Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Where’s William?

“William?” scowled the security guard.
“Yes,” I replied, with a bright and cheerful enthusiasm which, in hindsight, may have been a bit of a mistake. “Can you tell me where to find William?”
He viewed me suspiciously, as if trying to weigh up, from my eagerness, whether I was an idiot or a troublemaker. I had naïvely assumed that everybody in the museum would know William and his whereabouts. As the security guard looked me over warily, it belatedly dawned on me that, however obvious it might be to me who William was, this crucial piece of intelligence might just have escaped the security guard.
“The hippo,” I explained, in what I had hoped would be a helpful way, but which I soon realised only made matters worse. In response, the security guard’s expression abruptly shifted gear again, from suspicion to low-level alarm, and I started to wonder as to the advisability of going on with our conversation. However good my intentions, it looked like continuing the discussion might only have the effect of antagonising him further.
“Hippo?” he repeated, testing the word sceptically, much as one might sip cautiously at a drink offered by a stranger of whose bona fides one has reason to doubt.
“Yes! William’s a statue of a hippo,” I elaborated. He blinked at me, the dim and distant light of vague recognition slowly coming to his worried eye.
“What era?” he asked, suddenly.
“Uh,” I thought. “Egyptian?”
He thought for a bit. Finally, he nodded and pointed back to The Great Hall and to anther entrance at the far side.
“North Wing,” he said. “Try there.”
Relieved to be able to stop being such an obvious source of annoyance and frustration for him, I thanked him and made my way through the thronging visitors in The Great Hall. Showing my ticket again, I passed further security guards, who were busily engaged in frowning at people with backpacks, and into the gallery of Egyptian art.
In a museum as grand and expansive as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, narrowing one’s field of enquiry to a single wing, particularly if one is looking for a small ceramic hippopotamus, is not quite as helpful as you might imagine. It does help to be in the right section of the building, of course, but as I wandered past mummies, statues of Anubis and, to some surprise, The Temple of Dendur (complete with Napoleonic graffiti), I started to lose heart in the enterprise. It was only a small hippo, after all, but I had wanted to see it.
Finally, as I started to make my way back towards the entrance, having all but given up hope, I saw him. He was standing in an unostentatious glass cabinet, at one side of an otherwise unremarkable room, for all the world just minding his own business and watching the visitors go by.
William (or “Figure of a Hippopotamus” as he is referred to, with commendable understatement, in the Met catalogue) is barely more than 11 cm tall and is glazed in a vivid aquamarine and patterned with lotus flowers. He is from Egypt and is nearly four thousand years old. For most of the last hundred years, having been gifted by Edward S. Harkness in 1917, he has been at the Met in New York.
For an object of such antiquity, William has an endearingly sprightly charm. He stands, looking out of his glass case with a curiously benign expression of bemused indulgence, as if he had spent the last century casually watching the comings and goings of visitors to his new home. Maybe it is his broad snout that appeals, or possibly his pleasingly stumpy feet, which make him look like a puppy standing to attention, but whatever it is, he appears to be a hippo that is pleased to meet you.
As the unofficial mascot of the Met, I had assumed that William would have a display case all to himself, and be the centre of attention, but I was the only one at that moment who was looking at him.
“Hello, William,” I said.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

A plaque on both your houses

In these frantic times, it's good to take a minute now and then to remember some of our sadly lesser-known, yet nevertheless important, figures from history.

In my regular wanderings, I am frequently surprised by how little attention the average pedestrian (far less the average driver or gyrocopter pilot) pays to the plaques and memorials that dot or, if you prefer, pepper our streets. Sometimes these panels record interesting, successful or famous people; sometimes the locations of discoveries or events of great historical importance.

If only we looked up a little more, it sometimes seems to me, our lives could be enriched and enlivened by the thought of those who came before us (even if those thoughts should probably not, in all good conscience, always be considered to be entirely historically accurate).

This week, it's time to celebrate Dr James Yearsley, founder of the Metropolitan Ear Institute in London in 1838. Dr Yearsley is rightly recognised with this green plaque at 32 Sackville Street, Piccadilly, London, the site of his former clinic.

Without Dr Yearsley's tireless work and years of painstaking research, the chances are we still wouldn't have ears today or, as they were originally known in honour of their inventor, "Yearsleys". Queen Victoria who, for all any of us know, may have been a regular visitor to the clinic, is reported in Court circles to have been seen "grinning from Yearsley to Yearsley" after a successful appointment with the good doctor.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Subway Song

It’s that strange time between rush hour and midmorning, where it feels like the city has taken a moment to catch its breath, and you can take your time. The subway car is pleasingly uncrowded, and I watch the street numbers rise steadily as I make my way north from the West Village.

At one stop, the car doors open and two buskers enter, one of whom is carrying an electric piano, which hangs from a duct tape strap around his neck. I’ve seen plenty of buskers with guitars and banjos before, but this is the first time I’ve seen anybody manhandling a decent-sized keyboard on public transport, and I’m impressed.

I’m already on their side before the pianist begins to play and, on his own, delicately sings “I’ll Be There” by The Jackson 5. His companion hovers nearby, leaning against the pole and holding a gold foil party bag. This is a little incongruous, and makes them look as if they’ve just come from somebody’s birthday; like they've decided to bring the good vibes from a party along with them as they wend their way home.

Then the guy with the bag joins in the singing, with spot-on harmonies, and I feel a tingle all the way down my neck. It’s such a beautiful thing, this well-sung song, and I’m half-sorry and half-glad that there aren’t more than half a dozen other passengers with me in the car to share the experience.

