Alaskan enjoys flavor of London

On the Waterfront

Posted: Wednesday, June 23, 2004

After being on a soap box last week, it is a relief to be back in my regular posture on the Neighbors page, where everyone is calm and has only good things to say. I guess for a while I just got too close to the editorial page and to the letters to the editor column. I need to inoculate myself from this dangerous inclination.

So back to business and reflections on London.

I traveled to London in June to spend a week. My daughter Cathy Muñoz and granddaughter Mercedes Muñoz went with me.

We had a grand time, but we found that the prices are high in England. Our dollar has really depreciated in the last year or so. Where earlier it took about $1.40 to buy an English pound now it is close to $1.90.

London is a wonderful walking city. You can walk with history here. The names of the streets and squares resonate. There are statutes everywhere. Perhaps the most celebrated is that of Admiral Nelson in Trafalgar Square. You get a sense of the power and grandeur of the British Empire. Nelson strides atop a tall plinth surrounded at the base by four tremendous-sized dark bronze lions.

But the statue that surprised and impressed me the most was two bronze life-sized figures sitting on a wooded bench on an ordinary small intersection between two narrow streets. It was our president Franklin Roosevelt and the Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Somehow I could not imagine any other country but England to offer such a down-to-earth and powerful tribute.

The English are imbued with history. When we visited Warwick Castle, which had initially been built on the order of William the Conqueror soon after his successful battle in 1066, there were robed and gowned figures to play the parts of lord and lady. A group of young schoolchildren were instructed to curtsey and to bow, which they dutifully performed.

All you need to walk in London for miles and miles - from Mayfair to Piccadilly Circus, to the Strand, to the Victoria Embankment and the River Thames, to the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, and to Buckingham Palace, among the myriad tiny streets with many shops and magical names - is a good map. You can't get lost.

I got to like the lukewarm beer they serve in the pubs. It is smooth and goes down easily, in contrast to the sharp, cold taste of ours.

No one seemed to wear a hat or cap, except Muslim ladies covered in head scarves. Of course you can see a lot of umbrellas when it's raining.

When I last visited London, in 1956, it still seemed to have a Dickensian air with most of the menial jobs performed by young English boys and girls. That has all changed. A lot of the work is now done by immigrants. The woman who made the beds at the hotel was from Latvia. The waiter was a Serb. One of the bellman was from Sierra Leone. A Polish girl served in a pub as did a newly arrived Irishman. A girl from Brittany worked at a restaurant.

One good buy, since admission was free, was the National Portrait Gallery near Trafalgar Square. We spent about three hours looking at the pictures, but didn't see them all. I'm sure there were thousands. We played a contest with each other to pick a favorite. Mercedes chose Picasso's "Child with a Dove." Cathy picked Kallela's "Lake Keitele." I liked the Turners, especially "The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up."

We took a ride on the Thames River to Greenwich. At London the river looks about 100 yards or so wide. The great docks and warehouses, which once overflowed with merchandise, and the crowded scene of barges and ships are a thing of the past. The only traffic today is the boats ferrying tourists from Westminister Bridge to Greenwich with a stop at the Tower of London, which invitingly beckons visitors with the legend over one of its water side entrances that it is the Traitors Gate. You can also see a few small sailing yachts heading down river to the coast or to the North Sea. For centuries this river was the busiest commercial thoroughfare in the world, a mighty entrepot bringing all the riches from far off places to London.

I thought there was more of a balance in the reporting of the war in the English newspapers than in America. On June 2 the London Times headlined "Hopes for democracy as Iraqis choose their president" and in the famous editorial column called the Thunderer, "A corner turned. Iraq's political future now looks far brighter." On the same day the New York Times lead headline was "New Government is formed in Iraq as Attacks Go On."

I think there is a tendency in this country in TV and newspaper reporting to overindulge on the optimistic side when things seem to be going well and when there is a turn in events to then become fixated by the negative. I wish when times were good we would look for a little of what's wrong, and conversely when times are tough we would try to see the brighter side.

"Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross, to see a fine lady upon a white horse," you remember it when you first began to read. When traveling to Warwick Castle one of the highway signs said to Banbury, so I guess if I had a horse I could easily have reached Banbury Cross.

So much of our inner being is influenced and formed by the history and literature of England. In America there is a kaleidoscope of racial backgrounds, coming from the four corners of the world, from Asia and Africa, Europe, Hispanic America and Alaska. However, we are all creatures of the English language and inherit its rich history. Our roots extend even into the mythic past, so we can participate with Arthur, with the help of his Druid-like friend the wizard Merlin, to pull the great sword Excalibur from the stone and become a King of England.

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