Conversations with cab drivers

Americans have a thing about taxis. Who doesn’t know the song Big Yellow Taxi? or the Harry Chapin song? or the movie Taxi Driver? (OK, I admit I haven’t seen it.)

But if you’re studying Victorian England, taxicabs have a much longer history, going back to all those characters who drove cabs through the foggy streets of London, ferrying criminals and Members of Parliament (and some who were both), sitting on top of the hansom in the rain, water dripping from their tophats. Cab is, after all, short for cabriolet.

Today’s London taxi drivers are know for the black cabs, aka hackney cabs, a stalwart breed of transport determined to make its way among the private cars, limos, minicabs, and now Ubers.

Despite that scary episode of Sherlock, this trip I took more taxis than usual. I had budgeted for that — less Guinness, more taxis, as if fewer glasses of high-caloric stout would make it ok to do less walking. I use the standard pair of excuses: Heavy Luggage, and Woman Alone at Night. Plus the new one: Too Old for This.

So I talked to more taxi drivers than usual. In the old days, the drivers would talk to you immediately. Now, with the heavy plastic window in between, the fact that the passenger seat is far to the back means that it’s more difficult to hear each other. You really have to try. I also suspect that more passengers spend the trip looking at their phone (or talking into it – I understand these things do make calls). I have to talk first, and of course I want to, because I want to hear their stories.

I learned last trip that a guaranteed conversation starter is to ask about Uber. I was in a cab going around the London Central Mosque near Regents Park. The driver had asked if it was OK to take that route, I assume because I was American or something. I said of course — I’d love to see it. But on the way we were held up by an accident, and according to the driver, the body under the tarp (it’s awful to think about this) was probably a cyclist hit by a car. He said that’s happened more and more since Uber came. The Uber drivers don’t have The Knowledge (the exams all black cab drivers must take), they get confused, they don’t pay attention, they hit people.

Since that experience, Uber was first banned, then allowed back but regulated, so I ask drivers about their view (I only take black cabs in London, on principle).

One driver said that Uber was such a problem he was going to take classes and retrain for another job. He claimed that they had pretty much pushed out the black cabs with their cheaper pricing, that it wasn’t profitable anymore. But the next cab driver told me he was doing just fine, that Uber had its own problems and people want quality, not just a low price. They want drivers with The Knowledge. When I asked about the Gett app I’d used to call for a cab (he had a Gett sticker on the window) he told me that some of these services take too big a cut and aren’t good for the drivers. He told me about better apps like TaxiApp, which was created by the drivers themselves, and handed me a flyer.

I had a female driver with the lovely south Asian accent who talked with me about her children and how they’re learning to drive. She told me she couldn’t tell where I was from since I sounded half English, half American (I try to keep my California accent, but it’s hard to do). In another cab the driver was playing classical music, and I asked him to turn it up.

I had two drivers who sounded like they were Londoners. One conversed with me about the 80s music he liked. He told me his grandmother was in Brian May’s classroom at school when May was a maths teacher. One day the teacher announced he was going off to join a band called “Queen”, and wouldn’t be their teacher anymore.

The other Londoner turned out to be from East Germany (when that term was used) and told me how he’d come to America only once, to drive a friend’s car from Florida to California. He spent the night in jail in Texas when he was pulled over, a foreigner driving a car that wasn’t his. While the police tried to get it straightened out by contacting his friend, they ordered a “pizza pie”. What came was not what he would call pie — he tried it and decided it wasn’t food and that he didn’t like America.

Despite both the presumed British reserve and the impoliteness of talking about politics, religion, or sex, I’ve never had a cab driver who wasn’t happy to talk about politics. I’ve mentioned that just after the Brexit results came in, I asked my Durham cab driver whether he was a happy or unhappy voter that morning. He was “over the moon”, convinced that the NHS would be saved by money coming back from Europe. This trip, one driver asked me if I was a Trump supporter. Just as I was about to launch into the series of apologies I use on such occasions, he said, “I think he’s great. Really shakes things up!” I had to agree that yes, he does do that.

As for The Knowledge (one driver told me it took him almost four years to pass the exams), I have extraordinary respect for it. But I have to tell you — I’ve never been in a cab where I didn’t have to give directions, and I have often been driven past the address. What black cab drivers know, though, is the streets. They know every stoplight, the flow of traffic, where the pedestrians are, what route is best at what time of day.

