Last summer, I went to England with my mother, while my wife and daughter were in China, visiting my wife’s parents.
On June 22, we went to Boston, boarded our plane, and then waited for it to take off. It was supposed to take off at 8 p.m., but 8 p.m. came and went, and we were still on solid ground. After we had waited for almost an hour, the captain came on the intercom, and said, “I’m afraid we can’t take off. One of the passengers absolutely refuses to fly. [He said this in an angry tone.] We’re going to escort him off the plane, empty the plane completely, and search the plane.”
We found out later that the passenger who refused to fly was an Arab; some people said he was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family. He said that he had spoken to his brother by cell phone, that his brother was sick, and that he didn’t want to travel. He asked to be let out of the plane, but had little interest in getting his luggage, fueling suspicion that he was engaged in some criminal activity — perhaps planting a bomb on the plane. At any rate, the airline didn’t want to take any chances, so the Arab was escorted off the plane, and then all of us passengers were disembarked. Rumors circulated about the Arab’s suspicious behavior, about his luggage being blown up by airport security (who didn’t want to search through it themselves), etc.
We waited in the airport for hours, and finally were told that our flight was postponed until the next day, and that we would be taken to hotels for the night — the night, which by then was almost half over. We only slept for about three hours, then came back to the airport. When our plane was finally airborne, after a delay of 18 hours, the long-suffering herd of passengers broke into applause.
Ah, the pleasures of plane travel! When I was standing in line recently at an airport, I heard the person behind me say, “every time I do this, I swear I won’t do it again.” My mother’s spirits were good, though; she was striking up conversations, exchanging rumors, making notes in her diary, etc. And some of these conversations were continued after we reached London; as we visited London’s attractions, we bumped into people who had been on our plane — as often happens, since tourists frequent the same places.
We arrived in England in the wee hours of June 24, in what the poet called “the dead waste and middle of the night,” took a cab into London, and roused the concierge at our hotel. The concierge, far from pitying us for our sufferings, took us to task for interrupting his slumbers.
Our hotel was located in the King’s Cross section of London, which is in the northern part of the city. It was a simple, no-frills hotel, in contrast to its grand name, “The Alhambra.” Our room was clean, and the ceiling was high, but it was cramped. I suspect that, at some point in the past, the owner of the hotel had decided that he could increase his profits if he divided each of his rooms into two rooms. Then he added a bathroom to each room, further reducing the amount of space per room.
Perhaps the owner of the hotel is wondering (right now, even as we speak) how he can utilize the space that is “wasted” by the high ceiling; perhaps next year that space will be converted into another room, a room with a ceiling so low that the room can only be entered by someone who lies on his stomach, and wriggles like a snake. At the end of our trip, when we were staying in Bath, we had a room that was built in the old style: high ceilings, vast amounts of space, but no bathroom; you had to climb a flight of stairs to reach the bathroom.
In the morning, we ate what is called an “English breakfast”: eggs, sausage, stewed tomatoes, and toast. The English are fond of potatoes, and at lunchtime, we often had a baked potato topped with baked beans or some other topping. We found that English pubs serve decent food at a reasonable price, unlike their American counterparts, which generally serve only drinks. The English are fond of “health food,” and the number of health food stores is a good indication of an area’s educational level.
For an American, one of the most striking things about England is that it rains almost every day. The rain didn’t bother me much, but it does seem to bother the English, who long for blue skies and warm sunshine. The rain produces luxurious gardens, arranged in the untrammeled style for which English gardens are famous. My mother never tired of admiring these gardens. Grass is cut very short, so that lawns resemble putting greens on a golf course.
Another striking thing about England (for an American) is that smoking is ubiquitous. In the U.S., smoking isn’t fashionable, and the majority of people don’t smoke, but in many countries of the world, including England, smoking is still widespread.
Another striking thing about England is the prevalence of video cameras, which are used in many stores and public places for security purposes. Perhaps this is a legacy of Irish terrorism, or perhaps the English don’t share our mania for “civil liberties,” and our horror of “invasions of privacy.”
On our first day in London, I set out for the new British Library, which is near the King’s Cross train station. I watched a demonstration on the art of printing; it showed how typesetting was done, how ink was applied, etc. Printers used large sheets of paper, and if these sheets were folded in two, the result was a large book called a folio. If they were folded in four, the result was a medium-sized book called a quarto. If they were folded in eight, the result was a small book called an octavo. After the sheets were folded, they were sewn together and bound. Before the book could be read, the folds would have to be cut with a knife.
