Rambling (by tube) around London

Life It's 8:00 am yesterday morning and I'm looking at the departure board at Liverpool Lime Street.

"8:15. London Euston," it said, "Cancelled."

Bugger. The station announcer spoke:

"Bing, bong, bing. Passengers are advised that the 8:15 Virgin Trains service to London Euston has been cancelled due to an electrical fault. Virgin Trains apologise for any inconvenience caused."

Alright. Don't rub it in. I buy a paper and a Radio Times and traipse into the Virgin office. A man inside is handing out an alternative route. Wouldn't you know. Change at Crewe. And it adds an hour to my journey which means I'll lose an hour of my day trip to London. I ask for a compensation form and get my ticket stamped. Ironically I ended up joining the Virgin Train from Manchester at Crewe which was packed and filled with people moaning because the train seemed fuller than usual.

In the end losing the hour did derail the day. I'd planned my way around London beforehand, timing everything for a change so that I could pack as much into the day as possible. Getting to London an hour later meant that subconsciously, at least at first, I was thinking about the fact that some places might me closed by the time I'd get to them and I'd be rushing about much more than I'd planned.

But as I stepped out into Covent Garden at a little after midday I was in love again. There's something about the hustle and bustle of London, an excitement that I haven't felt anywhere else (even Paris). I know that all of the major capitals are like this, but being able to look about and see something happening everywhere out of the corner of your eye is amazing. Little details like stepping through the market and hearing a string quartet playing the Star Wars themes back to front.

The Theatre Museum really is an amazing place (yes, yesterday almost everything was amazing) and like the best museums, filled with surprises. A ramp from the entrance leads to a basement full of corridors that explain the history of the London stage from the Elizabethan age to present. During the guided tour I actually yelped as I realised I was standing in front of Charles II's decree that women should be allowed to act (yes, the document dished out during the film Stage Beauty).

I suspect that anyone with even a passing interest in theatre would find something which is just as important to them, in the costumes, the set designs and posters on display. They even have the original model for the set of Peter Brook's deeply influential RSC production of A Midsummer Night's Dream from the late seventies. There's also a display about the heritage of the Redgrave family whom I hadn't realised were that influential in the modern theatre world but are the current acting royal family.

The exhibition is filled with video of actual performances which have been recorded for the National Video Archive of Performance: the web page says "Live performance is the most ephemeral of arts and, while video cannot replace the actual experience, it can provide a vital and detailed record of the production." Too true although looking at their list, I do wish that some of this material could be made available commercially or for television presentations (something BBC Four haven't done in some time). Obviously I'm going to suggest the extraordinary looking Lycium Production of Look Back In Anger with David Tennant and Kelly Reilly, but it seems a shame that in the connected world that such drama cannot be made available in some form once their often limited number of performances have occurred, especially years afterwards.

I love navigating the tube map - I know it must be a pain if you're a London resident, but finding where you are and where you want to go and then deciding the quickest route with the least number of changes is an exciting challenge - even if sometimes all you seem to be doing is following the arrows down stairs and escalators. The Jubilee line in particular seems close to hades.

The Courtauld Institute's gallery appears to be one of London's forgotten pleasures (it was empty during my visit). I only knew about it from my years working in art galleries and I only chose to go because I'd already done the Tates and Nationals before and didn't want to repeat myself. In the end I got the same shivers as when I visited the Musée d'Orsay - of entering a room and suddenly being faced with a famous image, that you've seen a hundred times in books and calendars in their glory. I yelped a good eight times here as I shifted through the museum.

Well, alright I'd already known about Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, but I wasn't prepared for how beguiling it was. The painter was messing about with the space within the painting. Although the back of Suzon the barworker is reflected its off to the side with would not be accurate due to the eye of the viewer; but what this means is that we can see whose eyes she's looking into - a gentleman - and it's almost as though we're playing him within her story, like Sam Beckett in some impressionistic painting version of Quantum Leap.

If you think that sudden jerk into a pop culture reference is impressive, they also have Lucas Cranach the Elder's Adam and Eve hanging rather unheralded on a wall next to a mantle piece. I had the same feeling I often have when I'm talking to someone who I recognize but can't quite remember where from. It's actually the image used at the beginning of the opening titles of Desperate Housewives and the inspiration for the dvd menus. The other highlights of the collection are here and really it's one of the countries unsung treasures. And luckily for me, it's free to students (library card runs out at the end of September).

After a trip through the gift shop for postcards and catalogue and its back off to the tube. I ask a passing policeman where the nearest one is and then ignore his suggestion because he didn't seem too certain. Which also meant I bumped into Bush House and the BBC Shop were I managed not to buy a BBC mug (it was dark blue and I think tea looks weird on anything but white ceramic - I'm one of those people). Eventually I tumbled into Temple and headed off to Westminster (Abbey).

The other thing to love about central London is that you can stumble out of a tube station and have a VIL (Very Important Landmark) in front of you almost every time. At Westminster the VIL is Parliament, although I pretty much ignored it (seen it three times and taken photos - I'm one of those people too) and tried to work out which one was the Abbey. Oh it's that big church shaped building in front of me with the red and white tape ringing the lawns to stop people walking on them because they're looking a bit threadbare. Why is everyone standing around outside.

Oh it's closed.

The lost hour had caught up with me. I'd planned to reach here at three(ish) and spend half an hour being flabbergasted by its scale and trying to decided whether it was more or less impressive than Liverpool Cathedral. But because I'd lost an hour and somehow in the hustle and flow I'd forgotten that I'd lost the hour I'd made a pointless twenty minute tube journey and arrived five minutes after they'd shut the door. So as far as I'm concerned Liverpool is better until I can go back and prove to myself it's otherwise.

