Tag Archives: Tower of London

The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part 2



In 1988 when I flew to London with some of my classmates from Anderson University, the song that was stuck in my head was Kate Bush’s “Oh England My Lionheart” which had the most gorgeous, historical and literary lyrics and the refrain, “Oh! England, my lionheart/I don’t want to go.” As we boarded our plane for home, at least half of us were mentally humming this song. We weren’t ready to say goodbye to this city that existed for us previously only on the pages of the books we were studying.


As Z and I walk along the Thames, by Parliament, up Whitehall past the statue of Charles I staring forever towards the place where he lost his head, through the tombs in Westminster Abbey where Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I are stretched out side by side despite a lifetime of distrust, imprisonment, and conflicting religious ideologies, what song is in my head? Why, Fergie’s “London Bridge” with lyrics that I won’t repeat here because my mother-in-law reads this blog. It will NOT leave my head. I walk around looking at sights that quicken my heart while mentally, there’s Fergie, getting her groove on: All my girls get down on the floor/back to back drop it down real low.


This difference pretty much epitomizes the alterations that twenty years can make on a place. I’m not sure if those differences I see are primarily in my head or if they are in the city itself. Certainly, London has changed. I need only look at the skyline across the Thames to South London to see the difference. Skyscrapers, the London Eye (a massive Ferris wheel built to celebrate the Millennium that wrecks that old world feel I loved so long ago, though demonstrates what a modern tourist destination London is), and the general hubbub makes the south side of the river suddenly seem like the place to be instead of the stuffy historical sites on the north side. (We stay on the north side.) Also, though one of my previous trips was during the tourist-laden summer, London feels positively stuffed to the gills with people. There is no room for us on the tours, on the sidewalk, in the Tube. I can’t decide if this is my age, the fact that now that I live in a city I’m no longer as enamored with them as I used to be, I’ve become a claustrophobe in middle age or because the EU and globalization have turned the city into the world’s oyster. Also, a new development since 1992: at least ¾ of the people we pass have their faces buried in their smart phones with no awareness that the throngs are having to dodge their zombie-esque lumber down the middle of the sidewalk.


At one point, I actually think but don’t say, “London may be due another plague to thin this herd.”


Lest it seem like I haven’t enjoyed myself and don’t love this city, fear not. Z and I have had a great time. It’s hard to see a red double-decker bus, a red phone box (a few less since last time I was here), or the iconic red mailboxes without catching a little London fever. Samuel Johnson said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, and I’m inclined to agree. I will never be “over” London, though I do wonder if Dr. Johnson was ever tired IN London as we have been, and if he didn’t ever long for a little respite in the Lake District. Certainly, at the end of our days, we’re happy to stumble into our hotel room.


Our hotel, The Regency, in South Kensington, is delightful. Its location just a few blocks from the Tube is why we picked it, but when we walked up to it we knew we’d be in good hands. Queen’s Gate Avenue is a wide, flower-lined street with Georgian homes that lead into the Queen’s Gate in Kensington Gardens. Though the room is small and the water pressure is non-existent, the quirkiest thing about it is the high tech light system that the hotel staff is very proud of. If you get up in the night, the lights sense your movement and pop on. This would be handy if you were in a room by yourself, but with two people, it’s unsettling to have the lights flash suddenly because your spouse needed to make a late-night trip to the loo. The hotel is quiet and they accommodated my ice addiction by bringing me a bucket of ice every night. (Though on the last night, I only got a glass of ice, much to Z’s delight. He couldn’t quit laughing at my disappointed face.)


In Seattle, the city parks planners have recently started a “parks to pavement” movement, the result of which means on our block of First Hill we’ve lost about six parking spaces that have been painted aqua. They chained some jaunty folding chairs to sign posts and we’re meant to think it’s a park (and it’s worth noting, it’s five feet from a non parking lot park). But you only need to be in London about five minutes before you see proper parks, both big and small before you realize that Americans often don’t really do parks right at all. The ones in London are under huge canopies of trees and there is everywhere evidence of landscape design. Aside from the big parks, there are also little “squares” in the midst of Georgian row houses that are private for the residents around the block. It’s a bit disconcerting to be on the outside of the locked gate looking in, but it must be such a delight to live across the street from one and know that you have access and can find therein a park that is less likely to have litter strewn about, needles cast aside, and a safe haven from the stress of the city. There should be more of these everywhere and not just in wealthy neighborhoods. It seems like it would foster a sense of community more than our little patch of aqua pavement. If we went to a park every day of our stay here, I’d ask to go to two.


