Lester Lee – Chinese/English translator and freelance writer

This blog will host articles and other works authored by me in various fields – poetry, philosophy, science, history, politics, current affairs, music – and anything else which seizes my attention and imagination!

Somniloquies on London

My Dear Friends,

 

Somniloquies on London (1) – Pearls from Tung Chiao

 

「…住過倫敦的人一輩子忘不了倫敦的夏天:悠閒的墮落,慵懶的征服,溫暖的消極。滿桌歡笑的晚飯叨的是窗外那抹彩霞的光;青青斜坡下的野餐,冰鎮白酒等不到讀完八頁小說,竟然暖暖濡濕了高高的玻璃杯。輕輕打了個盹,走到小溪邊洗一把臉,矮樹叢裡一粒粒紫莓也此前忽然更紅更紫了。從城外到城裡,倫敦的女人都脫掉維多利亞緊身褡的矜持,走到街上還散發昨夜溫存的餘韻…」

 

       This is a paragraph from Tung Chiao’s essay “Summer comes to London”(董橋《倫敦的夏天等你來》).  I hope it will convey a little of the flavour of the London summer which YY and I have just relished, and which I cannot hope to describe so deliciously in my own words.

 

       So we waved good-bye to Regina and How Hung at the Lester Pearson Airport, Toronto on 16 June and flew to London, while – I don’t know how I managed it – forgetting to bring our London travel guide along.  We had never been to London, and we were thus “travellers without a map”.  Perhaps not quite.

 

       I have read tidbits about London before.  From books, articles, and stories such as Tung Chiao’s.  I read parts of H.V. Morton’s “In Search of London, and translated several pages of it some years ago.  I am familiar with many landmarks by name: the Thames, the Big Ben, the Buckingham Palace, the Westminster Bridge, the Tower of London, Bloomsbury, Soho, Hyde Park, Downing Street, Fleet Street, Baker Street, the British Museum,  Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, Russell Square, Charing Cross, the Harrods, etc. etc.  So I am not entirely ignorant of London.  With a complimentary map from the hotel, I thought, we should manage pretty well. 

 

       We were put up at a hotel at Bayswater, two minutes from Hyde Park.  It was most probably converted from some old-style tenement buildings which are full of character.  Our room was rather cramped but it served the purpose.  I was worried that YY wouldn’t acclimatize to any change of weather, though it was summer in both London and Toronto. She dare not part with her woollies and always had a scarf handy.  As it turned out, the weather was rather warm throughout our stay.

 

       We got our complimentary map, and that was all we needed.  Once we sorted out a “traveller’s pass” we were “in business”.  The beauty of London is that it is an old city that resists drastic change even with the push of property developers.  The thoroughfares and most of the streets could not change, and the tube routes have been in place for decades.  An old city map ten or twenty years would still be quite serviceable, and much of what I read about London even in old books would still be relevant.  That certainly gave us confidence and helped us feel more relaxed finding our way around.

 

       I guess you have all been to London before.  So you most probably wouldn’t find anything new from what I shall be saying about our short sojourn there.  If you could all share your views and feelings about the city, so much the better.

 

       Now back to Tung Chiao’s passage.  I find it fiendishly difficult to translate into English, particularly the decadence-captivation-passivity conundrum and the naughty bit at the very end.  I hope Tung Chiao himself will give us a demonstration.  It should be child play for him, as the original is couched in language somewhat western in style.  And I would invite the rest of you, particularly Tak Ming, How Hung, Yu Yuen, Tsan Wing and Leung Bing, all translators par excellance, to try your hands on it.  I have come up with my rather lame version here, just to attract your pearls of wisdom.

 

       “…Anyone who has lived in London will never forget the London summer: that feeling of easeful decadence, lazy surrender, and warm passivity.  The gaiety at the dinner table is courtesy of the rosy cloud beyond the window; at the lunch down the lush slope, the tall goblets are already misted by the chilled white wine before you finish reading that eight-page novelette.  After a cat nap, you go to the brook to freshen up, and find every single berry on the bushes suddenly become redder and darker.  In and out of town, the women of London have broken through the stiffness of their Victorian corsets, and as they walk onto the streets, still carry the aroma of their tenderness from the night…”

 

        

Somniloquies on London (2): Hyde Park and the Soho Chinatown

 

  When we were flying out from Lester Pearson in Toronto, I was intrigued that no immigration officers checked our passports.  It was the same on arrival at Heathrow, and again when we left London for Helsinki.  What with all that anti-terrorism talk!  (As I’m writing, UK is again on the highest alert over the car bombs at London and Glasgow.)  I am told that’s a special arrangement amongst European countries and with Canada, but still…   I confess to being a totally naive and ignorant traveller.

