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mardi gras madness mileage run part 3: we discovered everything and we invented everything and we're modest too

2006-03-06 - 10:58 a.m.

all photos © 2006 by Elaine Radford

painted hall, greenwich
Note: Click here to start with Part One, or click here to continue on to Part Two.

Saturday, Feb. 25, 2006

I went to Greenwich via the train. You can actually use the same all-day tube pass that you use for Zone 1-2, even though the Greenwich line is infuriatingly described as being Zone 2/3. I had lunch at the Maritime Museum, and it was as nasty an old-time genuine English meal as you can imagine. The vegetables were cold, and the fish was just...yerk. How do you screw up fish? Especially in a museum dedicating to reminding the public that Britain is the greatest sea-faring empire that ever was? So if anybody out there is planning a trip to Greenwich, pack your own lunch!

It was a pretty nice day, although too windy for the birds. I strolled past the old Cutty Sark and through the glorious Painted Hall. (I'm not really a Russian illegal immigrant, I just play one on TV.) While on the theme of the suffering and starving artist, let me share some information I copied about the artist, James Thornhill. "...[R]elatively inexperienced when he began, [Thornhill] was paid...6,685 pounds (about 730,000 pounds in today's money.)" Christ. That's 1.46 million dollars in cold hard American money, if anyone is keeping score. Pretty damn good for an unknown beginner. Although I can't help wondering who he slept with to get the job, I have to admit that he made the most of the opportunity and produced a spectacular work.

I stopped in briefly at the chapel across the way designed by Christopher Wren and then headed onward to the aforementioned Maritime Museum. I was in time to hear a talk by one of the guides about the pleasures and hazards of sailing, and he shared a story about how once, in the English channel, he and his buddy were suddenly surrounded by dolphins, and his buddy began to weep. Then the dolphins vanished as swiftly and as suddenly as they had come. I guess if they are going to be overwhelmed by emotion every time their boat is hit up by dolphins, they had better not go to New Jersey.

We were assured that if you can sail the coastal waters off the island of Great Britain, then you can sail anywhere in the world. Oh, the other civilizations may have made their petty attempts to sail the seven seas, but only the British really have the trick. And they still control the world's financing and the world's ports...Methinks Her Majesty's Maritime Museum hasn't yet caught up to the unfolding scandal that it is no longer the British providing security for the great ports of the United States, but that upstart nation of Dubai. But I sure as Charles Dickens wasn't going to be the one to mention it.

They didn't allow any photographs in the Maritime Museum, but they pressed a souvenir guide into my hands. Actually, I thought you were supposed to pay for it, but somehow they ended up with an extra one, and they gave it to me. They had entire boats inside of the museum, not to mention God-knows-what-all gold and silver treasures, including an entire racing boat with kevlar sails and some of the queen's golden boats from days gone by. Another neat thing was an exhibit telling about the explorers. The stuff about the polar explorers was the best, with plenty of the real items found and put on display, but I was intrigued by a footnote on the ancient explorers where they admitted that, well, yeah, the Roman Empire had made it to Brazil. They've found Roman amphorae there. But, I wonder, did the intrepid Romans actually make it back home again?

In the style area, they had a room full of closets, and when you opened the closets, you encountered various uniforms and costumes from the various Royal Navies. There was even an optical glove, which lit up like a blue light, made of a special fiber which would supposedly would change color when exposed to different chemicals. I guess if you're a victim of chemical warfare at sea, your outfit would be the first to know.

Oh, and I also stopped by the Queen's House, now really an art museum, its prize work a study of the battle of Waterloo by Trafalgar. That isn't my kind of art, though. It's one of those National Gallery traditional-style pieces that I think D. would get a lot more out of than I do.

And of course I had to go to the famous Royal Observatory. I think I knew the minute I realized that modern-day Greenwich is not even outside of Zone 2 in London. Because of light pollution, the great observatory is quite worthless now for astronomical observation. Here, where Flamsteed, Halley, and so many other great names gathered the data used by Isaac Newton and yet even more great names, we only have a museum and no longer a living observatory. The 28 inch refracting telescope -- the largest in Britain, the eighth largest in the world -- is now a toy. Says their website: The dome surrounding the telescope was originally made of papier maché. This was destroyed by a near miss from a VI flying bomb during World War II. A new replica dome was constructed in 1974 of fibreglass. Nothing is real, everything is a reconstruction, the world is Disneyland. When I was a child, I thought Philip K. Dick wrote science fiction, when I got older, I decided he was the great novelist of suburban American in the 50s and 60s, but now that I'm middle-aged, I realize that he was just painting what he saw.

I took the boat back to the center of London. The train is cheaper -- well, of course, it's free, since I already had an all-day pass -- but you do get a couple of pounds knocked off the ticket if you decide to take the ferry instead. It's about an hour ride, maybe a little less, and on a blue day, it's fun to try to grab some of the postcard classic pictures of London. I also saw about a hundred Great Cormorants along the way. The boat landed at Westminister at sunset, so instead of taking the tube to the National Theater, I decided to stroll along the bridge and take pictures of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Alas, I was at the end of my memory card, and then I couldn't find my other memory cards. Argh! So, in the end, between all the cuss and fuss, I wasn't real happy with the photographs I did take. They weren't terrible, they just weren't as special as I had hoped.

Anyway, I strolled over the bridge and past the Dali Museum and the Aquarium and then past a skateboarding place where they also allowed graffit -- although nothing on the level of skill of the graffiti artists of Wiesbaden, I'm afraid -- and then to the National Theater to listen to their free jazz performance. It was OK, but a harp? I mean a full-sized angel's harp? For jazz? About the time they swung into a rousing chorus of My Favorite Things, I decided that I'd had enough musical entertainment for one evening.

