Friday, August 27, 2010

BFGs & Warhorses

I seem to be stuck in a Roald Dahl thread right now, but two of the simple little highlights in London, for me & my 'too fast growing' family, were 2 moments when I realised my children are still capable of make believe & wonder.

We were travelling to London on the excellent Oxford Tube service which has a loo, wireless connection AND up to THREE children go free with an adult. Bargain (admittedly about the only bargain I discovered during my stay in Rip-Off Britain) My 6 y-o this summer has (thankfully) developed a taste for listening avidly to story tapes on a Walkman (remember those?), wearing enormous ear muff headphones (cos the dinky little ear plug ones fall out all the time) It has made travel a lot more palateable for her, and me.

She was listening to 'The BFG', a family favourite, & in my opinion, Dahl's best by a long way. Rather magically, she had just got to the part where they are travelling to London to deliver the dream to the Queen; they had crossed Hyde Park, and so had we, and as Sophie & the BFG leapt over Buckingham Palace wall & my daughter asked how tall the wall was, we went past it & I pointed out the high palace walls & Buckingham Palace beyond. Art meets life.

It was a great moment. "Wow! That's really the palace in there! The walls are so high, it's amazing the BFG jumped them in a 'snitchy little jump'." she said.

Of course, not wishing to miss an opportunity to impress my daughter, I said.

"I've been in Buckingham Palace."

I should never have mentioned it.

6 y-old's eyes lit up & she said,

"Wow, you've seen the Queen's bedroom, like Sophie!"

"Errrr, no actually, not the Queen's bedr..........."

"Oh so the ballroom then where they have breakfast?"

"Ahmmmmm, well, no, I saw some ante rooms on my way to the gardens, as it was a Garden Party...... And I did see Prince Charles & Lady Diana. And they spoke to us." (well, & everyone else gathered round). I trailed off.

The intricacies of extraneous Royal family members (whether or not direct heirs to the throne) was clearly distinctly underwhelming, only slightly less so than the mention of 'ante rooms', I mean whoever heard of them in fairy tales? Not a dicky bird.

She resolutely adjusted her ear muffs, stuck her thumb in her mouth & concentrated on listening to Geoffrey Palmer's dulcet tones as the Queen of England, nevertheless with her eyes glued to the bus window gazing out at the palace walls.

The second incident was with my son, & in a way it was the other way round. Life meets art. For the 1st time ever we had taken advantage of Kids' Theatre week when a child goes free with every adult ticket. My 10 y-o is an avid Michael Morpurgo fan, & loved Warhorse, so that was the obvious choice. He was utterly rapt. Apart from pantomime he has never been to the theatre to see a play, though in Sri Lanka he was in 2 school productions. He got totally absorbed in it, but at the same time, didn't understand any of the 'theatrical conventions' . He seemed quite at ease with people breaking into song, probably because of panto, but when they did a freeze frame whilst 1 or 2 actors carried on talking, he whispered,

"Why is everyone standing so still & not speaking?"

And the horse puppets (which were truly amazing, so life like & credible) had 1 person holding the head & 2 inside (I know, sounds like a panto horse, but it really didn't have that effect) The foal though had 3 people all working him, dressed as stable hands, & my son said,

"Why are three people surrounding the horse all the time? He didn't seem to get that they were working the puppet.

Maybe the 'suspension of disbelief' has to be relearned, once it has been unlearned as a child becomes an adult. As adults you just ignored the 'puppet handlers', because you understood they had to be there. The freeze frames, the singing, the birds 'flying' on long poles, the frieze across the back of the stage depicting war scenes etc. My son was obviously so used to films, it was puzzling to him, because so 'unrealistic', despite being a realistic story set in the 1st World War.

Fortunately, however, being a child & therefore flexible, adaptable & trusting, he accepted my waffle about dramatic techniques & got stuck in, even providing a very credible comparitive critique at the end between book & play for the benefit of his Godfather who hadn't read the story.

