Some traditions hold that speaking words brings reality into existence, and writing gives them some form of permenance. That said, leave it to a couple of English teachers to dork out and head to the National Library, the national repository at the genesis of the language, on their first full day of travel. Ashley had a “hen party” (UK slang for a “bachelorette party) to attend with some girlfriends, so we stole Gary for the day.
On the Tube, I found a copy of The Sun, a highly addictive tabloid rag, where I learned what a YOB is (young on obnoxious boy or bastard, take your pick), and that one had been thrown in jail for dropping too many F-bombs, and that the hordes of Pokemon hunters had shut down the National Zoo by ignoring things like enclosure boundaries and vandalizing statues. I left the rag for the next weary travel as we exited at King’s Cross.
Right out the station, a towering, expansive edifice loomed above–The St. Pancreas Reinassance Hotel, a castle unto itself opened in 1873, according to a flag atop its battlements.
Famished, we broke fast at O’Neil’s Pub on the corner where we watched the slow but constant arrival of wedding-goers at the Camden Town Hall across the street. The food was sustenance. Let’s not dwell on or memorialize it any further.
Across the street stood the library. Our original intent was a Willy Shakes exhibit, but we balked at paying just yet and were instead diverted into a dimly lit room that is perhaps the greatest concentration of cultural heritage I have ever witnessed.
I turned left and faced musical immortality. “The Hallelujah Chorus”–the soundtrack of my Christmases, my father played it since it was a child, my mother taught me the tradition of standing on its first note, I played it throughout high school. The choral brilliance makes my spirits soar whenever I hear it, and here I was standing face to face with Handel’s original handwritten score. Silent reverence and overwhelming awe. Once I gathered myself, I continued down the line: Bach, Mozart, Chopin, DeBussy–their handwriting as diverse as their musical style, each the original artifact of some of the world’s most beautiful music.
And then on to the Literature: Dickens, Shelley, Austen’s manuscript or Persuasion, written on small, hide-able pieces of paper that brought Nic to tears; a pocket note book where Eliot penned The Waste Land, an edited copy of Tess of the D’urbervilles, on which Hardy had to edit out the racy sex scenes to appease his editors.
And then it came: The Beatles. Hand written lyrics of “Help!”, “Michelle”, and “A Hard Day’s Night”, penned in John’s handwriting on the back of a birthday card for Julian.
So much of our teaching life is gathering knowledge and contextual using it for others; but here was all that knowledge in its primary form: a Gunpowder Plot letter, the edict from Queen Elizabeth dissolving Parliment, a piece of the Magna Carta and the Papal Bull that rescinded it a week later, an original scribed copy of Beowulf, a hand-written essay by John Locke. And then the actual sacred texts: an original Diamond Sutra, illuminated Qurans, Torahs, and Bibles; a 1200 year old illustrated commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, The Codexes Sinaiticus and Alexandricus, two of the three Greek manuscripts from which the full modern Bible is taken. On and on and on.
Eventually, I made my way from the darkened sanctuary and found Gary on the bench. Nic joined us from the gift shop down the stairs, and we made our way accross the hall to the next exhibit.
The History of Punk: 1976-78. In many ways, punk–according to the exhibit, at least–is everything the hallowed halls before is not: disposable fan-zines; simplistic, three-chord songs, a middle finger in the eye of the establishment. And yet, here they were–The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and many more–a stones throw from Handel and Austen and Magna Carta in the very heart of cultural establishment. Soon, I made my way to the Punk Pop Gift Shop, and I couldn’t decide if the £30 shirts and £25 LP’s were the antithesis of epitome of punk ethos. Either way, I bought nothing and we moved on.
We made our way to the terrace with an overwhelming statue of Isaac Newton hulking like a Greek god. But we headed down a side street, past a new addition of the St. Pancras Reinassance that stretched the size of a football pitch. We found our way to Granary Court, an old grain warehouse that now houses a central University Arts Institute, joining the old warehouse with a sleek, modern glass building housing the school and–you guessed it–more ping pong tables.
Gary and I grabbed tea and met Nic down by the canal, walking through a street food fest. Apparently, if you want to sell BBQ in the UK, you say it’s from somewhere, anywhere in the US.
At the canal, we saw three more “hen parties,” each more absurd than the last, getting on canal rides. The people watching was great, but the event underwhelming. The terrace had promised a reggae fest, but failed to deliver. I grabbed a serving of chocolate covered, coconut deep-fried plantains covered with cashews (even better than it sounds), and we made our way back to King’s Cross.
All you denizens of the Potterverse should know what comes next. Rowling once imagined a place called “Platform 9 3/4.” It didn’t exist then. But enough people believed and tried to find it that it began to grind the trains to a halt. So, they actually created a “Platform 9 3/4” (with attached gift shop) to allow the trains to run again, a random space in the wall where kids queue ten rows deep to have their picture taken and sold back to them. In essence Rowling spoke it into existence. Potter is an international phenomenon, but I began to wonder how time and change would judge him in a millennium or two. Who knows if in a thousand years if the original HP manuscript will reside beneath glass and low lights, revered in hushed tones, or if it will be remembered by thousands of mass produced wands and bookmarks?
But enough contemplation. We had a tube to catch for our last literary rendezvous of the afternoon. The stately old edifice of Kings’ across towered to the left; out of its ancient brick floor grew a tree of plastic that grew to a modern roof, doubling the size of the station. Soon, the Tube found us at Baker Street. The Holmes shop/museum where you could buy a thousand items that flashed Cumberbatch, said “elementary”, or were some how related to the iconic story. Across the street stood 2 restaurants called the Holmes Grill: one traditional English and the other Lebanese. Down the street was the Beatles store. No hand written lyrics, but every conceivable surface printed with the Fab Four: t-shirts, mugs, posters, lamps, slippers, pillows, dolls ranging to nearly a thousand pounds.
She smiled coyly. “I’m not really allowed to answer that.”
It had been a long day trapesing the line of old and new, of cultural and commercial, of sacred and profane. We made our way into Regents Park to literally “stop and smell the roses” at St. Mary’s Garden. Each plot a differing hue, a differing name. Gary found a place to rest, while we walked a circle. In the middle lay a lush field of red named Ingrid Bergman. On top of famous films, such memorializing isn’t a bad way to go. We found Gary and rested among the pockets of picnic goers and a bridal party. Tired after seven miles of exploration, we drifted in and out of sleep under the cool London evening before catching the tube home. Time for a Guiness, a movie, and bed.