Wednesday, January 1, 2014

London Holiday, 1

December 25, London:

I haven't been posting much about this since I didn't want to come home to a looted shell, but it's now safe to say we're spending the Christmas holidays in London, England. Like most trips, it has already had its ups and downs. The plane was too small and had no fewer than five screaming infants. The flat we rented is much tinier than advertised, and is an unadvertised fourth floor walk-up. And there have been the usual invariable tensions between different members of our party at times. Family; whatcha gonna do...?

The weather certainly has not been cooperative. We did realize that England in late December was risky. We were not expecting the worst winter gale and flooding in 127 years. The umbrellas were all inside-out within seconds upon arrival at the Tower of London on December 23rd. Hundreds of thousands in Kent and Surrey are without power and thousands more are homeless this Christmas morning as the Rivers Mole and Medway have burst their banks. It's a national tragedy here as this nation experiences its most solemn Christmas in a long, long time.

There have also been moments of transcendent grace and beauty. The day before the gale, the weather was stunningly gorgeous. I was standing in front of the National Gallery on December 22nd as a shaft of sunlight appeared and struck Nelson's Column. It looked like a special effect in a film, honestly. I turned and looked down the long avenue of Whitehall and saw the same sunlight shining on the clock tower of Parliament. It was a sight I never thought I'd see for myself. I was moved to tears. (Fun Fact: Big Ben is the name of the bell, not the clock. Hence my description of "clock tower.")

(The painting that needs no introduction.)

A few minutes later I walked into the Van Gogh room in the National Gallery and had The Sunflowers all to myself. The tears came again. (If you have never seen the British show "Doctor Who," you could have no finer introduction than the episode "Vincent," in which the time-traveling Doctor takes Van Gogh to our present where he overhears actor Bill Nighy explain why Vincent is not only perhaps the greatest artist who ever lived, but also one of the greatest human beings who ever lived, because of his extraordinary ability to transform his inner torment into transcendent beauty. And if you have seen "Vincent" you will understand why tears were my only possible reaction.)

("Keeper," the guardian of the top floor of the White Tower at the Tower of London.)

The Tower of London, on December 23rd -- the beginning of the gale -- was cold, wet, windy and utterly wonderful.  The Yeoman Guards are all fantastic, both the men and the women.  They are all decorated military, and know absolutely everything you might care to ask. They were, to an individual, funny, wise and completely joyful about their work.  It was a real treat despite the weather.  An absolute do-not-miss place for anyone visiting London.

(A detail from the Hogwarts model dressed for winter.)

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, my wife wanted to tour the sets from the Harry Potter films. She has loved the books and films tremendously since she discovered them over 17 years ago. As the tour ends, you suddenly find yourself in a huge soundstage...with the model of Hogwarts Castle. It's about one-twelfth scale--one inch equals one foot. And it's still HUGE. It was "dressed" for winter, with lots of snow. And it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I was not expecting a physical rendition of a fictional place to move me so strongly. Up until then, I was okay, although walking into the set for the Great Hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, all set up for Christmas, was pretty damned great all by itself.

(The Hogwarts Great Hall all decked out for the Christmas Feast.)

I think that's enough for this first entry. More as it gels in my mind and I'm able to make sense of it for all of you!  

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