My favorite hackney driver this trip asked me why I was in England, and when I told him he asked me intelligent questions about my research. When I asked how long he’d been a driver, and he said 15 years, I asked if he liked his job. He said yes, because he gets to drive so many different kinds of people. Movie stars, government officials, prostitutes, and academics like me. He learns something from everyone he drives, and has gotten himself a real education. A university in a cab. Can’t argue with that.

 

 

Lisa’s Magical History Tour: a syllabus for London and beyond

I think sometimes that I should take a group of students to England for my History 105: History of England class. There are such opportunities. One can teach for a community college consortium that offers a short semester in London, or work with an education abroad tour company. Trouble is, these create the curriculum and/or activities, and put you in a classroom. And all you do is teach. That has never been my way.

So in the spirit of one day teaching my class in England, here is a possible syllabus. I center it on London because there are classrooms there and easy transport to elsewhere. But no classroom would be necessary, nor particularly desirable. So this is a syllabus not only for a college course, but for anyone traveling there who wants to do a history tour! I list tube stops and rail stations, but it’s better to learn the bus from wherever you are – fewer stairs, cheaper fares (get an Oyster card), and you get to see so much more. Leave each day after 9 am, and avoid all transport between 4 and 7 (eat an early supper).

None of this relies on a car. You shouldn’t drive there unless you’re British. Really. Unless you’ve memorized this. For Americans, BritRail passes can be purchased in the US only, before you leave only.

Overview

Begin at the Museum of London.

It isn’t overwhelming, but this museum effectively walks you through the entire history of England, beginning with geological time and going to the present. It’s beautifully designed, basically a syllabus in itself. Take notes in the order of chronology, then carry those with you through the rest.

Barbican

Prehistoric England

Field trip to Avebury and its barrows and museum
Why not Stonehenge? First of all, it’s a zoo, with too many tourists, and a long walk, and then you can’t even touch the stones unless you’re on a special tour. Avebury you can walk around and touch the stones (and pose with one, as I am doing), plus see barrows, plus learn about everything. For free.

Paddington Station to Swindon, then Stagecoach Bus 49 (a little over 2 hours)

Anglo-Saxon and Viking England

British Museum
Contains objects from the Sutton Hoo excavation, including the ship. And even though it isn’t exactly British history, while there be sure to go to the Assyrian Lion Hunt reliefs, which are from the 7th century BC and are truly amazing.

Russell Square

Field trip to YorkYorkshire Museum
Not a huge tourist attraction, but a small and wonderful collection of everything you need to appreciate the era, including some fabulous swords.
And, if you must: Jorvik Viking Center Museum

While in York, jump eras and enjoy the medieval Shambles (don’t miss Margaret Clitherow’s chapel) and an entire Victorian re-creation at the York Castle Museum. Oh, yeah, there’s a cathedral there too…

Kings Cross (2 hours)

Roman England

The Mithraeum, The City
Mike Bloomberg’s contribution to the history of London, by moving an ancient Roman temple to Mithras where it can be seen the the basement of the Bloomberg building. Overly dramatic lighting and sound helps one imagine the temple as it would have been, but the ruins alone are very cool. But, as noted before, you’ll need to teach about the rites of Mithras.

District or Circle line – Cannon Street

Field trip to Roman Baths in Bath
Bath is really more of an 18th century place, but the Roman Baths are so complete they’re a must-see. To jump eras and go all 18th century, tour the town.

Paddington to Bath Spa (1.5 hours)

Field trip to Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex
If Roman mosaic floors are more your thing, this is the place. It was excavated in 1960 by Barry Cunliffe shortly after its discovery by a water engineer (this is the same Sir Barry who was so kind in helping get his textbook for my students). There is also a museum on site.

London Bridge (a little under 2 hours)

Norman

Tower of London
Crowded with tourists, the Norman feature here is the White Tower. Skip the Crown Jewels and crawl around the tower any way you can. It is pricey, at £23/adult, but you can also see the Bloody Tower and the Royal Mint exhibit. The courtyard itself is of interest as it surrounds the tower and makes it easier to see how a castle worked, with central fortification and outbuildings. Also nearby is Tower Bridge, but that’s Victorian (and a damn good piece of engineering).

Tower Hill

Field trip to Hastings
The ruins of Hastings Castle are a 10-minute walk from the rail station.

