be partially against the ethic of the pub but I really like table tennis. Any pub with table tennis and a good IPA would make me a regular.
I think that about does it. I’m obviously not quite as picky as Orwell nor as cynical. I believe that I will find my pub, just as I want it, it’s only a matter of time.
While in London, the thing I’ve been most excited about but under-utilized the most is the theatre. As we’ve all realized, there are terrific opportunities in London to see world-class theatre for reasonable prices. With tickets at the Globe for 5 pounds and many West End plays discounted from 70 to around 20 pounds just for students, even those on a student’s budget can afford to see a play every week or two. The globe is one of the most important sites in the history of theatre. The West End is home of some of the best drama and musical theatre being produced anywhere in the world. I love to see shows back home in D.C. but the prices are often prohibitively expensive. It would have been nice to see more theatre in London but I guess that just means I’ll have to come back.
During the past four weeks I saw two plays at the globe: The Merry Wives of Windsor and the terrible, terrible play, Bedlam. I was so impressed by the Merry Wives cast and even the staging was an impressive feat in such an old-fashioned theatre. I felt that flow of drama which really brings you to suspend your disbelief and become totally lost in a production. I love that feeling. I spent the entirety of Bedlam, however, trying to figure out what anyone behind the play or on the stage was trying to do. At the end of the first act the actors almost got into enough a groove to be believable but at the start of the second act they had slipped out of the authenticity of their performance and the entire play felt forced.
In addition, Bedlam was so full of plot wholes that we thought it must be missing scenes. It was certainly missing those scenes and points in a production when the narrative is woven together into a cohesive whole. On top of all this, the female writer of the script (the first play written by a female to be performed in the Globe) was attempting to achieve a period piece in a theatre famous for Shakespearian productions. The very idea of attempting this is befuddling. As we left the theatre that night, the only thing we could say we’d gotten out of Bedlam was material for jokes. And even those weren’t that good: “It certainly was BEDLAM!”… ha… ha…
On the opposite end of the spectrum I saw Les Mis. I’ve seen it before, at the Signature theatre in Arlington, VA but there’s nothing quite like seeing the incredibly well-done production on a revolving stage. Through their use of what amounts to a giant turntable, the director of Les Mis. was able to expand the stage and create an illusion of passing space and time. I was really impressed and entertained by this production, the songs from which we’ve still not managed to get out of our heads.
I also really enjoyed The 39 Steps, the Monty Python-style physical comedy we saw. It didn’t have the depth of narrative I usually like but it was endlessly entertaining to watch. If there’s one thing I have to come back to London for, it’s to see great theatre for cheap. I plan to come back when I can from Norwich and visit London throughout my life for this purpose.
After having lived in London for a little more than three weeks, I am struck by two facts of the city. The first is that I am extremely excited about the accessibility of art in the city (mostly the theatre). The second is the expansiveness of London. As we’ve read, London was brought together from a number of smaller hamlets and towns. Like an amoeba, the growing London expanded, surrounded, and consumed each village it came to. A good deal of the land was owned by private individuals or the church and it too was eventually incorporated into this growing city. Since there was no real rhyme or reason to the expansion of London, the city is a patchwork of highly urbanized areas abutting parks abutting suburban sprawl.
Both of my parents are urban planners and if you were to ask them about London I’d imagine they would compare it to the big cities of the American Mid-West, perhaps akin to the infamous sprawl of Chicago. In their profession, the spreading of urban areas equals inefficiency, a definite negative indicator for quality of life. However, London doesn’t feel slow or congested as most cities with such long computing distances usually do. It has managed to succeed where Chicago fails: it is huge and efficient while maintaining its openness. Even more than any of this though, the thing which most impresses me about London, or rather, what London has most impressed upon me is how little I know about the world.
I’m sure that most of the humanities students would agree that we’d like to think of ourselves as well-travelled or at the very least, culturally aware. I know I would, but being in London has made it somewhat hard to keep up that delusion. I’ve lived in Israel twice, for three and nine months, respectively. I’ve been to Hungary and Uruguay. I attend a liberal arts school and I read books. However, the very fact that I was so impressed by London’s parks is an indicator that I do not have the global perspective—especially in terms of what quality of life is actually like in other countries—I’d like to think I do.
