Last Saturday I met my southern friend Debi in Trafalgar Square for a few hours of eating and sightseeing. The latter was laced with an element of fear (mine) since Debi leaps across busy London roads, narrowly dodging cabs and buses. To add to her bravery, she is usually in flip-flops.
Occasionally I am enticed to cross with her for the “thrill” but mostly I take the cowardly option: finding a pedestrian crossing and waiting for the green man to give the go ahead, whilst our conversation is suspended over 3 to 4 lanes of manic traffic.
Our meeting point was the 169 foot high Nelson’s Column, completed in 1843 to commemorate Vice-admiral Horatio Nelson. Nelson was was shot and killed aboard the HMS Victory whilst defeating the French during the Battle of Trafalgar. His heroism was undertaken with only one working eye, one working arm and a chronic ongoing case of sea-sickness.
On a far smaller scale, I insisted we went to visit the Arthur Sullivan statue in the Victoria Embankment Gardens. Sullivan as in half of the famous Gilbert & Sullivan duo responsible for the composition of comedic operas. This statue pilgrimage was all thanks to one of my many synchronicities.
One evening I was watching “Apple Tree Yard” a drama about a middle aged married lady who begins an affair with a slick fraudster she meets in the Houses of Parliament. During one of their secret liaisons they appraise the statue of Sullivan and contemplate its inscription “Is life a boon? If so it must befal that death whene’er he call must call too soon”.
The very next day I was reading Agatha Christie’s biography when she refers to the very Gilbert & Sullivan performance from where the above quote comes from, “The Yeomen of the Guard” (it opened in 1888). Agatha had sang in a stage show production since she had ambitions of becoming an opera singer at one time. The story is set in the Tower of London in the 16th century and is a complicated, badly-ending tale of love, sorcery and riches.
The full boon song goes like this:
Is life a boon?
If so, it must befal
That Death, whene’er he call,
Must call too soon.
Though fourscore years he give,
Yet one would pray to live
What kind of plaint have I,
Who perish in July?
I might have had to die,
Perchance, in June!
Is life a thorn?
Then count it not a whit!
Man is well done with it;
Soon as he’s born
He should all means essay
To put the plague away;
And I, war-worn,
Poor captured fugitive,
My life most gladly give
I might have had to live
And here it is set to music and sung by a bearded man in a pleated beige frock:
Nobody knows why the uncredited barely dressed lady attempts to steal Sullivan’s thunder but she got the work known for being the sexiest statue in London. Some say she represents a muse weeping for the loss of music.
Sullivan had recently copped a load of bird-shit over his hair, moustache and lapels which detracted somewhat from our viewing experience.
Gilbert & Sullivan’s shows were always hosted at the Savoy Theatre (opposite Sullivan’s statue) which was the first public building in the world to be lit by electricity. Unfortunately Gilbert & Sullivan fell out over the high cost of new carpets for the theatre’s front of house coming out of personal expenses and so their monuments were never erected together. We did intend on paying our respects to Gilbert too positioned around the corner but we plain forgot about him.
Debi wanted me to experience the ambience of the luxurious Savoy Hotel. I was embarrassment in my dirty old Converse but I was promised a cup of tea should we be challenged. Luckily she didn’t have to take out a second mortgage as we wondered undisturbed along bedroom corridors and through the dining area packed with the suitably attired rich.
The Savoy Hotel was built with the profits of Gilbert & Sullivan’s talents. There was no word on any carpet disputes in this building.
Going down-market, we ate at The Diner on the Strand. I had the vegan brunch which looked fresh and colourful however the falafel (those pieces placed on top of the mushrooms meant to look like their stalks) were akin to bullets. Even with my horse strong teeth I couldn’t take them on. Not even a sharp knife could pierce them. I asked for softer versions and though a fresh pair arrived, they were still inedible. I got a pound knocked off the bill and an apology but it begged the question: just how many times had these chickpea balls being nuked?
We visited St Martins-in-the-Field, a well known Georgian church completed in 1726. It is impressive on the outside yet I found the main body of it dull and after watching the band practice for all of 30 seconds, we headed down into the best bit – the crypt. This underbelly houses a large cafe, gallery and gift shop. We had a nice cup of tea and sneakily ate the fabulous Hardihood raw vegan cakes I had purchased from Planet Organic.
The crypt is home to the The Pearly King, Henry Croft (1861 – 1930), who was born in a workhouse and who spent his childhood in the St Pancreas orphanage where he learnt his famous skill for sewing pearl buttons onto his costumes.
Henry spent his life as a street sweeper yet off duty wore his pearly outfits as an attraction and raised thousands of pounds to assist the poor, deaf, dumb or blind. He got his friends to dress up in pearls to help his good deeds grow, hence starting a tradition of charitable Pearly Kings and Queens which continues to this day.
After the warm fuzzy feeling of spying such a generous soul, we were then surprised to see a whipping post on display in a house of God.
The Whipping Act was passed in England in 1530 whereby criminals were stripped and severely thrashed in front of street crowds. No-one was supposed to lashed to death but it transpired this punishment did in fact see off many. Public flogging for women was abolished in 1820 but continued for men until the 1830s.
A low energetic vibe emanated from this piece of wood as is to be expected. There was also a distinct lowering of energy in a quieter part of the crypt away from the main crowd. I felt uneasy and all my bodily hairs stood to attention so we quickly moved to the gallery to gaze upon some biblical sculptures like super-strong Samson bringing down a temple.
To finish on a high note – here are a cuddly Beethoven and Mozart available in the church shop.