Charing Cross (but also stops at Waterloo and London Bridge stations) (1 hour, 45 minutes)

Overnight field trip to Durham
Norman castle, Norman cathedral (voted best Evensong by…me!) – the place drips with Norman stuff. Plus England’s third university. If it’s summer (till mid-September), stay at UniversityRooms in the castle if you book far enough ahead.

Kings Cross (3 hours)

 


Medieval

Field trip – Canterbury Cathedral

From Private Eye

Assign The Canterbury Tales (or at least that of the Wife of Bath and one of the churchmen) then go here. Visit the site where Thomas Becket was killed and compare it to assassinations today.

from St Pancras (about an hour)

Westminster Abbey
Although finished in the 16th century, it was begun in the Middle Ages, and Chaucer is buried here. If you don’t mind missing Poet’s Corner, the best way to enjoy it is for services, since there are no crowds.

London Bridge (a little under 2 hours)

Temple Church
I couldn’t care less about The DaVinci Code, but it’s because of that book that it’s so hard to get in and see Temple Church, which is really quite lovely inside. It’s now £5 to visit, and I don’t blame them a bit, but as with all recalcitrant churches, I suggest learning a bit about Anglican traditions and going to a service (and donating accordingly, of course).

Temple or Blackfriars – it’s a little tricky to get to so see their advice


Elizabethan

While it might be tempting to go the Old Globe, it’s a new building and the performances I’ve seen have not been sterling. If you’re really into the Tudors, I’d stick to the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace instead.

Hampton Court Palace
The kitchens are fantastic! It costs more (about £20 per adult) but worth it.

 District  to Richmond, then bus R68 (a little over an hour)

Field trip to Portsmouth
Home to the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s flagship raised in 1982. A little pricey at £17, but cheaper online in advance and how often do you get to see a 500-year-old ship?

Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour (about 1.5 hours)

English Civil War

Banqueting House
Built by Inigo Jones (1622) and featuring a ceiling painted by Rubens (enjoy looking at it from comfy bean bag seats), this is the last surviving piece of Palace of Whitehall. Charles I was executed just outside the first floor window, where they built a scaffold so everyone would have a good view. It’s mostly one giant room, so see it on the way to or from other sights on Whitehall.

Westminster

Restoration

St. Paul’s Cathedral
The original having burned down in the Great Fire (see the model at the Museum of London), Christopher Wren rebuilt nearly on the full footprint, 1675-1708.

Monument

Monument
Right next to the tube station, it’s impressive and if you want to wait in the queue you can go to the top. Also built by Christopher Wren. See my discussion of the Great Fire and its commemoration in my previous post.

Monument

Greenwich
There’s the Old Royal Naval College if you can’t get enough of Christopher Wren, but the reason to go is the Prime Meridien, where time starts, and the Royal Observatory, financed by Charles II and at first housing John Flamsteed, royal astronomer and creator of a fabulous star atlas.

London Bridge to Greenwich (also by DLR over-ground train) about 25 minutes

 


18th century

Portsmouth againCaptian James Cook, Captain Bligh – so many names are associated with Portsmouth.  Nelson’s flagship The Victory is there, which is why I put this in the 18th century, but so are

St Martin-in-the-Fields church, Trafalgar Square
Not just for visiting the architecture, but instead of services go for the fantastic music (classical in the evenings, and jazz) and the Crypt Cafe underneath, which has good food and you eat right on top of the tombstones. Neo-classical architecture.

Charing Cross

Strawberry Hill, Twickenham
Horace Walpole’s neo-Gothic Georgian monstrosity. He set a trend in Gothic Revival. Not necessarily a good trend, but a trend.

  Waterloo to Strawberry Hill
 District  to Richmond, then bus R68

Osterley House
Built earlier, but reformulated by Robert Adam in the 1760s. The most complete Adam there is.

A bit tricky, but I’d take the tube to Bow Street and change to the light rail to the Langdon Park DLR station.

Industrial Revolution

London Science Museum: Energy Hall
And even beyond Energy Hall, there are fantastic exhibits about the history of agriculture and much more. Worth finding! Jump to the later industrial era at the Victoria and Albert Museum next door (be sure to eat in the Morris Room at the cafe), then walk up Brompton Road to Harrods (although the current building is actually Edwardian).

South Kensington


Victorian

Old Operating Museum and Herb Garret, discussed elsewhere on this blog, it’s a long hike up a small windy staircase but the payoff is the only operating theatre from this era, where they now give lectures on the history of medicine, plus a garrett full of herbal remedies and old medical instruments. (For jumping eras, the Shard, Southwark Cathedral, and Borough Market are all nearby)

London Bridge

— or — Grant Museum of Zoology, a Victorian museum still used by the University of London. Lots of squishy dead animals in jars — very cool.

