Category Archives: My Life & Stuff That Happened

He’s Nailed It (or in Swedish: “Spikning”)

The cafe in the library at the Hogskola on Gotland

The cafe in the library at the Hogskola on Gotland

Visby (see previous post) is a summer town, where most visitors go to enjoy the beach.  Sure, the medieval walls and the museums are there year-round, but some tours and other visitor services only run mid-June to mid-August.  So why would I go there in an unseasonably frigid April?  To watch my husband, Ernest Adams, take part in a strange European ceremony left over from the Middle Ages.

And on the other side of the room is the plank for spikning; this photo shows publications in place before Ernest's was added

And on the other side of the room is the plank for spikning; this photo shows publications in place before Ernest’s was added

But first, you need a little paragraph of history to get the background:  The Protestants split off from the Catholic Church in the 16th century as the result of a movement called the Protestant Reformation, which was kicked off by a German monk called Martin Luther, who famously nailed 95 theses to the door of a church.  The biggest bee in Luther’s bonnet was about the selling of indulgences, that is, people paying money to the church for official documents saying that their sins would be forgiven.  Luther was appalled that the tremendously wealthy Pope Leo X would defraud people of money when surely only God could forgive sins (and without money changing hands, even if the church did need the money to repair St Peter’s Basilica), and Luther not only said so, he pretty much wrote down 95 reasons why and nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg, in Germany, in 1517.

Selecting a place for the nail (Stephen on the bench, Ernest standing by)

Selecting a place for the nail before the audience arrives (Prof. Stephen Batchelder on the bench, Ernest Adams kibbitzing from the floor)

Now, having learned about that years and years ago, I had always assumed this was a bit of seriously in-your-face vandalism in the cause of religious activism, and that nailing his opinions up on the church door was a slap in the face of the establishment, but I’ve recently learned that I’d gotten it absolutely wrong.  Nailing your thesis to the door—or to whatever other bit of architecture was traditional where you lived—was, back then, a valid means of scholarly publication.  You wrote your argument and nailed it up so people could take your paper down off the door, read it, and put it back for the next person to read.

Dr Ernest presents his doctoral work

Dr Ernest presents his doctoral work

And in some parts of Europe they continue the practice to this day, generally nailing up the theses (US: dissertations) of new PhDs. The author pounds in a nail and hangs the thesis on it by a loop of string, the idea being that the public can take down the document, read what someone has written, and then come to hear the author’s defense (aka their orals,  oral examination, or viva), prepared with questions to ask.  And that’s why I went to Visby: because my husband’s colleagues at the Hogskola på Gotland, a university where he’s a part-time lecturer, asked him to nail up his PhD thesis—something of an honour, since he earned his degree elsewhere.

Stephen makes a hole in Ernest's dissertation/thesis with an electric drill, after the speeches and before the nailing

Stephen makes a hole in Ernest’s dissertation/thesis with an electric drill, after the speeches and before the nailing

The spikning (nailing) ceremony didn’t actually involve a church door, or any door at all.  Spikning ceremonies at Gotland  use a plank of wood set into the wall of the library’s café.   And they haven’t been nailing theses on Gotland for very long; the Hogskola there is the youngest university in Sweden, although it’s merging this summer with the prestigious university in Uppsala (established 1477) where they’ve been nailing up papers for centuries.  Some new PhDs in Uppsala, it seems, use hand-forged iron spikes; my husband actually ordered some of these, but they didn’t arrive in time for him to use one. (So now we’ve got a couple of hand-forged iron spikes lying around.  Any ideas on what we could use them for?)

Ernest's hammers in the nail

Ernest hammers in the nail

At some Swedish institutions, your adviser signs off on your thesis by writing Må spikas—meaning “May be nailed”; at some, nailing up your thesis is a requirement for getting your degree.  Some require you to give a copy of the thesis to the university library as well, as that’s a bit more practical for readers, and some have gone over to what’s called e-spikning or e-nailing—posting theses on-line.  I rather like the sound of the Institute of Technology at Linköpings Universitet, where PhD candidates nail their theses to “the oak outside…building C”, which seems much more authentic than the bulletin boards and such that other places use.

Ernest and the Rektor

Ernest and the Rektor

The University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies advises students to “contact the reception for borrowing a drill, hammer, and nail.”  That would have been handy at Gotland, where staff made arrangements for the hammer and nail to show up at 2:00, but they didn’t arrive until 3:00, brought by a young woman in blue jeans, a striped T-shirt, and running shoes, whom Ernest thought at first was someone from the facilities staff.  She turned out to be Erika Sandström, Rektor of the university, that is, the head of the whole institution, what in the US we’d call the President and in the UK we’d call the Chancellor.   That mix of formality and informality is particularly Swedish, I’m told, and I rather like it; they seem to value substance over formalities.

Colleagues and game design students at the party

Colleagues and game design students at the party

At 3:00 the speeches started, with professor Stephen Batchelder introducing Ernest, and then turning the microphone over to Ernest to talk a little about what he’d written, after which Stephen drilled a hole through a copy of the thesis with an electric drill (whatever they used in the Middle Ages, it must have taken a lot longer).  Then we all trooped into the café where Ernest stood on a bench to reach the empty spot they’d chosen in advance (and into which they’d secretly drilled a pilot hole).  He pounded in the nail, hung up the thesis, got a bouquet and a gift (and a hug from the Rektor), after which we all had drinks and canapes.

The process works!  Just as we were leaving, I snapped this unknown woman taking down a thesis to have a look.

The process works! Just as we were leaving, I snapped this unknown woman taking down a thesis to have a look.

The punchline here is that Martin Luther probably didn’t nail his theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg, or at least that’s the most recent word from historians who’ve looked at the evidence.  That church burned down in 1760, but was rebuilt, and in the 19th century it was given new doors, with Luther’s 95 arguments inscribed in bronze.

In any case, now my husband is not just Ernest, but Dr Ernest; his dissertation/thesis—Resolutions to Some Problems in Interactive Storytelling—is the last student paper he’ll ever have to write; and you could say, using an American expression, that he’s nailed it.


Filed under Culture, History, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

Britain’s National Health Service, or Socialized Medicine is the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

Lately I’ve been seeing a fair few doctors, which is far from an ideal way to live.  For one thing, I’d produce more blog posts if I weren’t spending so much time being prodded by this one or sitting in the waiting room to see that one.  But when I need the care of doctors, I’m tremendously grateful that I’m in the hands of the British National Health Service.  Coming from the US, where even in affluent, high-tech Silicon Valley I had serious problems getting the care I needed via employee plans and HMOs, the NHS seems nearly miraculous.  It’s given me excellent care, and given me far and away the best access to care I’ve ever had.

What follows the first image below is a post about the NHS that I wrote in March 2012  when I was guest blogger at Vie Hebdomadaires.

If all remains well, I’ll be back in the saddle here next week, with new posts about my Anglo-American Experience, but for now, here’s a bit about the wonderful ‘socialized’ health service that keeps me going:

The main entrance to the Royal Surrey County Hospital, the big local hospital which I'd rather see a bit less of, though I'm grateful to have it!

The main entrance to the Royal Surrey County Hospital, the big local hospital which I’d rather see a bit less of, though I’m grateful to have it!

