Friday, August 26, 2011

Tube Story (Intermission)

The boy at the center of the case had been eight years old when he first sought asylum in the UK. His uncle and his uncle's wife, a childless couple, arranged for the boy to come live with them after the Taliban killed his parents in Afghanistan. Immigration officials felt his story was not quite right. Instead of allowing him to wiggle his roots down into safe British soil as a permanent resident, they granted him temporary status until he reached the age of seventeen and a half. He could live with his uncle for nine and a half years.

Something was not quite right, wrote the immigration agent sitting below me on the Tube. Standing above her, I swayed back and forth with the other upright passengers as we rode from Heathrow to King's Cross station in London. She wrote in a looping longhand style with a yellow pencil, then erased heartily, with the conviction of a first grader. Bits of pink erasure dandruff clung to the hips of her black suit skirt.

When she felt called to make notes on the legal documents in the files stacked up on her lap, it interrupted my reading. She bent so far forward over her work, the label on her skirt poked out like a tongue. She blocked my view of her confidential notes. Fortunately, she spent more time reading than writing. We were underground now, somewhere east of Kew, and I had already read all of the advertisements around the top edge of this train. None were as interesting as watching the rejection of an immigration case in a country not my own. She leaned back to appraise her own scrawl, and I continued my visual eavesdropping.

What was "not right," as the British government discovered, was that the uncle was actually the boy's father. The uncle/father left Afghanistan, left the boy's mother there, pregnant, ducking behind sand colored cinderblock walls for safety, and he moved into Europe, to England, to a walk-up flat in Tottenham with a damp foyer that smelled of curried eggs. The papers did not document this. The papers acknowledged the DNA connection between boy and uncle/father. I imagined the rest.

The immigration agent wrote with passion and energy; she rocked her feet up on her toes when she bore down on the paper. She scrawled something on one page, then sat back and held the pages up to face what she'd written at eye level. These deceptions by the uncle/father not only jeopardized the safety of the boy, but also put the uncle/father's wife's status at risk. Currently in the UK with temporary status, the wife also wanted to stay, despite the three flights of stairs she had to walk up carrying reusable Tesla bags full of rice and onions; despite the curried egg smell in the foyer. She wanted to stay.

Did the uncle/father's wife know the truth of the relationship between the boy and the uncle/father? Did she know the dead mother back in Afghanistan? The British government could not determine how much the woman knew; their uncertainty about her role in the drama tipped the case against her. We clacked back and forth on our passage. The man next to the immigration agent slept with his head tilted forward, his arms crossed against his chest as if to lock himself into a polite space on the row of seats.

The British government also failed to determine the exact age of the boy. His mother dead, his uncle/father a liar, they wanted to believe the boy when he showed up at the border and held up eight fingers. That was seven years ago; now other evidence (not specified) indicated he may have been nine, or even ten. He was so thin, so drawn, when he held up his fingers at the border. The circles under his eyes were caves. The papers did not document this, either.

He could not stay. His father/uncle had lied. There were holes in the story. There were undocumented elements of the case. The immigration agent held the end of the pencil to her lips as if to shush someone. Because the boy could stay in this safer country until he turned seventeen and a half, the British government had to give him an age, but he would still be eventually returned to Afghanistan. They decided to call him fifteen. He could live with his uncle/father, a permanent resident, for two and a half more years. As for the uncle/father's wife, she would have her papers revoked. She would be deported immediately for her connection to such tenuous and uncertain ties.

The immigration agent bent over her papers to scrawl something in the block of white space across the bottom of the last page of neat legal type. As the automated Tube voice announced King's Cross as the next station, the man next to her woke up and rubbed his fists into his eyes. She slid her stack of papers into a worn, black briefcase with tape on the clasp. She had written: What a pity.



Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Tate Modern

“When objects of any kind are first presented to the eye or imagination, the sentiment, which attends them, is obscure and confused; and the mind is, in a great measure, incapable of pronouncing concerning their merits or defects.” –David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste, 1757

I stood in front of an enormous pile of porcelain chips painted to look like sunflower seeds while the guard at the door slowly nodded off in the afternoon quiet. Husband walked up and stopped behind me. “Hmph,” he said. I could feel his breath on my neck. “Yeah,” I agreed.

We’d been having this same conversation all over the Tate Modern. After a brief tea in the outside courtyard (museum tours should always begin with scones), we climbed to the top of the gutted power station and started working our way down, winding through white-walled rooms of inexplicable images. A giant wooded plug hung down from the ceiling in one room. In the next space, the walls glowed with a rosy hue as the lights filtered through gauzy red silk draped to recreate a reverse staircase spanning the entire ceiling.

I know, I know…. It’s hard to describe. Modern Art is hard to describe and often harder to appreciate. There were the usual rows of blank canvases, white canvases with a single black line, canvases rent or burned or shot at or spit on by the artist; all of the images that prompt the small-minded “my kindergartener could do that” responses from museum-goers overly proud of their “obscure and confused” sentiments.

Although we made it to the Tate late in the day, we happened to be there the one night of the week they kept the doors open until 10:00 p.m. We could afford the time to try to come up with some way to measure the merits or defects of the rooms and rooms of post-1900 art. We paused in a few dark hallways to watch video installations. I slid down the wall and sat with my knees drawn up in front of me to watch fifteen minutes of a young black man kicking a bucket around the 1970s streets of New York City. The bucket rattled and clanged in the video; it also rattled and clanged through the otherwise empty museum rooms. Walking out of one room of photographs of Russians wearing red, both of us in that sort of museum daze, we found Rodin’s The Kiss scooched off to the side of a connecting room. We first saw a version of this piece when it visited the High Museum in Atlanta for the Olympics as part of the Rings exhibit. “Oo!” I squealed. Husband kissed me.

On one floor, we found a temporary exhibit of Miró’s work; we split into different paths around the wing. I watched the art progress from almost naïve pastorals of Miró’s childhood farm life to the vast canvases of primary colors swirled with angry strokes of his later work, and I thought about seeing Guernica in Spain. Two hours later, Husband and I found each other in a room of canvases calculatingly scorched and charred.

We agreed that we had developed enough taste for one evening, and we could now pronounce the merits or defects of Modern Art with considerably less befuddlement. Now, on to find some pop culture, alá Harry Potter’s last gasps.

On the way out of the Tate, we passed a tall Tate guide with his pants a bit bunched and his long, black hair a bit mussed. He had the air of a young Museum docent—trying to maintain a look of disdain for the tawdriness of the general population while desperately seeking some affirmation of his existence. “Excuse me,” I stopped and said, “can I ask you a non-Tate-related question?”

He took a step back. He looked like he had expected us to think him on exhibit, and he had suddenly been recognized as animate.

I reached into my purse and pulled out a ripped newspaper page with listings for Harry Potter. We wanted his opinion on the closest cinema (not “theatre,” never “theatre” in England.) Every cinema was named Odean something or other—Odean being the AMC of London.

“Oh, they’ve got Odeans all over the place. You practically trip over them,” he assured us.

If there’s one thing we had not tripped over while hiking through London’s main arteries, it was a movie theatre. I pushed a little harder for specifics, and he guided us to the nearest one; then he seemed to enjoy this unexpected moment of human interaction. He asked where in the States we called home. “Georgia,” we replied.

His eyes lit up. “REM!” Tate Guide/REM fan confessed his love of the band and proceeded to tell us all about the trajectory of the band’s career and his own disappointment with some of their artistic decisions. Husband teased the poor guy with stories of band interaction from his teen years in Athens. Since I already knew the stories, I stood quietly and watched people milling about the café. Images of art flitted through my mind, which previously obscure and confused, had now found a way to appreciate Modern Art through the process of appreciating Modern Art. I felt the weight of Miró’s political anguish; the sound of that metaphor-rich bucket still clanged in my head.

A Japanese man sitting upright in one of the café chairs suddenly dropped his chin onto his chest, fully asleep. Feeling the fullness of our day hit me, I agreed with his sentiment.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Broken Wall, the Burning Roof and Tower

About the London tourist’s visit to the Tower, Rick Steves nails it. Go straight for the jewels.

In a sleepy drizzle on Saturday morning, we headed from Old Street Station on the Tube down to Tower, then dodged between slow moving families down the ramp to the park entrance. Following Rick’s advice, we aimed straight for the building in the center of the complex that houses all of the HRH’s finest playpretties. While those other jokers fumbled around with their soggy park pamphlets, we toggled through the empty cordons of red velvet roping and slipped into the jewel vault while guarding Beefeaters watched the storm. It all felt very Thomas Crowne Affair.

The attraction of brilliant jewels lies in their stories of intrigue, curses, and heist. If I was to steal anything from the Crown Jewel exhibit, it would not be the enormous fist of a diamond; instead, I’d take the taffeta coronation robe woven with threads of pure gold. Especially on a cold, rainy London morning. Husband and I strolled through the exhibit, the gold punch bowls and knick-knacks knotted with rubies and sapphires, and wondered at the role of the monarchy today. Of course, we also imagined that most visitors wandering through the Jewel Hall at any given point in its history had wondered about the role of the monarchy today, whenever “today” happened to be. Especially in that place, in this center, sparkling, heart of the Tower complex, one wonders whether all the murders, executions, decrees, uprisings, upheaval, all of the monarch’s long and sordid history—did all of it eventually collapse into a neat assessment of Kate Middleton’s spiffy style? It is nearly impossible to mentally connect the historical goings-on with contemporary morale-boosting media snippets about the family living down the lane.

We backtracked to the first gates in a steady downpour. Monkeys caught in poses of aggravation, reclining lions, and a chained polar bear with a supplicant expression perch around the parapets and rooftops of the Tower complex. All of these are made of chicken wire; they recreate the exotic menagerie that once prowled the grounds. The Royals’ subjects could poke at the creatures; some foreign dignitary once presented the Crown with gifts of live ostriches. These presents kept dying because common wisdom held the odd birds needed a steady diet of iron to hold up their improbable necks. Visitors fed them nails. In the second it took to step from wet to dry space as we entered the wing that once held the beasts, I caught of a whiff of caged lion; it smelled exactly like the old lion house at Zoo Atlanta. With the next step, that note evaporated, and the room reeked of wet plastic parkas.

The animals’ captivity in this stone trap subdued me more than any of the famous prisoners’ stories. And what of their stories? Filing through the series of rooms and narrow hallways, we read about the various famous prisoners and victims whose stories fascinate the visiting public—a few famous wives, a revolutionary or two, a pair of toe-headed young princes who may or may not have been murdered, their bodies walled up under the stairwell. At the same time, the park dilutes these macabre details with a thin message suggesting that the Tower “was really more exclusive” than your average prison. Tell that to the family of Sir Walter Raleigh. The white walls of the Tower rooms are chinked with 400+ year old graffiti, the names, symbols, prayers, and calendars used to scratch away the days of confinement. At knee level on one wall, Husband and I admired an entire astrological calendar carved into the stone by a captive Englishman accused of being a sorcerer. We traced the smooth outlines of the moons, planets, and stars. “Sorcerer,” we agreed. No mortal could chisel those perfect spheres.