Saturday, November 5th 2016
Today is Guy Fawkes Day when people commemorate the failure of the 1605 plot to blow up Parliament and King James I with 36 barrels of gunpowder. It was the king himself, I believe, who suggested that the people should celebrate the survival of his royal personage with bonfires. The burning of effigies of ‘the Guy’ and the setting off of fireworks came later but the festive Bonfire Night quickly became an annual event. We have no plans to join any of the festivities and will spend the day and evening as any other Saturday.
First on the agenda was breakfast. During the week we breakfast frugally at home but at weekends like to have something a little more luxurious. Finding ourselves in Fitzrovia, we entered the Charlotte Street branch of Côte. This is a chain of faux-French restaurants following a trend famously set by the Café Rouge chain. To me, Côte has a more authentic Gallic feel than Café Rouge though I like both of them. Côte’s menu is Frenchish with an eye to British taste. We each had the Vegetarian Breakfast, with which I had black coffee while Tigger had tea. It was very good though I doubt whether you would find exactly that dish in a French cafe in Paris. Our waiter had a convincing foreign accent but it turned out that he was Italian.
Fitzrovia is of course the home district of the BT Tower, part of British Telecom’s communications network. If it were a person, it would probably feel a little schizophrenic having changed its name 5 times since it was built in 1964 (details here). At a height of 177.0 metres (580.7 ft) to the roof or 191.0 metres (626.6 ft) to the top of the antenna, it tends to dominate the skyline in this part of London, seeming to follow you around, although it is no longer London’s tallest building, a privilege that now belongs to the monstrous Shard, about which the less said, the better.
The weather today is cold, too cold, we felt, for wandering around haphazardly in our usual fashion, so we cast about for somewhere to go. Neighbouring Fitzrovia is Bloomsbury and there we sought refuge in that ever-fascinating repository of fascinating historic objects, the British Museum.
A surprise awaited us there. In the past, we have been able to enter the museum by passing through the main gate in Great Russell Street and crossing the courtyard to the entrance. Not today. Today we found that the traditional grand way in was barred and we had to queue to enter a shelter that looked rather like an old-fashioned customs shed in a provincial airport. Uniformed personnel politely but thoroughly examined the contents of our bags before allowing us to proceed. We responded with the same courtesy with which we were ourselves treated while sadly reflecting on how the violence of the present-day world has already degraded our experience of daily life.
The beautiful and colourful tiles shown above would once have decorated the roof ridge of a house in China. In the early 1900s, someone collected them and formed them into a screen. Though slightly damaged (unsurprising in view of their age), they still glow with with colour and lively depictions of dragons.
Overlooking a staircase and with a lift shaft behind it, stands this massive figure of white marble. Who does it represent? Buddha might be a good guess. Yes, but it is slightly more complicated than that. The Buddha that most westerners know of, the Buddha of Buddhism, is called Gautama Buddha. He is so well known that he is often referred to simply as ‘the Buddha’. As it happens, though, Gautama was not the only Buddha: there have been many and some believe that there are more to come. The Buddha represented here, standing on a lotus, is not ‘the’ Buddha but is Amitabha Buddha (also known as Amida Buddha), worshipped for his role in saving the faithful and causing them to be reborn in a happy new world called Sukhavati or Pure Land. More on the sculpture itself here.
I will admit to feeling a little defrauded once I got this one home and took a look at its provenance. That’s because it is not the actual object that it purports to be (a palace doorway from Persepolis about 470-450 BC) but a plaster cast of the same, made by Lorenzo Giuntini (1845-1920) in 1892. The son of an Italian immigrant, Andrew Lawrence ‘Lorenzo’ Giuntini was a professional maker of moulds for casting bronzes. Several of his productions are in the British Museum. The accompanying description reads as follows:
The cast shows a king, probably Xerxes, sitting on a throne, holding a sceptre and lotus flower. Behind the king stands an attendant and above them is a richly decorated canopy. The throne is supported by a huge platform with lion’s paws and three rows of figures. The figures wear different costumes from across the Persian Empire.
My attention was caught next by this object. Less than 4.7 (12.2 cm) tall, it was obviously drawn with a high degree of precision while the cuneiform shows that it is a clay tablet from Babylon. The fragmented object includes text describing the diagram which is nothing less than a map of the world as understood by the Babylonians of the period. The world is shown as a disc surrounded by a ring of water called ‘Bitter River’. Babylon appears as a rectangle on the banks of the Euphrates and other features of the world, both real and mythical are shown.
Also from Babylon is this splendid representation of a lion. The figure is slightly stylized but one sees the naturalistic lion nonetheless. King Nebuchadnezzar II did a lot of work to beautify and glorify Babylon and created a Processional Way which was decorated with, among other things, figures of roaring lions. These were also a feature of his Throne Room because they were intended as symbols of the king himself.
This figure attracted my attention with its precise modelling, still sharp despite the object’s great age. It is thought to represent the goddess Ishtar or her sister Ereshkigal. She holds the rod and ring symbolizing justice and as the image was made in the reign of King Hammurabi, this may be a reference to the latter’s great compilation of laws, the Code of Hammurabi.
In the centre of the museum lies the Great Court. In the centre of what was originally intended to be a garden, book stacks were built and this structure eventually became the world-famous British Museum Reading Room. (The role of the Reading Room has now been taken over by the British Library.) This space was redesigned by architects Foster and Partners at the beginning of the present century and opened by the Queen, as a result of which it was obsequiously and unnecessarily renamed the Elizabeth II Great Court. I have often criticized the work of Foster and Partners (and will no doubt have cause to go on doing so) but have to agree that the glass roof which encloses the whole while allowing a view of the sky, is a fine and successful piece of work.
The old Reading Room has external staircases which meet round the back in a sort of crescent-shaped viewing platform. The above view was taken from there. So was the following:
In this picture we are looking down from the Reading Room at one of the corners of the Great Court where you can see one of the British Museum’s cafes and the tables and stools provided for customers. Also visible are the two tall totem poles. They were made probably in the middle of the 19th century in British Columbia by the Haida (the taller pole) and Nisga’a peoples.
On leaving the museum, we were allowed to go out through the grand entrance and walk across the courtyard to the iron gates while people arriving were being shunted through the checkpoint. The courtyard was virtually empty, in contrast to its usual crowded state in happier times. How long will this ‘unnatural’ regime remain in force, I wonder – for ever? It is a sad reflection on the current state of our civilization and thiose who would subvert it with violence.