Thursday, November 15, 2012

THE SUSKINS TRAVEL TO BRITAIN & LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE--ENGLISH, PART FOUR

LONDON

The final stop in our Britain journey was London, one of the greatest cities in the world.  Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, the West End.  We hit all the high spots in town.  We arrived in London shortly after the Olympics, but the excitement had not died down.  The Paralympics were being conducted, and many streets were still blocked off.  In Trafalgar Square, they set up a huge movie screen with folding chairs so people could watch the events.  The authorities started taxing privately owned cars in London, so most of the traffic was taxicabs and huge double decked buses.  Many tourists in town were disabled, and perhaps London wanted to keep the volume of traffic down to avoid accidents. 

Our London hotel for the last few days was the Royal Horseguards, a grand old hotel located directly across the street from the Defence Ministry and a block from the Thames River.  Down the street, literally underground, is Churchill's War Rooms, now a museum.  Next door is the National Liberal Club, which I'll discuss later.  A short walk away is 10 downing Street, the home of the Prime Minister behind wrought gates and a security detail on horseback.

Our first order of business, at least from the ladies' point of view was shopping.  When the going gets tough, ;the tough go shopping!  Is that how the saying goes?  In any event, we took a taxi to Harrods, the famous department store.

HARRODS

Harrods is an icon, the most famous department store in London.  It caters to the carriage trade.  The owner is Arab, actually the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, and much of the clientele, at least for the expensive items are Arabs from the Persian Gulf.  The Arab women, and there are many, covered from head to toe in black, shop for expensive jewelry and perfumes, and Harrods serves this market well.  At the front door of the store is a line of Rolls Royces parked on the street with drivers waiting and the engines running.

Harrods is a full service department store encompassing 1 million square feet, the largest department store in Europe.  On the ground floor is a large section devoted to fine foods in deli cases--seafood, Italian, Asian, Middle Eastern.  Nearby are departments for chocolates, bakery goods and other confections.  I felt like a kid in a candy store, and of court, I was.  The Toy Kingdom on the Third Floor was just as good.   All told, the store has more than 300 departments, and it would take days to cover them all.

In the stairwell, between floors is a memorial to Princess Diana who was killed in an auto accident in Paris with her Egyptian boyfriend Dodi Fayed.  His father owned Harrods (and also the Hotel Ritz in Paris) at the time.  The memorial is a beautiful ten foot sculpture of a man and a woman dancing beneath the wings of an albatross.  It is titled "Innocent Victims."

Dodi's father, Mohammed maintains the couple was killed by British M16 agents.   The facts as we know them was their driver Henri Paul , who was also killed in the accident, was head of security at the Ritz Hotel.  He was driving them at high speed through a tunnel to elude paparazzi.  He was intoxicated at the time and was carrying a large sum of cash on him.  Their car was clipped by a car driven by a paparazzo.   The paparazzo committed suicide several years later.  You can draw your own conclusions, but conspiracy theorists have had a field day with that incident.

Harrods once held royal  warrants to supply the Royal Family with certain goods and services.  Merchants would vie for that so they can advertise that they are the Queen's official purveyor.  Fayed decided they were more trouble than they were worth, so he blew off the royal warrants in 2000, calling them a curse.  He claimed his business tripled after that.  To add insult to injury, he then banned the Duke of Edinburgh from the store.  Fayed sold the store in 2010 to the current owner.

OXFORD STREET,  BOND STREET, SAVILE ROW 

We exited Harrods without buying very much--it was very expensive.  We walked around the neighborhood, down the famous shopping streets of London--Oxford Street, Bond Street, Savile Row.  the better part of the day we spent window shopping until we reached Piccadilly Circus, the heart of London.  To us, the whole city was a circus, with all the cacophonous energy.  Under the Big Top, in Piccadilly Circus are huge screaming neon signs for TDK, Samsung, McDonalds, Coca Cola, and many others.  Maybe we were the clowns here because we buy their goods.

Oxford Street is the main shopping street in London, the home of the flagship stores for many upscale brands like Debenhams, House of Fraser, Marks & Spencer and Selfridges.    On Bond Street, one finds the exclusive designer shops like Armani, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Hermes, Prada, Gucci--well you've got the idea.  This is the most expensive real estate in Europe.   I sat on a park bench with Churchill and Roosevelt, a famous statue called Allies by Laurence Holofcener.  Holofcener, in his previous life was a Broadway songwriter and actor.  He played in Hello! Dolly opposite Carol Channing and Ginger Rogers.   He also wrote music for the Sid Caesar Show on early television.