When health care was a hot topic during the 2008 presidential campaign, I made some remark on Facebook about getting fabulous government-paid-for health care here in the UK, and how I wished everybody in the US could have the same.  But a friend in New England popped up to say “Go ahead and ask for socialized medicine, if you want Americans to have the same crappy health care you get over there.”


Why would she think I would go to the trouble of posting a recommendation for a system that’s not any good?  Okay, we can agree to disagree about where healthcare should come from—no problem there—but why would she think that I would say the UK’s National Health Service is great if it isn’t?  Her belief that government health care must be bad seemed to be so strong that it was easier for her to believe I would say “vote for socialized medicine, even though it’s awful” than for her to believe that I get great health care from Britain’s National Health Services (NHS).

It was and is great to be at some remove from the US election process, but it can be difficult when my British neighbors ask me to explain American views and all I can say is that I don’t get it, either.  Most British people can’t understand why Americans don’t want a government-funded health care system.  We have roads, don’t we?  And nobody complains about socialized road maintenance, do they?  Isn’t peoples’ health more important than the roads?

(One of the presidential candidates spoke during the primaries for the 2008 election about how we aren’t willing to pay $150 to care for a diabetic’s feet but we’ll pay $30,000 when that uninsured diabetic has to have a foot amputated at the county general hospital.  I mentioned that to a friend who got quiet and then eventually told me “That very thing happened to my mother in New York”.  All the doctors except the anaesthesiologist waived their fees in that case because her mother couldn’t pay anything—laudable, but not really very fair to anyone, and wouldn’t it be better if we’d paid less and the lady kept both feet?)

A British mother with two toddlers said to me “Surely there’s health care for children, though, isn’t there?”  I explained that there was a proposal to extend a Medicare-type program to children, but President Bush vetoed it.  She kept saying “But the little children…” in a way that would have been comical if she hadn’t been so obviously shaken by the idea that there are children in the developed world who don’t get health care because their families can’t afford it, and that the society they live in, given the choice, allows that situation to continue.

(A friend in California was pregnant a few years ago when her company changed health care systems.  She had a choice of two plans, but her long-time family GP was on one and her obstetrician was on the other.  She couldn’t keep seeing them both.)

We may not be living in a total paradise here, but I definitely get care as good as I’ve ever had in my life, and without doubt I have awesomely, unbelievably better access to doctors and hospitals and scans and all kinds of medical services than I ever had when I lived in either Kentucky or California.

Yesterday was my birthday.  Now, it’s not very festive to run errands on your birthday, but off I went to get things done, and my first tasks were to schedule an eye test—which is free, because I have a family history of glaucoma—and to pick up my refilled prescriptions—also free.

(I’ve read that over 40% of US bankruptcies are caused by medical debt.  Almost no one in the UK goes bankrupt because of medical bills.)

The Fairlands Medical and Dental Centre, home to my GP's practice

The Fairlands Medical and Dental Centre, home to my GP’s practice; the blue sign on the right-hand side is for the in-house pharmacy.

Prescriptions are free here to everyone under 16 or over 60, anyone who’s pregnant or recently had a baby, who’s undergoing cancer treatment, who is permanently disabled with certain disabilities, or who has certain medical conditions. I get free prescriptions because I take thyroid hormones, but it could be diabetes, or epilepsy, or any of several particular conditions.  If you have to have thyroid supplements to live, they’re willing to give them to you, and for other prescriptions, well, the NHS thinks it’s cheaper and more fair to pay for all of your prescriptions, because who can say which of your other ailments aren’t ultimately a result of your thyroid problem?

(A cousin of mine in the US, in his 40s and employed full time with benefits, has just had to go on insulin, and the cost of prescriptions means he can no longer afford to live on his own, so he’s moved back in with his parents.)

I have never once since moving to the UK asked to see a GP and not gotten in the same day, though of course I don’t ask for an immediate appointment unless it’s urgent.  I won’t necessarily see my own GP, but I’ll see another partner in the practice, and that’s fine with me.  I haven’t run into a dud yet.

(At the California HMO I had last, before I moved here, I usually had to wait three weeks to see the doctor.  For recurring painful problems, she told me to write to her by fax because her staff wouldn’t screen out faxes from patients like they screen out phone calls from patients, and she could then phone the pharmacy with a prescription for what I needed.  If we didn’t do an end-run around her staff, I’d have to go to Urgent Care.)

Here in the UK there are restrictions on what doctor you can see, but they might not be ones you’d expect.  Mainly, there is a defined “catchment area” for my doctor’s surgery (US: doctor’s office); they won’t take you on as a patient if you don’t live within that area.  Why?  They make house calls.  NHS GPs generally do.  I’ve never seen a US doctor who made house calls; it’s something from the mythic past, tales handed down from grandparents.  And my doctor’s practice is not the only one operating in my neighborhood; I’ve got a lot of choice.

(The first HMO I belonged to in California didn’t allow me to switch doctors until the yearly open enrollment period in October, but when October rolled around one year, I wasn’t allowed to switch doctors because none of the other doctors in my area who were on my company’s plan were taking new patients. I had to stay, for another whole year, with a doctor I didn’t like.)

Life is just…completely different when you don’t worry about pre-existing conditions, or losing your health care along with your job.  If you get laid off in the UK, you’re still completely covered. You can change jobs at will and—here’s one for “job creators”—you can start your own business without wondering how you’re going to pay the doctor if something happens, or provide health care to employees.

(An American uncle retired to Colorado to be near his grandchildren, but it turned out his retirement health care plan from his employer only paid for care in the state in which he’d been employed, even though the same provider operated in Colorado. Oops.)

This is our village clinic--a little satellite of the larger clinic at Fairlands (in previous photo).  The sign says Glaziers Lane Surgery; the doctors from Fairlands cycle through this surgery (also called the Normandy Surgery), and we have a small dispensary there for prescriptions.  The staff there is second to none!

This is our village clinic–a little satellite of the larger clinic at Fairlands (in previous photo). The sign says Glaziers Lane Surgery; the doctors from Fairlands cycle through this surgery (also called the Normandy Surgery), and we have a small dispensary there for prescriptions. The staff there is second to none!

But you’ve probably heard we have horrendous waiting times for operations here.  Well, we used to.  That’s outdated information, but you don’t get headlines screaming “No unreasonable delays for health care in Britain anymore”.

And admittedly, there is a so-called postcode lottery, which means that depending on where you live, the NHS might provide better care or worse care than the average.  I’ve never been dissatisfied with the care, so I don’t have anything to offer except that most large services do have local variations, though you hope that everything meets at least minimum standards.

When minimum standards aren’t upheld, it’s national news and the headlines are huge.  A few years ago someone who wasn’t happy with the hospital care for her elderly mother ran up to the prime minister while cameras were rolling and asked him what he was going to do about it.  If the care isn’t good, you can write to your member of parliament, who can get involved in your case.  The newspapers like nothing better than to ask why the government isn’t doing more to help some sick and vulnerable person.

And you may have heard that some large percentage of British people are unsatisfied with the NHS.  There are lots of British people; some probably are dissatisfied at any given time.  But one study a couple of years ago asked people whether the NHS was doing a good job, and people said no, a terrible job, the hospitals aren’t sanitary, the waiting times are long.  But when the same people were asked what they thought of the care they got personally, they said it was great!  Their local doctor?  Just fine.  Local hospital?  Doing a first class job.  Maybe it’s a case of people believing the worst, or at least fearing the worst.