 

  We arrived in London in the morning.  On our way to the hotel we saw much old architecture by the roadside (it might well be just the facade, as KL pointed out).  That afternoon, we took a stroll in the Kensington Gardens but not Hyde Park, which is part of the Gardens.  There were surprisingly no flowers; I thought the English love flowers.  It was Sunday and there were quite a few visitors.  The sun was playing hide and seek, and many fellas stripped to their waist trying to soak up as much ultraviolet as they could, not to mention those skimpily clad lassies.  They should all come to Australia, silly sun-worshippers.

 

  Then we decided to sample a bit of street life.  YY suggested Chinatown, so we headed for Soho, on foot.  We proceeded along Praed Street, turned into Edgware and then Oxford Street.  The shops and cafes in much of that sizeable district were thronged with Middle-Easterners, hardly any Caucasians.  I am sure those ‘aliens’ are often viewed with misgivings.  Many Britons understandably deplore multiculturalism.  But that is the necessary price they pay for their imperialist past. Earlier in the hotel, I had seen on television Margaret Thatcher et al in a celebration of the 25th anniversary of British triumph at the Falklands, with much pomp and circumstance.

 

  An hour’s slow walk took us to Soho. I was thinking of the secondhand bookshops on Charing Cross Road.  But they had to wait for another day.  Chinatown was the priority, and we needed a good feed.  It was a pleasant surprise to see Chinatown so tidy.  Falungong supporters were distributing free papers. There were more whites there than we saw along Edgware Road.  Not being a gourmet like KL, I was quite satisfied with the food served at the restaurant we went to, only that it was twice as expensive as in Toronto.

 

  YY was not about to rise early in the morning.  So I stole out of bed at 5 am and spent three hours at Hyde Park.  I saw a couple of back-packers ‘camping’ there, fast asleep on the grass with clothes hanging on the twigs. The Kensington Gardens covered 760 acres.  They were created by William and Mary in 1689 in the Dutch style, and were subsequently embellished by Charles Bridgman the royal gardener and the Victorians.  The Gardens were opened to the public under government management in 1851.  Public parks have since been one of the finest features of British life.  Remember the Hong Kong Botanical Gardens back in our childhood days?  The best thing about them is that they are for the free enjoyment of the citizens, who come for space, for solitude, or a bit of nature.  They are the equivalent of those craggy hills so loved by the high-minded Chinese of past ages. 

 

  A lady tourist guide we bumped into later said that too many people complain about the high cost of living in London, but forget the many free amenities and services they enjoy there, like the parks, museums and libraries.  How true.

 

 *****************

  I must admit I was grossly inaccurate and guilty of too much editorialising in my translation of the last sentence from Tung Chiao’s paragraph: “In and out of town, the women of London have broken through the stiffness of their Victorian corsets, and as they walk onto the streets, still carry the aroma of their tenderness from the night…”, Perhaps I should say: “… and as they saunter onto the streets, their cadence (still) betrays the tenderness of their night.” Any suggestions, please!

 

Somniloquies on London (3) – Gravitas on clay

 

  London sits on clay, I am told, and so there is no ‘skyline’ to be seen.  That is a blessing for those who don’t particularly care for tall man-made structures.  But London does have many  buildings of great stature, and gravitas, sitting on its clay.

 

  We spent a morning, just one morning, touring the surrounds of Westminster Abbey, the House of Parliament, Whitehall, and Buckingham Palace.  On shallower lands, and commissioned by shallower minds, so-called monumental buildings would  appear merely imposing and overbearing –  wearying ‘obstructions’, to borrow a word from D. H. Lawrence.  But not these magnificent specimens we saw.  I certainly have a soft spot for England – now commonly derided as a nation in decline –  and lots of respect and admiration for the strength of her traditions and institutions which those stately buildings have come to represent.