I'm staying at the cheap B&B by the Egyptian embassy, and a little ways past it, there was a new Indian restaurant that had apparently just opened with people rather aggressively begging you to eat there. I decided to give it a try. The appetizer was out of this world. Oh my God. It was some kind of deep-fried sweet onion fritters that were practically orgasmic. The jasmine rice was insanely good too. Unfortunately, the chicken massala was just sort of meh. Not memorably awful like the fish, just not all that special after the crazy-high expectations set up by those magical onions. Well, they're new, they'll work it out.

Sunday, Feb. 26

It was my last chance to try for Bushy Park and look for the Rose-Ringed Parakeets. Alas, it was too windy. Actually, it was cold, cloudy, and windy, but they seem to love the cold, cloud, and rain, if my experience in Amsterdam and Wiesbaden are any guide. It's the wind that stopped me. If they weren't out, I couldn't expect to find any other birds out either. So, reluctantly, I decided that I would forgo the birding this time and instead clean up a few sights around town I hadn't yet had a chance to see.

I headed first for the Science Museum. It's free, but like the Natural History Museum, they were on security alert and had to check all bags for scissors and other dangerous weapons. I can't believe it's a terrorism thing, or why wouldn't they be checking the art museums and, most importantly, the British Museum, as well? (Back in 1982, they had a line on the steps of the British Museum for days to check our bags, because of the IRA bombings.) I think they must be concerned about the anti-science fundy nuts, maybe American anti-science fundy nuts. What else could it be? All you can do with a pair of scissors is deface something and create a nuisance.

In any case, I came to see the Apollo 10 Command Module. Nope, I don't know why they have it. Maybe we needed the money and sold it to them. Anyway, I'll save you a lot of time if you're just doing a highlights tour. It's in "Icons" rather than in the "Space" exhibit. However, if you have time, the space exhibit is worthwhile too. When I visited, almost every visitor in that area was speaking German or another foreign language. Mostly German though, I think. They did have a lot of U.S. stuff but they also had German V2s and quite a lot about other space programs. I guess it makes sense that the foreigners would be most fascinated by this stuff. The British were all next door ogling the fossils, where their countrymen made so many of the great discoveries.

There was a sad moment when I was in the satellite area. They had a set-up to show all the benefits of satellites and, well, you know that one of them is satellite TV. Unfortunately, the TV in question was playing an advertisement for a program about the destruction of Bay St. Louis, with all kinds of horrible images of what happened there. I have never gone back. I have not seen it as it is. I can't quite put it together in my mind, this up-and-coming town, its center a lively casino with live music almost every day free for everyone, all sorts of tournaments and events offered to the public, a new library, a new bridge, a new sense of community -- and now gone, all gone.

On a lighter note, I also tried to photograph Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2 but it's too big. Roger would have gotten a real kick out of it. They also had the shop set up where they are building a second one to send to the United States.

After the Science Museum, I dipped back into the Natural History Museum. Even though the diamonds weren't out, I wanted a better look at their mineral collection than I got in 2004. I tried to keep things from getting entirely out of hand, but I think I got a few nice photographs. I'm not buying any more mineral specimens until I'm out of the hurricane zone. Not that I have room for any more anyway. Nothing else enters this collection unless I sell another piece first! But it doesn't hurt to look, does it?

This is actually the last day of Dippy's official 100th birthday celebration, and the crowds were out in force to check out the dinosaurs. Good thing I did it on Wednesday.

After awhile I headed over to Trafalgar Square. I had lunch at the Texas Embassy. So shoot me. Like you've never done the same thing. Actually, it was pretty funny, because all of the customers around me were Spanish-speaking. The staff didn't seem to be, though. The poor waiter was having quite a language barrier with the table next to mine. A real Texan can count to seven in Spanish!

As I walked past the National Gallery, I kicked up maybe a dozen pigeons, and a TV crew waved me down and asked if I wanted to be interviewed. I said, "OK," and they asked me if I was afraid of pigeons in light of the mayor's decree that we should not be feeding pigeons because of the avian flu. Oh come on. The mayor of London has always looked for every damn excuse to discourage people from feeding the pigeons. In 1982, they actually had signs saying, "Pigeons are nasty birds," and there was no avian flu hysteria then. I said that I wasn't a bit afraid of avian flu and that I was confident of our ability to contain it. I didn't say what I was thinking, which is that I'm old enough to remember swine flu hysteria, and Gerald Ford, and kids getting paralyzed from swine flu shots that they turned out not to need anyway. They didn't want an entire rant for their TV show, I'm sure.

I dipped into the National Gallery for only a few moments, to look at some new or loaned stuff, most notably Two Crabs, 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh. However, the hoi polloi can't figure out that you can't really see Van Gogh standing right on top of it. You've got to stand back. So I headed on to the National Portrait Gallery and went to the top floor to check out the view. It was a great view, but not a view I could photograph. You'd need a fish-eye. I can't really appreciate portraits, but I checked out a few just to say I did. Then, suddenly, the day was over, and I was trying to figure out how to pack everything. I'd finished 8 paperback books and 4 magazines, which I'd left along the way, as well as 2 pairs of old underwear, 2 pairs of old socks, an old brassiere, and 4 old sweaters, all of which I'd discarded after wearing for the very last time. So my load was significantly lighter going out than it had been coming in, even though I had the whole broken zipper thing going on and couldn't close one of the pockets on my duffel. I went to bed early and actually got a good night's sleep. No awful dreams about missing my plane like I sometimes get.

Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion to my Mardi Gras Madness Mileage Run -- the Honolulu Experience.

detail, uniform polyhedra, science museum

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