Euston Square

Leadenhall Market
Don’t go on a Saturday if you want to eat or shop — it’s in The City so not much is there on the weekends except the buildings. And yes, yes, it was in Harry Potter.

Monument

Victoria Embankment
Walk along the river. The Houses of Parliament are Victorian neo-gothic, and there are statues from the Victorian era, and representing Victorian people, along the way, especially in Victoria Embankment Gardens. If you prefer the southern route (no traffic! pedestrians only!), try Queen’s Walk.

Red House, Bexleyheath
Not quite a field trip, but a little out of the way south of London. Home of William Morris, completed in 1860, with lovely designs and secret paintings on the walls.

Charing Cross, Victoria, Cannon Street to Bexleyheath, then 15 minute walk

Field trip to Oxford for the Natural History Museum/Pitt Rivers Museum
Covered elsewhere on this blog, you can’t get more Victorian than these.


Fin de Siecle, First World War, Between the Wars

Imperial War Museum
Also good for the Blitz.

Elephant and Castle, then walk

Memorial in Foxton, sponsored by William Briggs

Every memorial cross in every town
Most towns have a memorial cross to the fallen of the First World War. In London, there’s the Cenotaph in Whitehall and the memorial to war animals in Park Lane.  Every cathedral and many churches have memorials. Poppies are still visible on memorials and still for sale as pins, and not just because of the centenary.

Barbican

Senate House

Part of the University of London, it was begun in 1932 and is hugely Art Deco. During the world wars it was used by the Ministry of Information, inspiring both Graham Greene and George Orwell to use it as fearful ministries in their books. It’s used a lot in movies. The area of Bloomsbury which is next to it was the home of the Bloomsbury Set (writers including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey, plus artists like Vanessa Bell).

Russell Square

 


World War II

Cabinet War Rooms
Technically part of the Imperial War Museum, the war rooms are expensive at £19/adult and can be crowded. They were opened in 1984, which is “new”, so many people haven’t seen them yet (including me).

Westminster

HMS Belfast
Also part of the Imperial War Museum, it’s right there on the Thames, and it’s enormous. The ship saw action in World War II, but more in Korea and as an Arctic exploration ship. You can climb up and down the stairs and visit re-created areas (the galley and sick bay are especially good) with mannikins so real they’re kind of spooky.  A visit is easily combined with Old Operating Theatre and other Southwark attractions to jump eras.

London Bridge

Field trip to Dover – for the intrepid only!
If you can go here without singing “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover“, you haven’t seen enough old movies. You can visit the tunnels but you have to get a ticket and then walk a long way to get to the tunnels.

Victoria Station (about 2 hours) to Dover Priory, then it’s a couple of miles so Bus 60, then a long (American) walk — worth a taxi, and they’ll call one for you from the visitor centre when you’re done

 


Post-war, 1950s-1970s

Dennis Severs’ house
Part installation art, part history, partly bizarre, created by an American. You need to book in advance and it’s not really marked on the outside. Only a few people may go in at a time. The three floors are supposed to represent a Flemish family’s house from the 17th to 20th centuries, but by the time you get done you’re celebrating the coronation of Elizabeth II. Must be experienced to be understood.

Liverpool Street, then walk

National Theatre
The company is a bit older than the architecturally controversial building, which opened in 1977, so it was new when I first went there, and I felt very welcome. Like the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Opera House, it’s a public theatre. There has always been a sense that it belongs to the people, that its purpose is to provide a creative space for the city and its populace. Ticket prices are good and performances excellent.

Waterloo

Camden Market

Carnaby Street may not be what it was, but Camden is as close as you can get to the spirit of 1960s London.

Camden Town


Late 20th-21st century

Tate Modern
There is no better venue for modern art. Open till 10 pm Friday and Saturday. Take the lift to the Restaurant and pretend you’re looking for something, just to see the view.

London Bridge or Southwark, then walk

Millenium Bridge
Right out back of the Tate Modern is the pedestrian bridge. Apparently it had a swaying problem at first, but it was corrected. From the bridge, which crosses the Thames to near St Paul’s, you can see many of the newer landmarks of London.

 

So that’s Lisa’s Magical History Tour. Enjoy!

