London’s Burning! London’s Burning! And Orientation Lectures at NYU-London

Friday, September 2, 2016


Morning Visitors:

I awoke at 6.15 am (naturally, no alarm, just my body clock) to catch up on writing a blog post–this seems to have fallen into fairly comfortable routine for me. Not much time to do any reading as I had a lecture appointment at NYU. I did make the time to chat with my Dad–a much longer chat than I had anticipated, but all is well in Bombay.

I had a visitor expected at 8. 15 am–The Gas Man Cometh! The problem with the boiler needed to be fixed and I would be letting him in. He arrived on schedule and about 45 minutes later, I was relieved by David who had agreed to wait as long as it took for the gas man to resolve the issue. Accordingly, I organized my brekkie (muesli with honey yoghurt and decaff coffee) and got dressed (no shower because obviously there was no hot water!), doused myself in Freesia perfume by Fragonard and was out the door!

Introductory Lecture/s to London at NYU:

The lectures I wished to attend as part of NYU-London’s Orientation for our new students were at 10.00 am. I took a bus to Bethnal Green station then the Central Line Tube to Tottenham Court Road, then walked along Great Russel Street to find The Congress Center where the lectures would be held. The place was already buzzing with about 200 students but since there were many seats vacant, it was clear to me that one batch hadn’t yet arrived from their resident hall. About half an hour later, they trooped inside and the session began.

I was keen to listen to what the speaker would say on the ‘Introduction to London’ lecture. It is a tall order–introducing London from the Beginnings to Brexit! The Lecturer was Porf. Steve Inwood, who, I later discovered (on chatting with him) had been one of Boris Johnson’s advisers on matters regarding transport for London. He started off by reminding us that we were gathered together to listen to a lecture about London on one of its red-letter days–no pun intended! But today marks exactly 350 years since the Great Fire of London of 1666–a date that I had committed to memory decades ago when studying British History in India. Using Powerpoint, he presented a number of visuals–old maps, modern photographs, etc. to delineate the varied faces of London and the forces that have contributed to its evolution and being. I found some aspects of it quite enlightening although I really did know a lot of what he disclosed.

He was followed by Dr. William (Lez) Henry who spoke about the Black Atlantic presence in London. A visually striking Jamaican-British figure in his dreadlocks, Lez spoke about the arrival on the Empire Windrush in 1952 of the first Jamaican immigrants to the UK–these included his parents–who settled in Brixton and immediately attempted to bring their music and dance traditions to the city. These were roundly rejected as the vicious racism of the 1950s was designed to demean and degrade these hardworking, ambitious people. The rise of the Skinheads worsened this issue when full-blown street warfare began through gangs. As a part of one of the gangs during his growing years, Lez brought first-hand experience to his talk which was fun, entertaining and informative. It is ironic that Reggae, a form of Jamaican music, is among the most popular music genres in the UK today–just as chicken tikka masala is the favorite form of takeout food in the UK today: brought in by the South Asian immigrants who also experienced the same race and color bars in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Overall, it was a very interesting morning and a chance for me to reunite with some of my former New York students from the Stern School of Business who will be spending their Fall semester in London.

Photocopying and Pizza Lunch:

Back at my office at Bedford Square, I attempted to get some photocopying done but discovered that the machine was in hot (no pun intended!) demand and that we had run out of paper. I really ought not to have waited until the eve of school re-opening to do this as every faculty members is in the same boat–desperate to get syllabi printed out. I am surprised that they are still required to photocopy them for students here in London. In New York, in an attempt to Go Green, we merely email students’ syllabi and get them to photocopy individually, if they need to. However, the wait for the copy machine allowed me to meet a few of my new NYU colleagues here in London, Steve (who delivered the lecture), Elia, Marie (a lovely Frenchwoman with a Parisian accent) and her son, Ben ( a very bright little boy).

When I was done, I sauntered over to the Book Fair in a nearby hotel and browsed through the stalls. That when I made a nice discovery!

Registering to Vote from Overseas:

I had felt very disappointed that my position in London would not allow me to vote in the US Elections of 2016: an election that might be historic as it could put a woman for the first time in the White House. Eight years ago, I had not been able to vote for Obama although I was a big supporter of him because I was in London when the US election took place.