(Another California friend told her husband he’d have to give up his consulting business and get a job with benefits, because medical insurance was costing them as much as some people make in a year and covered just the parents and one child—the other kid had asthma, and she couldn’t find insurance that would take him—and keeping up with the claim paperwork had turned into a half time job for her.)

I have heard religious people in the Bible belt say that the government has no responsibility to help the sick, and that Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that we should perform personal acts of charity; it has nothing to do with the government.

Well, I can’t personally go out and help everybody who needs care, so I’m very happy that the government will do that for me.

Yes, we pay high taxes here, but those taxes buy me a lot of obviously good things, including knowing that I and all my neighbors will have medical care free at the point of delivery.  I don’t worry about other government services being “socialized”—paving the roads, training firefighters, policing the streets—so why should “socialized medicine” be seen as such a threat?  I’m here to tell you, socialized medicine is great where I live.

The first time after we moved here that I walked out of an NHS doctor’s surgery (US: doctor’s office), I kept looking over my shoulder.  Were they going to come chasing after me?  I couldn’t just leave, surely; I went back in and asked at the desk.  Was there really no co-payment?  Nope, nothing to pay.  Don’t I at least have to sign something, or fill in a form?  No, no forms, you can just go on with your day.


It’s really the people who make the NHS what it is, and I regret that I didn’t get permission to use photos of the staff at the wonderful Glaziers Lane/Normandy surgery.  Maybe next time!  For now, I apologize for only offering you photos of buildings.


Filed under Culture, Law/Politics/Government, My Life & Stuff That Happened

An English Christmas 4 (Revisited): Boxing Day

I’ve been reluctant to let go of Christmas this year; the tree is still up, the cards still on display, the string of Victorian-style paper decorations still tied along the banister rail.

It’s all got to come down soon, if only because the borough council’s tree recycling programme (US: program) will end and we could be stuck with an 8-foot Nordmann fir and no way to get rid of it.   One year when we missed the last tree collection day, we lopped off branches bit by bit and burned them in the fireplace, but had no hatchet to carve up the trunk, so for more days than I’d like to admit, until we had time to get to the ironmonger’s (US: hardware store) to buy some kind of axe, we had the bare upright trunk perched in the corner of the living room.  We called it the Christmas Stick.

Before I admit Christmas is over, then, I’ll re-run one more Christmas post from the sequence you’ve been reading recently, written a couple of years ago.  It’s about Boxing Day—the day after Christmas—which this year fell on a Wednesday, but back then—well, you can read it——

This is an unusual year: Boxing Day comes on Saturday, and English people are divided on how to handle that.

Boxing Day—the day after Christmas—is the day employers traditionally gave servants Christmas boxes containing presents or cash, and it’s still a public holiday. In big houses, the servants were on call all of Christmas day with all their usual work to do plus anything extra called for by the occasion, and Boxing Day was the servants’ day off, the day they celebrated.

A view of Box Hill, which is maintained by the National Trust. Get information on the Trust or on visiting Box Hill from one of the Featured Links on the right-hand side of this page.

A few years ago we had some visitors from the US who decided to spend the afternoon of Boxing Day taking a walk on, fittingly, Box Hill. If you’ve read Jane Austen’s Emma (or seen one of the films), you may remember that there’s a big picnic scene on Box Hill–which is less than 30 miles east of us. Jane Austen’s house at Chawton is less than 30 miles to the west, too; if you’re interested in English literature, one of the great things about living here is that with very little trouble, you can visit the country places associated with all kinds of authors—Jane Austen, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, and more—not to mention the spot where Agatha Christie’s car was found when she temporarily disappeared in 1926, and the part of the Thames where Kenneth Grahame set The Wind in the Willows. And of course you can’t move in London without walking in the footsteps of more luminaries than you can count.

So our visitors set out for Box Hill, but found the day a bit breezier than they were equipped to handle. One lady headed back to sit in the warm car, but not before insisting that one of the gentlemen, who had no hat, take her hat, and that another gentleman, who had only a light jacket, take her coat. The third gentleman was better-equipped for the cold, but as he didn’t like breathing cold air, he’d worn a medical mask.

When they got back, the man in the girlish hat with fluffy balls on the ends of the cords tied under his chin said to the man in the medical mask and the man in the clearly feminine coat that he was surprised that British people who pass you on the walking trails don’t greet you the way people do back in the US. I suspect if he’d come upon three foreigners in similar get-ups in his home state, he might have been a bit reticent, too.

This year was milder, and we did go out for a walk—with our own hats and coats—though not to Box Hill, just around a pond on one of the nearby commons. We ran into lots of people happy to greet us and be greeted, most of them walking their dogs. (Those on horseback were past us and gone so fast that there wasn’t time to speak.) I don’t think it was just that the Christmas season had filled people with a glow towards their fellow human beings; I think you’d find the same friendliness there on any other Saturday, too.

But if Boxing Day comes on Saturday, where’s the fun in having a day off? Most people would probably have a free day on Saturday anyway. So some businesses are recognizing today as the holiday, some are closing on Monday, and most seem to be doing both, so that Christmas will stretch to a four-day weekend this year.

No bad thing that, especially for those of us who put on the Christmas dinners. We may not be servants anymore, but we’ve slaved in the kitchen and deserve that extra day off.


Filed under Culture, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

An Announcement, Enhanced with Autumn Colour

Looking across a vineyard toward the main building at Denbies in the summer; you could almost be in the Napa Valley (but it’s a little *too* green). Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Please excuse me for delaying the promised post on the William Blake/Sir Hubert Parry song “Jerusalem” by posting this announcement instead: As of last week, I’m writing a column  for the Guildford Dragon NEWS, Guildford’s independent online news(not-actually-on)paper.

Vine leaves changing colour at Denbies.

I’ll be looking in those columns at the same sorts of things I write about here, except that I’ll focus on people, places and events in the Borough of Guildford, with Guildfordians as the target readers.

The publisher has seen fit to call the column “The Eagle Eye” (not my choice; feel free to suggest something better!), and we may soon have a logo, drawn to resemble a pub sign.  The Guildford Dragon is interested in pubs—but who isn’t? I’ll probably write a certain amount about local pubs, though at the rate they’re closing I’d better hurry.  (There are none left in the village where I live, three having closed since we moved here–not that I’m implying causality there, you understand.)

More vineyards at Denbies. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The first column went up last week, though readers here might recognize most of that offering as one I made earlier (as the chefs on telly/TV say); it’s a reprise of my article on the civic procession for the service for the mayor after last May’s Mayor Making.  (Bet you can’t say that three times fast.)

After this, there should be a new Eagle Eye column appearing in the third week of every month.

More Fal–er, Autumn colour at Denbies

Now, the one rule of blogging is Don’t Be Boring, so in an effort to give you something more interesting for your time spent here today, I’ve added some photos of Denbies,  a winery in the eastern part of Surrey.  Vineyards in Britain?  Absolutely!  The first ones were planted by the Romans.  Look for a post on the Denbies winery, probably in the new year.

Main building at Denbies Wine Estate. The light-coloured tower is above the main entrance, but the wing in the foreground, painted black, houses the Surrey Performing Arts Library, which was the reason for my trip.

The winery building houses, for reasons unclear to me, the Surrey Performing Arts Library, a branch of the public library, and I was there to do research on the composer of “Jerusalem”.  With the vine leaves turning colour on a sunny autumn (Brits don’t call it “fall”) day, it was glorious; you see, I hope, the sacrifices I make to research these posts.


Filed under Food, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

I’m back!

I’m back here after my week as guest blogger at Vie Hebdomadaires, having left posts there which you can reach by clicking on the links below:

Take-Off:  in which we see that life can be thought of as a series of airports

Seven Camels:  in which are compared the price of gas in the US, the price of petrol in the UK, and the mileage of the average thorn-fed camel

Britain’s National Health Service (NHS):  in which I try to tell Americans how wonderful socialized medicine is

My friend Mary Helen Spooner has taken over from me; please read her thoughts on South American life and literature at Vie Hebdomadaires this week, or at her Notes on the Americas blog any time.

I”m also back from holiday/vacation in the US, and the next couple of posts will reflect that.  Hope to welcome you to those posts soon.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current events, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

Sims Reed, St James, London: My Kind of Bookshop

Sims Reed Rare Books, Duke Street St James at Ryder St. Visit their web site at

The cover of December 5th’s New Yorker  shows a clerk in a bookstore—at least, the word BOOKS is painted on the plate-glass window—pointing out to a customer the sole shelf of real books, near the floor and easy to miss. The prime selling space offers caps and calendars, e-readers and reading lamps, T-shirts (Shakespeare), paperweights (Twain and Shakespeare), and shopping bags (Hemingway, Woolf, and Joyce).

Last week I visited the antithesis of the New Yorker‘s nightmarishly bookless bookstore: Sims Reed Rare Books in St James in central London.

St James is a district within the City of Westminster—London being made up of two cities, two royal boroughs, and 30-odd ordinary boroughs—filled with upscale shops and traditional gentlemen’s clubs. If you need antiques, art, or indeed antique art, it’s a fine place to browse; if you need bespoke (US: custom-made) shirts or even bespoke shoes, someone in St James can provide them.

"Two Stories" by Leonard & Virginia Woolf, 1917. This is one of at least two different covers in which they issued the book; the one at the British Library has a solid blue paper wrapper.

The gentlemen’s clubs of St James I know only from books, of course, not being a gentleman and not, even as a lady, being the sort the British call clubbable (the class of person to whom clubs would offer membership). If I have anything approaching a club in St James, it’s the London Library, a private lending library, where I can sometimes be found in a red leather chair in the Reading Room with Granta or the Sewanee Review.  But I could read about Bertie Wooster, who belonged to the Drones Club, or about Sherlock Holmes meeting up with his brother, Mycroft, at the Diogenes. When Dorothy L. Sayers’s detective character, Lord Peter Wimsey, tells his man Bunter that he’ll be dining at his club, he could mean the fictional Egotists club or he might mean the Marlborough, not only a real club, but a favorite of King Edward VII. Lord Peter’s (fictional) entry in Debrett’s lists his pedigree and his clubs, but also reminds the reader that “bibliophily” was one of his hobbies, and that he was the author of Notes on the Collecting of Incunabula—which brings us back to the subject of rare books, as incunabula are early printed books (especially those printed before 1501).

An inviting shelf at Sims Reed. There's nothing in the photo to indicate the scale, so you'll have to take my word for it that the tallest books shown here are a good 30 inches tall.

My visit to Sims Reed was sparked by a much later volume, hardly more than a pamphlet really, and published only in 1917. Two Stories was the first book issued by the Hogarth Press, which began with one small hand-operated machine on Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s dining-room table. She set the type, he operated the press itself, and they shared the work of stitching the pages and adding Japanese grass-paper covers. The copy I went to see fell just slightly out of my price range at £18,000 (not quite $28,000), but I wasn’t there to buy, only to do research for an article.

Kew Gardens, by Virginia Woolf with illustrations by her sister, Vanessa Bell. This edition, from 1927, is more lavishly illustrated than the first edition, produced in 1919, and this copy once belonged to Ellen Terry.

Sims Reed specializes in books on art, architecture, and related subjects, which often call for extra-large layouts, so just inside the door I ran into an impressive case of enormous books. People write about the smell of old books and the way light falls on matured leather spines with gold-stamped titles, but there’s an extra intrigue in books (or anything, really) of extraordinary size, whether monstrous or miniature. By luck, the first title that caught my eye, on a red leather spine that might have measured a full three feet, was Architectural Drawings by William Burges—a coincidence, because it was Burges who brought me to Sims Reed the first time, almost a dozen years ago. On that visit I was after a copy of the only book-length scholarly work on Burges, the most expensive book I’ve ever bought, at £175. There’s a copy on eBay at the moment, listed at £450 ($700), but mine wouldn’t be worth nearly so much, because it shows the wear of lots of reading.

An intriguing glimpse of the stock at Sims Reed

And in any case I was in the shop this time in pursuit of Woolfs. I put Burges back on the shelf and followed my guide downstairs to a room without floor space, only book space. That the walls were lined with bookshelves almost goes without saying, but a huge table piled with books took up most of the room itself. My host brought out Two Stories from a cardboard sleeve. The grass-paper of the red-and-white covers wasn’t meant to last through years of handling—it’s sold as wallpaper—and had frayed, but the condition of the cover matters rather less in such an important work. There was the imprint of the Caslon Old Face type as Virginia Woolf had set it, with the eccentric punctuation and rather nontraditional spacing of a novice trying to right- and left-justify the lines; there were the darker and lighter characters where Leonard Woolf inked the type unevenly, in part because he was famously parsimonious and didn’t want to waste a drop. And if the book weren’t rare enough itself, the woodcuts alone—one noticeably crooked on the page—by Dora Carrington would make it a book of artistic interest.

The upper floors of the building, above the bookshop, offers service apartments let by the day or the week. You could come to London and stay just an elevator's ride away from the books you'd come to browse.

And what of the two stories? They were by the Woolfs, too: Virginia’s “The Mark on the Wall” and Leonard’s “Three Jews”. They produced the entire book, from story ideas to posting the finished book out to buyers, and made a profit (they even made Carrington pay for her copy, which seems a bit much). And Virginia, feeling the power of the press, wrote in her diary “I’m the only woman in England free to write what I like.”

Sims Reed currently has another early Hogarth Press book on offer: Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens. The catalogue may say that it’s illustrated by Vanessa Bell, Woolf’s sister, but it’s not so much that the book is illustrated, but that the lines of the text themselves are illustrated, that is, the lines of the illustrations twine their way right into the words. I’d read Kew Gardens before, but it’s a completely different story when seen with the artwork. This copy, remarkably, is signed by both author and artist, and carries the bookplate of Victorian actress Ellen Terry.

The 1527 Polycronycon

I idly wondered what the oldest book in the shop might be, and a few minutes later a 1527 edition of the Polycronycon appeared on the table. In seconds, I moved from the first pages to come off of the Woolfs’s press, to a book associated with the first known printer in England, William Caxton. The Polycronycon is a history of the world written in the 13th century, in Latin, by a Benedictine monk. Translated into English and expanded by several hands (including those of Caxton, who brought it right up to date—as of 1460) it’s still an important source of information about the Roman Empire, about the Norman conquest of Britain, and about King Arthur (pace our own self-styled post-Thatcher King Arthur). The book itself is a work of art, with ornate capitals and finely detailed woodcuts, including a nearly full-page scene of St George and the dragon. The Polycronycon may not be 30 inches tall, but it’s a good 5 or 6 inches thick, and impressive on all counts: content, construction, illustration, typography—everything.

If I could own any one of the treasures I saw that day—the 1527 Polycronycon, Burges’s Architectural Drawings, or either of the Hogarth Press gems—it’d be a hard call. They’re all books I’d almost class as holy relics. Many, many thanks to Sims Reed; a place that can offer that kind of choice, and all free from calendars or coffee mugs, is what I call a real bookshop.

Many thanks to Sims Reed, and especially to Rupert Halliwell.  Photos of the shop are mine, photos of individual books are used by permission.


Filed under Arts, Culture, Many Books Little Time, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

The Christmas Horse Comes But Once a Year

In the run-up to Christmas, I had a remarkable number of conversations that went something like this:

Me: “Are you doing anything for the holidays?”

Them: “Yes!  We’re going to France/to Australia/to Venice to stay in a chateau/at a surfing resort/with my stepmother, the Contessa.  Then we’re going back to London/on to New Zealand/over to Rome to see “Mamma Mia!” / where they filmed “Lord of the Rings”/the Pope. What are you doing for Christmas?”

Me: “Um…we’re having dinner with friends at a pub where they walk a horse through the bar on Christmas Day.”

The Fox, Bucks Green, Rudgwick, West Sussex-- a 16th-century country pub

Yes, we chose a quiet close-to-home Christmas this year, venturing no further than West Sussex, but getting in on one of those age-old and inexplicable traditions that crop up all over the UK: they’ve been walking a horse through the bar of the Fox Inn in the little hamlet of Bucks Green for so long that nobody remembers when it started, or why.

Introducing Blue!

Staff at the pub said they believe it may have to do with keeping a bridleway open, though that’s just a guess.  British ramblers (US: hikers) can be fiercely protective of their right to use public footpaths and bridle paths, which can bring them into conflict with landowners when owners and ramblers have different ideas of how extensive the public’s rights really are.

Ordering Christmas dinner

Walkers, often from the Ramblers (a nationwide association), go past my house every once in a while, groups of people wearing plastic sleeves full of maps hanging from straps around their necks.  They traverse all the local footpaths as a hobby, a form of exercise, and a means of asserting their right to keep those paths public and to make sure no one is threatening to close any right of way.  On the other side of the fence (sometimes literally), landowners may close paths over private land a few days a year to remind people that the public has no right to pass.  An old friend of mine in Essex had one of these—they’re called permissive paths—across his land, and used to close the gate on Christmas Day every year to remind people that while he was happy for them to walk across the land, his farm was private property.

Blue in the pub, with lots of people to cheer him. You can just see the take-away menu on a chalkboard behind his head.

Which brings us back to Christmas, and to the Fox Inn where a horse—his name is Blue—visits for lunch at Christmas.  There’s a brick path running right through the building; presumably that’s the old bridleway and at some point—by at least the 16th century, because the present building dates back that far—somebody plunked a pub down right onto it.  So Blue comes in on Christmas day, eats a bag of crisps (US: potato chips), has a bowl of beer, and then walks on out the other side.

Once outside, Blue posed for photos. He seemed to be a very good sport about those antlers.

I followed him out to snap some more pictures because the pub was chock full of people and I couldn’t get close enough to the horse inside the building to get a decent photo, though a very kind (and very tall) stranger lifted my camera up over his head to take a shot over the crowd.  I don’t know where all the people came from; Bucks Green is a small group of houses classed as a hamlet, an outlier of the thriving metropolis of Rudgwick, itself a village that can claim all of 2900 people (if they round up to an nice-looking number).

Okay, this is the south end of a northbound horse, but his tailwas so beautiful I wanted to include a photo. Many thanks to the staff of the Fox, to Blue, and to Blue's handler.

A good proportion of Bucks Green citizenry must have been in the pub that day. In fact, Blue’s handler had to persuade him at one point not to try go back in.  Once is all it takes; even if no other horse ever walks up to the bar at the Fox, the bridleway is (presumably) safe for another year.


Filed under Culture, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

11/11/11 : A Dublin Taxi Adventure

Many people will remember where they were at 11:11 on 11/11/11, and I’m one of them—though I’d be willing to bet I’m the only one who was running down Dublin’s O’Connell Street at the time, chasing a taxi because I’d left my iPad in it.

My iPad and one-of-a-kind notebook

My husband had business in Dublin, and I went along, planning to play tourist while he worked.  But a cancelled event meant we could go to the Dublin Writers Museum together that morning—by taxi, given the wind and the sudden downpours that day.  Being a gentleman, he loaned me his umbrella, which left me dry but guilty.  At least he had a sort of fedora, but he got pretty wet. (Note to self: next time, take your own umbrella.  And ask the hotel to get a taxi for you if it’s raining.)

The night before, I’d counted nine taxis coming through just one cycle of a traffic light as we waited to cross the street, but it took forever to find one that morning, and when we did, I got in thinking “Don’t forget the umbrella.  Don’t forget the umbrella.”  My track record with umbrellas isn’t good, and since my husband had gotten soaked because I was using his, I was determined not to lose it.  When the taxi dropped us, though, the problem wasn’t remembering the umbrella, but fighting a wind that kept turning it inside out, and finding the right money for the fare—a lot of the euro coins look pretty much alike.

Euro coins, showing how some look confusingly similar (especially when they're as old as the copper one-cent coin on the left, so dark that it's difficult to read).

In the kerfuffle I left behind one of those small nylon backpacks that’s not much more than a carrier bag with a couple of strings to go over your shoulders.  But that little bag held my iPad, my notebook (paper, not a notebook computer)—with one-of-a-kind appliquéd cover, a present from my sister—and several months’ worth of irreplaceable notes.  (Note to self: get a fresh notebook for every trip so you don’t lose important stuff.)

Just inside the museum I realized. “I left my iPad in the taxi!”  My husband, ever the optimist, said “You’re not serious!” but really, he knows me better than that.  He dashed back out to try to catch the driver, and the receptionist told me to go check the taxi rank “right there, at the top of O’Connell Street”; the driver might have joined the rank.  She pointed the direction and I ran out, too.

Euro coins again. In this view, you can see how the edges of different denominations have different notches so you can tell which is which even if you can't see them. Would have been handy to know that before I went to Dublin...

And here we have a little difference in American and UK English (the museum receptionist was English, not Irish).  People say “the top of the street”, but you have to know which end of the street the locals consider the top.  I thought that would mean uphill, but she’d pointed downhill, so down I went, top speed, the wind repeatedly turning the umbrella inside-out and me turning it outside-out again, and I didn’t see any taxi rank.  How far away was “right there”?  Surely the “top of the street” couldn’t mean downhill.  I was going the wrong way! And every second wasted lowered my chances.

So I ran uphill again, with an adrenaline boost that pushed me way ahead of my husband.  I stopped in at the museum to confirm I had it right.  I didn’t.  “No, the top of O’Connell Street”, said the lady, with a note of exasperation—and she did mean the lower end, by the river.  Another employee assured me that I could find the driver from the number on my receipt—but I hadn’t gotten one.  Who needs a taxi receipt if the ride isn’t a business expense?  (Answer: people who stupidly leave valuables in taxis.

The Dublin Writers Museum on Parnell Square. (It's the brick building; the fancy tower belongs to someone else.)

Downhill again, fighting the wind for control of the umbrella, this time I found the taxi rank—but not ‘my’ taxi.  I walked up and down, looking at the driver of any cab you might call tan or gold or champagne.  The rain let up and some drivers got out of their cars to be helpful or maybe just for the craic*.  About five of them walked up to me, making a little group, each one asking the same thing as he arrived— “do you have your receipt?”—and all saying I should go to the Carriage Office (which licenses taxis)  except for one who thought I ought to go to the Garda.

The Garda means the police. Ireland can seem familiar—the faces, the names, and even the countryside can look a lot like what I grew up with in Kentucky—but of the zillions of differences, the Irish language is the most surprising.  Most Irish people use English pretty much all the time, but some Irish words, such as Garda, are common in everyday life.

A Dublin street sign showing how lost a non-Irish-speaking tourist would be without the English version. I'm grateful to Pól Ó Duibhir at for Dublin street sign photos.

I can’t read Irish (Gaeilge)—no surprise there—but I can’t even sound out the words, because I’ve never learned how the unfamiliar combinations of letters and accent marks map to the sounds. You run into a fair few people here in England with Irish names, so I’ve learned a bit—Siobhan is pronounced Shih-vawn, Róisín is Row-sheen, and Ruairí is the name Americans spell Rory—but puzzling out Flemish when I lived in Belgium was easier than Irish.  Thank goodness Dublin street signs show names in English, too; I couldn’t have found O’Connell Street if the signs only said Sráid Uí Chonaill, and that’s without adding Íocht for Lower or Uachtarach for Upper.

Another Dublin street sign by courtesy of Pól Ó Duibhir. To be fair, I should say that he's posted these as bad examples, though the errors he finds are generally in the Irish spellings or translations, and so are lost on me.

There was a Garda station right there on Sráid Uí Chonaill Uachtarach so that’s where I started.  They gave me a number to call in the evening, since day-shift drivers drop off lost property on their way home.  Back at the taxi rank, I asked cabbies who had radios to put out the word for their fellow drivers, and some did, but after that there was nothing to do but wait.  All day.

What to do?  Museums no longer appealed; I could only think about how much of my life was in that bag and how abysmally stupid I’d been, worrying about the umbrella (£10) and not the iPad ($700+) or the notebook (irreplaceable).

And how did this happen?  Having left a hat in a Kiev taxi and a phone in a taxi in Lisbon, my husband always checks the back seat before he even pays a driver, and he hadn’t seen my bag.  It was a mystery.

St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin

He went to work, and I went to St Patrick’s cathedral to sit in a quiet corner and recover, but construction noise drove me out.  I bought a couple of books at Hodges Figgis, Ireland’s biggest bookshop;  I’d had a huge library on the iPad, and had been halfway through Bleak House.  I bought a new notebook and sat scribbling in a café, trying to remember everything that was in the old one.  Hopeless.

Back at the hotel, the receptionist entered my sad tale by hand into the lost-property ledger (yes, a big book, not a database), after first asking whether I had a taxi receipt.  I considered phoning cab companies until I saw how many there were; per person Dublin has 10 times as many taxis as London.  The switchboard at the Carriage Office asked me if I had a receipt and then told me they no longer handle lost property (US: lost-and-found), helpfully adding that I didn’t have to worry about the driver keeping the bag—I hadn’t been—but about whether another passenger would find it—which had been my main worry all day. How kind of her to remind me.  I had to hope that even a passenger who rather fancied a new iPad would at least turn in (UK: hand in) the notebook.

The Records Tower at Dublin Castle is the only part of the structure surviving from the 13th century . Dublin Castle now houses government offices, including the Carriage Office.

I called the number the Garda had given me and the duty officer asked (altogether now) “Did you get a receipt?”, and told me that her office didn’t do lost property; I must go to my nearest Garda station in person.  Hotel staff gave me (wrong) directions to the Garda station, but I found it eventually.

I told my story there, ending with “And no, I didn’t get a receipt”, and then things began to look up, because the Gard on duty took on my case as if it were her mission in life, and I will be forever grateful.  I gather she was supposed to tell me to go check with the five Garda stations in Dublin that handle lost property, but instead she rang them all herself.  No luck.  She asked me all about the place, the time, the circumstances.  Would I recognize the car? Er, no.  Would I recognize the driver? Yes.  She arranged with the hotel to get the security camera footage from the front door; I was to come back in the morning to view it with the officer to try to identify the taxi.

O'Connell Street Bridge, at the end (not the top, then) of O'Connell Street, over the River Liffey. Other Dublin rivers are called the Poddle and the Dodder; I'm pretty sure these names sound better in Gaeilge.

Meanwhile, across town, somebody else left his phone in the taxi he took to the airport, and a radio call went out asking cabbies to look for it.  John, who’d just been to the airport, looked for the phone and found a little black bag under the drivers seat. He took it all the way out to the guy at the airport, where he found it wasn’t a phone at all.

So John opened the iPad and found a photo of my husband, taken when I bought the thing, just to try out its built-in camera. And he was flabbergasted, because he recognized my husband from way back that morning; he’d driven all kinds of people, all day, with the bag under his seat. It was black, like the carpet, and he might not have noticed it for months without a reason to look.

He found my name and phone number in what he called my “copybook”.  I hadn’t included anything to show what country to call, but John (blessings upon him) remembered we’d said we were from England, added the right country code, dialed our house, and got our answering machine.  But the outgoing message mentions my editing business, and he thought he’d reached “a print shop or something”, so he figured there was a mistake in the number, or it was old.  (He doesn’t use email, and my mobile/cell phone number never rang.)  (Note to self: change cell phone provider.  Have already changed outgoing message.)

Dublin Castle again -- wings added in later eras.

But John (may he live long) wasn’t through.  Having recognized us, he knew pretty much where we’d hailed him, so he rang hotels in that neighborhood until he found us, and left a message.  He didn’t find me by my name from the notebook; he found some old boarding passes tucked into the back which gave my husband’s surname (we each have our own), and found him. Unfortunately, the hotel didn’t give us the message, so while I was chewing my nails, John was wondering why nobody returned his call.  Had the hotel given us the message, I’d’ve gotten a lot more sleep, and I wouldn’t have jumped up in a panic at 5 a.m. to spend an hour on my husband’s laptop changing all my passwords.

My favorite part of Pól Ó Duibhir's web site is probably the gallery of photos of public sculpture. And while most of them are figurative, he's included this shot of Dublin's signature street lights, too. You can view a slide show at

At 7:00 a.m. the phone rang and I heard “This is John, the taxi driver.  I have your iPad here.”  He was near the hotel and could be there in 5 minutes.  I was downstairs in 5 minutes to meet him

He said that if he hadn’t found us at a hotel, his next stop would have been the Dublin Institute of Technology because he remembered my husband talking about working there. (Note to self: Always get the taxi with the driver who’s got a memory like an elephant’s.)

So I gave him enough euros—paper ones are easier to count—to cover (handily) the cost of his fruitless trip to the airport, hugged him, got his address, and promised that Father Christmas would remember him this December.  I  stood down the Garda and took a bouquet of tulips to the friendly officer who thought of requesting the CCTV.  Somebody ought to put John and that Gard on a television commercial/telly advert for the wonderful people you’ll meet on a vacation/holiday in Ireland.

I’ve now fixed the iPad so that when you turn it on, it gives complete information for how to contact me, though I doubt that I’ll ever lose it again.  And I’m certain I’ll never forget where I was on 11/11/11 11:11.

*craic means entertainment, fun, a good time.

(Photos without credits are mine or are from Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license.)


Filed under My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

Supreme Court 1: The Court and its Building

A school group crosses in front of the Supreme Court Building in Parliament Square, London

One of the paradoxes of the UK is the way that some things stay the same for centuries and other things change at the drop of a hat.

Men in Abbotts Bromley in Staffordshire have danced their peculiar Horn Dance every year since 1288, the Ceremony of the Keys has closed the Tower of London every evening for over 700 years, and my friend’s local (the pub near your house where you go all the time is your local) has walked a horse through the building on Christmas Day for so long no one seems to know when the tradition began.

But governments can change fundamental public systems at lightning speed, and in 2009 lawmakers changed the shape of the judiciary by creating a Supreme Court—just like that, without the public seeming to take much notice.

The statue outside the Supreme Court building is of Abraham Lincoln, but not for any justice-related reason; the statue has been there since the 1920s, one of several statues of statesmen (and they are all men) in Parliament Square. The most recent addition to the lineup is Nelson Mandela.

Last week I  toured the Supreme Court building, and couldn’t have been more impressed.  It’s not just that you’re allowed to go in; it’s that everything about the place is designed, purposely, to get you to come see what happens inside, from the welcoming doorman who kept trying to invite me in even though I was way too early for my tour, to the…well, I’ll get to all the rest.  In fact, I’ll get to all the rest in two different posts, there’s so much.

When it was about time for my tour, I passed by the statue of Abraham  Lincoln (see photo for explanation), and a pair of stone benches inscribed with the poem written for the first Supreme Court by then-Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, and let the smiling doorman sweep me through the beautiful faux-Tudor doors.  On the other side of the security checkpoint my group, members of the Friends of the British Library, were gathering for a little good-natured grousing about what had set off the metal detectors.  (In my case it was a pocket torch, that is, a flashlight.)

The main staircase, with its copper handrail. The stained glass shows the arms of various sheriffs of the county of Middlesex, leftover from when the building was the Middlesex Guildhall.

A video came first, in which Lord Phillips, President of the Court (rather than Chief Justice, as in the US) emphasized how welcome we were and how much they all wanted us to come back when we could hear the Justices discussing cases.

When we do we must be sure, said Lord Phillips (on the screen), to pick up free leaflets at the front desk that explain what the cases are about, prepared each day so the public can understand what’s going on.  A staff member later told me it’s rare to have so many spectators that they fill the courtroom; when that happens, they set up folding chairs in the lobby for the overflow, so they don’t have to turn people away.  (Somehow, I don’t see that happening at the US Supreme Court.)

Court 1, from behind the solicitors' chairs

Courtroom 1 used to be the debating chamber of the Middlesex County council when the building was the Middlesex Guildhall, Middlesex being one of the counties that was re-organized out of existence a while back in one of those changes I find astonishing.  (Can you imagine the outcry if the US government decided, for example, to merge New York and Pennsylvania, or to divide Texas?)  The room has no witness box (US: witness stand); just as in the US, the Supreme Court considers points of law and does not hear witnesses.  The room is set up for discussion, with a curved table for Justices and a curved table for barristers (lawyers), facing each other across an oval space.  Behind the barristers sit the solicitors (a different kind of lawyer; that’s a topic for another time) and behind the Justices sit their assistants, young lawyers who would be called clerks in the US.  The public sits behind the solicitors in seats like church pews, and in an elevated gallery (US: balcony), as well.

In Courtroom 1, looking up. The portraits are those leftover from Middlesex Guildhall days, the large one here showing the Duke of Wellington.

We filed out of Court 1, walking on carpet of a pattern used throughout the building, designed by pop artist Peter Blake, famous for the cover for the Beatles Sgt Pepper album.  It shows the four emblems of the countries in the United Kingdom: the leek for Wales, the rose for England, the thistle for Scotland and the flax flower for Northern Ireland (not a shamrock because the shamrock symbolizes all of Ireland, and the British Supreme Court has no jurisdiction in the Republic).

The emblem of the UK Supreme Court dominates Court 2. The Tudor rose symbolizes England; the thistle, Scotland, the flax--the little blue one--for Ireland, and all are connected by the leaves of the leek, a symbol of Wales. The medallion of flowers is surrounded by the Greek letter omega, meaning the end, as the Supreme Court has the final say in the legal cases it decides.

Those four flowers (well, the leek is only represented by leaves) make up most of the crest of the Court, an emblem that dominates Court 2 (see photo).  Court 2 is double height, sleek and modern, with huge windows (one side looks out onto Westminster Abbey).  It’s light and airy, and said to be the Justices’ favorite court room.

The glass back wall of Court 2

The back wall is glass, as are several walls in the building, designed to emphasize the idea that the Supreme Court’s work is open to everyone.  Most of the new artwork in the building takes the form of quotations etched into glass walls; the one in the back of Court 2 reads “Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both.”  Appropriately, it’s etched into the glass twice: once facing in and once facing out.  And who said it?  Eleanor Roosevelt.

The middle and upper floors of the library.

Quotations come thick and fast in the Supreme Court’s library, which isn’t ordinarily open to the public (but the magic of being with a group from the Friends of the British Library is that the doors of a lot of private libraries will open to you sooner or later).  In fact, the books have already outgrown the library, and bits of the collection are housed in nooks and crannies all over the building.  Those in the Library itself make a beautiful display, with the glass wall showing quotations from prominent people from Aristotle to Martin Luther King.  (They’re listed at the end of this post.)

Middle floor of 3-story library, looking down to the lower floor, with quotations etched in glass

And that was the tour—if you don’t count stopping for a cup of tea.  Yes, there’s a cafe in the building, and that’s open to the public, too.  It’s run by Costa—a local chain that competes with Starbucks.  If you’re in London, you can just stop in to the Supreme Court for a cappuccino, as long as you don’t mind going through security.

Costa cafe on a lower floor. Next time you're in London you can drop into the Supreme Court for coffee

The way out is through the final glass wall, which is inscribed with phrases from the oath that UK judges at all levels swear or affirm.  New judges who elect to swear can swear by Almighty God (for Christians and Jews), by Allah (for Moslems), by Gita (for Hindus) or by Guru Nanak (for Sikhs), but all of them pledge to “do right by all manner of people, after the law and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.”

The glass walls stand for the transparency of the judiciary, that is, for a system in which—in a phrase often used by British public figures—justice is not only done, but is seen to be done.  That is one of the reasons Parliament created the Supreme Court.  But I’ll go into that, and into the use of the third court room, in the next post.

The final door: "to do right by all manner of people, after the law and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will."

Finally, here are the quotations, chosen by the original panel of 12 Justices, for the library:

  • ‘Law is order and good law is good order’ – Aristotle
  • ‘He who commits injustice is ever more wretched than he who suffers it’ – Plato
  • ‘These having not the law are law unto themselves’ – Romans 2:14
  • ‘Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly’ – Martin Luther King
  • ‘The first duty of a man is the seeking after and the investigation of truth’ – Cicero
  • ‘Justice is truth in action’ – Disraeli
  • ‘Where is there any book of law so clear to each man as that written in his heart?’ – Tolstoy
  • ‘Justice is far from being a natural concept. The closer one gets to the state of nature, the less does one find’ – Megarry
  • ‘Man is a little thing while he works by and for himself but when he gives voice to the rules of love and justice he is godlike’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • ‘It is in justice that the ordering of society is centred’ – Aristotle
  • ‘Laws were made to prevent the strong from always having their way’ – Ovid

Leave a comment

Filed under Architecture, Culture, History, Law/Politics/Government, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

Armageddon: Would you like fruit and cheese with that?

