Sunday, September 21, 2014

england swings like a pendulum do

So sang Roger Miller back in 1965.  Tony Blair probably said it better -- Britain rocks.

No one ever had to teach me to love this country -- or this great city.  My two years of living in England in the dark days of the 1970s made London a top candidate for a retirement home for Steve Cotton.

That didn't happen for a lot of reasons.  But my repeated visits here over the years have been filled with nothing but great memories.  And I added several more yesterday.

London is best enjoyed on foot.  While Ken and Patti were getting some well-needed rest, I took off on a random walk to renew my affair with this once imperial city.

We are staying at the Green Park Hilton.  That made my first stop easy.  You can see by the photograph how this 47 acres of rolling woods got its name -- green park.

Urban parks are always places of magic.  After ten steps in this particular park, you feel as if you are in the countryside hunting rabbits.  The canopy is low enough that only glimpses of the wonders of London peek through the limbs.

And crossing one busy street puts you in the next park.  St. James's Park -- an entirely different feel.  With its lawn, trees, and duck ponds, it sets off two of London's most famous buildings.  Buckingham Palace in one direction and Horse Guards in the other.

I suspect I have about a hundred photographs of the Byzantine domes of Horse Guards reflected in the park lake.  Almost all of them featuring the white skies that are an almost-constant feature of London.  The city's big effort to clear up its air has merely exposed the fact that there is no sky there.

What is there is signs.  The English love their park rules.  But, even more, they like to apologize.  The motto emblazoned on the royal coat of arms is "Dieu et mon droit."  It may as well be "sorry."

You hear it everywhere in London -- at least, from the British.  One little rubbed shoulder in a shop will elicit an avalanche of "sorry" "sorry" "sorry."

I cannot imagine this sign showing up anywhere in Melaque -- or Mexico City, for that matter.

Especially, when the "danger" conveyed by the sign was nothing more than a few loose rock chips.  It is moments like this that makes quite clear why Britain felt compelled to pass off its responsibility of policing the seas to the newly-emergent American power.

Speaking of policing, this sight was not new to me.  But it was rather disheartening.  Even though it reflects the time in which we live.

These armed policemen were standing at the entrance of Downing Street.  Number 10, of course, is the home of the British prime minister.  (The black building, if you are curious.)  And, because of the recent failure of the Scottish referendum, David Cameron still lives there.

When I first visited London in the 1970s, you could stand right across the street from the house's front door.  We all know why that is not true these days.  Evil men wish to do evil deeds in such symbolic places.  Thus, the machine gun-toting police throughout the city.  Especially, at embassies

Just up Whitehall from Downing Street, is the Centotaph -- a plain monument celebrating the lives of all the people who died in the service of Britain.  It has always been a very powerful symbol standing in the very center of Whitehall Street.

Since 2005, it has been joined in that honored position by another monument.  One dedicated to
the work that women undertook during the Second World War.

Don't get me wrong.  The work that women performed in the allied countries made the difference in defeating Germany and Japan.  And added proof positive of the important economic role women would provide in the future.

Ironically, the monument may actually minimize the value of the work provided by women during the war.  The Centotaph, and other war monuments, celebrated the sacrifice of all in the state's monopoly of unregulated violence. 

Whenever politicians want people to join together, they invoke "how we all worked together" during the war.  To start slicing the unity of effort into thin pieces of salami seems to give no credit to the supposed honorees.

At least, women deserved true credit.  There is one monument along Whitehall that makes me wince every time I see it.

The equestrian statue of Field Marshal Douglas Haig was meant to honor a "hero" of the First World War.  In truth, Haig was perhaps one of Britain's most incompetent commanders -- sending two million troops off to join a casualty list in ill-conceived battles.

It is probably appropriate that the statue sits in front of the Banqueting House.  The building was part of a much larger and older palace (Whitehall) that stretched along the Thames until it burned down in 1698.  Only the Banqueting House survived.

On a cold day in January 1649, Charles I stepped onto a scaffold from the center window of the house to have his crown (and head) severed from his body.  Providing a name to a number of British pubs -- The King's Head.  There seems to be a certain irony that Haig the Butcher and the butchered king should be remembered so close together.

Immediately across the street is the Horse Guards -- the 18th century building where the Household Cavalry stands guard over a palace that no longer exists.  But it is a first rate tourist attraction. 

These young men with their dragoon outfits and mounted on awe-inspiring steeds are worth their pay in the number of slack-jawed tourists who come to gawk as if they were at a Wisconsin State Fair freak show.  And, yes, I was one of them.

That may be the sole value of maintaining all of this royal pomp and circumstance that has evolved over hundreds of years of conquest, war, empire, and Elgar ramblings.  Take St. James's Palace -- perhaps my favorite royal palace in Britain.  The birth of royals and the deaths of kings are announced from this balcony.  Ambassadors from throughout the world are accredited to the "Court of St. James."

All of that because this interesting pile of Tudor bricks is designated as the official residence of the sovereign -- even though she lives down the street in a building that resembles a 19th century warehouse. 

She was not a recent evacuee.  William IV abandoned it in the early 1800s, and the German monarchs, who ruled Britain, never looked back.

Instead, they moved into what had once been the Duke of Buckingham's town house, and thoroughly modified it over the next two centuries.

It is now center stage for tourists.  The place where the changing of the guard brings together everything that foreigners consider Britain to be.  Power.  Color.  Pageantry.  Royalty.  And a sense that things were once better than they are now -- even though they know that is probably not true.

The British taxpayers provide us tourists with a bit of authenticity and even more hype than Walt Disney could conjure.  And we love it.

Look at this crowd.  They are pushing and shoving to see that young boy I shot at Horse Guards ride by in all of his finery.

Of course, they really do not care about the boy.  It is the symbolism.  The sense of belonging to something big.  Something that matters.

For me?  It means that Britain not only rocks; it still has some of those values that are eternal and just may survive the machinations of politicians.

And that is good enough for me.

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