That’s not to say that London’s parks aren’t amazing, they are. However, I take for granted the fact that they must be exceptional simply because I have never really been exposed to anything like them. Central Park in New York and even the Golden Gate park in San Francisco and Mount Royal in Montreal are nothing compared to the biggest urban parks around the world, some even under my very nose, within the United States itself. A bit of research taught me that Phoenix, Arizona has a 16,283 acre park. Compared with Hampstead Heath at a measly 760, that’s massive. Stanley Park in Vancouver is 1,000 acres. Chapultec Park in Mexico City, Metropolitan Park of Santiago, and Phoenix Park in Dublin are 1,800 acres a piece.
A lot of factors feed into how citizens use a park: climate, accessibility, population age and ethnicity, security, and government promotion all play roles in this complex formula. Based on my limited knowledge, London seems particularly proud of its parks and what they provide for the citizens of the city. This is in large part due to something any critic of the class system would balk at. That is, the parks are and traditionally have been gated, controlled environments. Originally this was done to keep out the poor but over time, the rules were loosened and these ‘city lungs’ became much more egalitarian, soon available to all citizens and their livestock. But the gates allow the parks to be closed during the night, thereby keeping them nice for the day when criminal activity is less likely to take place.
Today, London’s parks provide to their citizens a natural place of pause in the midst of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. They’ve also provided me some perspective on how people live in other societies. When Durden asked at our alumni event what we’ve seen in London that we’d like to take home with us and incorporate into our own lives, I replied balance. The parks have helped me to realize exactly the extent of the importance of balance between the urban and the natural world and what that balance can provide to a city like London.
After visiting Hamstead Heath with a friend from London, she took me down Bishop’s Avenue which she claimed to be the most expensive street in London. Bishops Avenue is in Hampstead, a wealthy areaof Northern London. On it are some of the largest, and strangest, houses in London. After doing a bit of research I found out that the Avenue is known not necessarily for being London’s most expensive residential road (though it is in the top three) but it certainly has the largest number of huge, empty houses
The attraction of owning a house on this road is purely prestige. The neighborhood is a fifteen minute drive from central London, can have a garden of a couple of acres, and is only thirty minutes from London Luton airport, the obvious choice for owners of private jets. There are plenty of other wealthy areas of London, the 16th most expensive city to live in as of 2009 (3rd in 2008, according to the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2009/jul/07/global-economy-economics). Arguably, none of the other wealthy neighborhoods or streets carry with them the same nouveau riche implications that Bishops does.
There’s the famous Kensington Palace Gardens street , owned and leased by the Crown and with gates at either end, it is currently the most expensive road per square foot in London.
However, Bishops Avenue lays claim to the highest concentration of giant, super-expensive houses. It has another distinction: it is here that the Saudi royal family bought seven homes in the early 1990s when they thought that Sadam Hussein would invade their country (see below Times article). All of those houses are now unoccupied as are a huge proportion of the mansions on Bishops Avenue. In fact, they are occupied so rarely that owners sometimes find squatters inhabiting their homes when they stop by once every five years or so.
As a piece in the times points out, these houses are owned not by people for whom money is no object but by those for whom it is the only object (Times). People who have purchased these houses are interested in the status which comes with owning a piece of property whose exact monetary value is frankly beside the point.
When it was purchased in 2004 and renamed the Royal Mansion, the $50 million Toprak Mansion, held the distinct honor of the most expensive new house ever sold in London. It now has giant gold lettering across the top of the columns proclaiming its new name for all to see.
There are many remarkable, and shocking, things about the culture of opulence which these houses represent. I’ll leave you with this from the Times:
“I heard a story, a parable even, about this pocket of north London. It takes place in the plant room of a new-built mansion – where else? – and concerns a certain country’s richest man, whose identity I promised to conceal for fear of my informant’s social (and, perhaps, actual) death. This man and his wife had not lived in their house for long – one of the world’s most expensive – when the heating systems began to go awry. Now, when you live in a 20,000-square-foot house and the plumbing’s playing up, you call someone fast. The engineer arrived promptly, went down to the plant room and looked at the series of mechanical control panels that monitor the byzantine complex of boilers and water tanks and filters. And they were all to cock. Someone had been messing around with them. He asked around the staff, but nobody knew anything about it. Eventually the owner’s wife admitted, rather sheepishly, that she had been in the room and had tried to adjust the settings. Why, asked the engineer. Her reply tells you everything you need to know about this odd little world. “I was worried about the heating bills,” she said.”
