The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Friday, November 30, 2007

back from England

I returned from England on Monday evening to find a stormy Pittsburgh (the lightning caused the Monday night football game to be delayed) and a house full of sickies. Everyone had a particularly nasty flu, which caused one of the boy's temperatures to shoot up to 105.4 at one point. Scary. They seem to be getting better, but they were both home from day care all week.

While they were languishing in illness, I was enjoying myself--ignorant of it all, I swear, because of my Blackberry's inability to receive email in England--in London. For the first time in years, I got to be in one of my favorite cities, and it was on a sunny, if chilly, November Sunday when it seemed like everyone was out. While in Oxford, I picked up a TIME OUT LONDON and so had a plan all ready to go. After a very early bus ride from Oxford to the city, I checked into my little chain hotel out next to Heathrow (it was cheap and close, if lacking in atmosphere) and caught the express into Paddington. From there I was a madman. I hit the Imperial War Museum's great, great exhibition "Weapons of Mass Communication", a display of war posters from Europe and North America. Most of the posters were from either WWI or WWII, but at the end the museum wisely, if spottily, included just a few of what must be an enormous archive of ANTI-war posters from Vietnam to the second Iraq war. The museum also had a strange little exhibition on the strange little Falkland Islands "war," and a permanent collection of war machinery such as tanks, guns, planes, submarines, etc. The place was full of families with their children, and I know my boys would really like it, but I do have some qualms about the comment-less display of destructive machinery. It's better than the "gee-whiz!" displays you'll get here from the US Army at county fairs, street fairs, etc., aiming to appeal to boys who like big machines, but it's still pretty bloodless, given the real point of those machines.

From the War Museum I headed up to the British Library, which I had always assumed was in the British Museum but isn't. They were featuring "Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900 – 1937." I've seen much of this material (printed matter from modernist movements) before, at the Dada show at the Smithsonian and at the modernist design show at the Corcoran, for instance, but it's always cool to see everything in one place. And as much as I can like William Morris and those late-19th c. designers, too much of them really makes you realize why the simple declarative cleanliness of modernist design and typography was a breath of fresh air.

I wanted to go to a street market. I've been to Portobello Road, although it's always worth returning there, but I wanted to see something new and to see a part of London that's completely new to me. So I consulted a few people who know the city and they told me to try the Old Spitalfields Market in East London. It was great, everything I was hoping for--a combination of Portland's Saturday Market with its soapmakers, meat-pie makers, and clothing designers, and Rome's enormous Porta Portese market, with its endless stalls of cheap clothing, luggage, and every other Chinese-made commodity you can imagine. I got some Christmas shopping done. I did want to find Brick Lane, the famed street of Indian restaurants, but my sense of direction failed me and I gave up.

The day's final stop was the busiest: Covent Garden and the just-reopened London Transport Museum. Even an hour before closing the line stretched well into the Covent Garden plaza. This museum's redesign was clearly influenced by the new trend in museums of being highly interactive and super kid-friendly: it is, in spades. Fantastic preserved omnibuses, double-decker buses, old Underground cars, and even a feature on reducing carbon emissions. I can't wait to go back with the boys.


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