What the Hell Is That? A Visit to the Tate Modern

One of my favorite “Saturday Night Live” skits features Steve Martin and Bill Murray as tourists looking at something off-screen. After several back and forths consisting of basically “What the hell is that?”, Steve Martin says, “Well … get a photo of me with it anyway.”

Welcome to the Tate Modern, a wild ride of a museum just across London’s Millennium Bridge on the south side of the Thames.

A man and his crap

Earlier Saturday, we visited the Sir John Soane’s Museum, what I call a museum of a man and his crap, much like the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia or Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pa. Soane was a famous 19th century architect, who assembled an impressive collection of artifacts in an equally impressive building, which he molded to suit his architectural acumen and his tastes. The house and its contents were donated to the city upon Soane’s death, primarily to deprive his deadbeat son of an inheritance.

It doesn’t take long to visit the Soane’s Museum, so with only Harrod’s on the calendar for the rest of the day, I used the lure of afternoon snacks to persuade Declan to visit the Tate Modern. I like a lot of modern art that looks like, well … art. Mark Rothko painted mainly colored squares next to squares of a nearly identical colour, but I kinda like them. Alexander Calder mobile? Great! Andy Warhol pop art? Bring it on!

Of pallets and couscous castles

A pallet that looks like it was rolled off the loading dock at Wal-mart to the floor of a museum? WTF?!? One reviewer wrote: “Tony Cragg’s impressive Stack, a square of pallets and objects like a cube-shaped sandwich, is fascinating.” This person obviously hasn’t seen a bale of cardboard roll out “like a cube-shaped sandwich” from the compactor in the storeroom of any big box retailer.

Here’s another gem: “… visitors were fascinated by Kader Attia’s sculpture made entirely of couscous, resembling a Star Wars-style desert dwelling …” The sculpture (?) is called Untitled (Ghardaïa) and is a scale model of the ancient city Ghardaïa in the M’zab Valley in Algeria. Couscous, the Tate website explains, is a staple food of North Africa. I just call it Couscous Castle.

However, Declan and I did quite like Babel, Cildo Meireles’s gargantuan tower of mostly working radios that dominates the room it’s in.

But I had a hard time explaining Fountain, “by” Marcel Duchamp. In 1917, Duchamp purchased a urinal, put it on its side, painted “R.Mutt 1917” on it and entered it in an exhibition, where it was promptly rejected. The original was lost, but Duchamp “commissioned” 17 “replicas” in the 1960s. I can’t imagine where the original wound up, perhaps in a men’s room?

I recognize that art is in the eye of the beholder, and one person’s masterpiece is another’s piece of crap. I may not appreciate all the art—the car bumpers hanging by ropes, the contractor’s levels lined up on one wall, the what-the-hell-is that sitting on a table—but I do admire the balls of the artists who can explain some of this shit and make art out of it.

I wonder, how much is talent and how much is chutzpah? I may not know what it is, and I may not like it, but please take my photo with it anyway.

‘Brilliant’ Afternoon at Emirates Stadium

How do you describe a perfect afternoon? “Brilliant,” was all Declan said when asked to describe our experience Sunday at the Emirates Stadium watching The Arsenal take on Manchester City. Billed as one of the top matches of the year, Manchester City continues to play good football, while our beloved Arsenal has stumbled of late, dropping four of their last five matches and dropping out of the top four in the English Premier League.

We got there nearly two hours before kickoff, to take in the atmosphere both inside and outside the stadium. The stadium is in a residential neighborhood you walk through from the Arsenal tube stop. Vendors of all sorts lined the street selling merchandise, sweets and street food such as hot dogs, hamburgers and BBQ. It looked tasty, although we’d already eaten. Declan bought a scarf commemorating the match that was half blue and half red.

Friends in the right places

We had club level tickets, thanks to my Arsenal friend Jan, who I met in San Antonio in the fall. She was with a group of UK and Irish people on a week-long tour of Texas. We kept in touch, and she offered us her tickets for this match because she was spending the Easter holiday in the States.

