Saturday, 16 August 2014

Is it real? London, through the Eyes of a Child

London is always a long day out for me. Not because it is a long way from Oxford, but because to be sure of avoiding the worst of the morning traffic, it's necessary to be on the coach by 6.30 a.m., and the stop is about a fifteen minute walk away. This means invading HL's morning pre-work time, and the awkward occasional ballet of two people with things to do, in a confined space. But, by 6 I was up and dressed, the coffee flasked, the lunch packed, books chosen for the journey, everything bagged up in the rucksack, and it was chocks away in the damp glimmer of a grey dawn.

Mostly I slumber on the coach, but this time I managed to read a little monograph about Oxford's patron, Saint Frideswide (by John Blair, fellow of Queen's College). It's rather revisionist, taking nothing on trust, but allows for a generous reading of a definite underlying historical truth. For events in the 8th century, this is quite something. One interesting observation he makes is that the likelihood for even a princess, undefended, of being able to fight off an over-lusty suitor was negligible, so it might be that our Holy Virgins were as often as not the victims, rather than the resisters, of sexual violence. It would make sense that they were then sent off to run nunneries, as being damaged goods, and unsaleable on the marriage market. Making virtue of necessity.

From these not quite lofty thoughts, we emerged into the bustling grime of London, arriving in precisely 90 minutes (any later departure can mean a journey time of three hours, or more). There is a rather handsome statue at Duke of Wellington Place that signifies London's heart to me, although what first caught my eye many years ago was not its heart but its bottom. A photographer friend years later risked life and limb to take some birthday present photographs of it, one of which still hangs on our wall now.

From there, we skirted the walls of Buckingham Palace garden (45 acres, with flamingos), and I noticed for the first time that the fence was not only barbed and razor-wired, but electrified. The ancient spikes I remember from my youth, when I was first admiring statuary, remain, a conspicuous, but tasteful, crown-of-thorns sort of style.

The object of the expedition was to meet my sister and younger niece who had come up from Sussex. This was to be Tara's first time on a railway train - and later, an underground train - as they left the car with friends in Raynes Park, near where we used to live, and headed in to Waterloo. For my sister, any visit to London is a renewal of a lifelong love affair with the city of our birth. Tara wanted to see dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum. I wanted to see the poppies at the Tower of London - 888,246 ceramic poppies being planted between now and Remembrance Day to mark a century since the beginning of the Great War, and the number of the dead.

Victoria to Waterloo is not a long walk, and anything is preferable to the underground or the buses in the rush hour - even in August. We met at the London Eye, a novelty which has in my view melted perfectly into the London skyline, and determined to walk along the South Bank to Tower Bridge. This turned out to be rather longer a stroll than I had planned, certainly not, given their propensity for walking sideways as much as forwards, with a five-year-old. Having worked for some time at S. Giles-in-the-Fields, and always walking to appointments at the cathedral, or with friends or parishioners in the City, I had a false impression of distances. It's the Square Mile, so everything has to be within a mile (obviously not true on a diagonal, but let's not be picky), so that means once you've reached any bit of the City, you're 20 minutes from any other. This might be true in the City itself. It is not true on the South Bank, where the river twists and mimsies like anything. You see the dome of S. Paul's and think you must be right by Tower Bridge, but you're not even in sight of it. And the plaintive "are we nearly there yet?" gets more deafening.

But there was much to distract us, along with the promise of "the place where they used to chop people's heads off". One unexpected conversation with my sister was about the Tudors, those masters of the art of head-chopping. I mentioned that Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII's mother, was only 13 when he was born. "Blimey, they kept that quiet", she said. But they didn't really, it was always there for anyone who could do the genealogical sums - although I admit I doubted it until recently - what has changed is that more of our historical programmes about the Tudors are presented by women, who would perhaps be more apt to notice. I thought of Saint Frideswide again. Lady Margaret didn't become a nun, but she was immensely religious and given to good works, including the endowment of a professorship at Oxford, once held by Rowan Williams, who had the honour for a term or so of being my tutor. The tendrils of history, if we but notice them, entwine round us at every turn.