 

  For in these symbols reside the roots of much of the British genius.  The Westminster system represents the highest political wisdom the world has come up with, through parliamentary government that rests mainly on the British character, which is, I think fairly, summed up by Peter Grosvenor and James McMillan in the book “The British Genius”.  That national character consists in, amongst other things, Saxon stubbornness, refusal to bow before despots, a sense of fair play, an ability to ‘think long’, Puritan thrift, sobriety, self-help, moderation, distrust of cold logic and sheer intellectualism, and a fondness for feeling one’s way to the right decision.  It is all these that build democracy and the rule of law and make them successful. 

 

  Loitering around Buckingham Palace in this 21st century, you would think that the monarchy is nothing but an anachronism.  The royal scandals of the last couple of decades have not helped.  It is hard to see how the monarchy can survive as it is in another couple of generations.  Even in Australia, the republican movement is gathering great momentum.  But the virtues of  constitutional monarchy as a system of government should not be underrated.  Prime Ministers come and go, but it is the King or Queen (presumably well-adjusted), who is above party politics and usually sees through several Parliaments, that can provide wisdom to the PM and continuity and ‘ballast to the Ship of State’.  Traditionally, since the days of the despots, it is the Sovereign that the people truly loves, not the politicians, even great statesmen.  Compared to this, the high office of President in the US, for example, appears inadequate.  When the presidency is shaken by scandals, as with Nixon, or tarred by major blunders, as with GWB, a great sense of disillusionment sets in and the nation easily loses its direction.  The Americans are at the moment desperate to find ballast for their Ship of State.  “What We Can Learn from JFK” is the cover story of Time Magazine just out.

 

   It was very crowded near Westminster Bridge.  We walked up Parliament Street, but were unable to see the door of 10 Downing Street as the outside gate was locked and guarded.  The old government buildings around bring not a little nostalgia.  I didn’t know that ‘Whitehall‘, the name of the area, is a term of abuse.  For Whitehall represents the civil service, which is held in low esteem, and this, despite the fact that the British are extraordinarily well served by their public servants, as Grosvenor & McMillan insisted.  WH is in the habit of denouncing big government, and has rarely said a good word about the HK public service.  But I think that is due to his laissez-faire liberal philosophy, and means no disrespect for the many amongst us who once worked for the government.  Is that right?

 

  YY had enough of Westminster, so I took her to the Harrods on Brompton Road, only four stations away.  Window-shopping was all we could afford.

 

Somniloquies on London (4) – Charing Cross goldmine

 

  When we first decided to visit Canada, London wasn’t on my mind at all.  YY suggested we include it in our itinerary because I had so often talked about the bookshops there.  Of course I had been just talking.  What did I know?

 

  So we came to London, and in the end I actually only spent half a day book-hunting.  The books I crave for most – to see, not necessarily to read – are secondhand books.  I am not talking antiquarians, just old or older books, not contemporary titles.  So Foyle’s interested me less than the several secondhand bookshops on the opposite side of Charing Cross Road.  There was a big sale on in one of them: every book in the basement went for just one pound. Countless gems there were, but I could only carry a handful, as the shop did not have mailing service, and it was too hard for me to post the books myself.  So I went away not unlike one who returns empty-handed from a gold mine. 

 

  And I would have loved to spend a whole week in those bookshops, though there are not really that many on Charing Cross, and I had no time to hunt in other parts of the city.  My feeling is that the wonderful world of secondhand bookshops in London might just be romantic fiction these days, as Liulichang in Beijing is said to be [I have not even been to Beijing].   Some years ago, I read that because of high rent, many of the secondhand bookshops in London closed their doors, and some small village out of London became a real book-hunter’s paradise.   I jotted down the name of the town somewhere and have since forgotten where it was.

 

  I would love to call myself a bookworm, but I doubt if I qualify any more, as I have been reading very little these past few years.  A bookworm leads a vicarious existence.  He lives in imagination, and tends to be a romantic fool.  At least I fit this description, and I say this with a straight face.  I don’t know KL well enough, self-confessed bookworm that he is; my guess is that his existence is not that vicarious because of his obvious zest for life, evident from his volubility, community spirit, and passion for fine food. 

 

  Many place names on the map of London triggered my romantic fancy.  Bloomsbury, for example.  As my eyes circled the streets and lanes around Russell Square and the British Museum, I saw in my mind the group of writers and artists active in the 1910s and 1920s who met in that district for philosophicand  aesthetic discussions – the likes of Virginia Woolf, E.M. Foster, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, and J.M. Keynes.  Most of them had studied at Cambridge and were influenced by G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica in their belief in the importance of personal relationships and aesthetic experience.  I cannot quite remember whether Bertrand Russell was heavily involved in the Bloomsbury group, though I remember what he wrote about the his Cambridge acquaintances, including his junior friends Foster, Strachey and Keynes  – that they were an earnest, hard-working and intellectually adventurous bunch, and despite their solemn ambitious had lots of fun and thoroughly enjoyed life, and never got in the way of each other’s individualities. Talk about blooming of a hundred flowers!