That’s the beauty of football. Even with people who support teams other than ours, a team jersey can create a common bond and spark a lively discussion. The cabbie who brought us home last night was a Liverpool man and repeatedly tried to get Declan to convert during the trip. There’s no chance of that, however.

Our tickets were fantastic, just beyond one of the goals. The grass glowed in the afternoon sunshine, razor sharp criss-crosses where the grass was mowed in different directions. We watched officials check the goal line technology of the balls before retreating to the club lounge to watch TV and watch the fans make their way toward the stadium.

We returned for warmups, with Arsenal right below us and Man City in the distance. The practiced fans know when to show up, because half empty turned into nearly full during the last 10 minutes before kickoff.

Header past the goalkeeper

Although the Gunners fell behind a goal early, they clawed an equalizer as halftime neared, only to concede a second goal right before the interval. Fortunately, the home team scored the tying goal in the 53rd minute, a smart header by Mustafi that snuck past the outstretched hands of the goalkeeper. That moment, and the ensuing celebration, was Declan’s favorite part of the match, which ended in a 2-2 draw.

The entire match was intense, with the head official waving five yellow cards (and he could have waved more). In person, you can much better see the flow of the game as momentum shifts from one side to another. From our vantage point at one end, you could see plays develop much better than you can see on TV, the ball quickly moving from player to player.

Following the match, it was back to the club lounge to watch the crush of fans flow over the bridge back to the tube station and watch pundits discuss the match on TV. Although we waited 30 minutes after the match ended to start home, there remained a decent crowd at the tube station, but we were quickly on our way.

Our thanks again to Jan for the great tickets and to the stewards and club staff who made our visit so enjoyable. It was a perfect afternoon, indeed.

Conferences, Book Launches and Pilgrimages, Oh My

Marilynn left for the states this morning, Kansas City to be precise, for the American Conference for Irish Studies. Which leaves Declan and me on our own until Monday. Heh, heh, heh.

She is a plenary speaker for the conference, which is academic-speak for Really Big Deal. Business folks would be more familiar with the term keynote speaker, and the rest of us would have no clue.

Academic conferences are full of panel discussions and similar papers on a theme because institutions are more likely to reimburse a professor attending the conference if she is giving a paper. That means there are usually several tracks running at the same time, cutting the audience size for each panel. So a plenary is a single-track talk, with an undivided audience in attendance.

Despite being an excellent speaker, Marilynn was nervous about this, which underscores the Really Big Deal aspect. But I know she will knock it out of the park, like she always does.

Book launch events coming up

Marilynn edited an uncompleted but still powerful novel that her playwright Stewart Parker wrote about the amputation of his left leg when he was a 19-year-old student at Queen’s University Belfast. He sketched out the story a few years later, in a style reminiscent of James Joyce (but the readable James Joyce).

Stewart would pull out “Hopdance” during times of personal turmoil, tweaking the dialog, reordering scenes and writing new ones. He returned to it a final time in the months preceding his death from cancer in 1988 but never completed it. Marilynn took his original manuscript, much of it hand-written, typed it up and then went through it with a graduate assistant word-for-word at least twice, standardizing the spelling and punctuation while retaining Stewart’s writing quirks whenever possible.

It’s a labor of love and a great read. I’ve read it twice and look forward to hearing what the critics and the reading public think.

But it also means book launches in Belfast and Derry, either in late April or early May. Details aren’t final, but Marilynn, her agent and publisher hope to attract some high-powered help in launching the book in both cities. Fingers crossed that they succeed, but it’ll be a blast in any event.

Worshipping at the Emirates

So what will the boys be up to while Marilynn’s at her conference? By a happy coincidence, we’ll be in London this weekend, seeing our first competitive English Premier League match, our beloved Arsenal vs. Manchester City (boo hiss!).

Declan became an Arsenal fan in 2013 for reasons he still can’t articulate. But I got dragged into it, too, and became a fan of “real” football. This is one of the top matches of the year, and we were very lucky to score tickets from an Arsenal season ticket holder I met in the strangest of places.

But that’s a story for another day, which will be next week.