And so we passed the Globe Theatre, and the Clink Prison, the Golden Hinde, Southwark Cathedral, the Mayor of London's rather peculiar wonky headquarters, the enormous buildings that have gone up in London since I left the centre in 2003, and finally reached Tower Bridge, the place where they chopped off people's heads, and the poppies.

I was not disappointed. Affixed to some sort of netting, the poppies appear to pulse from the top of a tower, and from a high-up window, down the walls of the fortress, to seep across the lawned moat like an unstaunchable wound. The imagery is unmistakeable, and irresistible. It was before 10, and already crowds were forming, some posing for photos with big smiles in front of this backdrop to one of the greatest tragedies of human history. Should Tara, as a girl of her generation can expect, live into her 90s, she might, as they approach the 200th anniversary of the Great War be able to show whoever cares to listen how we marked the 100th. There was a production line in the moat below us, the poppies being assembled and "planted" (by volunteers?) before our eyes. We debated whether they were wearing red in sympathy with the poppies, or whether anyone wearing red had been press-ganged to work, at fear of losing their heads. She wondered why there was a war (that question will run and run), and asked "did everyone die?" And were the poppies "real"?

And then it was time for coffee and ice cream (when is it not?) and part two of our outing. This entailed her first underground journey, which I think rather intrigued her. So much that we tell children is nonsense, but quite literally the underground is what it says it is, and the trains are like scuttling moles running round their tunnels, consuming, and disgorging, not worms, but people. She's not quite a reader yet, but she wanted to know where we were on the map, so it was avuncular duty to explain the names of the stations - Tower Hill, where they chop heads off; Monument, where the Great Fire started; Cannon Street, where they made cannons for pirates to use on the Golden Hinde; Mansion House where the Lord Mayor of London lives, with all the money, but he's only allowed to stay for a year in case he steals too much; Blackfriars, where something went terribly wrong in the kitchen at breakfast time; Temple, where they sacrificed .... and then the narrative probably needed to end.

I have visited the Natural History Museum many times over the last forty years, but never once had to queue except for a bags search before. On Thursday there must have been 600 people ahead of us, maybe more. The queue was deceptive, winding round itself like a coiled snake. We did our best to be British and patient, standing idly but carping by as a few people pushed ahead of their place; and Tara's boredom was alleviated by other children setting the example of doing some cartwheels on the lawn for us all to applaud, and someone from the Museum coming out with a replica polar bear skull for them to handle and admire. "Is it real?" Well no, but it's very close.

Any visitor will remember the magnificent dinosaur that greets you as you enter this Victorian cathedral to science and wonder, but even its vastness was obscured by yet another curling queue for the last week of a special (paying) exhibition, so we headed upstairs, and into other galleries, and in the course of our tour I encountered two childhood friends. Well, not real friends. One was Chi-Chi, a giant panda who lived at London Zoo, and who I saw shortly before her death in 1972. Her skin and skeleton are mounted and presented as if she is eating bamboo. "Is she really eating it?" No, but she did, fresh supplies from boy scouts in Cornwall every week. And then, upstairs, something I have avoided all these years, we stumbled across Guy the Gorilla. A panda's face is mainly fur, it has little character. This was Guy all right, instantly recognisable, though he died in 1978. "Is he real?" No, but he was. His death was my first real experience of bereavement. Real, not real, what were we seeing?

We saw the famous model of the blue whale, numerous stuffed creatures which had been shot dead long ago, before hunters exchanged their rifles for cameras, Tara was very taken by a baby Sumatran rhinoceros, as one might be, as they are very cute. But then it was time for a spot of lunch. Although not a parent, I have learnt to spot the signs of the fractiousness that comes from hunger. In fact, I know adults who get the same way. So we headed for the Lower Ground Floor Picnic Area. Entry to the Museum is free, and one cannot blame them for putting profitable cafés in the more attractive parts of the place, but they are to be given high praise for this picnic area. It is well-lit, and air-conditioned, both improvements on my last memory of it, and allows a family on a budget the chance to economise on a part of the day their children will not in any case appreciate.