 

  I must admit that I have only a passing acquaintance with the works of some of these brilliant minds.  But that was enough to make me feel nostalgic.  Now that we were in London, I decided we must visit Bloomsbury, and perhaps go to Holborn as well to pay homage to that great Dr Johnson. 

 

Somniloquies on London (5) – 13 million books & more under one roof

 

  We headed for Bloomsbury the following morning, and got off at Russell Square.  It turned out to be a small park, surrounded by Hotel Russell and other old buildings.   Remember that breast-feeding woman Tung Chiao wrote about?  There were, alas, no signs of her any more. 

 

  A stone throw from Russell Square is the British Museum.  One of the things I craved to see there was the Diamond Sutra scroll, reputedly the world’s oldest surviving book printed on paper, in the year 868, and discovered at Dunhuang by that Aurel Stein in 1907.   I didn’t know it is housed in the British Library, silly me.   The museum was clogged with troupes of young students that morning, all with notepads in hand.  I was disappointed to see so few items of Chinese treasures.  There was nothing by Gu Kaizhi.  Perhaps it was housed in another section we missed?  Obviously the museum collections are so huge that only selections could be displayed at any one time. But what we did see were still precious stuff, including several tripods from the Shang Dynasty.   There was also a special exhibition of jade pieces on loan from Lee Ming Chak’s family.  

 

  A middle-aged woman at the hall was giving a mini-lecture on Chinese coinage.  She seemed knowledgeable enough, for all I could tell.  She said she was a volunteer trained for that kind of topical presentations.  The museum is certainly very well run, and the specimens (including the booties) are superbly taken care of. I would still say that joined invasion of China by the eight nations was a curse in general, though not in regard to the fate of some of the Chinese treasures.  

 

 There were displays from other cultures of course, but we only managed a brief visit to the Egyptian section, full of hieroglyphics and mummies as one might expect. One could spend  months at the British museum, which has a great mystique about it, haunted with the spirits of so many leading lights who have changed the world in one way or another. Marx, for example, wrote his Das Kapital at the museum. And Keynes and his Bloomsbury group were based in the area.

 

  Keynes and Marx remind us of Adam Smith.  Was it a mere coincidence that the three most important textbooks on economics – The Wealth of Nations, Das Kapital and The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money – were all written in Britain, that tiny nation of shop-keepers?  Smith was the guru of capitalism, and modern capitalism is said to owe practically everything to Keynes, “the man who proved Marx wrong”, through his theories of business cycles, free trade, and national investment.  Economics holds great sway in the world, too disproportionately great a sway, in my view.  As for capitalism, now the ‘socialist’ republic of China has become the most capitalistic in the world. What can you say?

 

  The British Museum is very modern on the inside, and there are modern and contemporary additions, like the central hall, an impressive piece of architecture complete with souvenir shops and cafes.  We had lunch there, and I found the food horrible.  Everything was laced with cheese.  After living in the West for 30 years I still find the eating habits of those guilos hard to understand.  

 

  From the museum we went to the British Library on Euston Road.  It is something Britain is justly proud of.  The library is said to hold 13 million books, 920,000 journal and newspaper titles, 57 million patents and 3 million sound recordings.  But we only had time to see a little of the cultural and literary treasures, on display in the exhibition hall right on the left of the main lobby.  There in special chambers under dim reflected light were Thomas More’s last letter to the King before his execution, some Shakespeare folios, and a couple of Mozart manuscripts.  As for the Diamond Sutra scroll, the real thing was withdrawn from public dispay as considered “too fragile”; instead there was an electronic version of it on screen, complete with scrolling controls and earphones for the chantings.  

 

  So we had only a tiny taste of the great British Museum and the British Library.  It was certainly an eye-opening experience. I am sure we can visit these great sites and indulge our curiosity and passion any time we want, on the web.           