The red coats and bear-skin hats worn by the troops who guard Buckingham Palace, seen here at the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard.

Ten years ago today (I’m writing on Sept 13, 2011) the Queen broke with tradition and ordered the military band at the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace to play the Star Spangled Banner in honor of the victims of the 9/11 attacks.  Newspapers called it “unprecedented”.   The Queen attended the ceremony with Prince Andrew, and stood with Kentuckian William Farish, then the American Ambassador.

The Changing of the Guard is a magnet for American tourists. I don’t know why people go; it’s just lines of soldiers in funny hats scrunching through gravel, with a musical interlude to cover the gap in the middle when there’s no significant scrunching. (Few people seem to know there’s a parallel ceremony at St James’s Palace, as well as a mounted Changing of the Guard at Horse Guards.) It was thoughtful planning on the part of the Queen: she picked a place and time at which her expression of sympathy would reach a lot of Americans.  About 20 times as many people came compared to a normal day, many of them Americans stuck without a flight home.  

I didn’t go, though I was here in England. I was supposed to be in Kentucky.  On Sept 11 I’d boarded a flight from Heathrow to Boston, the first leg of my itinerary.  At the halfway point, mid-Atlantic, we could feel the plane changing course (nothing worrying there, planes do that).  Then the pilot announced that our destination was now Heathrow Airport(extremely puzzling) because American airspace was closed (what the—?).  Someone was hijacking planes and flying them into buildings.  The Twin Towers and the Pentagon had already been hit (disbelief, dismay, distress). 

A solitary sentry at St James's Palace, which is the official residence of the monarch, though she doesn't actually live there. There's a Changing of the Guard at St James's Palace at the same time as the more famous one at Buckingham Palace, just a few blocks away.

We’d boarded as normal, keeping a polite distance, but suddenly we were all talking to each other, when we weren’t trying to use the phones at our seats, which were still a novelty back then (I’d upgraded to business class with frequent flyer miles). I suggested that if anybody managed to get through, they should pass along phone numbers and messages from all of us.  We dialed and dialed, but only one person could get a free line, and nobody answered the phone at the other end.

The cabin crew was as calm as if it were any ordinary day.  One stewardess knelt in the aisle to talk to a sobbing, panicked woman in our cabin.  The stewardess told her that So-and-So, husband of a princess, was flying with us—she indicated an empty seat—and he knew all about security.  He was in the cockpit, she said, helping the pilots, so everything was going to be fine.  (Whatever help he might be in the cockpit, he’d be doing it without his glasses; he’d left them in his seat on top of his briefcase.)

(Sorry I can’t remember the name.   I think it must have been Tim Laurence, now Vice Admiral Laurence, husband of Princess Anne.  He’s held several high positions in the Ministry of Defence.  And apparently he takes commercial flights.)

Another flight attendant told me our pilot was the second one to request permission to land at Heathrow, so we got to go back when most other planes this far out were being diverted all over the place, from Canada to the Caribbean.  Then she asked me if I’d like a fruit and cheese plate. 

A view of Buckingham Palace

Three hours later we landed at Heathrow at exactly the time we should have been landing in Boston.  Employees herded us into an unused departure lounge—plenty of planes not departing—to wait until there was enough space for us in the Immigration Hall.  The woman sitting to my left had a son and a daughter in the US military; she had papers in her bag about taking care of their children if the parents were sent overseas, and she fretted that she hadn’t already submitted them, because surely this meant war.  On my right, an American scientist returning from a research trip carried a little box about the size of a car battery, full of samples he’d taken from some lake bed in Eastern Europe.  They used my cell phone to find places to stay inLondon; I called my husband, who hit the road to fetch me back from the airport where he’d dropped me that morning. 

Heathrow was in uproar, packed with ordinary passengers plus thousands whose flights out were cancelled, and people like me coming back from boomerang flights.  In Immigration, at the barest mention of having been on a plane that turned back officials waved away passports and pushed people on to keep the traffic moving through to the chaos of baggage claim.  At least my suitcase was easy to spot; it was a hand-me-down from in-laws who’d bought it in Beijing because they needed the biggest suitcase they could find.  Bright red cardboard, with a satiny pink synthetic lining, it was designed to bring a bride good luck on her honeymoon.  It was the only case we had big enough to hold a framed item I was taking as a gift.  The framer had made it a priority job so I’d have it for the flight, but there it was, back in London.  I dragged the monstrous suitcase—no wheels—through the crush and outside where, in another example of the kind of luck my husband always seems to have, he was just driving up, and I could get right into the car.  Airport traffic jams had turned his 45-minute trip into something over two hours. 

A mounted sentry at Horse Guards.

I seem to have a knack for missing big experiences that most of the country shares.  I was in Estonia for a choral competition in 1994 when some late arrivals showed up from the US with tales of OJ’s chase down the freeway. I couldn’t see what the big deal was.  If you aren’t caught up in the drama with everybody else—everyone saying “Did you hear?” and “Yeah, I know!”—you feel an outsider.  In the case of 9/11, I was spared having to see it on television, in terrified fascination, with everybody else.  I had been sitting for hours without any information at all, in fact—a different kind of terror.  While nobody would want to to watch it, of course, not having been been there as the horror hit, step by step, left me forever feeling outside of the herd.  

But being here meant I could see how the British reacted.  The British are remarkably charitable, and they opened their arms to Americans.  There was no schadenfraude, despite many Britons’ feeling that in general America is too big for its britches.  Nobody said right after 9/11 that America needed taking down a peg.    

Bust of John F Kennedy on Park Crescent, at the edge of Regent's Park

There was no obvious place for people to make their feelings known. The American Embassy is a forbidding building, brutalist architecture at its most brutal.  Gold-colored projections jut out at an angle from the wall towards the sidewalk in places; it looks for all the world like the building is shaking a brass-knuckled fist at passers-by.  It’s all behind a layer of security fencing now, which doesn’t help.  It sits in Grosvenor Square, a part of town most people have little occasion to visit unless they have embassy business, on a plot of land belonging to the Duke of Westminster who, asked to sell the land to the US, said he would sell if the US would give back the lands his family owned in Virginia, which were confiscated by the revolutionary government a couple of hundred years ago. 

Still, some people went there to sign a book of condolence and leave flowers. Walking in London that week I passed a bust of Kennedy, its base piled with flowers.  On Euston Road, a fire station flew an American flag and collected donations to help the families of firefighters killed in NY. 

For a while, Americans had the moral high ground and the full sympathy of the British.  Unfortunately when American bombs started falling, that support began to fall away, and anti-American sentiment began to rise. I hope we’ll see the pendulum swing back without needing the horrific deaths of  nearly 3000 people to make it happen.  

Here at the Anglo-American Experience blog, I thought the time was wrong for the promised posts about battle re-enactments, with simulated battlefield deaths.  We have the real fallen to remember, and we don’t need historical costumes and muskets to do that.  (Nor a fruit and cheese plate.)

(Photos from Wikipedia, used under the Creative Commons license.)



Filed under Current events, History, My Life & Stuff That Happened