On this site

There is nothing more basic to history than the idea that things change. Buildings are torn down to make way for what society needs at the time, or what business decides it needs. In Britain, buildings can be saved by being “listed” as Grade I, II*, or II. Grade I is for places like Buckingham Palace. Listed buildings cannot be torn down or altered without permission, so people often complain when they want to make upgrades on their listed house. The idea goes back to a monument protection act in 1882.

Not all places that are lost were torn down, of course. The Great Fire of London in 1666 did a number on the whole city, destroying many buildings. Commemoration of these places is also part of history. Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire began in a bakery is commemorated on the site:

It’s almost as if the bakers themselves have taken responsibility. Around the corner is Christopher Wren’s enormous monument to the fire, somewhat hidden by modern buildings.

 

This always strikes me as a monument to the resilience of an extraordinary city. But in the Museum of London is the other part of the monument, a reminder of the ability of humans to blame each other for their differences.

 

Put up in 1681, it blames Catholics for the fire. Another example of how monuments are interpretive objects, not just memory, as I’ve written before about Confederate monuments in the American Civil War. The British get the idea of putting objectionable history in a museum so people can think about it, not just pass it on their way to work.

In my own research, removed and altered buildings are more of an issue. The University Correspondence College in Cambridge looked like this:

This trip I stopped by Parker’s Piece, which the College overlooked. It was, appropriately, Freshers’ Day on the Piece, with a festival to welcome incoming students to the University of Cambridge. And here, where the UCC used to stand, is the carpark I’d heard about.

Isn’t it lovely, with the cars hidden by white slats? When I mentioned to a Cambridge resident and distance education expert over coffee that it was a shame that one had to tear down such a beautiful building, his remark was, “for those who like that sort of thing”. We agreed it had been a Victorian monstrosity. I just happen to like Victorian monstrosities.

In other places, buildings remain but have been repurposed.

Up on Kilburn Road in London is the site of the old Henley House School. Here J.V. Milne was headmaster, and H.G. Wells was a schoolmaster. But it’s A.A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, who gets the plaque. And the buildings are now flats.

The old site of the laboratories at South Kensington, where Wells learned biology with T.H. Huxley, has been absorbed into the Victoria and Albert Museum photographic archive and library which, unfortunately, has no photos of the original labs. These might be at what South Ken became, the Imperial College, but that’s a search for another trip. Outside, however, the building remains.

Sometimes historic sites are uncovered in the process of creating new sites. There are several rivers under the streets of London (the Fleet comes to mind). Walbrook River was the water supply for an ancient Roman site which included a temple to Mithras. According to the publicity, it was discovered in the 1960s and reconstructed hastily at a nearby site. I certainly never knew it was there, and I couldn’t find anything on the internet about its existence prior to now.

Michael Bloomberg, creating his European headquarters on the old site, had the temple moved back to near where it had been, and gifted the City with a tourist destination. You can now see the Mithraeum below his building. Extraordinary amounts of money have been spent. It is free, but timed tickets are required, and only 20 or so people are allowed in for a timed visit. The steps down to the temple mark the archaeological eras on the wall. Sound and lighting effects (wonderfully cheap LED lighting effects — I couldn’t have done better in my days as a theatrical lighting designer) make it an “experience”. 600 of the items they excavated are in a case in the waiting area.

Having spent a number of years in the theatre myself, it always intrigues me when history becomes theatre. Sometimes people’s imaginations need to be encouraged in order to engage the past at all, and of course Bloomberg and others employed archaeologists and historians, which is always a good thing. However, I remember being at a conference on visual history in Durham, and hearing a historian who had worked in Stratford-upon-Avon. They were creating Shakespeare’s schoolhouse as a tourist attraction, and had hired historians to verify the details. The trouble is, there is no evidence at all of which school Shakespeare attended, whether the school would still exist, or whether he even attended school there or elsewhere. This has not stopped it from becoming an attraction, refurbished as accurately as possible to the period.

As well as including things that may not have happened, artistic license for history can also leave things out. The Mithraeum, while noting the slaying of a bull as sacred to the proceedings there, does not mention the gay orgies that were an integral part of the religion. I suppose that would be a bit much for the tourists.

 

Books!

I confess — one thing I always do in Britain is visit second-hand bookshops. I can’t walk past one. From Oxfam charity shops to G. David in Cambridge, I have to take a look.

Among my acquired treasures this trip are Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb (from Wheeler’s Bookshop in Midhurst, purchased from Simon Wheeler personally), a book of 19th century plays (£1 from G. David), a book by Charles Williams in the same imprint as another I already have (Oxfam), a ration book from 1947 (20p at Blackwell’s), a book called Cricket Matches 1860-1863 (one of a series) that shows Joseph Wells (HG’s father) bowling that incredible four-thing I still need to figure out, and the Cambridge Lectures of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (£2). This last has a sticker in it showing it was once owned by H.H. Huxley, a Cambridge professor of classics who apparently likes to change English into Latin (sounds like alchemy to me).

I’m afraid I feel a little like Helene Hanff, minus the New York part, and the successful author part. And minus the martinis and cigarettes (I could work on that if I put my mind to it). But still. She was my age when she published 84, Charing Cross Road. Like her, I seek bargains, and have particular books I want. Like her, I am seeking to educate myself because of gaps in my education. Thus I am specifically looking for small-format, hard-cover, older editions, small enough to carry in my purse, or hold over my head in bed without risk of dropping and chipping a tooth.

Now that the Royal Mail doesn’t have a “printed rate” anymore, it costs a bit more to send them home, but you can post a box of up to 5kg so long as it’s all printed material (otherwise you can only go to 2kg).

All this doesn’t mean I don’t also go to shops with new books. Must help authors who are still alive, I say.  This trip it’s Daunt Books for that, since I’m in Marylebone. The front room has all the books for reading.

Daunt Books, Marylebone

The back room is for travel books, but really it’s just to look at the back room, which is justly famous. Not the best picture, but it’s ok.

Time to stock up on new fiction paperbacks!

 

The Cafe Royal

It is the place of kings. And queens. And Oscar Wilde and David Bowie (whom one might put in either category). And Churchill.

I didn’t know most of that at the time. What I knew was that I had promised to take my friend Jane to tea while we were both in London, a fancy afternoon tea, the kind you read about. So I looked online.

I had originally thought The Dorchester. Oh, maybe a bit too expensive, but booked out anyway. Fortnum and Mason? Grocer to the Queen, but still — a bit ordinary. Harrods? Out of the way, since I didn’t want to be in South Ken on a Sunday. But of course I was drawn to Cafe Royal. They were booked for all but unreasonable hours (does one really want to drink full pots of tea at 7 pm?), but I kept checking online and something good opened, so that was it.

Cafe Royal was where Oscar Wilde fell in love with Alfred. That’s all I needed to know.

I was early, so I wanted to see where to go. I knew it was at the Hotel Cafe Royal. I saw a cafe through windows, but it looked rather ordinary. Surely that couldn’t be it? It took me a minute to realize the doorman was there to open the door for me, not to prevent me from entering, so I went in. Just a big lobby. I approached a desk with a man sporting a helpful expression. I smiled. “I’m lost”, I said. He looked sympathetic. “Aren’t we all?” he said, but eschewed philosophical discussion and pointed me toward a door, a very private-looking door except that it had a podium in front of it. The sign said “The Grill Room” so I knew that was it, and went outside to wait.

Well, not wait. It’s London, after all. One short passage and I was in the largest Waterstones bookshop I’d ever seen. Six floors of books!

Don’t worry — I just bought one book. A Julian Barnes. I’ve never read Julian Barnes.

We had the afternoon tea of our lives in the Grill Room. A host took my Marks and Spencer trench coat to the cloakroom, where I had to hunt it down later, then forgot to tip (does one tip at a place like this?). A waiter advised us throughout the meal: start with black tea and end with tisane, start at the top with the first caddy and at the bottom with the second, and would we like more of anything? A man in a hat played “Tea for Two” on the piano. I haven’t been this pampered since I was in nappies, as they say. It is amazing what money can do. What it couldn’t do, however, was make me appropriate to that room. A middle-class, chubby, underdressed, 50-something American academic just doesn’t fit in (Jane did much better — she’s always lovely). So I’ll just end with photos.

Pillars, Cafe Royal

Can you see us in the mirror(s)?

Round one

Round two

Finding HG

One may have thought, for all the tourist things I’ve been doing, that I’m not doing my research. But it’s easy to show I’m working on HG Wells, since he is everywhere. I bought a copy of Christina Alberta’s Father at a second-hand bookshop. I have a copy of The Sea Raiders in my purse. And, of course, there are the plaques:

HG Wells plaque, Chiltern Court, Baker Street

This one is right next to the entrance to the Baker Street tube.