Next year I think we'll do The Lion King. That should push the boundaries even further, it probably covers about every genre possible.

And on the way home, on the bus, my 6 y-o daughter said,

"Mummy who is Father Christmas, really, cos I know he's not real."

And my 10 y-o son said "Shh, don't say mum, because I still believe in him & don't want to know."

Willing suspension of disbelief...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Tower of Babel

When we arrived in the UK, my son commented on how nice it was to hear English all around him again.
"I can listen to people's conversations & understand them." (clearly got his mother's genes there....)

In London, however, everywhere we went we heard numerous different languages, all around us, all the time, to the extent that my son asked what language people spoke in London. In fact a statistic in the Tower of London said that more languages are spoken in London than any other city in the world. I can believe it.

It was interesting to notice in shops, cafes & museums, waiters, assistants & curators spoke with foreign accents or spoke to each other in another language. It truly is a cosmopolitan city. I guess many of these are immigrants doing the jobs we are told Brits don't want to do anymore.

And in tourist shops like Hamleys & Harrods, we felt like the foreigners. We were definitely in a minority. It wasn't just the language, we also saw things that seemed quite different somehow. In Hamleys there were three very large lads, (I wont say where they were from) looking like (as my son put it) Augustus Gloops, each with one of those enormous bags they give you now to shop with. And each was dragging it behind him like a lifeless limb, because the bag was so crammed with toys it was too heavy & cumbersome to lift. My children were agog watching this display of conspicuous consumption. At this point, I confess, I was slumped on the floor by the Nintendo DS games, waiting for the children to finish their toothcomb search of that particular floor of Hamleys, having exhausted all the other floors (& me) previously. So when asked 'How this could be possible' (let alone fair), I resorted to similar 'literary' comparison & said they were like Veruca Salt (only boys).

In Harrods we felt even more alien, not only because it was more like the glittery, opulent stores you would find in Abu Dhabi airport than the reassuring familiarity of John Lewis, but also because once again the Brits seemed no where in sight or sound, it was full of foreigners & tourists.

We were going to the toy department, because an employee at Hamleys had told my son the lego selection in Harrods was actually 'much better' (in truth there wasn't much in it). To get to the toy department we walked through 'Pet Kingdom'. We had no idea what this was, but we were soon to find out. Everything for your pet is here, assuming that is, your pet has more in common with 'Trickywoo' of "All Creatures Great & Small" fame than the average family's pet 'labrador with a bit of terrier thrown in for good measure'.

You could get a 4 poster dog bed complete with silk sheets & a pink frilly canopy, a leopard skin dog bed, probably even a canine hammock, or doggy water bed. I didn't ask. We passed jewel encrusted dog leashes, before arriving in a room full of clothes rails with, you've guessed it, doggy coat hangers with dog tutus, dog mackintoshes, dog superman outfits, even dog bikinis on them.

Now I know us Brits have a soft spot for animals & are probably guilty of a fair bit of anthropomorphising, but I do not think, as a rule, we go in for luxury dog bedding, dinky doggy outfits & bejewelled dog collars.

So who is this (almost entire floor) marketed at? I know in America they have dog spas & probably dog therapy, & in the Balkans 'small dog as fashion accessory' & dressed in silly coats is very common, but surely not the British??

Anyway all this struck me as quite ironic that here we were in our 5th year of living abroad in other cultures, broadening our minds, adapting to foreign environments, yet London (& Oxford actually) struck me as far more cosmopolitan, eclectic & racially diverse than anywhere we've lived. It made me realise just how homogenous a society we live in in Albania. I mean everyone is ethnic Albanian. Apart from the Roma that is, who are marginalised & totally alienated in Albania. Nobody wants to emigrate TO Albania, most people want to leave (for America usually) so there are no immigrants there, apart from the few who have married Albanians, or ex pats working there temporarily. as a consequence other ethnicities are regarded with suspicion & overt racism quite often.