Printers kept their metal letters in wooden cases; our words “uppercase” and “lowercase” come from the arrangement of these cases. Typesetting meant laying letters in a tray backwards, creating a mirror image of the printed page, just as Leonardo is said to have written backwards. It took long years of practice to become adept at printing. Apprentices were told to “mind their p’s and q’s,” since a p is a mirror image of a q (and vice versa), and a hasty typesetter could easily make a mistake with these two letters.
In the afternoon, we walked to Trafalgar Square, the hub of London, and saw the Nelson monument. Like the monument to Victor Emmanuel II in Rome, the Nelson monument is built on a giant scale, a product of 19th-century pride and nationalistic feelings.
We visited the National Gallery, and were grateful that Britain allowed us to see its art treasures for free. No other country is so generous. Later, when we were in Bath, we took a long walking tour — with a guide — and again there was no charge, and tips were not accepted. Such generosity is a credit to the British nation.
After several hours on our feet, taking in the sights, we were completely spent, and didn’t have the energy to walk back to our hotel. (This was not the only time during our trip when I wished that we had rented a room with a more central location.) We opted to use the London subway system, which is known for being antiquated. We found that we had to walk through long underground corridors before reaching the train. Next day, we again walked south into the heart of the city, stopping at St. Paul’s, the enormous neo-classical cathedral that once dominated the London skyline, but is now hemmed in by tall buildings that render it invisible until you’re right up to it. From St. Paul’s, we walked along the Thames on the “Victoria Embankment,” ending up at Westminster Abbey, where we heard evensong.
We spent two more days in London — going to museums, going to the Houses of Parliament, walking in St. James Park, etc. We also saw part of the famous changing-of-the-guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace, and (to my mother’s infinite disappointment) we just missed seeing the queen drive out of the palace.
June 28. We didn’t want to rent a car in the crowded chaos of London, so we caught a train at King’s Cross, and headed for Cambridge. After arriving in Cambridge, we checked into our hotel (located near the train station), and then walked into the old town. It’s a marvelous town for a walking tourist. The university buildings and grounds have the charm and beauty of Venice, and a bucolic atmosphere that Venice lacks. The buildings are older and more charming than those in London, and there are no tall office buildings to destroy the historic feeling. Behind the colleges, cows graze along the river. (The strip of land across the river from King’s and the neighboring colleges is called “The Backs.”)
Cambridge has managed to preserve open spaces along the river, and it has also managed to prevent cars from dominating the town. (As I discovered later, Cambridge can be a nightmare for a driver.) Cambridge has also worked hard to keep the hordes of tourists at bay, and one is often accosted by guards who frown at you if you’re not a member of the college, and chase you away if you’re not a member of the University. Woe to the tourist who treads on one of Cambridge’s manicured lawns!
If you go behind the colleges, and cross the river, you find an elegant garden called The Scholar’s Garden. It’s protected by the guards with special zeal, and only a bold tourist dares to glance at it from afar. We mortals long for what is forbidden, and I longed to enter this enchanted garden.
One evening, when the sun was setting, and the paths around the river were deserted, I was walking along the edge of The Scholar’s Garden, and I noticed that it was unguarded. I entered, and explored its meandering paths, charming pools, and carefully-tended flower-beds. I went where few tourists have ever gone, and I lived to tell the tale.
One of Cambridge’s most famous attractions is evensong in King’s College Chapel. The best seats are behind the choir screen, where one can see the singers, many of whom are young boys. Within this area, there are special seats reserved for members of King’s College, special seats for members of the University, etc. A sharp-eyed, no-nonsense usher drives interlopers out of seats to which they aren’t accredited. The usher has a good memory for faces, and can tell at a glance who is an interloper and who isn’t. If you know your place, and you don’t aspire to rise above it, evensong at King’s is a pleasant experience, and I enjoyed it on two evenings.
The high point of our three days in Cambridge was a walking tour of the city. Our guide was an elderly woman who had a deep knowledge of the city, and an equally deep affection for it. First she talked about the city’s Roman past. Later she took us inside a Saxon church that was built before the Norman Conquest in 1066, and she showed us how the Saxons had incorporated their old animal gods into their Christian faith. She took us to an old coaching inn whose arched entranceway was large enough to allow a horse-drawn carriage to drive through, and she said that in the courtyard of the inn, Shakespeare’s troupe of actors performed a play. (As we walked to the next point on our tour, I talked to her about the Oxford theory--the theory that “William Shakespeare” was the pen name of the 17th Earl of Oxford--and she said that she had attended a meeting of local Oxfordians, and that she subscribed to the Oxford theory herself.) She took us inside King’s College Chapel (where I had heard evensong the previous night), and showed us the graffiti left by Cromwell’s soldiers around 1650. She pointed out the room in Trinity College where, in recent times, Prince Charles lived.