According to The Independent, HG hosted a book club here in a flat, and a lot of other famous people are associated with it as well. Apparently Wells lived here between 1930 and 1936 (not a period I’m studying).

And then, of course, there’s the rabbit hole of information they call the British Library. They have a tendency to be open till 8 pm, making it possible to miss dinner (always a crime in my opinion). Since you cannot bring water or food into the reading rooms, I easily dehydrate since I get too absorbed in my work to leave my table and go outside the area, taking my card to get back in, to get a sip at the drinking fountain or have a meal at the lovely restaurant.

British Library restaurant

I suppose if I dessicate completely, they can just cart me down the road to the British Museum and put me with the mummies.

My task yesterday was to take a peek at a few journals, to see if a periodical research project is viable. But while flipping through one of them, I noticed an item mentioned that in another journal, HG Wells had recently written a piece on text-books. Now, I thought I had all of his pieces on textbooks. I ordered it, meaning I’ll have to return in two days, the day before I leave, just to scan it.

After leaving the reading room (it had been six hours with only one tea break), I went to the News Room, because I couldn’t remember where one could access the British Newspapers Archive. They told me you could access it in all the reading rooms, but theirs was the best, because obviously it was the News room.

You can search the newspaper database online, but unless you pay you cannot access the newspapers. Except at the British Library, where it’s free. And you can print, for 28p per page.

Ah, search terms. “H.G. Wells”. Funny, doesn’t seem like enough came up — only a few dozen items. “H. G. Wells”. What a difference a space makes! And you can limit the search to years: 1880-1899.

Now: “University Correspondence College”. Just the same articles on Briggs’ legal tangle that I saw last time. “Correspondence study”. A few items of interest. “Correspondence college”. A few more. “Samuel J. Tildesley” (I’ve seen him in ads before, for a correspondence college in Edinburgh). Oh! He went bankrupt, even before the ads I’ve seen. The only thing more fun to research than a successful business venture is one that was unsuccessful…

 

Last stop Oxford

I have no idea why I like Oxford so much. I avoid George Street like the plague, would walk miles to avoid the toilets at the rail station, and head for the Eagle and Child only to end up at Itsu. But I know my way around, could spend all day at Blackwell Books and the Natural History Museum, count walking Port Meadow as one of my all-time favourite activities, and I love the Bodleian.

It’s silly to love a library. And of course, I’ve been there before. But it’s centrally located, unlike the Cambridge University Library, and they are so kind.

My library card had expired on June 22, so I had to do the application for a card over again. But they updated my card, upgraded my status so I could view a special collection, and gave me a new card, all in minutes. Didn’t even make me do another photo. Because my card had expired, they had permitted me to order everything I needed by email instead, and it was all ready for me.

Now, the Bodleian isn’t perfect. The card costs quite a bit. There was no trolley to haul my books, like I’d had at the British Library — it took me three trips from service desk to table. There was no drinking fountain conveniently located – it was down three flights of stairs. And their computer system did erase my entire e-cart when my card expired, forcing me to reconstruct my list the week before I left. But love is blind.

In the Weston (new) Library is the John Johnson Collection of ephemera, with Box 43: Education. This was why I needed special clearance. I arrive and was given the precious box, and told there was another (Box 45, apparently) waiting for me too. I was seeking ads or items about correspondence colleges. Many of the items were fragile, and this condition was not helped by their being taped to pieces of heavy paper. I managed not to tear or soil anything, and found gems like this:

Note the date, though: many items were from the 1930s rather than earlier. But I did found some, and I was happy, and I went up to ask for the other box, but was told I had to return the first one before I could have it. So I handed it to the librarian, and he got me the other box. This had more things about lower schools, rather than colleges, but had some interesting tracts on eduction, such as Illustrations of the Interrogative System of Education (1823) by a Sir Richard Phillips that recommended what we today would call “active learning”.

That’s when I packed up Box 45, stood up to turn it in, and realised I couldn’t find my library card. I looked all round my desk, and in my bag (they make you put everything you can bring inside a clear plastic bag – nothing was hiding). No card. I thought, “oh no! it got mixed up with these papers!”  I took every item back out of Box 45 first and sorted through every single page, carefully turning each item individually, but it wasn’t in there.

