Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The celluloid throne

The Queen granted me a royal lesson in human behavior the other night.

Not Her Majesty, to be sure. Cecile and I had already been to Buckingham Palace without receiving an invitation to tea. But the opening of Helen Mirin’s new film, The Queen, was just too great an opportunity to miss for transplanted Yanks.

We paid the equivalent to $35 for two tickets at Nottinghill Gate Cinema -- and you thought U.S. movie prices were outrageous. There is a significant difference in atmosphere, however. The Nottinghill Gate is a former music hall with ornate ceiling decorations and a stage. The single-screen theater offers a full bar and a snack menu far beyond nachos.

And then there was the film. Until I was back outside and talked to a middle-aged British couple, I thought it was just my lack of Britannic experience that made me think the royal characterizations were “spot on.” But the press and most of the Britons I have run into are amazed not only at how well Mirin looks and acts like the Queen, but how well the nuances of Charles, the Queen Mother and especially Tony Blair came through.

Yes, Tony Blair. The film might have easily been entitled “Young Tony” as “The Queen.” It takes up right when Blair wrests the Labour Party away from its left-wing roots and sweeps into the country vowing to modernize while protecting social welfare. To be sure, the UK critics say director Stephen Frears gave Blair too much credit for bringing sanity to the Royal Muddle when Princess Diana died, but even if it is fiction the plot is food for thought.

The story actually has three streams, represented by three protagonists. The Queen and her family (Philip the Boor, Charles the Hesitant and Queen Mother the Irascible) are stuck in another era – an era that may have never existed outside the regal imagination. They truly believe the British people will simply smile and curtsy to their monarch without question and that it was only the press that stoked the fire of admiration for that nasty Diana.

Blair is something of an urban rube in an ill-fitting suit who is a bit overwhelmed by it all. His wife detests royalty and misses no opportunity to say so. But Blair is also an astute observer of the collision of politics and culture. When even his wife and aides advise him to go for the throat of the Royals, he recognizes the value of the monarchy to the Sceptred Isle. Implausibly, he is a radical realist.

The overlooked third protagonist in the film is Blair’s chief aide, Andrew Campbell. He is the archetypical political wonk – cynical to a fault, loyal to his man, impatient for the next big win. The sharp-tongued and sharp-witted Campbell must have either memorized or inspired every episode of West Wing -- politics is neither polite nor merciful. (It was Campbell, by the way, who wrote the joke about Blair’s wife that the PM used to critics this week. He also gets credit for naming Diana “the people’s princess.)

The tension between the three sides is the meat of the plot. That the three were able to reach even a fragile state of balance is rather amazing and very much worth watching.

Equally amazing was the timing of the film’s release. When the cameras started rolling for the movie several years ago, Frears could not have known it would premiere just as Blair is being ushered to an unwanted retirement. Good call. At the end of the film, Queen Elizabeth tells a cocky Tony that, as it did for her, his popularity could fall in a moment.

It did.

There is also a momentary quip that almost no American will get but that brought down the house in Nottinghill Gate. As Blair is dashing about solving a crisis an aide shouts “Gordon is on the phone.”

Gordon Brown is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Blair’s erstwhile partner in the New Labour revolution. They struck a deal that Brown would get the PM spot in a few years but Blair liked No. 10 and refused to budge. Now Brown is the archrival who is forcing Blair to resign.

In the film, Blair curtly responds, “He’ll have to wait.” And though Brown waited and waited, I’m glad I didn’t.

A curtsy, M’am.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Tea with the Queen

Sorry, Mom. I still didn’t have tea with the Queen.

This week I had the rare opportunity to tour the state rooms of Buckingham Palace. For years one needed at title more impressive than “Dr.” to gain entrance to these opulent halls, but then the Queen’s beloved Windsor Castle burned. To raise the pounds needed to restore that palace, the Queen agreed to open her downtown digs to the public for a few weeks each year.

For Cecile, I’m sure, it was a chance to view the stunning artwork and architecture. For me, it was another chance to remember my mother.

My mother was London born and bred, but her family was more on the “Andy Capp” side of the pedigree chart than the “Duke of Roxburghe” side. When I was a boy, hot tea heavily laced with milk and sugar was the medicinal equivalent to chicken soup. “What you needed is a good cuppa” meant sit down, get in touch with your senses and let’s talk for awhile.

But for my brother and me, tea was also the key warning that we had reached the limits of Mom’s patience. My mother insisted on a modicum of table manners – not a simple demand on a pair of rough-and-tumble 1960s boys.