So my children hear & see sights in the UK they are totally unused to. They are used to seeing beggars on the street, dancing bears, people riding donkeys & animals getting slaughtered on the edge of the road, but they are totally unused to seeing a woman in a burkah (despite Albania beign 70% Muslim), electric wheelchairs & golf buggies, men with beards or people with bodypiercings. I had to stop my 10 yr old son staring fixedly at a guy on the tube with a Mohican & enough body piercings to keep a small jewellery shop in business.

Funny, I never really expected Britain to be so full of culture shock for them.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Tower of London

We have just spent a fabulous four days in London being tourists, house sitting for friends. A real highlight was visiting the Tower of London, So much to see, beautifully carved prisoner graffiti in the towers, the enigmatic murder of 2 young princes to investigate & the highly entertaining yeoman warders to listen to. Forget the Horrible Histories, these guys were the cat's pyjamas. They really brought the history of the Tower alive. Even the loos were an experience, being in a thick round tower, the most fortified loos I've been in.

And then of course there were the crown jewels, on display since the 17th century, & only one attempt to steal them. (It failed), they are now behind 2000 kg doors. I must confess to feeling a bit emotional (admittedly quite normal these days it seems) seeing the solemn regality of the coronation splashed cinema-screen-sized on the stone wall of a dimly lit room, & soaking up all that rich history, tradition & heritage represented in the Tower of London.

I also felt quite proud (yes, really), to be British as we filed through all the rooms leading to the crown jewels, thronged, as we were, by hordes of foreign tourists. This was my history.

I had to suppress the urge to explain things knowledgeably to my children in a loud (& clearly English) cut glass accent, as if this was all very old hat & familiar, despite the fact that we were there gawping too.

Of course most of the children's 'clear as a bell' comments put paid to any delusions of superiority & imperialist sentiments I might have entertained:

My son said “Mum those diamonds make the ones on your ring look like a little mouse's ring.”

My daughter then commented, “Oh I wish I had a crown like that. In fact I want to be a queen & wear crowns like the Queen wears.”

I think she believes the Queen wakes up, pops her crown on to eat her breakfast & then wears it to walk to corgis & watch t.v.

Actually some of the displays were more guilty of appropriating this casual, familiar air than I was.

As we filed past the Maces described as “versions of a fearsome medieval weapon”, there were 9 on display & one mysteriously missing, with the simple label underneath which said

“In Use”.

In what way exactly, one is tempted to wonder.......?

Then we filed past all the swords; the swords of spiritual justice, the swords of temproal jusitce, all in order, but “the Sword of State” ??

“In Use.”

Not “On Loan to ------ Museum”, just “In Use.”

Such casual little notices to explain the absence of a 'version of a fearsome medieval weapon” & an enormous “Sword of State” make for a moment's stimulating mental rumination.

So finally after all this ancient tradition housed within ancient walls, we had the rather bizarre & James Bond moment of arriving in the 'Jewel Room' where there was a moving walkaway around the crown jewel cases; & we were catapulted rudely into a 21st century 'viewing experience', gliding past the crowns. I had to go back & jump on it again 3 times to get a proper look at the jewels & take it all in.

I hadn't realised the Queen had so many crowns. The Imperial State crown had the 2nd largest Cullinan diamond in it, (the 2nd Star of Africa), Queen Mary's crown has 2 of the smaller Cullinan diamonds in it, amongst 2200 other diamonds. And the 1st Star of Africa (the largest Cullinan diamond, & the largest diamond in the world), was added to the sovereign's “Sceptre with Cross”.

Uncut it was 3025.75 carats. It's still pretty massive, the size of a (very) large goose egg. The children were particularly keen to see the Stars of Africa because their dad's cousin married one of the Cullinan family in South Africa.

So my son said “Wow, I'm related to the Cullinan diamonds!” though in the Gemstone Genealogy being only related by marriage, my 2 children would only be semi precious gems.........