Tuesday, July 26, 2011

July 26 - London (written by Andy)

Today began with proof that I've got the coolest spouse ever: We took the tube to University College London (South Cloisters building) to see Jeremy Bentham: founder of utilitarianism, theorist of the panopticon, social reformer, and corpse. I read this fellow first in grad school, following up on Michel Foucault's citation of Bentham's panopticon as a "humane penitentiary" whose design for anonymous control would provide a model for much of the discipline of contemporary life. And while yesterday I settled to photograph a statue of Thomas More, today I could see Bentham's actual body - though missing the head.

Bentham, you see, left instruction for his body to be placed in an upright box and dressed in one of his suits. He hoped for his head to be preserved enough to be mounted atop his body, but the postmortem procedure didn't work. A wax replica rests there instead. So, where's the head? In a vault maintained by the College, a safeguard against it being stolen by student pranksters (as they did in 1975). Happily, Bentham's head was not used as a soccer ball, though a myth to that effect endures even today. Gazing upon the box, which Bentham named an Auto-Icon ("A man who is his own image") hardly inspires reverence. The idea strikes me as quite silly, actually. Still, there I was, with Jenny waiting patiently, setting up my tripod to shoot photos. Students walking by have seen it before and hardly paid us any attention.

Later in Hyde Park, we spotted a troop of horses making their way toward Buckingham Palace. Jenny was smitten right away; we ditched our itinerary and joined the crowds. Amazingly we arrived a half-hour before the changing of the guards. However, the fence was already lined with hundreds of tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever was going to happen. Well, it turns out that unless you arrive early enough to peer through the bars of the fence, there really isn't much to see. At least we could enjoy the band music and watch the horses clomp by. Finally when the guards had finished their ceremony a police officer informed us that the "next big thing" would occur in about 30 minutes. We'd had our fill of Buckingham Palace and began head back. Bobbies wagged their fingers and scolded jaywalkers with a "no, no, noooo," but they didn't care when we crossed anyway. What with all the fences to manage the crowds, there were few legal options.

For the next couple hours we strolled along Hyde Park, grabbing lunch at a cafe near the Serpentine, standing inside a cool, dark umbrella tree; sniffing roses on the Princess Diana Walkway; and gazing upon the Art Nouveau monument to Peter Pan. Then, after a brief stop at our hotel, we headed back to the Thames and its pedestrian walkway that leads from the recreated Globe Theatre to Tower Bridge. This was my favorite part of London. I love walking through narrow alleys and imagining myself a time traveler to an older version of the city, with each dripping pipe or pasted advertisement a sign of that alternate universe. Jenny, thank goodness, tolerates my passion for urban wandering. We also spent a bit of time bumming around the Tower of London, checking out a free movie near the information desk. Naturally I spent a few moments gazing upward to the room where Thomas More supposedly spent his final days before facing the executioner’s axe. We couldn’t abide the obnoxious pricing of the Tower, but we’ll surely add it to our plans when we return.

We wrapped our day up with a show at the West End’s Victoria Palace. While I'm not much for musicals, Jenny managed to find a performance that we both could enjoy: Billy Elliot. Weirdly enough, I think I enjoyed the show even more than her. The language and occasionally bleak themes, not to mention the melancholy conclusion (before the big dancing finish, of course) just don't gel with Jenny's sensibilities. As for me, I enjoyed the evocation of time and place found in the performance, especially in the hilariously over the top Act Two opener, "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher." Once the show wrapped up, we strolled back to the tube and returned to our amazingly quiet and comfy room amidst the noise and spectacle of London. Tomorrow we depart for Germany, launching a new leg of our European adventure.

Day 3 | Day 5

No comments: