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.

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