September 1, 2012
I’m seated on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, writing as the sun sets over London. There is a large statue of Queen Anne on the small piazza in front of me, and beyond that, the street curves gently downhill, the buildings following the curve, the spire of St. Martin’s on the close horizon, sunlight streaming onto the stones, white clouds reaching across a blue blue sky, double-decker buses grumbling by, ever-vigilant pigeons watching for the sudden movement of a hand toward the ground, massive wooden doors behind me.
No one knows where I am at this moment.
I am not yet lonely. (I shouldn’t say “yet” — I may never be lonely on this trip.) I do think it’s a little funny that I am the only one featured in my photos — and that most of them are self-portraints — but I remain quite content to be on my own.
I’ve just taken the Tube over here from the Victoria Palace Theatre, where I saw Billy Elliott. The script may have been a bit formulaic, as was the music, but the dancing was spectacular and and emotional and the energy of the kids in the cast was so fun. I was up in the cheap seats for Act I, but snuck down to third row center for the second act, which afforded me two very different experiences. For the first half, I had the entire stage and much of the audience in my sights. I was a little bit removed and the stage seemed like a magical place, everything so pristine and perfect and madly out-of-reach. I felt that residual envy that I felt whenever we went into Boston to see shows when I was younger. Sitting up in the top balcony, I was a kid again, ecstatic and wildly jealous all at once.
Then Act II, mere feet from the stage, and I could see the sweat and hear the breath and I turned my gaze to look back at the house and I remembered that I have this now. I do this now. The theatre’s lay-out is actually much like the Newmark’s, where I recently performed. For some reason the demystification of the whole thing brought me such great relief, though I was puzzled to find a little bit of envy still there, just on the edge of things. It is odd to want something and to have it all at once.
I spent the morning in the Treasures room at the British Library. Wowza. Seriously, guys, if you have any love of books — like maybe if you ‘ve ever just read one — this place will knock your socks off. To just name a few of the treasures… original handwritten manuscripts from Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Browning, Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, Henry Wordsworth, and the St. Cuthbert Gospel (scribed at the end of the 7th century). There are original handwritten scores from Motzart, Haydn, Beethoven, Handel, Schubert, and Ravel, and first editions of works by Oscar Wilde, Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlowe. And there’s a first-printing of SHAKESPEARE’S FIRST FOLIO FOR GOODNESS SAKE. There are maps galore and early illustrated guides to medicinal herbs. OH — AND THE GUTENBURG BIBLE. (Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press in the 1450s, which mechanized book production, essentially making books available for everyone… three printers working for three months could produce three-hundred copies of one book, each copy consisting of 366 leaves… it would take three professional scribes THEIR ENTIRE LIVES to produce the same number of copies.) OH! AND ALSO! Don’t forget about the Codex Sinaitias! Hand-written IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FOURTH CENTURY, it is the earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament. And then there are two more copies of the Magna Carta. Sheesh. That’s some impressive stuff.
I closed out the day with a ghost tour of the oldest part of London, just north of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The tiny streets and footpaths were dark and empty, lit only be the occasional window or streetlight. The ghost stories themselves were a bit silly, but I loved hearing the truly spooky history of body snatchers and pubic hangings, murders and prison breaks. Macabre, but fascinating. I am currently reading A Tale of Two Cities (thank you, Ammon!) and it’s so neat to see places from the book come to life — the Temple Bar, Fleet Street, the Old Bailey… Books coming alive before me is one of my most favorite things in the universe. (And I’m not talking about movies. Movies of books is one of my least favorite things in the universe.)
Here are a few fun facts:
- At the turn of the 17th century, people could be imprisoned for a debt of only a few shillings. Then, while in prison, they would be charged room and board. If no one could pay the (accruing) cost for their release, they could remain imprisoned for decades.
- Pretty much every crime resulted in a hanging. Seriously, there were over 200 offences that brought the death penalty. Until 1868, when hangings were moved into prisons, public executions were festive occasions, in which hundreds (sometimes thousands… sometimes tens of thousands) would attend. The word “gala” actually comes from “gallows.”
- Prisoners prone to attempted escape from Newgate Prison were fitted with locked gates on their chests. One man, Jack Sheppard, escaped from Newgate four times. He is the person on whom Macheath (Mac the Knife) is based.
- The Clink was the name of one of the London prisons, which is where we get the expression to throw someone “in the clink.”
- Body-snatching — in which bodies were dug up and sold to medical schools for dissection — was quite popular (and lucrative). People believed that they would not go to heaven if their body was not properly interred, so they were terrified of being snatched. Relatives would actually stand-watch over the grave until the body was no longer fit for dissection. Some people were also buried in iron coffins. The police usually turned a blind-eye to the practice, as there were very few legal ways for anatomists to procure bodies. Body-snatchers were actually an integral part of the history of medicine.
- People were also terrified of being buried alive, and some people actually paid to be buried with a breathing hole and wire up to a bell, which they could ring if they woke up. (This is perhaps the derivation of the terms “dead ringer” and “saved by the bell.”)
- There are several accounts of body-snatchers actually freeing people who had been buried alive. Eeeeeeeee.