On our first jet-lagged afternoon, Z and I head off to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (the two parks bleed into each other and even my pop-up map is vague about where one ends and the other begins, but combined they are larger than the whole of Monaco!). Henry VIII created Hyde Park for hunting, and London is all the better for it. Marble Arch in Hyde Park was my very first tourist stop in 1988, so I’m always happy to return there, even in a gentle rain. Z and I stop for photo ops at the Albert Memorial, created by Queen Victoria to pay tribute to her beloved husband, and I remember in college how silly she seemed to have gone into a mourning that lasted the rest of her life though her husband died when she was 42 and she would live to be nearly 100. Standing there with Z, it makes much more sense to me now that a woman who ruled half the geographic world would feel she’d lost her own when her husband died. Is it possible that I’m more romantically inclined in middle age than I was as a twenty year old?


While in the park, we walk along the serpentine–a swan-laden lake that twists and turns—and we visit Peter Pan, pass the Italianate garden that looks like it belongs in another country. It’s a peaceful re-introduction to London.

IMG_3044 (1)

The next morning, we manage to get ourselves to what was previously my favorite place in London: The Tower. It’s a fortress comprised of multiple buildings that span centuries in architecture and that was the backdrop for some of England’s more grisly history, including the place where wives lost their heads simply because Henry VIII had in mind to wed another and where people whose faiths differed from the monarch’s were put to death for heresy. When I was 21, this place sizzled for me. I walked along the parapet where Elizabeth I walked when she was being held prisoner by her sister and felt alive, like I was somehow touching the past. I watched the ravens hopping freely across the green and recited to myself the myth that if the ravens leave, the Tower will fall. (They haven’t left because their wings are clipped, and now, sadly, they are in cages.) I traced Jayne Grey’s name, carved in the wall by her husband before the pair of them were beheaded at the end of Jayne’s 9 day reign as queen and got choked up. I stared at the Crown Jewels and imagined which crown I’d get to wear when Prince Edward finally saw sense and married me. Full disclosure, I also stared at Henry VIII’s codpiece and wondered if I could get Edward to don similar armor periodically to keep things spicy.


On this August day, the Tower is crawling with tourists. Since last I was here, they’ve built a souped up tourist center and started charging a lot more, including a “voluntary donation” that is in the price posted! There are lines for the Crown Jewels that snake around the White Tower and leave Z and I shaking our heads: I’ve seen them before and he isn’t that interested, so we move on. They’ve refurbished apartments above Traitor’s Gate that belonged to Edward I, which are fascinating in their medieval-ness. In other places, I feel disappointed that “improvements” have been made to entertain children—unnecessary sound effects that make it impossible for me to do my own imagining, a lot of hands-on feeling of feather ticks and metal soldiers’ helmets, and an array of animal sounds from the menagerie that used to live there. I understand the inclination to make history come alive so young people will be interested, but what I notice is most of them could care less about the history and simply want to move from experience to experience. I feel sad for them that they live in an age when grown-ups feel they must entertain children instead of helping them develop imaginations that can fill in blanks, but mostly I’m sadder for myself and Z. There is no time or space now for reflection about politics, faith, war and affairs of the heart without hearing “tigers” growling and the clang of swords from a mock joust. Even Tower Green, which used to have a sort of tacky chopping block to illustrate where heads were lost now has a beautiful monument made of glass and stone with a lovely poem etched into it and a sculpture of a pillow.


I’m still unsure how I feel about this. The poem is nice and offers a sort of benediction for those who have become cartoon characters in the history books of our minds, but it’s a little too pretty. For me that chopping block was jarring reminder in such a beautiful setting that the Tower wasn’t all banquets and Tudor-era tennis.


But still, why am I complaining about any of it? For an American whose history barely goes back 200 years, it’s amazing to stand in a structure that has existed since William the Conqueror in the 11th Century. I get chills standing in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula knowing that two of Henry VIII’s wives lie beneath the floor, heads no longer intact, and can’t be having much of a peaceful rest with all the tourists that trek through on a daily basis.


Because I’ve always wanted to walk along the Thames—mistaking it, I suppose, for the Seine—Z and I leave the Tower and walk towards Parliament on the Thames River Walk. It is a longer distance than our pop-out map indicates, and more to the point, London is a boom town with a lot development happening along the river, so we walk twenty feet and then have to circle around construction; walk another twenty feet, circle around. It’s hot. We are tired. Honestly, I prefer the Thames in my mind. As we walk away from Tower Bridge, towards London Bridge, Fergie cranks up in my head, and I sigh. I think I’m missing 1988 London. Possibly, I’m missing 1588 London.

I’m Fergie Ferg. Me love you long time.


Elegy to a Mentor

Gibb (with Beth and her 80s hair).

Gibb (with Beth and her 80s hair).

Today would have been the 80th birthday of my college mentor. All afternoon I’ve been having “Gibb flashes” and was surprised to look on my perpetual birthday calendar and see his name in parentheses (parentheses being the only indication I am ever willing to give that someone on my calendar is now dead). Somewhere on one of my often-confused brain cells, there must have been some Gibb info stored and an impulse got released to remind me to send him a greeting today.

Only sadly, I have to send it to the general populace since he died in 2006.

When I went to college, I was an art major. My whole life until then I’d either had a pen in my hand for writing or a pen in my hand for drawing, so it’s easy to see now why I was confused about what I should do with my life back then. For the first six weeks of college, I dutifully carried my art supplies to the Fine Arts building and tried not to be intimidated by the girl who wore a beret or the guy who carried a paisley purse, both of whom looked like artists while I was wearing polo shirts and sweaters with shoulder pads. I also tried to ignore how loathe I was to use the mandatory charcoal because the feel of it dragging across the paper set my nerves on edge and I preferred the delicate, fine strokes of a pen. Eventually it became apparent that the joy I felt going into the classroom beneath the art studio for my Valuing Through Literature course when compared to the glumness I felt about Drawing 101, probably meant something significant. Possibly, I would have come to this realization without Gibb at the helm of that class I’d accidentally been placed in by a disinterested advisor, but I like to think it was destiny that put me in his class and that led me to the registrar’s office before the term was up to change my major to English.

Gibb was in his 50s, balding, and had this air of an Englishman even though he was 100% American. (When I say “air” I don’t mean that he put on airs. He was just so caught up in British literature and history, that he gave off an English vibe, so much so that his perfectly American English would start to sound like English English in your ear.) More than once, the actor Anthony Hopkins has reminded me of Gibb, though not so much when he played Hannibal Lecter.

Gibb had this habit of lecturing into his yellow legal pad, as if he were talking to himself in an empty room, only occasionally looking up at one of us with a slight smile or a squinted eye if he’d said something particularly poignant about a poem or essay. He moved his coffee cup around as he talked, as if he couldn’t find the exact right spot for it, and his lectures, while full of the expected details about literature, were also chock-full of anecdotes that you’d miss if you weren’t listening, such as his  memory of the first ball point pen and how the advertisements  had said, “It can write on butter!” as if writing on butter was something everyone would want to do, or his disappointment that inaugurations never looked as good as they did after the Kennedy presidency, which he blamed on the lack of top hats. One of my favorites was about the Wedgwood China he’d won in a puzzle contest that he enjoyed because with it came a trip to England. When he told us about it, he shook his head at the memory of his daughter, who was concerned about how much each piece of it had cost. He said, “How does the price of a gravy boat make the gravy taste any better?” In his mind, it was somehow tied to what we were learning to value through literature, but to some of my classmates, he just seemed like an old guy who rambled. It was these anecdotes of his—dutifully copied in my notes right next to dates and themes of Bride of Lammermoor—that led me to the understanding that literature was life, and vice versa.