Still singing, the buskers start to sway down the car, and I drop a couple of dollars into the gold party bag - partly in thanks and partly as encouragement – and receive a warm and friendly fist-bump from the singer in return. My stop approaches, and I stand, instinctively swaying along to the music, humming along to the harmonies, and tapping my feet.

Often with buskers, however much you may enjoy their music, you don’t want to engage too much with the performer. This morning, thanks to these singers and their happy music, there is a fabulously warm feeling in the subway car, and I see several other riders also give generously and then exchange glances and satisfied nods with their fellow passengers.

For a strange moment, we disparate strangers are united by the music, and smile at each other, swaying to the rocking of the train and the harmonies of the singers. At my stop, and with a nod of thanks back to the performers, which they return, I leave the car with a warm glow that I subsequently carry with me for quite some time, happily humming “I’ll be there…” as I jump up the steps into the morning sunlight.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

La prima colazione

“Porridge!” exclaimed the waitress, looking from the man who had ordered it, across the table to his companion, open mouthed. She looked as if this was the strangest breakfast order she had ever encountered, and wanted the man and the man’s friend to share in her sense of startled yet excited bewilderment.

“Porridge!” she repeated. “Excellent.” and she scuttled off, doubtless to relay the strange events of that morning to her colleagues behind the bar.

It is a little difficult, when sitting in a restaurant at breakfast time, but only requiring a coffee, to avoid the overeager solicitations of the waiting staff. An entirely accidental moment of eye contact with one of them, and you run the risk of being approached – yet again – for your non-existent order.

At the bar, a genuinely Italian-looking lady in the uniform of a chef (rather than that of a waiter or waitress) stands by the Gaggia coffee machine, both hands over her mouth, as if witnessing some appalling tragedy. Perhaps, I wonder, she has just remembered having done, or failed to do, something of staggering significance in the kitchen. Whatever it is, it seems to justify my decision not to engage with the frequently-proposed breakfast eating.

A Scottish gentleman to my left, as he decries the banking industry, gesticulates wildly towards his partner in what I decide is a profoundly Italian manner. I start to wonder if maybe I’m reading too much Italianness into the goings on in this quasi-Italian restaurant, this morning, or perhaps there’s a general Italianate atmosphere that is creeping inexorably into the staff and clientele.

Another waiter arrives beside my table to enquire what I would like to order for breakfast. I seem to detect an air of disappointment when I decline the kind offer and ask for my bill.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Walking with Wodehouse

There are walking purists, for such people, I regret to say, do exist, who profess themselves to be shocked and offended by the very idea of people walking whilst listening to earphones. For them, the sound of feet tramping through the hills and vales of the landscape, or possibly the far off cry of a mouflon or the howl of a timber wolf who has stubbed its toe on a passing rock, are the only permissible audio accompaniment to a walk.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that some people do listen to music whilst walking, and I have occasionally seen unduly stern walkers visibly reprove such musically accompanied hikers, either with a rolled eye or a disapproving shake of the head. Anything more demonstrative than that would, naturally, be unthinkable, but doubtless those admonishers went on their way satisfied with the knowledge that their points had been made.

To those people, the way that I sometimes walk, when out on the hills of Lakeland, or around the coast, is probably similarly bordering on the unforgivable, but I make no apology. On such an expedition, I am frequently to be found listening to audiobooks of P.G. Wodehouse stories, either read by Martin Jarvis, or in the form of full-cast Radio 4 plays.

I do recognise the point at the heart of these walking critics’ objections; for many of them, walking is meditative, purifying pastime, where one sets oneself apart from the normal world and its noises. For them, background music or narration has no part to play in their sacred plod across the ancient landscape. I’m not a monster, and I can see what they are getting at.

Indeed, I often do just that – walking for hours without a sound but the birdsong, the scuff (or squelch) of my boots, the swish of wind or wave, and the occasional ominous rumble of thunder and patter of rain. This is a beautiful way to spend a day, and only rarely have I ended such a walk feeling less happy and refreshed (if physically exhausted) than I had when I started it.

However, on a longer walk – eight or more hours, for example - there is sometimes something extremely pleasant about having a story read to you, as your body trudges on, steadily eating up the miles. The downsides to listening to music and audiobooks whilst walking in the wilderness are not numerous, but are several.

Firstly, you can find yourself surprised, as I have been on a number of occasions, when other walkers come up behind you, without you having picked up on the normal warning signs of another’s approach; the clomp-clomp-clomp of boot on path, for example, or even the heavy breathing of someone who has laboured heavily up a steep incline. This moment of shock can be especially embarrassing if, for example, when one has been stuffing one’s face with lunch in an unsightly manner, chuckling at a gag or neatly-turned phrase, or have been gazing over the landscape with a vacant expression, all of which are embarrassingly likely.

Alternatively, albeit an experience that has not yet happened to me, but only then through dumb luck and my preference for narrative over music, whilst walking, is the risk that one might be singing along heartily to a piece of music being piped directly into your head, only discover that, contrary to your firmly-held belief, you are not actually alone.

For me, as I have recently tended to walk whilst listening to Wodehouse stories, another unlikely downside is the strange sensation of being in two places – two eras even – at the same time. Whilst I take in my surroundings, visually, I have occasionally had an odd but vivid feeling of also walking through the landscapes of Wodehouse’s world; the passages and messuages of Blandings Castle, for example, or the foppish elegance of Bertie Wooster’s Mayfair and the grand houses in Worcestershire, all suffused with an idyllic 1920s rose tint.

And then I wake with a start to realise that a lost walker behind me is asking if I know the way to Harter Fell or Threefooted Brandreth, for example, and I find myself frantically scrabbling the earphones from my head and trying to remember where – and when – I am.