So, imagine my delight when I found that one of the stalls was run by three women who were registering absentee American overseas citizens as potential voters. They did everything: They gave me a form, looked up the address of the Town Clerk in Connecticut to whom I ought to mail it, even sold me a stamp for 1.33 pounds to pop it into a British post-box. I was simply delighted and lost no time in going through the formalities. Sooner or later, I will receive my ballot sheet in the mail and can send out my vote! Now, of course, I will have to sit and think: who is the less horrible of the two candidates–Trump or Clinton? Hmmm…on that score, I don’t think I will need too long of a think!

Finding out that there was tons of pizza in the dining hall next door, I popped in and ate probably the worst pizza I have ever eaten in my life. It made me dreadfully homesick for good New York pizza dripping with good quality, tasty tomato sauce and really gooey mozzarella cheese. Good chocolate Ice-cream and good Pizza–those are two of the things I so wish I could find in London!

Off to the Holborn Library:

My next port of call was the Holborn Library on Theobald’s Road where I used to have a membership when I lived there. Since it had lapsed for want of renewal, I decided to go back there and reinstate it. It had been the source of all the leisure-time reading I had done when I had last lived in London (almost the entire Harry Potter series, for instance, which I had read then). It was done online and before long, I was presented with my membership card. I browsed through the stacks, did not find a paperback I could pick up and did not want to carry around the weight of a hardbound volume. I will go back again when I have some more leisure to pick something out.

On the Bus to the National Portrait Gallery:

It was about 3.00 pm, by the time I arrived at he National Portrait Gallery to continue my survey of the Victorians. I was pleased to find a portrait of Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament and Highclere Castle (setting for Downton Abbey) as I had no idea what he looked like although his name has so often come up recently. I also found a portrait of a 19th century cricketer that I photographed for my friend Bash. It is nice to have free wifi in these big museums. When I finished with the 19th century, I stopped as I decided to do the 20th in one go–if time permits, tomorrow.

Journey To and Research at the Library:

I was headed next to the Library at Queen Mary College to continue my work on Elizabeth Buettner’s book; but this time I made sure I stepped into the café to eat a snack and order a cup of tea first. I did not want to leave the library early when hunger pangs beckoned. And was I glad I did!

So I took the Northern Line from Charing Cross Station, switched into the District Line at Embankment, then took a bus for 2 stops to the college on Mile End Road. It was about 6.00 pm when I arrived at my favorite seat in the library. In a week or two, it will be much more crowded as college classes begin. For the moment, it is still a pleasure to sit in my carrel and take notes. I made steady progress but when the library closed at 7. 30, I left–thankfully, I was not hungry at all.

On the Bus to the Thames:

It was actually while I was seated on the No. 25 bus to get home that I made the lightning decision to do something that would mark the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. I was not sure exactly what I ought to do. So I played a guessing game. Surely there would be something on at The Monument–designed by Wren and erected to mark the horrible occurrence.

So I switched into a No. 15 bus that would get me there. When I got off, there was absolutely nothing and no one at the Monument except for a few pub revelers. Not to be daunted, I walked along London Bridge (which had also been burned in the fire) to arrive at the center of it. But for the fantastic illumination of Tower Bridge and the Shard that made for good photo ops, there was nothing to be seen. I really ought to have Googled it first to find out what was going on where–as there simply HAD to be something.

Great Fire 350 Commemoration on the South Bank:

I walked back to Poultry, hopped into a No. 11 bus that was headed towards The Tower of London and decided to get off at Wobbly Bridge. Surely there would be something going on there! It was a lovely late summer’s night and although there was a slight spritz of a drizzle, it passed off quickly. I was grateful for my fleece as it kept me nice and comfortable.

At St. Paul’s Churchyard, I got off and oh my goodness! Crowds heading towards Wobbly Bridge convinced me that something was going on. I hurried forward without looking around me and it was not until I was right in the middle of it that I looked back and found that the dome of St. Paul’s was ablaze–yes, a fantastic light projection show circulated flames in varying colors that moved around the dome and filled one with horror. The rest of the building, usually beautifully lit all night long, was kept in complete darkness. It was totally eerie.

