Posted By Caulimovirus on August 15, 2007
“Museums and Castles and Punters, Oh My!”
.: Yesterday was supposed to be Darwin Day, but we failed to realize, foolish American we were, just how long British distances can be. The 16 miles from London to Downe is actually equivalent to 130 American miles. I’d like to snatch a Briton from a pub, show him a map of Texas, and watch him snort uncontrollably when I tell him I can get from Waco to Austin in under 2 hours. “Ninety-nine miles?!” he’ll guffaw. “Naw, that’ll take you all day, it will.”
.: Factoring all the time we spent waiting for the bus to arrive to take us to Downe, actually driving to Downe, getting lost in Downe, waiting for the bus to arrive to take us from Downe, and actually driving from Downe meant we weren’t going anywhere else that day. That’s not to say that we couldn’t safely go elsewhere, but British people have this perversely ubiquitous notion that everything of interest outside of one’s home should cease at 5:00, and they close their stores accordingly.
.: So today would have to be the exciting conclusion to Darwin Day. Our first stop was the Natural History Museum. Founded in the 19th century as an extension of the British Museum, the Natural History Museum is another example of a building which deserves a museum of its own.
.: A large casting of a diplodocus skeleton greets everyone at the entrance, a sight which I’m sure brings out the inner-paleontologist in everyone. Behind the diplodocus stands a statue of Richard Owen atop a splendid staircase. You might not have heard of him, but you’ve definitely used a word he coined (it rhymes with “binosaur”). Additionally, he is allegedly the only person Darwin ever hated.
.: Like every good museum should, this one let us take pictures. I believe they also permitted flash — nobody stopped us, anyway — but every picture taken of an object behind glass suffered from a phenomenon optical physicists call “reflection”. Without flash, each picture had a quality most professional photographers describe as “blurry”. We strolled leisurely through a hall of gemstones and minerals taking such pictures, but our pace increased somewhat towards the end (you’ve seen one thorium silicate, you’ve seen ’em all).
.: One spectacularly — and unexpectedly, considering Owen’s legacy — pitiful exhibit was on Dinosaurs. I must have missed the “appropriate for ages 6-12” sign, because this exhibit sucked. Animatronic dinosaurs belong in creation museums (which don’t belong anywhere), not real museums. Oscar’s allergies disagreed almost instantly with the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the crowd was too thick to walk past. I only had to suffer the aesthetics; poor Oscar had to witness the miserable display and gasp for every breath through a shrinking windpipe.
.: We eventually escaped and headed toward the gift shop. I read somewhere (I think in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything) that Owen’s last triumph over Darwin was the superior positioning of his own statue. The second thing you see in the museum (right after diplodocus) is Owen himself in majestic bronze form. Darwin’s statue, I had read, was relegated to a small corner in the gift shop. We searched the shop fruitlessly until Oscar asked an employee where we could find it.
Richard Owen: he gave the world the word “dinosaur”. What have you done for the world?
“Oh no, it’s in the cafe.”
.: It’s an impressive statue (so is Huxley’s to his right), but I’m afraid Owen’s wins on location alone. Still, Darwin ultimately won where it mattered: he was right. Also, in a less-than-ultimate-but-still- worthy-of-mentioning victory, the museum now sports an add-on Darwin Centre.
.: The last picture I took before leaving the museum was a shot of Prof. Steve Steve‘s close relative. Short digression: Once when Oscar and I regularly attended College Bowl practice, the professor asked a question that I answered with unprecedented alacrity. “This animal’s enlarged radial sesa–” was as far as he got before I buzzed in.
“Giant Panda!” (I never got many history or literature questions, but I nailed the sciences.)
.: Giant Pandas, you see, have a fake thumb: an enlarged radial sesamoid bone. I can’t pretend to explain it better than Stephen Jay Gould, so check out The Panda’s Thumb from the library, or just read it here. [/digression]
.: The next and final stop for our Darwin Day festivities was Westminster Abbey. The Abbey is terrifyingly awesome at first. Famous dead people surrounded me wherever I stepped — people whose existence were responsible for so many chapters in my history and literature books. For goodness’ sake, I saw the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer. He died, like, 600 years ago! But the more I wandered, the more I thought, “These aren’t people worthy of my wonder. Most of them were rich kooks with crazy ideas. The few genuinely remarkable persons, like Newton, Lyell, Darwin, and Chaucer were overshadowed and overcrowded by various Lords, Dukes, and other veritable dickwads who no more deserved their place in history than the next guy, save for the positively insane notion of hereditary titles.
“Look, the tomb of Lord Billowsly Fartswottle. What did he do? Oh, he killed people in a forgotten and cosmically insignificant battle several centuries ago.”
