Today offered another mixed bag. I started it off with the best of intentions–I was going to spend most of it at the British Library reviewing the vast amounts of material I have requested. But I am not waking up at 6.00 am–which always gives me a head start on the day. Instead, I am awaking at 7.15 or thereabouts and then trying to catch up on email and other travel inquiries while still in bed.
Breakfast, Shower and Out the Door:
In that order–breakfast (muesli with yogurt and coffee) while I reviewed some of the accommodation options Chriselle had sent me for Eastern Europe–then a shower, I was on my way, earlier than yesterday (10.00 am to be exact) and at 10. 45, I was entering the British Library to get deep into my reading.
It was good to arrive at the library before most of the other readers. I am getting fond of the Asian and African Reading Room on the third floor with the august oil portraits of erstwhile Indian maharajas staring down, dour-faced, at me. This morning, I was delighted to find a reference and an account of the Ayah’s Home in Hackney that sheltered many a female domestic servant of Indian/Asian origin. There was even a picture! Lots of information about the lodging-houses that were a plenty all over London in the late 19th and early 20th centuries filled in many gaps for me of the kind of habitation available to the very first Anglo-Indians who arrived in the UK. Finally, I poured over the Letters from India of a certain Mrs. Eliza Fay whose missives were edited by none other than E.M. Forster and published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press. My interest in the book centered on a Eurasian female maid Mrs. Fay took along with her to England on one of her return voyages only to treat her rather shabbily by abandoning her at St. Helena. It is Forster who provides interesting details of this encounter in his End Notes. I was about to make my own notes on this discovery when I found that it was nearly 12. 30 pm. I hoped to catch the Lunch time concert at St. Martin’s-in-the-Field church and thought I’d given myself enough time to get there from King;s Cross.
Lunch Time Piano Recital at St. Martin’s-in-The-Field Church:
Needless to say, I did not allocate time for the Tube connection I had to make an Euston where one walks for miles in the tunnels below before one finds the right platform. I was so disheartened. Still, not willing to give up, I made the effort to race on. This, despite the fact that I have been plagued ever since my arrival here, with a persistent back pain–sometimes so severe that I have started using a pain-killing ointment for it. Tomorrow, I intend to call a doctor to make an appointment as it is severe and often debilitating.
I arrived at the venue–the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields–five minutes after the concert by Chiyan Wong had begun–this meant we had to decorate the porch of the church with our presence for another five minutes as he finished the first movement of the Beethoven Sonata he was playing. Bummer! Still, I was not entirely disappointed for, in due course, we, late-comers, were invited in and I caught the entire second Beethoven sonata as well as the one by Chopin that followed.
Chiyan Wong, originally from Hongkong but now a Londoner, was a sheer delight. His talent and his virtuosity were mind-blowing. In the rich confines of the church (where I had once attended an Indo-Western fusion music concert with my cousin’s son, Sudarshan, many years ago), the sound effects were just stunning. I seriously wish I had the time to attend every single one of these concerts–but because they occur in the middle of the day (when I am usually engaged doing other things), it is so difficult to fit them in. The church was packed with tourists–most of them American–and though the concerts are free, I found most people dipped into their pockets to make voluntary contributions when the red buckets were held out at the exit at the very end. What a brilliant mid-day treat!
Highlights Tour at the National Gallery:
Since it was such a beautiful afternoon, there was simply no way I could take myself back to the Library in a hurry. I have to try to balance work with the sheer pleasure of enjoying the day. Summer days in England are fleeting–soon autumn with its shorter days and its bracing breezes will be upon us. There is no time like the present to enjoy the feel of the warm sun on our faces. So, I decided to eat my lunch on the plaza in Trafalgar Square (in the midst of the thousands of tourists that had congregated there). As the clock hands crept to 2. 30, I entered the Sainsbury Wing to join one of the Highlights Tours given in the Museum.
I have to say that it was one of the most disappointing ones I have ever taken–not just in the National Gallery but anywhere in the world. I don’t believe our guide was a museum curator or indeed even a trained docent. He told us he was an artist (not sure what kind–painter? sculptor? ceramist?–who knows?) I don’t know whether it is the policy now of the National Gallery to “dumb down” the commentary offered and to restrict items shown to just a few. But the fact was that we were only shown three paintings–yes, just three in a whole hour!–and there was nothing even vaguely intelligent about what was said. We saw Jacomo di Chioco’s Adoration of Mary by the Saints, Titian’s Bachus and Ariadne and Joseph Wright of Derby’s Experiment with a Bird. Basically, there was no introduction to the artist or to the genre or to the topic. What we got was a description of the scene in front of us–and that was it. “What is the woman looking at?” he asked “And what color is her robe?” he inquired. He might have been talking to five-year olds. No historical background about artist or era, no attempt to unravel symbols, no interpretation whatsoever. I have never been more disappointed by a highlights tour. I will have to take one more just to see if the entire concept of giving tours has changed (as I recall taking some really superb guided tours over the years at the National) or if it was simply our bad luck in getting a guide that, in my humble opinion–needs a lot more training giving tours.
Back to the Library:
It was time to get back to the library and since I had such a hard time with the Tube, I decided to take the bus instead (believing it would be faster and more direct). There too I was mistaken for the 73 bus was on a diversion route and did not go back to King’s Cross–it was headed to Victoria. I let three buses go before I discovered what was going on! But the time I reached the Library, it was about 4. 30 pm and I then remembered that, given the time difference, it was a good time to call my Dad in Bombay and speak to my brother Russel too.