About the photo: We toured the “glorious” Emirates Stadium in 2014 while Marilynn was giving a talk in London. The certificates we received after the tour touted the stadium as “glorious,” and it stuck.

On Pride, Prejudice and Bathing

On our final full day in England, we centered our efforts on Bath. I’ll admit to knowing little about the city before our visit. I now know that Jane Austen lived there for several years and based two novels there. I also know that 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of her death (thanks Bath tourism website!). And I know her Wikipedia entry makes no mention of the only Jane Austen book I’ve read, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”


h is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, full of 18th century architecture. Knowing our time was limited, we went straight to the Roman Baths, which have a complex history over millenia. Use of the hot springs dates to the Celts, who dedicated a shrine to the goddess Sulis, but the Romans harnessed the waters during their 300-year reign in Britain. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the baths fell into disuse and were covered by debris and time—and forgotten.

Centuries later, baths again were constructed on the same site, including the King’s and Queen’s baths in use during the Middle Ages and the Georgian baths of Jane Austen’s time. Newer buildings were constructed over the Roman baths. But water’s got to go somewhere, and when people started getting water into their homes, the engineer sent to get to the bottom of it discovered the ancient baths.

The buildings have been stripped back to Roman times, but one can see the copper walls where the water level of the later baths were located. It’s neat to think about the centuries during which the Roman Baths were just waiting for rediscovery. And you get to taste the mineral water at the end. It’s warm and tastes, as Declan puts it, like you had a nosebleed you sniffed back in and then swallowed.

More sights to see

Following a guided tour of the baths and lunch, we spent the afternoon taking in the sights, including walking along the Pulteney Bridge, inspired by Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence we recently visited. Like its counterpart, the Pulteney Bridge is lined by shops on both sides, but with way fewer jewelers.

We walked uphill to get an overview of the city from just past No. 1 Royal Crescent, which the guidebook says is of Palladian architecture and is frequently used in film shoots. We also took a look at the Circus, a group of connected sweeping circular Georgian homes bisected only by three intersections. It’s said the inspiration was the Coliseum in Rome, just inside out.

Before leaving, we also took in Bath Cathedral, rightly known for its impressive stained glass windows. Declan was particularly taken by the ornate entry door. The cathedral is across a small courtyard from the Bath baths, so it’s a must-see.

Bath is a quaint town, brimming with interesting sights. But it’s another place you shouldn’t bring your car. There are free car parks on the edges of town, and super-cheap shuttles that take you right in. Just remember to find a free bathroom before leaving Bath to avoid a 20 pence charge at the car park lot. And if you do have to pay, why not block the door open for the next person? After all, you just dropped serious coin for a day out, and they expect you to pay to pee?

(Most) Henges, Great and Small

Stonehenge is known the world over for its mystery, for the (alleged) alignment of the stones to the summer and winter solstices and for the achievement of an ancient people. But did you know you can see it from the motorway that runs near the monument?

I’m not sure what I can say about such an iconic landmark that you don’t already know. But I can tell you that Newgrange in Ireland is older.

I had always wanted to see Stonehenge, but Marilynn convinced me it wasn’t worth the trouble since you couldn’t get up close to it. I had always imagined a chain-link fence or some such so you could only see it from a distance. But I was wrong. The viewing was close enough to glimpse the structure in all of its architectural glory.

On these trips, I give little input, besides driving the car when necessary. Because there is so much of the world I haven’t seen, I let Marilynn and Declan fuss over the details. On this trip, my only request was to hunt fossils in Lyme Regis. We had planned to visit some other Neolithic ruins, but I didn’t realize we’d pass right by Stonehenge until Marilynn said that morning, “So, do you want to stop by Stonehenge”? “Well, hell yes, I want to visit Stonehenge,” I replied. So we did.

But I was equally impressed with the other structures we saw after Stonehenge. The West Kennet Long Barrow was the burial place for nearly four dozen people from around 3,650 BC. The mound was filled in about 4,000 years ago. During its excavation, archaeologists disinterred the bodies and left the chambers as they would have been during the time. To access this site, you simply park in the layby, pop the cattle gate and walk right up. You can walk in, on and around the site. When we visited, we saw a couple walking down the embankment as we walked up.

