Friday, April 20, 2001
A Mosquito Staffer's Impressions of London
by Hal Shneider
Our daughter and son-in-law moved to London almost a year ago and have been repeatedly urging us to come for a visit. We finally broke down and agreed. On March 20, our plane flew into Gatwick airport which is about twenty-seven miles south of the city. Since we had a lot of luggage, Claire arranged for us to be met at the airport by a cabby. As we walked out of the baggage area, he was standing holding a sign that read "Shneider." We felt like visiting dignitaries.
The traffic was so heavy that the trip to London took two hours. Passing through small towns and parts of London, I was struck by the fact that there were no telephone poles with wires. Now I understood why double-decker buses can move so easily around the city. All the sidewalks are made of concrete slabs, about two feet square, metal or bricks, which make it easy to modify wiring if necessary. Streets never seemed to be dug up.
Because the streets were generally very narrow, and the traffic so heavy, I wondered how it was possible for cars on side streets to break into main street traffic on streets where there were no lights. To my surprise, I found that drivers were very much aware of this problem and always permitted a car from a side street, or a car parked at the curb to get in, in front of them. What a contrast to this country where you may have to wait ten minutes before a kind driver lets you in, or you force your way out into traffic with the possibility of having an accident.
No streets in London seem to be parallel or perpendicular to each other, and cab drivers must be trained for two years on how to get around the city before they can get their cabby licenses.
On our first day in London, we took a bus tour around the city to get a first impression. The thing that strikes you the most is the beautiful architecture with almost all buildings having columns or sculpture on their face. Parks are abundant, and there are very few tall skyscrapers. You can see the sky whichever way you turn, and you don't feel like you're walking through a canyon as you do in New York City. Most buildings are four or five stories high.
Day 2: We went to the British Museum which had a tremendous collection of Greek and Roman sculpture. It is built around a very large courtyard which has been covered with a beautiful glass dome. Here we saw the Rosetta Stone, which was only about two feet by three feet. The lettering chiseled into the stone was not more than one quarter of an inch high, and the whole stone was covered with letters.
Day 3: We went to the National Gallery where we saw paintings of the Middle Ages. This was similar to walking through the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Day 4: We visited Westminster Abbey where royalty has been buried. The interior is filled with chapels of brilliant carvings, and stone caskets with statues of the buried royals lying on their backs on top of the caskets, praying. In some cases, two years of income of a kingdom had been used to build the chapel.
The floor was covered with stone tombstones of noblemen and people in the arts and sciences, even though they may not be buried there. Winston Churchill refused to let them put a stone there in his honor since he did not want everyone walking all over him the way they did when he was alive.
Near the Abbey stands Big Ben
Day 5: Shakespeare's Globe Theater and exhibition was next on our list. This indeed was impressive. This new structure is a copy of the original Globe Theater which burned down. When the American actor Sam Wanamaker went to London looking for the Globe Theater, all he could find was a post on a side street, with a sign saying that the Globe Theater once stood there. He was furious that the British had not given Shakespeare the recognition that he justly deserved, and he started the ball rolling to build a new Globe Theater. He raised millions to get the building started but died just before it was completed. The building is dedicated to him.
The authentic reproduction is post-and-beam construction with a thatched roof. Three balconies surround the pit in front of the stage. No stage settings are used but the ceiling has two trap doors from which angels can descend, and the stage has a trap door for devils to emerge from the inferno.
In Shakespeare's time, all female roles were played by men, but today some women are in the cast. In the exhibition hall, where various costumes are displayed, male figures wear women's clothing.
The theatre season starts in April. During the year there will be performances by two foreign Shakespearean companies. Our guide reported that the Brazilian company that performed last year was outstanding
Day 6: Next, the Tower of London. This consists of many castles and buildings surrounded by a moat and a stone wall. Royalty were imprisoned in these buildings until they were beheaded. The dungeons and torture chambers are in the basement. These were not on exhibit.
Day 7: Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum was next on the agenda and proved to be a delight. It has three floors. The top floor is devoted to athletes, movie stars, musicians and current pop stars. The second floor has royalty and heads of state, and the basement has prison cells and torture chambers. I visited these, but my wife Bea bypassed them.
All figures in the museum are extremely lifelike and can often be confused with the living. In one spot, an exhausted woman asleep on a bench turned out to be a wax model. Figures are current, and even a model of our president, George W., is on display next to our former president, Bill Clinton. You are allowed to take pictures posing with any of the wax figures.
Theater-going is great in London. Prices are reasonable and plays are by many new playwrights. The acting is outstanding.
Day 8: At the Victoria and Albert Museum we saw an excellent display of glass from Egyptian and Roman times to the current day. Some of the old work looked extremely modern, including a double-walled glass cup similar to a thermos cup, that was made in the 1600s.
Other things of interest
lt's usually raining. You must take an umbrella with you at all times, even if it is not raining, since the weather can change from sunshine to rain in a few minutes
People are very polite. We never rode on a crowded underground (subway) without someone offering us a seat.
There were no screens in any of the windows, since there are no insects.
You must buy a card to ride on a bus or the underground (also called the Tube.) It can be for the day or the week, and can be purchased in advance. This card is inserted in the turnstile and is immediately returned. Thus, no coins are required. People therefore, move very rapidly in and out of the Tube. One must insert the card in the turnstile when leaving.
Underground stations in the city were very deep, and generally required riding on two escalatorseach as long as the escalator at the T stop in Porter Square, Cambridgeto reach the train platform. Those using it stay on the right so that those wishing to walk up the escalator can do so on the left.
Pedestrians do not have the right of way when jay walking. You must cross at corners or crosswalks when given a green walking symbol.
In residential areas houses are very close together, generally not more than a driveway apart .The British value their privacy so each house has either a large hedge surrounding the property, a stone wall, or a hedge on top of the stone wall. Lawns are not commonly seen in front of houses, although gardens are. Most roofs are red clay tile which makes one feel back in the Middle Ages.
Americans generally do not drive cars in London. Driving on the left side of the street can be very confusing, especially in heavy traffic.
Newspapers were pretty awful. They had mostly local news, sport news, or current scandals. The good newspaper was the Herald Tribune edition of the New York Times. We missed our Carlisle Mosquito.