Friday, June 06, 2008

London Day 2: Of Fires and Jews

The picture to the left is a painting of a cabman's shelter in the middle of the winter 1888 by John Charles Dollman (London Museum). I think it's so evocative of the time. They'd take shelter from the weather, swap tales and eat their meals. Unfortunately the horses had to remain outside. There's an still one of the original shelters at Russell Square (Bloomsbury). Nothing fancy, nothing huge. Just respite from the weather and a bit of companionship. Can you imagine the tales they'd tell?

Luckily, we didn't get rain until this evening so today was gorgeous (again). Upper sixties, a little breeze. Perfect for hiking your bum off. Which I did. First thing, I popped into a Starbucks for coffee (£1.60 = $3.20 for a small cup). To their credit Starbucks have public loos and those can be hard to find. If you're about to indulge in a two-hour tour of the East End, find a Starbucks first.

So after fortifying myself with caffeine I began the day with a London Walks entitled The Old Jewish Quarter ("a shtetl called Whitechapel.") Jean, the guide who showed us around the Victorian walk last October, gave us a tour of the "Hebrew" side of the East End. We visited Bevis Marks Synagogue (built 1701) and the interior was stunning. Marble, English oak benches (the original ones) and candles. Lots of candelabras. They have electric lights, but use the candles for weddings. Neat. This is a Orthodox shul (shool = synagogue) which means the woman sit separate from the men. In this case they sit up in a gallery overlooking the main floor. I've attended Orthodox services in Hong Kong and found the women got bored and tended to chat during the service because they had nothing to do. Reform and Conservative Judaism include women in the services. Each to his own.

There was a nice fellow at who gave us an overview of the Jewish community during the past three hundred years. Of course, there's always one in your tour group who likes to stir things up. A lady, a Jew, announced she wouldn't attend an Orthodox shul as they made the women sit separately. I saw no reason for her grumbling about this. You choose which synagogue you attend. Griping at the Orthodox folks about their traditions is like bitching at the Reform Jews because women can conduct a service. The Orthodox are keepers of the tradition. Without them Judaism would be lessened. To be honest, I doubt the Almighty really cares either way.

After the walk I went to the Museum of London for their London's Burning: Great Fire of 1666 exhibit. I was really psyched about this. Alas, it was just okay. Not earthshaking in my mind, but then I've done a LOT of research into this event as it plays into the third book in my series. That makes me a hard sell. What was cool was that I got to hold artifacts from the fire (342 years old folks), including two pieces of pottery that had fused together. To achieve that, according to the museum folks, you'd need at least 1700 degrees Fahrenheit. Steel melts at 1370 degrees. That might explain why the stones of St. Paul's Cathedral actually exploded from the heat.

One of the more touching exhibits, not related to the Great Fire, was the memorial book dedicated to those folks who lost their lives on the July 7, 2005 bombing. There are pictures of the those who died, including testimonials from friends and family. It's heart wrenching. As a frequent traveler to London I know fate could have easily put me on one of those trains or on that bus. I've traveled in and out of those stations on a regular basis. Ironically, the bombers targeted Aldgate Station. A sizeable number of Muslims live in that area and travel by the Tube. They were killing their own. Hate is always blind.

After the museum, I wandered a bit more. I visited St. Sepulchre's Church just down the street from where Newgate Prison used to be located (now the Old Bailey) and also the Central Criminal Courts which always seemed to have the requisite TV cameras across the street. I'll be attending a trial on Monday to experience firsthand the differences between the US and the UK court systems. More wandering took me to St. Paul's Cathedral, but not inside, and then back to the hotel.

Besides all the historical research, something else I noted -- guys. There are some drop dead hunky guys in this city. Of course there's a lot of older English fellows, but some of the younger ones are just so yummy. Don't know what it is, but I noted a LOT of them today (a few in Starbucks). Some in jeans, some in pinstripe suits. All worth a second look. Damn. The Brits have been holding out on us.

Off to the Royal Gunpowder Museum tomorrow in Waltham Abbey, a brief train ride north of London. Should be educational. Tomorrow night is the Whitechapel Society Meeting in, of course, Whitechapel. This time I get to listen to someone else give the talk. It'll be a later night than usual but I'm not anticipating any trouble getting back to the hotel.

And for those of you who do keep track of UK news -- the bomb is still not defused. What bomb, you ask? A WWII Blitz bomb, to be precise. Some workers unearthed it near the Bromley-by-Bow Underground Station, which is also close to the water treatment works. It is sitting on top of a gas main. So the brave folks who disarm things that go boom are working on disarming this one. Can you imagine messing with a bomb that is over 60 years old? Not enough money in the universe for that sorta job. To be safe they've closed some of the Underground east of Whitechapel. Sensible.

Will continue to update you on my various trudgings. Now it's time for editing and some of that Burt's Bees Peppermint Foot Cream. For some reason my feet are very unhappy.

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