"This is an Emergency Evacuation, will all visitors immediately, calmly, and quietly, make their way to the nearest exit from the Museum". Well, you don't want to hear that, do you? The last time I'd heard the word "evacuation" was when half-asleep listening to some news from the World Service about white rhinoceroses being moved around the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Not having quite caught the story, I thought "crikey, that's not the sort of thing you want to do with a rhino at the best of times". Ironically, I was in the gents when the announcement came through, and there was time to wash, but not dry, my hands before I heard my sister's only-slightly-anxious voice calling my name from outside the door of that forbidden male sanctum (actually a festival of the campest yellow decor). So we proceeded to a car park just off Exhibition Road, in the most British and orderly way. Given that possibly a majority of our fellow non-panickers were not ostensibly British, it did make me wonder whether, like our charmless government, I have confused "British Valus" with just being decent and sensible.

We were told to move to the far side of the car park. This rang an unpleasant bell, as at the DWP Gestapo trainings these last weeks, we had been drilled that for a fire alarm we were to gather in the middle of the car park, but for a bomb alert, what with the risk of shrapnel and such, "at the far side". My sister said "at least the staff are nearer the building than we are". "Look behind you - most of them aren't". And that decided us. Plus, it was starting to rain. No dinosaurs for Tara. "Well, all she really wants is a toy". So, off to the Rainforest Café in the Trocadero at Piccadilly Circus.

Thus our day ended, after a brief ice cream stop in Soho, and I took my leave of my kinsfolk, and walked from Piccadilly to Victoria. I passed the Athenaeum Club, where for years an elderly gentleman had called in to use the gents. Challenged one day by a porter "Excuse me Sir, are you a member of this club?" "Good heavens, is it a club as well?" Then the front view of the electrified Palace, idly speculating on how many of its 700 rooms Her Sacred Majesty has actually seen, and the coach home.

Journey's end was intended to be half an hour in a local park, just quietly, on my own. Although it was high summer, as I got off the coach, thunder boomed, and I imagined I'd have the place to myself. Of course, I'd been on my own on the coach, but somehow that's not the same. It was not to be. Moments after I had chosen my bench a nice young lady asked if she could sit next to me, as there was a dog running around and she was afraid of it. I'd seen it already, on the way to the park, scavenging round bins and rubbish bags, but it was too healthy and well-kept to be a stray. It was boisterous, though, a puppy, with Staffie stock, but taller and lankier, and without a collar. Then he tried to play with a tiny little dog, whose mistress made things infinitely worse by holding her dog up above her head like a trophy to jump and bite for. The wailing got worse when two small girls arrived, one weeping tears of frustration, fear, guilt, and who knows what, because it was from her garden that the dog had escaped. But they were powerless to control the thing - and so was I, the little bugger knocked my glasses off, which is not something I take lightly. By the time the girls had resolved to do what they should have done at the start, which was to get the weeper's mother and a collar and lead, the miscreant had gone bounding off to menace yet another small dog, fielding fierce kicks from the large, slow, boy walking it, and fiercer ones from the boy's father, who happened to be passing in a car at the time. I pointed out it would be more sensible just to get their dog into the car and go away. Their fears weren't real, the dog was a puppy, but fear makes a thing dangerous when it wasn't before.

Then, resistant to the charms of my Dr Doolittle tones (I fear I must speak with accent of cat) the bounder bounded down the hill to the playground, amidst shrieks of "pit bull!", which he wasn't. So I called the police, and just as I was talking to them - and I formed the opinion that they really would respond at once - Mother Weeper arrived, with collar and lead, and peace was restored.

Not quite how I'd expected to finish the day. And we never did find out why the Natural History Museum was evacuated.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2014


  1. I was a few years older than Tara, I imagine, when I had my first trip on the Underground; one look at the moving stairs and I was done for. I could see that I would be crushed to death when they went into the ceiling and I absolutely refused to mount them. My dear patient Father walked up with me, bless him.

  2. Fascinating. You seem to cram more into one day that most people do in a year.
    You made London come alive for me again (have only been back once since retiring), with your potted and nicely embellished horrid history.
    Your blog is always worth reading.