By the time I arrived at the middle of the bridge, I could see hoops of fire over on the South Bank right outside the Tate Modern. And as I hurried forward, I could smell fire and burning and it was the first horror I truly felt of the gravity of the terrible tragedy that befell the city.

Totally Thames Festival:

But first, in the Thames, anchored just below the Millennium Bridge (the real name of the bridge), I spied the lit cube with the Korean man posed on it. It is a seven meter high illuminated cube floating on a pontoon on the Thames and containing sketches by Korean refugees who made London their home. Created by Korean artist Ik-Joong Kang, it is part of the Totally Thames Festival which will go on till Sunday. I took a few pictures of it and moved on as it was getting later and I feel compelled to get home as soon as I can.

Becoming a Part of the Fire Garden Outside the Thames:

Hurrying along with my camera at the ready, I took the foot passage to the South Bank and arrived at a most awesome sight. The area outside the Tate Modern was converted into a Fire Garden with hanging baskets, terracotta pots placed in formative loops, hoops, etc. But instead of being filled with flowers or plants, they were entirely filled with hot burning coals! The heat, the smell of burning fuel, the sizzling, crackling sounds made as they burned, the shooting off showers of tiny flames, was all so hideous and so evocative of what had happened 350 years ago that I was deeply affected.

London’s Great Fire of 1666:

So here is what happened: In the early hours of September 2, 1666, a fire broke out in Pudding Lane in The City of London when hot lard used in baking bread was set aflame. The female servant who became aware of it while it was still manageable went to alert her boss who lay asleep with his wife. He was so panic-stricken, he roused his wife and they ran as far away as they could. The poor maid was one of the 14 people who died: a rather tiny number if you consider what damage and destruction was caused during the next four days that the fire raged.

First of all, London was built entirely of timber in the 17th century. A vicious wind egged the flames on and within no time at all, the entire square mile that comprised The City was ablaze. People scurried away to the river which offered the only form of refuge. We know much about the Great Fire through the pen of Samuel Pepys, the diarist who climbed to the steeple of All Hallows at the Tower Church to watch the spectacle. By the time the fire was quelled, the entire City lay in ashes.

It provided an opportunity to rebuild the City under the stewardship of Sir Christopher Wren who used stone and turned immediately to the churches creating his masterpiece–St. Paul’s Cathedral–and it got rid of the rats that had carried the bubonic plague that for centuries had regularly decimated the population.

The City of London that survives today is not too far different from the way it looked in the early 1700s after Wren had accomplished his miracle. Of course, there is no telling how long this landscape will last as The City is being altered almost beyond recognition by the 21st century frenzy of development that is giving us modern icons such as the Gherkin and the Cheese Grater!

Participation in the Event:

I listened to some of the live music that was being presented by musicians in cages surrounded by burning coals. I needed to rest my feet a bit so I squatted on the grass and listened to the extremely plaintive mourning music they produced. I took many pictures of the installations in wrought iron that produced the fire and the heat. It gave me an idea of what it might have been like to try to escape the fire by jumping into the Thames–but what if you could not swim? I wondered.

At about 9. 30 pm (really much later than I had desired to stay out), I crossed the Thames again on Wobbly Bridge and jumped into a bus heading to the East End. This afforded me the opportunity to get some really good pictures of the burning dome of St. Paul’s. About ten minutes later, I was changing into another bus outside Liverpool Street Station–by this time I was hungry, so I pulled my sandwiches out of my bag and ate them on the top deck of the bus that came swiftly along.

By 10.00 pm, I was inside my house and sitting down with a mug of ice-cream–mugs because there are no bowls in this house (the bowls here are more like large soup plates–not the best for ice-cream or other desserts).

On A Videochat with Llew:

I ended my day with a long videochat with Llew who had a routine colonoscopy that morning with our favorite surgeon. Our American friend Susan, who had driven Llew to the hospital and back for his surgery,  had been in touch with me all day to keep me informed on how he was doing. He looked and sounded fine and none the worse for his medical escapade. With the long Labor Day Weekend looming in the States, he has three days to make a good recovery and to take it easy. I told him all about my experiences with the South Bank Great Fire commemoration and he was very pleased that I braved the late night to go out and do something significant to mark the day.

At 11.30, after catching up with email, I got ready for bed but it was after midnight when I switched off the light.

Until tomorrow, cheerio….