Silbury Hill is across the road from the long barrow. It stands 131 feet tall, the largest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe, and was constructed around 2400 BC. Like many other ancient sites, no one knows what prompted early man to build what’s basically a big mound. It doesn’t contain buried treasure, as Victorian folks thought as they tunnelled into the mound without considering the consequences. The burrowing got so bad that the site had to be stabilized several years ago, and access was restricted, so no climbing up on Silbury Hill.

And the village of Avebury was built around its ancient mounds, including a roadway that cuts right through the heart of the huge monument, which is 460 yards across and not perfectly circular. The monument, constructed around 2,600 BC had a ditch running outside the main monument that was 69 feet wide and 36 feet deep. Within the larger circle were two smaller circles, with a stone pathway of 200 stones leading to the structure, what’s now called West Kennett Avenue.

Compared to the Avebury Stone Circles, other known sites are one-quarter the size, including its more famous cousin—Stonehenge.

No Escaping Pasties and Poldark in Cornwall

Pasties. Poldark. Paved road the width of goat trails. And, oddly, sea salt. That’s what the Cornwall area of England is known for, if the proliferation of pasty shops, Poldark-themed maps, damned tiny roads and sea salt displays in stores and restaurants are to be believed.

The equivalent in Atlanta would be … let me think a minute … pasties (oh wait, our strippers are totally nekkid), the Walking Dead, 16 lanes of asphalt and chicken and waffles?

Tiny roads, great views

Seriously, Cornwall is the quite beautiful southwest tip of England, known for its rugged beauty, coastlines, beaches, cliffs and a history rich in mining—and smuggling. We took a quick trip to the Lizard, the southernmost point of “mainland” England. It was that morning, when hedgerows allowed for only one car for the last couple of miles, that prompted the post on puckering.

At one point, when the road still allowed for two lanes, a pheasant ran out in front of the car. I moved over half a lane. The pheasant did, too. I moved over more, and so did the pheasant. Let’s just say the end wasn’t pleasant for the pheasant.

Declan asked me whether the pheasant was OK because he saw the bird flapping. I explained it wasn’t likely given the speed I was going, a point backed up by the driver behind us. When we all arrived at the car park for the Lizard, he asked about the pheasant. I said I hated that it happened. The man replied, “That’s OK, because I put him out of his misery.”

What’s in a name? Product placements

Writers and marketers apparently have appropriated the names of many Cornwall towns, including St. Ives (lotion), Penzance (pirates) and Land’s End (clothing). I have no idea whether the links between places and products is true, but it certainly is interesting.

St. Ives, despite its confusing, rage-inducing, tiny one-way streets, was worth a visit after a beer to calm one’s nerves. The town has a vibrant harbor that’s still in use by commercial fishermen. Seals also visit, judging by the signs in the harbor. Virginia Woolf spent her childhood summers in St. Ives, gazing across the water to the Godrevy lighthouse, which was said to inspire “To the Lighthouse.” The proprietor of the B&B in St. Ives showed Declan and Marilynn the lighthouse in the distance while I apparently was stuffing my face, because I missed that little detail.

We also spent a day in Falmouth, another seaside town, so Marilynn could give a talk. It’s a fine-looking town, but I’ll admit that at this point Declan and I had had our fill of seaside. Instead of taking a ferry trip (too late in the day) or visiting the maritime museum, we spent considerable time in Trago, a huge store that sells everything from guns and gnomes to toilets and teacups, and kayaks to kitchen cabinets. It spreads over what looks like at least three buildings and four stories at one point. The website claims it carries 180,000 items, which, if anything, is an understatement. It even has a cafe with impressive views of the harbor.

Everything Poldark

Now back to what Cornwall is known for. If you don’t know what a pasty is, neither did I before coming to England. Basically, it’s a meat pie that looks like a fried pie we Southerners would instantly recognize. I can’t eat them because they invariably contain onions (I’m allergic), but Declan is quite fond of them.

And if you didn’t catch the Poldark reference, then you’re not a fan of the Winston Graham books, the 1970s miniseries or the current BBC series that’s shown in America as part of “Masterpiece” on PBS. The scenery is another star on the show, often used as a stunning backdrop as some character or another walks, gallops or cavorts by the sea, the wind sweeping back hair and horse mane with equal ferocity.

The community certainly caught wind, and quickly, of the popularity of Poldark, evidenced Poldark (2)by Poldark tourism map where visitors can see various big houses used in either series, mines and scenic spots, including the secluded cove where a pivotal bathing scene takes place in Season 1. We attempted to glimpse one of the mines used in the series, but a succession of wrong turns left us running out of time to get to Falmouth. However, we did see signs for the township of Warleggan, also the last name of Poldark’s nemesis.

As for the sea salt? I have no idea why it would be popular, but apparently tourists will buy anything during a vacation. Pillow with Poldark’s very large face on it, anyone?

Rain Can’t Dampen Spirits at Football Match

You know you’re finally acclimated to the UK when you:

  1. Actually crave British food
  2. Drink British beer
  3. Attend a football match in crappy weather
  4. All of the above

The answer is C. Attend a football match in crappy weather, as evidenced by our attendance at Friday night’s Bristol City vs. Huddersfield Town match at Ashton Gate in Bristol. The other two are unfathomable (see why at bottom).

This was a pivotal match in the Championship, the league right under the English Premier League. What I especially like about football is that it’s a game of comers and goers. Have a great season, and your team gets promoted to the next higher league. Fall apart, and you get relegated to the next league down.

Promotions and demotions

If American baseball were organized in the same way, it would be like the three or four worst major league teams getting sent to AAA, while the best AAA teams got promoted to the big leagues, just like players do. Nothing like the threat of being relegated to get complacent owners to invest in their teams!

Declan would watch football seven days a week if he could, so we purchased our tickets well in advance of the match. Huddersfield Town is near the top of the Championship, where the top two teams advance automatically to the Premier League and the next four have a playoff for the third transfer spot. The home team, by contrast, sits near the relegation zone to the next lower league.

Our tickets were in the second row, near the American football equivalent of the 40-yard line. That’s the good news. The bad news is that our seats were not covered and it was misting cold rain the entire time. I guess we could have moved up (good but not great crowd), but Declan liked our primo seats, so we endured as best we could. The rain swirled around the stadium the entire match.

A neck injury to a Huddersfield player resulted in a lengthy, but necessary, halt in play early in the match and an unheard-of 14 minutes of stoppage time at the end of the first period. But after that false start, the match picked up speed, with Bristol City winning 4-0 to help them stay out of the relegation zone. A friend who is a lifelong Leeds United fan was virtually shouting encouragement during the match because his team is fighting Huddersfield for the final transfer spot.

Unfortunately, I missed the third goal while in the bathroom, but it was apparent what had happened from the roar of the crowd.

A little help from our friends

We have to thank several people who helped us get to the right bus stop, get off the bus at the right place, find our seats and reverse the process to get back to our hotel. These include the clerk in the hotel who looked up the bus schedule and gave directions to the bus stop; the nice woman at the bus stop who confirmed we were in the right place; the bus driver who promised to announce the stop; Bristol City supporters who pointed out the bus stop for the return and walked with us to the right entry gate to the stadium; and the bus driver on the return trip who dropped us off at the right place.

It was a 45-minute bus ride in each direction, and the wait for the return bus was in excess of 30 minutes. My feet didn’t unfreeze until a cup of tea back at the hotel, and I shudder thinking about the cold two days later.

But, for Declan, it was a highlight of the trip, right up there with fossil hunting in Lyme Regis and above visiting Stonehenge. We were all tired the next day flying home, but staying home because it was raining was never an option.

Why the other answers were incorrect: A. No one craves British food beyond fish and chips (or curry and chips). In truth, the food is getting much better and more varied than on early visits. But, as a cuisine, I’ll take just about anything else.

B. The same goes for British beer. On a UK trip with Marilynn more than a decade ago, I tried every British beer I came across—and was left disappointed and thirsty. Lest you think I’m equating Guinness and my beloved Smithwick’s to this bunch, both are Irish beers brewed in Dublin.

Exeter Cathedral: Looking Good for a 900-Year-Old

For all of its grandeur, Exeter Cathedral tries hard to remember its central mission as a community of God. And, for the most part, it succeeds. We were fortunate to walk in on a recent afternoon just as the hourly tour was starting. The docent was in great spirits and obviously was enthused about sharing this great Gothic cathedral with others.

I’ve been to many of the great (and likely not-so-great) cathedrals in the US and several countries of Western Europe, and Exeter Cathedral holds its own in terms of prominence, beauty and history.

Linebackers (not) Wanted

Started on the foundation of an earlier Norman church, two towers and about 10 feet of the nave walls remain from the earliest building. But atop those humble walls sits the longest continuous medieval stone vault in the world, about the size of an American football field.

Despite its age (started in 1114, with a rebuild in Decorated Gothic style in the 13th and 14th centuries), the cathedral seems much more open and airy than many other cathedrals I’ve visited. Part of the reason may be the bomb that hit the back of the church during World War II, which blew out most of the stained glass windows. Fortunately, the Great East Window was removed and stored in Cornwall during the war, so the 14th century glass remains. You can still see gouges in the columns that resulted from flying debris from the bomb blasts. One of the new windows depicts the bombing and its aftermath.

Parts of the cathedral also retain their original paint. Stone certainly is beautiful in its own right, but paint brings out a warmth that stone can’t match. The stone figures outside the cathedral were once brightly painted, but the docent said there are no plans to recreate those colors in the cathedral.

Whip it Good

We particularly enjoyed the astronomical clock that dates from 1484, when the earth was thought to be the center of the universe. The minute hand was added at the relatively late date of 1760.

Other relevant features of Exeter Cathedral include:

  • A 4,000 pipe organ that was recently refurbished. According to a history of the cathedral, the longest pipe is 36 feet tall.
  • The elephant misericord, one of 50 tie-up seats that ran along the walls of the cathedral so clergy could sit while appearing to remain standing. Seats are a relatively “modern” convenience. These misericords were carved in the 13th century.
  • Proof that idiots exist in every age can be seen in the extensive graffiti on the alabaster effigy of Bishop Edmund stafford, who died in 1419.
  • The 14th century Minstrels’ Gallery features 14 carved angels playing a dozen medieval instruments, including the bagpipes.
  • The windows above the Minstrels’ Gallery were for the dog whipper, who kept order in the nave, which was the social center for the town for centuries. In the illustration the docent showed, the dog whipper was going after a canine who had just peed on one of the columns.

Our nearly hour-long tour flew by, and we were left with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Exeter Cathedral’s place in history and in the life of the Anglican church. During our visit, activity ceased within the cathedral as the duty chaplain called for silence and offered a prayer for those within the cathedral and for the larger world.

That simple act reminded everyone that while parts of the cathedral are more than 900 years old, the church remains vibrant today.

New Sign Needed for Narrow UK Roads

After three days in Cornwall, I’ve come to realize that UK road signs don’t address the sphincter-tightening condition of many roads in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of small towns that have been around since the Normans.

If you think roads around my Tennessee hometown of Fayetteville were twisty and narrow, you need to think again. They are interstate roads compared to what we’ve been driving on.

One-lane road with tall hedgerows on either side. Single-lane road that twists around a 16th century building that some guy is painting, leaning out into the already restricted road. “Larger” two-lane roads where you inevitably meet a 16-wheeled lorry going around a corner. One-way street through the center of town, with dogs and tourists and women with strollers walking in the street, oblivious to the danger. And this in a rental car with a 1,000 pound deductible.

These roads have been here forever and aren’t going to change. I guess it’s one reason most cars in the UK are so tiny.

But I do have one small suggestion: a new sign that warns of what’s to come. Get the lube ready, because the road (and your sphincter) are about to get tight.

About the sign: First you do a Google search for “animated buttholes.” Then you try to figure out how to merge an image with a shape with words. And once you actually manage to put them together, you can’t figure out how to group the damned things, so you take a photo and go from there.