On a whim (and because it is the last required museum I haven’t visited), a few of us visited the Sir John Soane museum a couple of Wednesdays ago. Having had no introduction to the museum, we were slightly confused as we arrived at our destination. The man at the gates of this unremarkable-looking English town house first complained that there were eight of us and asked kindly that we “not go around together.” He then had the ladies put their purses into plastic bags to be carried around with them. I had to sign the entire group in on a huge log book and we were off!
We entered the museum but instead of being greeted by an introduction or explanation, we came to room upon room of art and sculpture. The rooms were oddly shaped and almost all lit by giant skylights in the ceilings. As I later learned, John Soane was an architect and he intended his home to serve as an educational space and and inspiration for his students. All of the spaces are top lit so as to allow as much space as possible on the walls for art work. Here’s a picture that gives you an idea of just how packed the museum is. It also shows the high ceilings and circular skylight which was a feature of almost every room.
I have to say, this was the strangest museum I visited while in London and it was also my favorite. It was unlike any other place we went and it seemed to me quintessentially British. It was inexplicably quirky and reveled in its own strangeness. It was unexpected and unclear and a bit odd.
My impressions of the other museums are as follows:
Victoria and Albert: Interesting but without a cohesive character, unless you count imperialism as a unifying force.
National Portrait Gallery: Anything after 1600 was interesting, anything before was all the same. Admittedly not the most nuanced view but without a bit more context for the portraits I was viewing in the Tudor and Stuart Halls, I was bored by them. I especially enjoyed the Victorian era stuff.
British Museum: Also a product of imperialism but more educational than the Victoria and Albert because I think that the curative work was more focused on teaching us about the places Britain had stolen from. I thought that the podcasts were especially good since they made an effort to contextualize the pieces.
National Gallery: In general, I really enjoyed the artwork. I was disappointed by the Japanese Bridge that they have. Not Monet’s best effort.
Cabinet War Rooms: I enjoyed the War Rooms more for the place than the museum but since the place is so historically important, I found it interesting.
Natural History Museum: The attraction here was more the building than the exhibits themselves which was striking. There are mosaics all over the walls of animals, plants, and fossils. The best exhibit here was also the most mundane. The giant collection of minerals was my favorite part of the museum. It took up an entire hall and held over a hundred cases of any rock or mineral you’d ever want to see.
When I visited the National Portrait Gallery the other day, I was pretty bored by the Tudor and Stuart portraits. If only we had portraiture of the ‘true lives’ of those figures rather than just stuffy, formulaic paintings. However, I was much happier when I finally got to the meat of the museum and started to see some literary and philosophical heavy hitters pictured. When we went on our Bloomsbury walk, I enjoyed hearing about the lives of the many interesting people who’ve lived here. It was neat to go one layer deeper at the Portrait gallery and see some portrayals of the society we’d heard about. In particular, I found a painting by Augustus John of Lady Ottoline Morrell. (Exhibit A):
The caption informed me that Lady Morrell was a socialite who entertained the likes of Aldous Huxley at her home in Bloomsbury. I was initially attracted to the photograph for its unattractiveness. Ms. Morrell seems to have some serious defect of the mouth in this portrait. A search of the NPG’s collections reveals two facts about Ms. Morrell’s likeness. First, the portrait I saw hanging in the gallery was accepted in lieu of taxes by Her Majesty’s government in 1990 and subsequently given to the gallery. Second, the Augustus John portrait is one of several hundred portraits of Lady Morrell which the museum holds (I got to page 6 of 60 of portraits before I stopped looking). None of the other portraits seemed to show the same deformed mouth as this one. And this, the one portrait with the markedly unattractive feature was the painting chosen for inclusion in the gallery. Curious.
I next came to a portrait of Aldous Huxley which showed him as a young man. Beneath the painting was a caption which informed me that Huxley had written the collection of essays, The Doors of Perception, while on mescaline. Fun fact there. Here’s the portrait of Huxley…. (Exhibit B):
Today we visited the neighborhood of Acton about 30 minutes by tube from the Arran House. After two trains, we arrived and asked the station attendant for directions. She helped us out and added, “don’t expect much.” With that, we followed her directions and arrived at the quaint and simple Acton market. The market consisted of no more than two dozen booths selling a range of items: prepared food, produce, crafts, clothing, toys, etc. It was relatively quiet without much traffic and the people were pretty diverse, something we’ve come to expect from London in the past couple of days. The neighborhood seemed as though it served a suburban, mainly residential purpose for people of many ethnic backgrounds and ages. We didn’t really see any conspicuous tourists (other than ourselves) and we almost felt uncomfortable taking pictures of this strikingly normal place. Acton certainly isn’t a destination but it was still a pleasant place to spend an afternoon.
There wasn’t a particularly distinct ethnic feel to the market, an Indian curry seller on one side and a white lady selling apple juice on the other. The shops were likewise varied. Our walk through the market was quick and we continued on to walk explore the neighborhood. The shops and restaurants lining the streets had a similar feel to them. For example, one small restaurant offered both fish and chips and curry. We saw all of the kinds of stores you’d expect in any normal neighborhood but we did notice a number of antique stores and 99p shops. The architecture was mixed with older-style churches and row-houses next to more contemporary and basic buildings. We happened upon the neighborhood library. Upon entering the old stone building, we discovered more shelves of trashy romance novels than we’d ever experienced in a public place. They sported titles such as The Greek Prince’s Virgin Prisoner, The Sheik’s Impatient Virgin, and It Takes Three. Fine literature indeed. We continued on to walk through a really nice, green park and learned about the plight of the English Elm which has tragically fallen victim to the pervasive Dutch Elm Disease.
For lunch, we ate and drank at The Rocket, a restaurant and pub. Our very attractive but insufficiently flirtatious waitress brought us our antipasto meat and cheese plate and we gathered our ales from the bar. We sat outside for over an hour talking about the town but eventually, our conversation shifted to who we are and what we’re interested in. We noticed the European pace of our pub experience and enjoyed very much sitting and relaxing for what seemed like the first time since we arrived. The entire neighborhood had a slower pace to it than we’ve really experienced anywhere else in London. On the outskirts of the big city, things slowed way down and we were happy to experience a much less frenetic atmosphere. We took the opportunity on our return trip to have our first double-decker bus ride. We rode (on the second level, of course) one district over to Hammersmith and then hopped back on the Picadilly line to return to Goodge. Overall, we had a really pleasant day.
We began our journey with a short walk to the Goodge Street tube station where we proceeded to stand in the station looking around confusedly. Eventually, an employee directed us to take the lift or stairs, “it didn’t matter”. We decided to take the stairs but it turned out to be eight flights in a striped Alice in Wonderland winding staircase. Upon reaching the bottom, we took the Northern Line to Embankment and transfered to the Circle Line to Victoria station, named after Queen Victoria.
We noticed how clean the tube is, especially compared to the Subway in NYC. As we emerged onto the street, throngs of people hurried around us. Choosing first one direction, then the other, we began walking. Having no better ideas of what to do, when we saw a sign for Buckingham Palace, we headed that way.
We nearly passed the Palace, surprised by how small and under-whelming it is. Continuing to walk, we came to “Little Ben,” a smaller version of the famous London landmark, erected as a sign of Franco-British alliance.
We tried to express to each other exactly what the character of our assigned neighborhood was but found ourselves floundering. Some of the architecture seemed Victorian or even older but an equal amount of the buildings were done in a modernist style. The buildings held everything from restaurants to theatres, and we saw billboards for Wicked and Billie Elliot. The people were likewise a reflection of this confused, or at least blended, character. Walking the streets were people in all styles of clothing, tourists, and people of all races, and ages. It was easy to see why people came to Victoria, it is in the center of the city and has a variety of things to see and do.
By the time we’d walked around for a while, we were hungry and overwhelmed by the number of options and the pace of the people around the Victoria station. We had coffee and then returned to the Arran House, mission accomplished.