Savile Row is famous for its men's custom tailor shops.  It has been described as the "golden mile of tailoring", and the shops are known for outfitting celebrities which have included Winston Churchill, Lord Nelson and Napoleon III, not to mention contemporaries like the British royal Family, the Beatles, Mick Jagger and even San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

The street was built in the 1730's and named after Lady Dorothy Savile, whose husband was the Earl of Burlington.  The street ran past their house--actually their gardens.  In the 1800's, the wealthy bon vivants hung out there with trendsetters like the nattily dressed Beau Brummel.  Local tailors opened shops to capitalize on that market.

The influence of Savile Row is worldwide. For example, the Japanese word for men's suit is sebiro, which is a corruption of Savile.   The Beatles' Apple Studios was located at 3 Savile Row.

PALL MALL, GENTLEMAN'S CLUBS

Pall Mall  is a street radiating out from Trafalgar Square and it is known for its gentleman's clubs.  We know Pall Mall as a popular brand of cigarettes, but it got its name from a mallet and ball game popular there in the 17th Century. 

In the U.S., "gentleman's clubs" are a euphemism for "strip clubs".  Not so in England.  London clubs,  begun in the 19th and early 20th Century, are for members only, usually excluding women.  the different clubs serve memberships with specialized interests such as politics, literature, sport, art, travel and even certain countries.  The term "gentleman" also has a different meaning in the U.K., and traditionally, it didn't include professionals who "earned" income like doctors and lawyers.  "Gentlemen" in the traditional sense obtained their wealth by either inheritance or marriage. 

On this short street, we passed by the Atheneum Club, the Director's Club and the Phineas Fogg Reform Club, but in the words of Marx (Groucho, not Karl), "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member!"

We did visit the National Liberal Club which is located near the Thames River, next door to our hotel.  this gentleman's club has admitted women since 1976, and was the first to allow ethnic minorities to join (East Indians).  It was founded in 1882 by Prime Minister William E. Gladstone, the leading Liberal of his day.  He was best known for his feuding with Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria.  It should be noted that Liberal in England does not necessarily mean the same as liberal in the U.S.  It has more to do with the issue of free trade.  This club, as do many others, has a dress code for men, jacket and tie.

Winston Churchill had been a member and dropped out for about 20 years when he switched parties.  He came back after World War II, and his life size portrait hangs in the lobby.  Other prominent members over the years have included George Bernard Shaw, David Lloyd George, H.G. Wells and G.K. Chesterton.

TOWER OF LONDON

The Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror in 1066 as a fortress to consolidate his English holdings.   It has been used as a prison since at least 1100, but its primary purpose was a royal residence.  It houses the Crown Jewels, among other things.

As prisons go, the Tower of London was used to hold high status prisoners;  the common people had many other prisons around England.  The prisoners here could purchase better food and amenities, so it wasn't that bad.  For example, Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned there for 13 years, presumably in the smoking section.  He was provided good accommodations--living quarters for his family, and in fact his son was born there.  He was even allowed to plant tobacco in the garden.  Others were held there pending their executions, like Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey.  Some other famous prisoners included William Penn (for pamphleteering), Samuel Pepys (for maladministration), and even German Nazi leader Rudolf Hess for four days. 

Speaking of executions, nearby Tyburn Pub was the famous site for public executions.  Under what is called the Bloody Code of 1795, there were 220 capital offenses in Britain.  We have the usual ones--murder (attempted murder however, was only a misdemeanor), arson, treason, etc., but also for property crimes like Grand Theft over 12 pence.  The purpose was to protect property by imposing Draconian punishment as a deterrent.    As a practical matter, property crimes were often plea bargained to a lesser, non-capital amount, and the perpetrators were shipped out to Australia.


At sunset, we were privileged to eat dinner in the Tower of London.  Don't confuse British cuisine with gourmet dining, but the food they served us was good and plentiful.   The British eat a lot of meat pies with beef and lamb and mashed potatoes and, of course, tea.  French fries are "chips" and potato chips are called "crisps".  Yorkshire pudding isn't pudding at all, at least as Americans know it.  If you're expecting custard pudding, you'll be disappointed.  Sausages are called "bangers" and oatmeal is "porridge". 

To get to the dining room, we had to climb and descend several staircases and walk on cobblestones.  In the U.S., this building would be condemned under the Americans with Disabilities Act.   Actually, for those with trouble walking, they were given an easier route, with only one staircase.  To go to the bathroom, you had to navigate the same staircases.