I enjoyed Cambridge partly because, after a couple days, I started to feel at home there, I started to feel that I knew the layout of the city. I didn’t feel this way about London. Since Cambridge is small, one feels at home there quite quickly. If you enjoy walking, you’ll find Cambridge pedestrian-friendly, and you’ll enjoy learning its streets and paths.
The low point of our Cambridge stay was renting a car, and discovering that driving on the left side is (for one accustomed to driving on the right) more difficult than one might suppose. This difficulty was compounded by the difficulty of finding one’s way in Cambridge. (We met a tourist who said that finding his hotel in Cambridge took him as long as driving from London to Cambridge.) At first, I couldn’t get the car in reverse, and I felt like a turtle that had been turned on its back and could do nothing but flail its legs in the air. A rented car is not an unmixed blessing, but on the whole, it made our trip more enjoyable, and I don’t regret our decision to rent a car.
Since driving was difficult, we didn’t make any auto excursions into the country around Cambridge (as we had planned to), but we did make one foot excursion: a 2-mile walk along the river to the village of Grantchester. There were blackberry bushes along the path, and we vowed to return someday when the berries were in season. Grantchester’s claim to fame is that Rupert Brooke, an English poet who died in World War I, lived there for a time, after his graduation from King’s College in Cambridge. Brooke is best known for these immortal lines:
Are these lines an anticipation of the author’s early death? Brooke died in 1915, at the age of 27, and was buried on the Greek island of Skyros. He once remarked that he would like to be buried on a Greek island. Was this remark, too, an anticipation of the fate that lay in store for him?
In 1912, when Brooke was living in Berlin, he wrote a nostalgic poem about Grantchester, where
This poem celebrates life in a way that post-World War I literature rarely does; Brooke is regarded as the last pre-war poet, the last poet before the deluge. This poem is the anthem of Grantchester, and every local can tell you that the church clock was indeed broken, stuck (though not at ten to three), and every local can tell you that the reference to honey can be explained by the fact that Brooke’s landlord was a beekeeper. The phrase “men with splendid hearts” is inscribed on the war memorial in Grantchester.
One day we were shopping at the Cambridge train station, and I bought a map for about £1.60. My mother chatted with the woman behind the counter; they talked about their grandchildren, etc. I gave the cashier a £5 note, and she gave me change. After we left the store, I counted my change. I found that it was £1 short. Had I already put some of my change in my pocket? Or had I really received incorrect change?
I went back to the store, showed the coins in my hand, and said that the change seemed to be £1 short. The cashier said she must have made a mistake, and she gave me £1. I left the store without further discussion. It wasn’t until after I had left that it dawned on me: I had been purposely short-changed. The pleasant chatter about grandchildren, etc. was a smokescreen. The amiable woman behind the counter was an experienced tourist-robber, who had probably short-changed hundreds of tourists in her day.
If the incorrect change had been accidental, she would have been more surprised, less prepared with a response, less quick to give me the £1 that I was owed. I had been short-changed when I was in Italy, and I knew how common it was for people to take advantage of tourists who don’t know the local currency. Tourist-robbing is most common among people who deal with tourists on a daily basis (like this map-seller), and people who don’t expect to see the tourist again (like a street vendor or a ticket seller). Advice for tourists: buyer beware!
The next morning, as I was eating breakfast, I chatted with the innkeeper, and told him how I had been short-changed. He listened, and then said, “that doesn’t happen only to tourists, it happens to us natives, too. A few weeks ago, I rode home in a cab after drinking with my friends. The cab driver evidently thought that I was too drunk to count my change, and short-changed me by £10; he pretended that I had given him a £10 note, when in fact I had given him £20. When I insisted that I had given him £20, he made a show of searching through his money bag, then said, ‘you’re right, you did give me £20,’ and he gave me the £10 that he owed me. I smacked him in the face, and told him never to do that again. He got on his radio, called his office, and said that he had been attacked. Later, a policeman came to my house, and asked me if I had struck the cab driver. I said no. He asked why the driver was bleeding, and I said perhaps he bumped his nose against the car door, and that was the end of the conversation.”
Nowadays, we receive correct change so frequently that we forget change isn’t automatic. Change is a transaction between two people, and anything can happen. Doubtless an experienced traveler could tell dozens of stories about change (perhaps he could collect these stories into a volume called The Book of Changes).
Well, that concludes this travel tale. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and I hope you think that it falls within a broad definition of “philosophy and literature.” (In my opinion, philosophy can be about anything, and literature can be about nothing at all.) During the next few weeks, I plan to finish this narrative, and describe our stay in The Cotswolds and our stay in Bath. Stay tuned!