 

Somniloquies on London (6) – mainly river and bridges

 

   The Thames, the longest river in England, is a bit like a minnow to Triton surveying any one of the mighty rivers that cradle other great civilisations.  It is only 346 km long.  Rising in the Cotswold Hills near Cirencester (not even marked on my atlas!), it flows mainly ESE through Oxford (as the Isis), Reading, and London to enter the North Sea at the Nore.  The river is tidal quite deep into the estuary, and to reduce the danger of flooding, a barrier was constructed (1973-83) below London.  Talking about minnows, only eels are said to have survived in the river in the 1960s because of pollution, which has since be combatted with considerable success.  In the late 1970s nearly a hundred different species of fish could be caught.  What about now, I wonder.

 

  I must say I wasn’t particularly impressed by the river itself – the section we saw through London – which appeared just like a grey band of slow-moving waters overwhelmed by human activities.  Perhaps I was disappointed because I carried in my head the romantic images of Wordsworth’s “Westminster Bridge” and Jerome K Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”.

 

  One shouldn’t expect to see dales and fields of course.  London has been a built-up city for centuries.  Her charms are of a different kind.  We saw Westminster Bridge but didn’t get to it, though we did cross a couple of the many bridges over the London Thames.   The London Bridge we crossed is not the real thing: the real thing, which at various epochs used to be a “house-bridge”, was already incredibly ancient even in the times of the Tudors.  The bridge has been changing its character from age to age.  Today it is full of vehicular traffic.  The river no longer appears to glide “at his own sweet will”. The old barges are no more.  Looking from the bridge, though, I could still appreciate a relative calm and tranquillity, given the bustle of activities on both banks.  Many buildings still look traditional, and despite modernity there is not that sense of oppression one gets in one of those nouveau-riche cities.   We strolled comfortably along the esplanade on the south bank, which is quite modern and tastefully developed. 

 

  I saw an old picture taken in the 40’s of the Tower Bridge, a movable bridge in the east side of the city built in the Gothic style in 1894, with a central portion that lifts to allow large ships to pass.  There was not a single soul on it to be seen on the picture, but only three motor vehicles.  When we crossed it on that very warm afternoon, it was like a mayfair.  [Mayfair, by the way, is now a fashionable residential district in the City of Westminster – named after the annual fair held from the 16th century until 1809.]  On the other side of the bridge stood the famous Tower of London.  Part of it was being renovated, but guided tours were still available.  We went round its walls only and I told YY what little I read about this great landmark.  It was a 18-acre royal fortress dating back to William the Conqueror in 1066.  The outer towers used to be surrounded by a moat. The 13 inner towers included the best known Bloody Tower.  The British crown jewels and regalia are kept in the underground Jewel House.  The Tower was a royal residence until the 17th century; it was long used as state prison, where Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and Walter Raleigh were beheaded.  The place must be haunted. 

 

  [For interest, I read that Queen Elizabeth I, when she was a princess was suspected of plotting against her half-sister Mary, was sent by barge to the Tower, and was landed at Traitor’s Gate.  She sank to her knees and protested before God that she wasn’t guilty.  She was so sure she was fated to die in the Tower that she discussed, as Anne Boleyn her mother had done before, the possibility of being slain by the sword in the French fashion rather than by the cruder axe of the English headsman.]

 

  Our stay in London was very brief, and we only saw a handful of the places worth seeing.  We spent a few hours at Covent Garden, to watch the free performances of some Chinese acrobats, African dancers and a budding Italian tenor.  Purely for sentimental reason, I took YY to Baker Street.  A statue of Sherlock Holmes  stood on the narrow pavement facing a money-changer at the address of the great detective.  A few blocks away was Madam Tussaud.  We meant to visit but there was too long a queue.  So we spent the morning at the nearby Regent Park instead, and for the first time in our lives saw some white swans in real life.  [Western Australia is famous for its swans, but they are all black.]

 

  I also took YY to Fleet Street, hoping to visit Samuel Johnson’s old house, but to no avail.  Instead, we whiled away the whole afternoon sightseeing in a double-decker bus, through many parts of London.  It was tremendous, and cost us nothing either, with our traveller’s passes.

 

 

Somniloquies on London (7) – Dr Johnson and Boswell

 

  Fleet Street is one of England‘s icons, a symbol of journalistic excellence in which London has long led the world.  Until recently, most newspapers had offices there.  It is only a short street between the Strand and the Ludgate Circus, and was named after the River Fleet, now a covered sewer. 

