Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Dead Egyptians, Pantomime, Freeze Out, Carols, Gingerbread Houses(?)

We gave Benedict a snow day on Wednesday. Not his school--us. Figured he deserved it after staying up very late for 'Romeo and Juliet' the night before. It took quite a while to get home after the performance. And snow did lay on the ground, as you can see in some of the pictures below. Of course, just because he had the day off school didn't mean he could just kick back. So off we went to the British Museum to behold a special exhibit of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

On the way we stopped to take pictures in front of this building about a block away from the British Museum. Bertrand Russell lived in one of the flats here about a hundred years ago. The years listed on the plaque (1911-1916), however, were years he taught at Cambridge. Perhaps this was his London address. Interesting that the last year listed, 1916, was the year Cambridge released him from teaching because of  his active anti-war activities, for which he was imprisoned in 1918. Fifty years later he was briefly jailed for protesting the Vietnam War. He was in his nineties by then.

The special exhibit for the Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibit is located in what used to be the British Museum's reading room, in the center of the museum. Karl Marx spent much of the last thirty years of his life studying, reading, and writing here. Bertrand Russell's grandfather, John Russell, was prime minister when Prussia tried to extradite Marx around 1850. The prime minister, being an ardent defender of free speech, refused to hand Marx over. Politics seems to be be in the family's blood. One of Bertrand's sons was a distinguished historian of 17th century Britain and a force to be reckoned within the Liberal Democratic party, and a grandson, who is the 6th Earl Russell, is today a Labour party politician.

The Book of the Dead exhibit explained the purpose of the Book. People important and wealthy enough had scribes write a version of the Book specifically tailored for their journey through the underworld. Spells, selected from a collection of about 200, written by scribes in hieroglyphics and pictures of creatures painted on the papyrus for the purpose of protecting and safely guiding the dead to their final goal of eternal life in paradise, which looked a lot like the Nile Valley. (Here is a short review in the Daily Telegraph.) What was spectacular were the number of papyrus scrolls in the collection and how well preserved they were despite some of them being more than 3500 years old. A few of the scrolls were quite long, one of them 35 meters in length. There was at least one mummy still wrapped in cloth in its coffin. Lots of jewelry and amulets and other funerary objects displayed in the cases.
When we finished going through the special exhibit we wandered around the rest of the museum. A copy of the Rosetta Stone, which Benedict is hugging, is in the Enlightenment Gallery, which used to be the King's Library and housed King George III book collection now in the British Library. We wandered through the galleries of African art and textiles, collections of items from North American and Mexican natives, and listened to a short presentation on the history of money in the money gallery.
Snow fell in our back yard on Thursday and Friday, stranding many people on the roads and trains. Students continued to protest the sharp fee increases for attending colleges, the English cricket team came roaring back to tie against the Australians in the first test match for the Ashes (if you're American, please don't ask--I don't know either), and the country was outraged at FIFA for denying their stronger bid and awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia. From what I could tell, the British media were more outraged at the denial of America's bid for the 2022 World Cup than the Americans were. Qatar? Really? Air conditioned covered stadiums that haven't been built yet? There's something rotten in the state of Switzerland.
People are unreasonably proud in living somewhere where there are four distinct seasons instead of the monotonous blending of seasons as in Texas and California. At least until they get stuck in their cars miles from home and it's a freezing long walk because the trains aren't running. Makes Spain and Italy look awfully good about then, doesn't it?

Friday evening Benedict and I braved the rush hour horde and the bitter cold to meet Erika at a theatre in Hackney called the Empire Hackney. Normally from our house the trip takes a little over an hour. But not on this evening. We left an hour and half before curtain time at 7pm, thinking that would give us some cushion, but I was wrong. Our Piccadilly Line train was unusually slow, the Victoria Line train we transferred onto at Kings Cross was incredibly packed, and I chose to take the overground train the last bit, and we would have been on time for the scheduled start of the performance but something, probably the snow or cold, delayed the train and we waited 20 minutes until it arrived. By then a large crowd gathered on the platform waiting for the train. And then it was absolutely packed. I shoved Benedict onto the carriage, and I had to really push passengers so I could squeeze in. My usual mild mannered approach would have left us on the platform as well, waiting who-knew-how-long for the next train, and we were already late for the 7pm curtain. A few people were left standing on the chilly platform; no room on the train.

As it turned out we arrived only a few minutes late. Erika worried about us, but couldn't call us on her mobile and my call to her didn't go through because her phone ran out of battery juice. Fortunately for us the performance didn't start until after 7:15.

We saw what is called a pantomime. But not, for you Americans, the kind of pantomime in which the performers act out their parts silently. English pantomime refers to a very broadly played musical comedy with lots of dancing and audience participation ('Look behind you!' 'What?' 'Behind you! Look behind you!'). The story is usually based on a nursery school tale, in this case 'Jack and the Beanstalk', making it a family-friendly experience. The main role is usually a man playing the role of a woman, in this case Jack's mother, Daisy. I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't know that Daisy was played by a man until the following night He had me fooled. Either he was that good or I'm that naive. It's probably the latter since Erika and Benedict figured out she's played by a guy. Be that as it may, the humor was topical, ad libbing encouraged, and the choreography bright and sassy, and the songs mostly familiar pop and show tunes. Great, great fun.

It took about an hour to get home on the crowded Friday night trains. We were in for a surprise when we got there: no heat or hot water. The boiler stopped functioning. Fortunately the house is well insulated, so it remained fairly warm. Saturday morning I called British Gas and they couldn't send out someone until Sunday. This left us with a dilemma. My nephew Chris and his wife were coming to spend the day and night with us from Bristol. However, the house would only get colder. I managed to get hold of Chris and we agreed that it would be better to postpone their visit until this weekend. Better to not take any chances as Kate is pregnant had a slight cold.

We didn't want to stay home and freeze, so Erika contacted the Kilfoyles. She arranged for us to meet them after the late afternoon caroling concert at St. Martin in the Fields.

That's what we did. But tickets for the caroling concert were not available online. We took off early afternoon for the church to find out if any tickets remained. The posters above are on the fence outside the church indicating the different musical performances during the Christmas season. The box office is in the crypt area under the church where a cafe sells various refreshments and substantial fare. A small glass case in the crypt held displays of nativity scenes showing examples from different countries. A couple of tables held different models of the church itself. Kids occupied several large folding tables where they made brass rubbings. They placed paper over a brass plate etched with the figure of a knight, horse, or famous king/queen, and then rubbed a wax crayon over the paper, resulting in a reproduction of the brass plate on the paper. Very cool.
We had about an hour before the we needed to seat ourselves for the caroling. We spent that time going across the street to Trafalgar Square and visiting the National Gallery. In the photo above Benedict and I are at the steps of the St. Martin in the Fields heading toward Admiral Nelson's column on the square.
The snow had pretty much melted, though as you can tell it's still cold. These folks were in front of the National Gallery passing out information.
The last time I was at the Square, this fountain was empty and being power washed. It was about 3pm, and the day was dark and dreary. Here you can see down Whitehall all the to Westminster and Big Ben.
The local council, I suppose, set up this Christmas tree, a nativity scene, and a giant menorah on the Square. We spent about an hour inside the National Gallery finding and looking at the paintings featured in the book Benedict recently read called 'Framed'. That way, if he re-reads the book he'll know what the paintings look like. I think I had links to some of the paintings in an earlier post. Being a Saturday there were no student groups in the gallery. But there were lots of people admiring the art.

The caroling at St. Martin in the Fields lasted about an hour. The audience sang along with the choir on some of the songs, and on others the choir performed on their own. Our seats were in the loft and we didn't have a view at all, really, of the choir. But it wasn't necessary to see them as we could hear very well. The organist played the organ up on the loft at the rear of the church, and interestingly the choir sounded a tad behind the organ. I think that's because of the distance between the organ and the choir. When the organist hit the keys, the choir heard the sound a split second later. As far as the choir was concerned, though, they were on the beat. By the time the choir's sound reached back to us at the rear of the church where we heard the notes of the organ at the same time they were played, the choir was an additional split second behind the organ. For me, it made the combination of the two sounds a little off beat, enough to notice.

Einstein's special theory of relativity in action.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the concert. Many families were there, including very young ones whose full-throated participation even when there was no singing added rather than detracted from the charm of the performance.

We met the Kilfoyles outside after the concert. They live within walking distance and they had invited us to dinner. Down to the river we strolled, across the Thames on a pedestrian bridge, along the banks of the Thames through a German Christmas market, past the National Theatre where we saw 'Hamlet' a few days earlier, and soon inside the Kilfoyle's cozy warm house, hands embracing a beer and praises of gratitude escaping our lips for saving us from a freezing night in our own boiler-less home.
Suzie had bought some fixings for the kids to build cookie houses.

Benedict's completed cookie and candy house.

The architectural designs of John and Sarah.

After completing the tasty architectural masterpieces, time for a game of Monopoly. Looks like there were already some sticky negotiations occurring even before the bank has distributed the cash.

We had a delightful evening of food and drink and talk, and Jim and Suzie generously offered to put us up for the night. We decided to spend the night in our house. Approaching the house near midnight I was reminded of the accounts of the mountain men of the Rockies who trapped in the snowy mountains and one would sometimes come upon a cabin in a white meadow where he would gratefully take advantage of the firewood to thaw for a night or two. Except we didn't have any firewood.

All was well after Sunday morning. The man from British Gas came first thing and we were back in the bosom of civilization.

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