.: If I sound bitter, it’s not because of the half-assedly researched reasons I’ve just listed. I’m really just peeved that some of these people have graves that cost more than all the houses I’ve ever stepped into combined. I’m also pissed that they wouldn’t allow pictures. Why the hell not? Do they think flash photography degrades grave markers worse than shoes? Do they think photography bothers other visitors, even without flash? And what’s with charging visitors Â£13? I suppose that doesn’t matter too much, since I only wanted a single picture of Darwin’s grave. Alas, “spartan” is too flowery a word to describe his marker:
Born 12 February 1809
Died 19 April 1882
.: I’m surprised they went to such extravagant lengths to include his middle name. Charles Lyell got a nice write-up, and his ideas are just as offensive to crude religious sensitivities as Darwin’s. (Newton’s monumental grave has marble angels all over it, but that’s somewhat proportional to his feats.) It’s as if the people who buried Darwin recognized his stature but didn’t approve of his accomplishments.
This is not London Bridge.
.: After Westminster, I got a chance to take the usual touristy pictures: Big Ben, The Eye,
London Bridge Tower Bridge. Since you are reading this, you have obviously been exposed to the internet. It is therefore likely that you are familiar with a great many other things, like the rest of the world and its many famous landmarks. Thus, no more need be said of these topics, except for the one I’m about to talk about.
.: Imagine a thousand-year-old amusement park with no rides and a priceless collection of jewels you can only see for a few seconds by standing on a conveyor belt, and you’ve got the Tower of London. I’m sure it wasn’t always like this, but modernization of historical landmarks always seems to be for the worse. The only worthwhile anecdote I have about the Tower of London involves the torture room. Before you enter the room, you’re presented with a question: Do you think it’s right to torture prisoners? There were three options: Yes, No, and Sometimes. Yes and Sometimes together received nearly 20,000 more votes than No. I don’t see why Bush repeatedly insists the government doesn’t torture — apparently most people are fine with it.
.: It was still sunny and quite beautiful outside, which meant the Tower was closing in a few minutes. We made a mad rush to see something so wholly unremarkable that I forgot what it was. Soon they stopped admitting people into the exhibits and we left. If you ever find yourself in England with an urge to visit the Tower of London, suppress it. For the price of one ticket you can buy three or four cones of ice cream instead. There’s a nice gelato shop right next to the place that serves delicious chocolate. It’s less historical, certainly, but far more satisfying.
.: Since higher entertainment ends three hours before sundown, lower entertain must be found on the streets. Oscar and I hopped on a bus to Covent Garden. If you’re into dudes who hurl several sharp objects into the air and catch them all at once, then I know of no better place. If, while watching people hurl and catch sharp objects, you wish to snack on gelato that costs Â£5 per spoonful, then you’re an idiot, because that’s way too much for gelato.
.: One of the performers clad only in his underwear — there were several such people — juggled a live chainsaw as part of his act. Several frat boys (I’m told they’re called “punters” over here, but a cursory Google search reveals little) disrupted his show several times from a balcony. Clearly they hoped to see him drop the chainsaw on himself. The disgust I felt at these punters was matched only by my desire to see the performer drop the saw on himself.
.: The show ended with the performer’s limbs still attached, and the onlookers dispersed. Oscar and I noticed a smaller crowd gathering at a nearby T-intersection. One thing you don’t often see in London is a large SUV — doubly true if it’s stretched. When you do see one, its presence alone does not usually warrant rubbernecking. Even a stretched SUV is an oddity that no longer surprises passersby. But when one of them can’t make a turn on an otherwise wide corner and consequently blocks a heavily trafficked street, a throng tends to gather.
.: Inside one such limousine/SUV hybrid, a gaggle of young Pakistani girls celebrated a sweet 16 or 17 or 18 or whatever age in Pakistani culture represents the passage of a young girl into Conspicuous Consumption-hood. However old they were, one of them rolled down the window and flashed her chest. This drew the attention of the punters from before, and one of them managed to thrust his arm inside the vehicle before the girl could close the window. Maybe I’m not familiar with the ways of London, but can’t a girl cheerfully display her breasts without being hassled by drunk males? Her actions didn’t say, “Hey, come over here so you can feel these!” Rather, she clearly meant to express, “I’m so unbelievably drunk that I can publicly expose my body and later force myself to pretend I never did!” Guys, that kind of gesture is not an invitation to touch.
.: One 27-point turn later, and with mere millimeters to spare, the stretched SUV slowly crept past the obstructing pillar responsible for the traffic clog and sped away into the night, stopping about two blocks down the road to unload its party. I can’t remember for certain, but I feel as if the punters found them again.
.: A funny thing happened on the tube: another gaggle of boisterous women (considerably older than the last) converged in our subway car. The most intoxicated of the bunch spotted two Italians, one of which carried a guitar.
“Play us a song!” she burped.
.: The Italians were quiet and reserved; the woman was not. One of them must have silently calculated how quieter the tube would be if they simply played a song than if they let her continue to bug them to play one. And so they did: