Northern weather can at times be so mercifully gloomy - nothing like darkness & rain & sweeping winds to offer a reprieve from the daily obligation to be cheerful (1). The murky London weather, upon my arrival there last Sunday, was particularly welcome – só in tune with the dismal economic news. I’d been feeling quite uneasy about taking a holiday break in the current conditions, but then, at least it was not going to be an insouciant sunny vacation! (2)
Eurostar disruptions had already complicated my trip’s planning, having had to search on the Web for an extra night of London accommodation at very short notice. Extra train delays further helped to mess up my schedule, so it was an acutely stressed out & glum traveler who descended into the Tube. To make her way to far-out Kensington, where the (oddly ominously named) Centaur Lodge (3), was located.
I got out at the wrong tube-station, Earl’s court, and so still had to walk a couple of miles in the pouring rain. Along the kind of busy road not designed for pedestrians, with ferocious cars roaring by, occasionally spraying the hapless hiker with murky puddle-water. At last I did arrive in more quiet quarters with leafy streets – though they did not look leafy-residential but just leafy-wet. Also, the great number of 'for-sale' signs added to a certain demoralizing atmosphere.
But, at last, there it was! The Centaur Lodge did exist and its front-garden gate swung open creakily. Upon my ringing a little boy opened the door, looking puzzled at my claim of having a reservation. He called his father, who after having stumbled down the stairs, effusively pressed my hand, calling me at once by my first name. Then he apologetically explained the prevailing mess : “why, you see, we’re re-doing the carpets, but your room will be done in an hour”. All the while he was smiling broadly and observing me with an almost insulting fascination, as if I were a particularly peculiar specimen of the human race. (4)
I used the idle hour to replenish calorie-reserves in a small diner off West-Kensington tube station. And I don’t know what restored my spirits more – the cozy diner-activity around me, the heartening tea-with-milk and cheese-sandwich or the reading of a dozen of pages of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. Anyway, afterwards my lodgings did look a bit less sinister & I could set my mind on more congenial stuff – such as whiling away my time at the British Museum and meeting up with a friend later .
Ah, the British Museum on a rainy day – so sheltering in its 19th Century pompous hospitality. And how consoling to wander about amongst the remnants of civilizations past, in their inexorably logical museum presentation creating an illusion of historical necessity. All those cultural artifacts testifying to humankind's capacity for both savagery and civilization. All those figments of the human imagination ….of which the multifarious winged creatures are definitely my favorites (be they assyrian or egyptian, be they eagle-headed protective spirits or human-headed winged lions).
Given my apocalyptic set of mind, always bent on seeking historical reminders of the rise & fall of civilizations, I was obviously greatly pleased to supplement my stock of decaying empires examples (5) with following notes copied from an educational panel: ”the collapse of the Mycenean civilization in the 12th C BC was followed by a time of cultural poverty, a ‘Dark Age’ that lasted two to three hundred years. During this time […] many of the arts and crafts of the previous era, including writing, were forgotten”. ( Including writing….!) .
Thus my very real present fears could recede and make way for an almost scholarly disinterested fascination with the eternal ebbing & flowing of humankind’s fortunes.
Of course I had to end my museum visit in the great Ancient Greek galleries. Indulging in antiquated feelings of awe and gratitude at that miracle of the Greek aesthetic moment – that unique blend of order and naturalness, that saving grace of beauty, which fuses both ‘quiet grandeur’ and ‘tragic unrest’.
going easy on footnotes
(1) Cf the dreaded ‘rise & shine!’
(2) A very judeo-christian reasoning – thou shall pay with sweat & tears for any enjoyment that possibly might come your way. Well, I did fret about it being irresponsible to not stay at home & shiver real-time at the dismal news – (fear & trembling alas not only out of empathy with the global financial system: my own employer is teetering on the brink of collapse too.)
(3) read & see here why the name Centaur should not necessarily (despite all the deep sympathy & affinity I have with liminal & ambiguous creatures) inspire confidence in a weary traveler
(4) That kind of vaguely disrespectful & over-familiar approach which a lone woman traveler alas often inspires in certain male specimens. And which makes me feel very uncomfortable indeed. (Or could it be that the reserved & wary northerner that I am routinely mis-interprets effusive friendliness?)
(5) I am absolutely fascinated with the ”decline & fall” of the Roman empire – how a whole body of customs, arts, scientific & technical knowledge, how a whole culture could unravel. And as a contemporary cultural pessimist I obviously like to compare the present age’s decadence & turmoil in the Western world with the Roman empire round about AD 350.