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Touring London

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Even though I narrowly missed the Queen Mum’s recent trip, there is still much to report from Oxford. A few of us Domers finally made it down to London, visiting all of the ‘touristy’ locales and enjoying the nightlife. In today’s column I will try to describe the sights and sounds of ‘The City’:

Certainly one cannot visit London without venturing into the Tower. It is not as big as you might expect: the moat surrounding the walls has gradually silted over and so the fortifications are lower than they once were. However, within the gates there is much to see: inside is a miniature city, with little roads, shops and homes in which the Beefeaters live and do whatever it is the Beefeaters do. One thing we noticed immediately were the huge shoe-polish black ravens, picking at bloody scraps of meat that their handlers had thrown over. The Tower Ravens have been under royal protection since the reign of Charles II; apparently there was a legend that if the ravens left, the Tower would fall.

After staring at the ravens we wandered over to a prison tower where generations of political offenders had etched elaborate Latin quotations and family crests on its walls. I also happened to examine Henry VIII’s armor, and the pictures do not lie: that guy was huge. Then we made our way past the high-stepping guard into Jewel Tower, where the Crown Jewels are on display. The Jewels themselves are interesting at first, but there is so much gold and so many diamonds, rubies, etc. that one loses any appreciation for how rare and beautiful they are. After we visited the torture exhibition – many Jesuits apparently availed themselves of the service there – we were so tired of armor, pageantry and blood-stained ravens that our next attraction was a perfect antidote.

My favorite part of London is the Tate Modern. Approaching the building from the Millennium footbridge, the Tate seems like a singularly ugly building compared to the futuristic, swooping curves of the landmarks of the London skyline. The Tate used to be a power plant, but it was redesigned and repackaged as an art museum and all of the magic is inside.

The first exhibit one sees, titled “The Weather Project,” covers a huge section of the museum: the ceiling, which is perhaps a hundred feet above, is covered with mirrors and on the far wall is a huge yellow ‘sun’ composed of thousands of yellow fluorescent lamps. Dozens of people lie out on the concrete floor, sunbathing before the huge artificial sun, forming stars, circles and other patterns on the ground. But “The Weather Project” is not the only exhibit there: there is also a public urinal from New York signed by Duchamp, Communist posters from Soviet Russia – expel all ‘double-dealers’ from the Party! – and Yves Klein’s “IKB 79:” a large expanse of undifferentiated blue – IKB stands for ‘international Klein blue.’ Got to love modern art.

Having enjoyed one of the top modern art museums in the world, we traveled to Tower Bridge and walked on its upper rise overlooking the Thames. From there we were able to view all of London’s skyline: the huge egg-shaped Gherkin tower, Big Ben, the houses of Parliament and St. Paul’s Cathedral. We visited all of them in turn and not all on purpose: London’s transportation system is sometimes confusing. Which brings me to the Tube, the subway system of London and one of the most traveled in the world. Each station is different: some are grimy tiled pits, while others are so futuristic they seem to have leapt straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

While on the Tube we were commenting on the amazing amount of Irish apparel one sees here, when a man behind us overhead and announced himself a Notre Dame grad, class of ’80. I had to leave without talking to him too much, since he was unfortunately a Keenanite, but the fact that there happened to be a grad in that car goes to show how global the Notre Dame community has become.

That about wraps up our London visits. While Oxford is a great place to study, after a couple of weeks I start to feel the presence of that same bubble that envelops Notre Dame and I love being able to hop on the bus and jet down to London for an afternoon of concerts, ethnic food and night clubs. But I have bigger plans for the near horizon: our Easter break is approaching, and I have already booked tickets on the Eurostar – the Chunnel train – for a trip to Paris. Sweet!

Geoff Johnston is soon to be murdered by the New College football team for missing so many games. Condolences can be sent to gjohnsto@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.