“Clyde and Mark! Stop throwing food. How am I ever to take you to tea with the Queen?”

Tea with the Queen. Was that supposed to mean an old lady in a crown would help me recover from a headache or a bruised shin? It was several more years before I discovered “tea” in this case was the meal, rather than the beverage. But in the meantime, the phrase became part of the sophomoric banter young brothers share.

“Good one, Mark” I would say when his attempt to laugh while drinking milk resulted in a white geyser. “You’re never getting invited to tea with the Queen.”

For me, it was usually a reminder of my penchant for missing my mouth with my spoon. As I looked down on blob of oatmeal drooling down the shirt Mom had just ironed for school, Mark would say “So I guess you won’t be having tea with the Queen…”

But for the record, Mom, I was on my best manners when we were at the Palace. I said “please” and “thank you” instead of nodding and grunting. I didn’t wipe my mouth with my arm, burp or throw a sock at a surrogate brother. And on the food side, they knew I was coming: Large signs banned food or drink.

So I know it wasn’t my fault. I think the Queen was just away enjoying the Scottish air in Balmoral.

I guess she’ll never be invited for beer at the ‘Berg.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

When in Britain, do as the Romans do

Americans often say they love Britain for its “sense of history.” I think that I am more fascinated with the history ignored.

Much our official introduction to London over the past two weeks has been the history of this island. We have been to the Museum of London, the Tate Britain gallery and heard professors tell us of British culture and art.

You quickly realize that Americans have only a nominal grasp of “history.” And event that happened 200 years ago is more like old news to the British than it is historical.

Even so, I’m astounded by how easily we forget our past. Everywhere we turn we hear of lessons unheeded or that simply faded away.

On my last trip, I was surprised to learn that Great Britain was a thriving part of the Roman
Empire for more than 300 years. If the fact that England was Latin for longer than we have been a country was in my history books, I completely missed it.

But the bigger surprise was how civilized and comfortable that Roman life was. The Museum of London has several typical Roman living rooms based on UK excavations. As one might expect, the room where the governor or similar leaders lived was palatial – far nicer than any house I have lived in. But I don’t think most Americans would feel the middle class home was “primitive.” And even the working class home was as nice as most summer cabins.

My students were rather amazed to find that the Roman culture was very extensive in Britain and enjoy mostly by native Britons rather than Italians.

So what happened here? Britain went from flush toilets and central heating to open sewers and pigsties and smoking fire pits. It took more than 1,400 years to regain the general level of comfort and sanitation that the Roman Britons enjoyed. The lesson for me was not to take technology for granted – it can be (and has been) erased from our society in a historical eye blink.

We often talk of our lapse into mediocrity as "Dark Ages." I can't help but think "Dumb Ages" is a better description.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Portobello Market

A few hundred yards from my hotel, the world comes to shop.

Portobello Road is a mile long, winding lane that has attracted shoppers, browsers, street performers and pickpockets for nearly 300 years. Weekdays, it features a few produce stalls and one of the best selections of antique stores in the country. Each Saturday, however, it comes alive with a fantastic array of stalls.

At the Notting Hill Gate end of Portobello Road, the stalls are mainly upscale antiques and artwork. As you stroll on, it becomes decidedly downscale with stalls of souvenirs, T-shirts and rummage. That rummage, however, might sell for premium prices at Missouri antique stores. It takes a few hundred years for something to be a real antique here.

About halfway down the road, it becomes an international food mart. Sausages, fruits, great loaves of bread, exotic olives, fresh fish and a mind-boggling array of cheese tempted my palate. I resisted (OK, I had a pastry), but couldn’t help consuming all the conversation I could. There was chatter in at least a dozen languages as London’s global community joined tourists from all over looking for the right ingredients for tonight’s meal.

I am trying to resist spending too much at the market until Cecile arrives. I drooled, however, at a stall filled with 19th century tools. I love the concept of labor combined with art and the Victorians made almost every common tool into a masterpiece,

I can tell now that the Portobello Market will be a regular Saturday morning pleasure for me. If nothing else, it will give me an opportunity to exercise my photographic voyeurism. Speaking of which, you can click here to see more of my Portobello Market photos. I will add to them through my stay here.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Cut to the quick

Ah, England -- where the weather is damp but the wit always dry.

Tonight as I was going through the dinner buffet I came upon a large bowl of spinach-like greenery that had no apparent connection to the main course. One of the hotel's permanent residents was near me, so I asked "What is this?"

He looked at me for just an instant before making his decree with a very British accent:


(Another resident explained it was watercress, much disliked by my culinary guide but generally prized by the British.)

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Birth of a Newspaper

Witnessing the birth of a metropolitan daily newspaper is a rarity something akin to watching a volcano erupt or a comet streak by. Especially in my profession, where we are much more experienced at mourning that celebrating.

Monday I watched a lively metro spring full-grown from the loins of the inimitable Rupert Murdoch. That in itself was remarkable, but I had missed the earlier debut of of yet another paper only days before.

In the newspaper business, England swings. London is home to a dozen English-language dailies of all sizes, styles and political persuasions. And, unlike many American newspapers, they each choose very different stories for their front pages.

But as in the States, daily newspaper readership is declining. Young readers want their news fast, free and a bit on the ragged edge of propriety.

Murdoch’s answer to that – an Associated Newspapers 10 days prior – is a free daily tabloid handed to commuters near Tube stations ever evening. The two evening freebies join the pioneering Metro and CityAM.

Associated publishes the Evening Standard, which identifies itself on the front page as “London’s Quality Newspaper.” It was hard to miss its new product when I came to town this week, however. London Lite looks very similar to the supermarket tabloids that U.S. journalists dismiss but readers snap up. Monday’s front page, for instance, had a huge white-on-black headline block “The Croc Hunter is killed by a fish.” And in boxes above that, “Liz’z love boat” and “WILL ANTI CELLULITE BERRIES WORK FOR MISCHA?”

Considering Murdoch’s reputation, I expected worse of thelondonpaper (all one word, lower case in the Internet style). And the debut front page in deed recorded the demise of the TV star, but with a more sedate “Steve Irwing Stabbed in Heart/CROC MAN KILLED BY STINGRAY. The other headlines on the page were much tamer, referring to stories on Rocker Pete Doherty’s court appearance, sports salaries and coffee addiction a rock.

Damn. Where is the “Alien meets with Bush”?

The young Londoners at which the free papers are aimed didn’t seem to care. Thelondonpaper came out at 4:30 p.m. By 5:30, the only way I could get an issue was to ask to see the copy a street person had on her lap (“That’s OK, love. You take it – I’ve already ready read it.”) I later took a bus from Notting Hill Gate to Picadilly and, despite my second-deck vista, never saw a leftover copy in the sidewalk detritus of the day’s news.

The key test, however, was Andrew. While teaching in London for four months, I am living in an old residential hotel much like Fawlty Towers. It has a bar/lounge in the old London style, with high-backed chairs, a snooker table, wine or port on you account and a contingent of “permanent residents.” Andrew is something of the major domo of these gentlemen. He introduced himself soon after I arrived, noting that he was “former Royal Army” and not at all keen on these immigration policies. He reads the Times, the Telegraph and the Evening Standard daily. The Guardian, he miffed, is “mostly for those liberals…”

When I showed him my battered copy of thelondonpaper, his bushy gray eyebrows literally raised. “One of those free things, eh?” Though he harrumphed, he took it to his chair while I talked with the other residents. When I looked back a few minutes later, he was taking notes and nodding his head.

“This is quite impressive,” he said. “There were several stories I had not seen before.”

Thelondonpaper could indeed be a portent of things to come. It’s not just a “movie rag.” It’s a good read, with good reporting. But it is delivered free in a convenient package. Just like the Internet. It makes one wonder whether the touted popularity of Web news is based on electrons or ease of use.

Monday’s Media Weekly, published by the Independent, featured a long interview with the admiral of Murdoch’s fleet, Clive Milner. Milner was candid about the research that backed the paper and News International’s strategy of keep costs low by employing “multitasking” journalists. The same people write, edit and design pages via new user-friendly technology. And he vowed to eliminate the litany of rules and traditions that drive advertisers crazy.

Milner was especially blunt about his goal for the free daily. His sights are on the dominant paid-for evening paper:

“If I was an employee of the Evening Standard, I would be looking for career advice quickly.”

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Serious research

There are two things you simply must do when you visit London -- have a pint of hand-pulled beer in a pub at least 150 years old and have your picture taken next to one of the queen's guards.

I had the beer Saturday and posed with a Scots Guard at St. James Palace today. I don't think I need to bother the men in the busbies again, but I'm not quite ready to come home. I stiil have to do a bit more investigating on that first chore...