I thought, “oh no! Box 43!”. The librarian had kindly advised that I not declare that I was finished with a box until I was quite sure, so he’d kept Box 43 for me. I told  him he was right (but not why) and exchanged boxes. I carefully went through every single item in Box 43. No card. And here fate intervened, as another scholar went up to the desk to check out an item, and handed over his card, and said, “you keep that, then?” and the librarian explained that yes, they keep your card as long as you have a box out. It is a sign of how tired I was on this trip that I had forgotten he had kept my card.

Over at the Old Bodleian, where your card is swiped instead of held, I discovered that Bodleian librarians are quick with a knife.

One of the journals I’d ordered had clearly never been read, not since it was printed in 1888. I know this because the pages weren’t cut yet. At first I thought it was just one page, but there were many. After the third time bringing it to the desk so the librarian could cut one with a letter knife, he asked if I would like the knife so I could cut them myself? I told him I’d be terrified. I was quite sure that I, clumsy at the best of times, had no business slicing open 130-year-old pages. Thanks, though.

I found many advertisements I was looking for, and a photo I needed.

So why do I love the Bodleian?

Among the many other reasons is this: the windows.

Not only do they allow light in, but the staff still permits me to take items to the window to photograph them in the light. At the British Library, as I’ve complained to many people, they request that you don’t even stand up. The National Archives has camera racks, but if  you don’t have an old-style camera the rack just blocks the light. Cambridge is better, but the light is artificial.

But at the Bodleian the sun shines on your work. Worth the whole thing.

 

World Cup and Brexit

As it happened, I was here in England when the Brexit vote occurred two years ago. The night before the vote, I had dined with some European students who were concerned about their education and their personal relationships, both of which depended on free movement between Britain and Europe. The next day I heard from a cabbie how thrilled he was at the vote, because he was convinced money would come back from Europe and save the National Health Service. I witnessed the complacency of the papers announcing the polls showing a Remain victory, and the despair of educated people following the vote.

Two years on and Britain is still in the throes of polarised politics, even as the May government struggles to survive under criticism (much of which is manufactured by the media to sell papers). The snap election May stupidly called made everything worse. The government has an impossible job, and the Labour party has bizarre leadership and strange ideas of how to garner support. The Lib Dems continue to languish, even as their policy proposals make the most sense.

Britain is also having a heat wave right now, with everyone talking about how unseasonable the weather is. (I’ve been here each summer for the past several years, and always during a heat wave, so I’d say this is the new normal season — I’d call it “summer”.) The moors caught fire and everyone is dragging out rarely used garden hoses to save their gardens before water rationing is declared.

But now the England football team has been winning at the World Cup. You can complain about the government, optimistically refer to the “fine” weather as you sweat in your sandals and trousers cut with scissors at the knees (the train conductor had done this), or you can watch the football. So while in Cambridge, I heard there was an opportunity to view the quarter-finals at the air-conditioned cinema instead of in a pub, getting elbowed and beer-showered. You had to get the free tickets in the morning for the 14:30 match, so I did and got one before they ran out.

I’m a fair weather fan of big events: Olympics, Super Bowl, World Series, Wimbledon, World Cup. Not really a sports fan, but I had watched England win to get to this point, and wanted very much to see the match with other fans, instead of in my dorm room by myself. The two guys next to me drank copious amounts of beer. One spent most of the match in the beer line, while the other (after politely asking me whom I was rooting for) yelled at the players about everything they did, while the similarly-aged woman next to me told me she was rooting for England, of course, but weren’t those Swedish players handsome?

When England won, everyone was so happy and excited and completely ignoring the challenge of the semi-finals. The guys told me, “see you back here for the final!” Out in the streets people poured out of doorways, singing “It’s coming home!” (meaning the Cup, I assume) and flying flags and causing police to become concerned.

I was happy for England, and not just the team and the fans. Although I heard more people ostentatiously avoiding the football (and many calling it “soccer”, which seemed to be a slur), many more were totally engaged. It had been 12 years since England had made quarter-finals, and 28 years since they’d won one.

And my thought was how wonderful this was for a country torn apart by all the antipathies and mistrust that’s gone along with Brexit. British people, like Americans, woke up after election day to find the nation they’d thought of as united actually divided by deep rifts. I was not the only one to believe that the football was important as a unifier – I heard coach Gareth Southgate say so too, along with many others.

Tonight I’ll watch the semi-finals (in a living room with a friend and sports fan), and think of so many people doing the same, having this at least in common with the “other” Britain.