He loved pigs and had had a pet one named Jipper when he was a boy, and it would meet him after school each day. Various pig trinkets dotted the shelves which were filled with books about and by Romantic and Victorian British authors, including a tea towel with pigs on it dancing around some building blocks that spelled out ENGLISH. (My friend Bunz, once said, “Until I met Gibb, I had no idea that pigs and English had anything to do with each other.”  I’m still curious about where one would find such a tea towel.)

My fellow English majors liked him fine, but he was not one of the campus personalities around whom students flocked, those intellectual celebrity-profs who spent as much class time talking about themselves and their vast stores of knowledge and accomplishments as they did the subject at hand. Nor was he like the psychology prof in the tight Levis who was popular despite a rather crabby disposition. Gibb amused students, if anything, both because of his odd lecturing manner and the quiet jokes he’d crack in the classroom. Did my classmates respect him? I don’t really know but I have to believe they did because I can’t really stand the thought that they might not have.

Friends who were English majors were aware of my devotion to him and how I hung on his every word, and they sometimes teased me about being in love with him. It was in good fun, but it got under my skin…like being accused of having the hots for Mr. Chips or Yoda or, well, Buddha or Jesus. You just don’t do that. It wasn’t about that. Mostly, I just wanted to scoop out what was in his brain and put it into mine.

One of the regular requirements for his classes were journals, an activity that I loathed for other professors, but I knew Gibb was reading mine because he regularly praised me for the quality, and so I began writing them with more vigor because it was clear I had an audience. It was the perfect communication style for two introverts. His written commentary gave me insight into the work I was writing about, his praise gave me a little more faith in my abilities, and on one occasion when he chastised me, his words burned deep and I spent weeks mentally twisting while I tried to figure out if I had been misunderstood or if I needed to alter my perspective to align more with his.

I remember the satisfaction I felt, when I brought Helene Hanff’s books, 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street to his attention. He’d never heard of her, devoured the books, and one day when I was working in the English Department at my job as a student secretary, I overheard him suggesting the books to someone else. I felt like I’d accomplished something, to carry these two small books to this man who had introduced me to so much fine literature, the way a cat leaves a mouse on a doorstep for its master.

My junior year, he and his wife, took a group of students to England for a week. It was my first trip outside of the U.S., and the idea of seeing the England that Gibb had lectured about with him (and with my friends), really was a dream come true. Our first full day there he led us to the Tower of London, and I can still remember the sort of naïve shock I felt when I realized that the places I’d spent my life reading about were real, the historical figures were real, and even the fictional characters and places were real­-ish.

For some reason, one of my fondest memories from that trip was at Windsor Castle where I overheard his wife pointing out that St. George’s chapel was closed, and Gibb said to her, with the most irritation (and disappointment) I had ever heard from him, “Of course it is closed. Whenever we are here it is closed. Why would it be open today?” Years later when I managed to be there on a day when it was open, I was sure to remember the details of what struck me there—the photo and light burning by the tomb of the current queen’s father, what it felt like to stand directly over Henry VIII’s bones, the checkered floor, the banners—so I could give him the details in case he never did get to see it for himself.

After my graduation, we kept in touch with letters and regular Christmas cards, in which we’d always promise to get together in the near future, though we never did. I wanted to be able to report to him that I had become the next Erma Bombeck or Mike Royko (his two suggested futures for me, as if these were job openings I was likely to see an ad for), and so I kept putting off seeing him maybe, and instead reported less grand things in my letters: a new degree, a trip to Ireland, a new job teaching. In my  memory, I thanked him for what he’d taught me when I started teaching my own students, but I’m not sure I did. I hope I did. Certainly, some percentage of what I said and did in the classroom was because of Gibb.

One year his wife signed the Christmas card and there was no letter. Instead of feeling glad to hear that they were both well, I felt annoyed. Within the year, he had died.  A few weeks later, I found the previous year’s Christmas card and realized it wasn’t his wife who had signed it. It was Gibb. His handwriting looked less like itself, less sure, and the message was short, “Please come and see us!” And I wept because of those things we desperately want “do-overs” on but can’t have.

His voice cracked once when he talked about aging love in Robert Burns’s poem “John Anderson, my Jo” and it has stuck with me all of these years, how much the words on the page were alive for Gibb and should have been alive for all of us, young things that we were, so sure we’d never age.