After dinner, at 9:30, we gathered to watch the Ceremony of the Keys performed by the Chief Yeoman Warder and his Beefeaters.  The ceremony has gone on, rain or shine, faithfully every night for at least 700 years.  Actually, it was interrupted one time--during an enemy air raid in World War II in which the Chief Yeoman Warder and the guards were knocked down by the force of a bomb.  They dusted themselves off, got up and finished the ceremony.  The Chief Warder wrote a letter to King George VI apologizing for the ceremony being delayed.  After some deliberation, the King, being a reasonable guy, decided not to punish him for the delay.  The letter is on exhibit.

The purpose of the ceremony is to lock down the Tower each night, still a necessity to protect the Crown Jewels.    Photographs are not allowed.  The script never changes.  At 9:53 P.M., the Chief Yeoman Warder meets the military escort comprised of members of the Tower of London Guard.   The Chief Yeoman Warder carries a candle lantern in one hand, and the keys in the other.  Together they secure the main gates of the Tower.  As they return, the sentry stops and challenges them:

Sentry:  Halt!  Who comes there?
Chief Warder:  The keys.
Sentry:  Whose keys?
Chief Warder:  Queen Elizabeth's keys.
Sentry:  Pass Queen Elizabeth's keys.  All's well. 

They move on through the archway into the fortress, proceed up the steps where the Tower Guard presents arms and the Chief Warder raises his hat, proclaiming as the chimes are ringing 10:00 P.M.:

Chief Warder:  God preserve Queen Elizabeth.
Sentry:  Amen!

The script never changes except for the name of the reigning monarch.  The Chief Warder returns the keys to the Queen's House and the Guard is dismissed.

Beefeaters are the elite of the British military.  Common folks called them "beefeaters" because they were were given better food--beef.  They are recruited from long-serving NCO's of the British military services.  they apply for the job years before they expect to get it.  When they do, it's a prestigious lifetime position.

Although this ceremony is free, you have to book it several months in advance, and then to get a reservation, you have to specify two alternative days you can attend in case they can't fit you in.

The other interesting thing about the tower is the ravens they keep there.  As legend goes, dating back to Charles II, if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the British Empire and Kingdom will fall.  To make sure they don't leave, their wings are clipped.  One of the yeoman warders, called a "raven master" has a full time job caring for the birds.

WESTMINSTER ABBEY

Westminster Abbey is one of the most iconic and famous buildings in the world.   It is an enormous and beautiful Gothic church, used as the traditional venue for coronations and burials.  Walking in this awe inspiring building, one expects to hear Gregorian Chants as background music. 

The Saxon kings began building Westminster Abbey in the 10th Century, and the first part was completed just in time to bury Edward the Confessor in 1066.  More than 3000 people are buried there, categorized into different sections.  For example, the Poet's Corner has the graves of Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and other writers.  Britain's "Significant Honors" includes the graves of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and even Laurence Olivier.  The royalty section includes many kings and queens including the two rivals, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.  They also have numerous Prime Ministers buried there, including the two William Pitts (Elder and Younger).  The City of Pittsburgh, PA is named after Pitt the Elder (1708-1778).

Another area memorializes those buried elsewhere, a group which includes Winston Churchill, Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Princess Diana, Francis Drake, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas.   The Abbey has statues of 20th Century martyrs which include, among others, St. Maximilian Kolbe and Martin Luther King Jr.

There were even a few who were dis-interred, among them Oliver Cromwell and some members of his administration, on orders of King Charles II in 1661.

People around the world are familiar with Westminster Abbey as the site of televised Royal weddings.  The most recent was that of Prince William and Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge.  William's parents, Prince Charles and Princess Diana were married there also.  The first coronation there was William the Conqueror in 1066, and the last was the current Queen Elizabeth II in 1947.  Every coronation since 1308 has used King Edward's Chair as the throne for the ceremony.

CHURCHILL'S WAR ROOMS.

One of the most interesting sites in London is the Churchill War Rooms, a vast underground complex where the British government functioned during World War II.       Construction began in 1938, which was amazing in itself because the British government at that time was largely controlled by pacifists until the War broke out.  Above the War Rooms is the Treasury Building.  The War Rooms are are ventilated and reinforced with a concrete slab 5 feet thick.

We visited the Cabinet War Rooms and the Map Room from where Churchill and his cabinet directed the British war efforts.  We saw the communications center and direct encrypted telephone line to Washington.  Churchill slept down there occasionally during the air raids, although he usually slept at 10 Downing Street, a few blocks away.  His daughter, Mary often slept in the room designated for Mrs. Churchill.  The museum exhibits the spartan rooms with the comforts of home--bunks for Churchill and his staff, and even for Mrs. Churchill.  Rooms housing senior military officers, switchboard operators and typists are also on exhibit. 