Back in the tube up to Russell Square which according to my map will drop me off over the road from the British Museum. With even less time than I'd anticipated I decided to pick one thing I had to see there. Had to be the Parthenon Marbles. Having spent endless hours debating the merits of us British keeping them with my Greek friend Fani (and seeing a weird episode of 15-1 with William G Stewart about ten years ago in which he replaced the contestants with replicas of the marbles in order to describe the issues - no I don't get it either) I had to see them for myself. Of course Russell Square is ten minutes walk from the museum and I should have got off at Hoburn. Of course I should.

I'm wandering into the museum fifty minutes before closing and it's vast. I wonder if I'd made another terrible mistake. I try to drop my bag off at the cloakroom only to be told that it closes soon. People are cashing up at tills and generally I feel like I'm walking in the wrong direction.

This is the kind of museum in which you can ask someone a question like:
"Can you tell me where the Parthenon Marbles are?"
And the answer will be:
"Right up there. Turn left at the Rosetta Stone."

I'd forgotten about that. And there is was, the Rosetta Stone, the key that cracked Egyptian Hieroglyphs. I read the information boards then stood before it, my eyes reading each of the languages left to right and back again trying to see if I could understand how each of the sections corresponded to one another (the stone features the same block of text in three ancient languages which is why it became so invaluable). Out of the corner of my eye I spotted someone with a camera. They hadn't actually particularly been looking at the thing but they wanted to take a picture of their friend standing next to it. I stepped away and let them do it. But neither of them read the boards or even looked at the stone.

I slipped back in front and thought I saw how one of the phrases was connected. I probably didn't but I was momentarily excited -- was I going to make a break through? Then I voice from behind boomed:

"Could you step back please?"

I turned around and saw twenty-people standing in front of me all with cameras all wanting to take a picture. Of the stone. I'd been so caught up in my 'work' that I hadn't realised that a queue had formed behind me. The person who'd spoken, a tall man with grey hair and a camcorder grinned at me like he'd made some kind of a joke. Hmm.

Without heading off into a rant (which I'm obviously saying because I'm heading off into a rant) there really is an issue in these big museums and particularly with world important artifacts. When I was reading for my dissertation I came across Jim Collins who mentioned that in museums ceremonial masks lose their meaning and simply become a kind of minimalist sculpture. Like the Mona Lisa, something that people want to have their picture taken in front of without actually stopping to look at it and take in the implications - it's lost its meaning.

As I watched people queuing up to show that they've been in its presence, not one of them actually turned around to actually see the carvings on the stone and I assume that its in that situation all day. I'd hate to imagine what its like if a real scholar turns up to study it - although I presume they work from facsimiles and photographs and there's no doubt much to be said about how important the actual artifact is in the end for such work. I wanted to say to the crowd - 'Do you know what this is and why its important?' but instead I simply said, 'Oh for goodness sake' probably too loudly and slumped off and bought a book about it at the gift shop later.

Left at the Rosetta Stone and into the Parthenon Marbles room. Which turned out to be the big disappointment of the day which didn't involve Virgin Trains. I've read countless books and articles, seen many documentaries about the marbles so I kind of knew what to expect but I wasn't really prepared for the tragedy that sits in the British Museum. Like the Rosetta Stone, these are objects changed by appearing the museum; and like the stone they simply look uncomfortable outside of their natural surroundings.

Sections of sculptures, broken pieces. Most of the friezes are indistinct with information cards that say things like 'This might be ?' There are odd torsos and heads arranged in the order they would have appeared on the Parthenon had Elgin not been hacking away at them. My impulse as I looked at them - let the Greeks have them back. They want them badly enough that they've already building a museum to house them. They have sections of some of the statues that fit neatly with the parts that we have like a three dimensional jigsaw. Although they won't be perfect or complete, wouldn't it make sense on a purely academic level to marry them together.

The museum have a leaflet explaining such issues and I understand the implications in relation setting precedents - and there is even a section in the Museums act that forbids such an action. But as they stand they're rather forlorn and weirdly for massive intricately carved slabs of marble, a bit unimpressive, to these eyes. Artistically they're incomplete and I wonder what anyone can really learn from them in their present state. But as the above rant about museums proves I don't really know anything about anything. Inevitably I've moaned about this more than I praised the theatre museum and the Courtauld which at least proves that I can still have strong opinions about things I know nothing about.

I'd imagine that there are some people of a certain musical or sporting interest who spend their time in Liverpool in much the same way I always do in London, gaping at all of these icons which they never thought they'd ever get the chance to see. I know they do because I've seen a Magical Mystery Tour bus full of people milling about at the wrong end of Penny Lane near Liverpool College's playing field deeply impressed by a street sign and trying to work out where the bank is (the other end). But I'm glad there is still somewhere in the world were I can walk about with my eyes wide open, excited wanting to point at everything and say 'But -- it's that. Look it's that!' I know like everyone else I'm being dazzled by the bright lights and culture and the harsh reality of living in London must be totally different but it didn't stop me wistfully look about yesterday and wondering if in the end that's where I'll end up settling.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Stuart. I'm going to London for the day this coming Friday and there's no way I'll manage to pack that much in.

Having lived there for seven years though, I can tell you that living in London really sucks all the joy out of the place. It took a further seven years of not living there before I started to love it again.

(Your excellent point about the Rosetta Stone reminded me of a conversation in the last series of The Apprentice when they were told they were going to Rome. Something along the lines of 'we have to go to the Coliseum - it's where they filmed Gladiator'. God.)

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Thanks very much.

The same thing happened at the Mona Lisa -- hundreds of people getting their picture taken next to it without actually looking at it -- but the museum has visitors so they don't seem to care too much that the objects themselves have lost their meaning.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

Oh and I should say that was before The DaVinci Code was published so good god knows what its like now.