Dad had a great deal to share with me, not least of which was his take on India’s fate at the Olympics. I gave him all the time in the world he desired because I know just how much these chats mean to him and by the time I got back to my carrel in the library, it was almost 5.00 pm–and guess what? The Reading Room was closing!!! I was under the impression that they were open till 8.00 pm as the Locker Room is open till then!
A Walk in the East End:
Well, there was nothing I could do except get back home, drop off my laptop and then use the evening to discover bits of the East End I have yet to know. I had a quick cup of tea and a cheese scone at home and then I grabbed my Frommer’s Memorable Walks in London and set off.
The East End has always been the poorest part of London and an area that was always swarming with immigrants through the ages. From the Jews to the Huguenots to the Bangladeshis to the Eastern Europeans, this area has spread its hospitable arms to them all like Lady Liberty in New York. The end result is a hodgepodge of neighborhoods that bear the distinct stamp of varied ethnicities and the aromas of the regional cuisine they brought with them. My walk was supposed to take 2 hours, but I figured I would do it in two parts since it was already 6.00 pm as I was leaving the house and I did want to get back by 8.00 at the latest.
I took Bus 205 heading to the City and got off at Aldgate Tube Station. From there, it was a quick right to the Church of St. Botolphs which is undergoing a major landscaping renovation. The church dates from before the Great Fire of London (1666) and this is evident in its sharp single steeple design and the ancient black and white stones of its wall. Just past it is the Cass Foundation, set up for the education of poor boys and girls. It has a blue-coated figure in a niche at the entrance to denote that it was a Free School. This area was once fully populated by Jews and so the Bevis Marks Synagogue was the next item on the trail. This is the oldest synagogue in England (dating back to Elizabethan times) and it still conducts full services for the local Jewish population–of whom not many remain as there was a massive exodus towards Northwest London (the area of Kilburn and Golder’s Green) in the 1950s. At some point, I do hope to enter the synagogue that was closed by the time I reached it. In the same area, I passed by Frying Pan Alley and Petticoat Lane (so-called because this was once the heart of the Garment Industry and cheaper clothing was sold at street markets each Saturday in this lane. Today, it is on Sunday morning that the clothing car boot sales are held). I had always thought that, like Portobello Road, there were antiques sold on Petticoat Lane. It is only very recently that I have come to realize that it more of a Cloth Fair than anything else (similar to the one held in Medieval Times outside St. Bartholomew Church in Farringdon that gave Ben Jonson’s play its name).
The walk then took me into maze-like lanes to the south of Liverpool Street Station that were once busy with the efforts of trained and skilled craftsmen such as cutlers and clothiers–I know this because the names of the streets bear evidence of the kind of craftsmanship that was carried out here. This area is also the hub of the space that was devoted to gun makers and creators of artillery and many of the street names bear evidence of this (Artillery Lane, Gun Street, etc). Artillery Passage is extremely picturesque and quaint and today filled with bars and fancy restaurants (Ottolenghi, the famed Jewish chef) has a restaurant here that bears his name.
When I crossed the street, I passed by the Providence Row Night Refuge and Convent that was run by the Sisters of Mercy. For when you have poverty, can Christian works of mercy be far behind? The good nuns ran a tight ship with separate entrances for homeless men and women that still say so–Men and Women is written in massive letters above those doors. A block away, on Tenter Ground, you understand the origin of the term “to be on tenterhooks”. Tenters were wooden frames used to stretch fabric to make it taut and straight. And on this wide street, tenters were spread out as the trade of weaving was practiced. A block later, you realize that works of mercy were not restricted to Christians alone. You will pass by the Jewish Soup Kitchen on Brune Street that proclaims its usage in equally huge (and rather ornate) letters. Here, in the 19th century, poor Jews found refuge and a hot meal. These are certainly parts of the East side I had never seen before and they enthralled me deeply.
A few steps later, I was on Commercial Street with the great steeple of Christ Church Spitalfields gazing down on me. It is the masterwork of Nicholas Hawksmoor who was a pupil of Christopher Wren. I believe it is Ian Nairn who comments that with this church, Hawksmoor seems to have tried too hard! I have to say I rather like this strange-looking portico that is perched high on tall pillars with the steeple looming on top. Right behind are very modest terraced houses– an almost incongruous sight when compared with the exterior grandeur of the church.
And right opposite the church is the famous Spitalfields Market that dates from medieval times when everything from livestock to livery were sold here. Its later heyday was the Victorian Age when fruits and vegetables were traded under a towering iron canopy. Today, it is more of a flea and crafts market than anything else–but as a place that is being gentrified rapidly (as so many derelict spaces in London now are) it is filled with upscale eateries at which the corporate types from nearby Liverpool Street’s glass and concrete towers have their daily fill of fancy food and pricey drinks. In the lanes surrounding this market, shop fronts from the Georgian and Victorian Ages still continue to sport painted signage of the goods once sold within. I am very pleased to say that modern-day owners have not wiped out all vestiges of the commercial life of these charming spaces.
End of the Day Rituals:
It was time to call the walk to a halt and Spitalfields Market was a good place to do so. Walking towards Bishopsgate, I caught the 205 bus to Bow Church that brought me almost to my doorstep. It was about 8. 30 pm when I got home just in time for dinner–chicken risotto, sausage and soup–its a good thing I do not get fed up eating the same meal daily! I Facetimed with Llew and got ready for bed but just before I called it a night, I did a spot of blogging.
It was a very fruitful day and one that makes me feel gratified to be back in this brilliant city again.
Until tomorrow, cheerio…