 

  We strolled up to Fleet Street from Victoria Embankment, and saw no newspaper offices at all.  There was Lloyd’s bank along with some other ancient buildings.  I was looking for Dr Johnson’s house, which was clearly marked on the map.  But all we found was a sign saying  “Dr Johnson’s House” at a street corner.  The buildings around it were all relatively new.  Several blocks away was a big modern building being built or renovated – I couldn’t tell which –  with the name Dr Johnson splattered on a board amid the scaffolding, so I suppose that was the original site of Johnson’s home, which I expected to be an elegant old house.   So another landmark gone, I mumbled to myself.

 

  YY asked why I was so keen on Dr Johnson.  I said he was one of the greatest Londoners, having famously said that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”  Were we then in the very midst of London, and what better place to ponder life?  I told YY what I knew about Johnson’s formidable intellect, his being a poet, critic and lexicographer, his poor eye sight, and his bouts of melancholia.   I told her of course about the friendship of the young Scot James Boswell with the great doctor, and about the The Life of Dr Samuel Johnson he wrote, which must be the most readable masterpiece of a biography in the whole world, with its verbatim record of conversations that brings the great man vividly to life. 

 

  “There is another reason why Johnson is so much on my mind on this trip,” I said.  “It’s HH, whom you treat like a brother.”  “But what has that got to do with … ?”  “Well, there is some resemblance between HH and Dr Johnson.  I have often said that HH is a wise fellow, right thinking and right feeling, with lots of common sense.  It’s always an edifying experience listening to him talk.  That’s certainly how Boswell felt about Johnson.   I don’t want to go over the top, but I do feel that much of HH’s casual conversation is worth recording.”

 

  That is truly my feeling during the couple of weeks we spent with HH and Regina.  Perhaps Regina could be his Boswell. 

 

  For a few gems of Johnson’s wisdom:

 

  “Love is only one of many passions.”

 

  “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

 

  “It is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.”

 

  “Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.”

 

  “I have, all my life long, been lying till noon; yet I tell all young men, and tell them with great sincereity, that nobody who does not rise early will ever do any good.”  [Remember my observation that a master need not live by what he preaches? – ST]

 

  “A lawyer has no business with the justice or injustice of the cause which he undertakes, unless his client asks his opinion, and then he is bound to give it honestly.  The justice or injustice of the cause is to be decided by the judge.”

 

  The last quotation is relevant to HH, who has had occasion to share with us his experience as a lawyer.  His catchwords are fairness, decency, and conciliation. 

 

  Boswell met Dr Johnson in 1763, at the age of 23, and the encounter changed his life.   His Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) and The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) (which I have only dipped into) are testimony to a most fruitful and marvellous association.

 

  Boswell was at one time contemplating moving to London to practise law, but Johnson warned him about the difficulty of having a successful legal career in England.  Boswell then suggested a doubt that if he were to reside in London, the zest he relished in occasional visits might go off.  It was then that Johnson’s made the famous rejoinder about a man tired of London being tired of life.

 

  “Depend upon it,” I said to YY, “when views are so freely given left, right and centre as by Dr Johnson, some are to be taken with a grain of salt, despite his towering intellect.  But that in no way diminishes the greatness of the man.”  Boswell has said it all:

 

  “Had I not Dr Johnson to contemplate, I should have sunk into dejection but his firmness supported me.  I looked at him as a man, whose head is turning giddy at sea, looks at a rock.”

 

  I must promise myself more time reading The Life of Samuel Johnson”. 

 

 

Somniloquies on London (8) – grumpy guide

 

  Before leaving London, YY and I joined a coach tour and spent a day visiting Windsor Castle, the Stonehenge, and Oxford.

 

  The tour guide was a middle-aged woman – Margaret her name. She came across as a lady of culture.  She was well-spoken, but her tone quickly turned grumpy whenever she made any observations about the modern world, and the less desirable aspects of the transformation of London.  And as she grew hot on a subject, her facial tics became more pronounced.  Some character.  You get the feeling that here’s a sharp woman not to be messed with. 

 

  It was a balmy day.  We headed west from London, and the delightfully lush English countryside soon spread out before us.  Some fifty miles and there stood Windsor Castle, in Berkshire.  Begun by William the Conqueror and with many additions made by subsequent monarchs, Windsor Castle claims to be the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world.  It is one of the official residences of the Queen, whose personal standard would fly from the Round Tower when she is in residence, usually on week-ends.  Guided tours of the Castle precincts were provided, wouldn’t you believe, free of charge.   But we had our own guide, Margaret, who was quick to point out how many free things one could enjoy in London.  Only a few sections of the castle were open to tourists, and we  followed the guide like a flock of sheep.  I was in a reverie, and frankly can’t remember seeing anything worth writing home about.  The stroll around the precincts was pleasant enough.  Altogether it was not a particularly memorable experience.

 

  Another hour’s drive southwestwards took us to the Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.  You have all been there, I suppose.  Huge sarsens and bluestones (Man Wai will tell us what they are) are set upright in concentric circles and horeshoe formation, and their orientation is said to suggest the purpose of solar and lunar observations.  Margaret told us that scientific study and excavation over many years have revealed a complex history of the Stonehenge, with three main phases of modification (c.2500-1500BC).  The Stonehenge is cordoned off for a distance  so tourists couldn’t vandalise the stones.  As a consequence, much better pictures can be taken, even during the busiest season.

 

  [Talking about vandalism, I was surprised to have seen no graffiti, none at all, throughout our trip in London, not even in the underground.  Thanks again to the surveillance cameras, perhaps.   As to the Stonehenge, news has just come that it did not make the list of the so-called “World’s New Seven Wonders” chosen by a new poll.  I am surprised that the Sydney Opera House was even nominated.   Some Aussies fret over it.  For those who don’t know, for all its eye-catching exteriors, the Opera House is actually quite dysfunctional.  Members of the orchestra themselves have to wear ear-plugs to avoid hearing damage whilst playing there, and ballerinas have to be caught by “catchers” backstage for safety for lack of space.  Critics say it is a national embarrassment.]

 

  After another cheesy lunch, which I didn’t partake of, we headed for Oxford.  More rolling meadows.  This university town has plenty of character, and ancient architecture.  “Architects these days cannot build,” Margaret concluded bluntly.  She warned us to be quiet and circumspect as Oxford didn’t like tourists.  Only those who couldn’t wait to answer the call of nature should do so, and to do that, sneak in one of those pubs not more than two at a time.  Oxford students are not allowed to drive on campus, so we saw bicycles everywhere.  Being there for only a couple of hours we of course missed out on the “famous walking tours round the colleges” suggested by KL.  He mentioned specifically Queen’s College on High Street and sounded very mysterious about it.  I can’t figure out why.

 

  “Don’t be overawed by anyone saying they are from Oxford,” Margaret said.  “For it is  fashionable these days for the well-heeled to send their children to Oxford just to do one of those short programmes, and then they can say for the rest of their lives they are from Oxford.”   We have all heard complaints that standard of education has dropped in recent years, across the board.  There is an article in the July issue of the Ming Pao Monthly criticising the standard of Oxford‘s student paper.  Snobbery itself is cheapened in this day and age.

 

  But there’s little harm in indulging in nostalgia.  Oxford University dates from the 12th century, and is organised as a federation of colleages which are governed by their own teaching staff (“Fellows”), maintain their own property, and provide members of the University’s legislative bodies, its many faculties, departments, and committees.  Its rival Cambridge is similarly organised, the oldest college, Peterhouse, dating from 1284, and the first colleage for women, Girton, not opened till 1869.  

 

  The two universities and their towns have different characteristics: Oxford has its domes and towers. Cambridge is no city of spires; it has a sense of peace and of contentment so precious to the individual mind, nurtured by the Cam, “that gentlest of English rivers.”  “It has ever seemed the aim of Oxford to foster uniformity; of Cambridge, however, unconsciously, to encourage the opposite in thought and manners.”  That’s some distinction…

 

  On our way back to London, Margaret continually delivered what some would say her litany of complaints, though I find most of them justified.  She deplored the Big Brother reality of Britain, pointing out the cameras for us to see.  She complained, as I said before, that the architects these days cannot build.  She even said the unsayable: that too many of her passengers dosed off!  Seeing a stray plastic bottle in the coach, she loudly announced, “In London we can drink from the tap.  Why spend a fortune on bottled water?  Thank of all the energy wasted in producing and transporting all those bottles, and the pollution from  the production  and the plastic junk we end up with!  Does it make any sense?”  I agree it doesn’t.

 

  Thus ends my travelogue on London.  Thank you all for putting up with me.  I was just talking to myself.

 

  Kind regards,

 

ST (1.7.07 – 9.7.07) 

 

June 2, 2008 - Posted by | English essays

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