The museum contains a large exhibit devoted exclusively to the life of Winston Churchill.  We learned many things about him that perhaps would have been best left unsaid.  For example, he drank a fifth of whisky every day, he chain-smoked cigars, and he played the horses.  He would write out his daily bets on a sheet of paper and send it over to his bookie.  The sheet of paper with the odds for each horse is on display.  It appeared that he bet mostly on the favorites.  Punctuality was not Churchill's strong suit.  His wife Clementine once said about him,  "Winston is a sporting man, he always likes to give the train a chance to get away."

At official functions, Churchill was often paired off with Lady Nancy Astor, a Member of Parliament who was known for her sharp tongue.  They didn't particularly like each other, and their arguments were legendary.  In one exchange, Lady Astor said, "Sir, if you were my husband, I would give you poison,".  Churchill replied, "Madam, if I were your husband, I would take it."

On the wall is Churchill's campaign poster from his first parliamentary election in 1899 to represent the town of Oldham.  He lost.  However, the next time around he won, and he began his roller coaster career in Parliament and Cabinet posts. 

Most of us are familiar with Churchill's public life, but he was quite accomplished in his private life.  He showed talent as an artist, painting landscapes and portraits which sell for big money today.  He was an amateur bricklayer, building by himself many of the garden walls and even a cottage at his Chartwell estate.  He held a union card for the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers,.  For most of the time he served in Parliament, MP's were paid only a nominal salary, and members had to hold other jobs.  Churchill wrote books and articles to support his family.  He was never financially comfortable.  His financial pressures were alleviated somewhat when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for his works, especially his six volume sets, The Second World War, and A History of the English Speaking Peoples. 

BUCKINGHAM PALACE

We bought tickets to tour Buckingham Palace, the main residence of the Queen.  It was built by King George III in the 1700's and called "Buckingham House".  King George IV and his son William IV hired the architect John Nash to greatly expand it.  neither lived long enough to move in.  It became the Royal residence in 1837 when Queen Victoria assumed the throne.  She sat on it for 64 years, long enough to have an "Age" named after her (as well as a lingerie store).

Queen Victoria in her later years was uncharitably described as 5 X 5 (5 feet tall and 5 feet around).  Her influence was profound.  She was the first to send Christmas cards, the first to decorate Easter eggs, and the first in England to have a Christmas tree, importing a German custom.  She married Prince Albert from Germany, and by all accounts she dearly loved him and was crushed when he died in 1861 at age 42.  She went into mourning for the last 40 years of her reign.

When they were married, Prince Albert was uncomfortable playing second fiddle to the Queen.  In his Germanic upbringing, the man was supposed to be the master of the house.  He couldn't be King, but he wanted equal authority and responsibility.  Essentially he needed a job.  An inventor named Henry Cole had suggested that England host a trade fair to exhibit the latest technology.  Prince Albert and Queen Victoria endorsed the idea, and the Queen put Albert in charge to make it spectacular.

The end result was the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World's Fair.  Prince Albert built the enormous Crystal Palace in London's Hyde Park.  This building, resembling humongous greenhouse, was constructed of prefabricated cast iron and glass, 1848 feet long and 454 feet wide and covered 19 acres, not counting the parking lot.  Rather than chopping down stately trees, many were enclosed within the building.  The fair was a success, as 6 million people from all over the world came to gape at state of the art technologies of that era like giant steam engines, machinery, cameras, a voting machine, and even an early fax machine.  In conjunction with the fair, they organized the America's Cup yachting event which continues to this day.  Although skeptics thought the building would collapse under its own weight, it stood and was even moved and re-erected at another location in London where it ultimately burned down in 1936.   Today, there is a monument and a statue of Prince Albert behind the Royal Albert Hall.

WAR HORSE

Our last night in London, we decided to see the play War Horse.  It was playing at the New London Theater on Drury Lane, one of 48 theaters in London's famed West End Theater District.   We had seen the movie, so we knew the story.  We weren't disappointed.  The special effects were amazing.  The star of the show was a mechanical horse which required 3 people to operate.  In the movie they used a real horse, but in a small theater, there are drawbacks to using live animals which I won't go into.    The bottom line is that if you have an opportunity to see this play you should see it.

Stay tuned for our Australia trip early next year.     































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