Friday, September 22, 2017
We were delighted to be in London for the 25th annual Open House London weekend. On September 16 and 17, 2017, many buildings, usually inaccessible, are open to the public – offices, libraries, government centers – with behind-the-scene tours. Checking the extensive list of options, we were intrigued by Burlington House in Piccadilly where five scientific societies -- the Royal Society of Chemistry, Royal Astronomical Society, Geological Society, Linnean Society of London and the Royal Academy of Arts – are housed independently with separate entrances in an 18th century building with a large shared rectangular courtyard.
Each society houses an extensive collection of historic and scientific books relating to its own area of study. These volumes are shelved floor to ceiling and accessed by a tall wooden library ladder.
Highlights of this amazing day included:
The Royal Astronomical Society – whose purpose is to advance and record our understanding of the Earth, solar system, galaxies, and the nature of the universe.
Here we saw original sketches by **Copernicus whose model put the sun rather than the earth at the center of the universe ** Galileo who has been called the founder of scientific method.
Linnean Society of London - the world’s oldest active biological society. Founded in 1788 and named for the Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the building includes a climate-controlled vault for Linneaus’ collection of plants, fish, insects, etc. which still form the key for identifying plants and animals worldwide.
Before 1700 the world’s fauna and flora had been understood on the basis of subjective, word of mouth reports, which amazingly permitted the inclusion of a bestiary of mythical animals, such as griffins and dragons. Right out of Harry Potter.
Linneaus lived in the age of exploration, when new plants and animal species were being brought to Europe with each voyage to the New World, Africa or the South Seas. He rejected hearsay as adequate and believed only in evidence he actually saw and could analyze directly. His classification system would be based on scientific observation. And thus Linneaus set up the basis for modern taxonomy – comparing like with like and establishing categories in the plant and animal kingdoms. Genus-species-order- etc. We remembered how President Thomas Jefferson charged Lewis and Clark, as they explored the Louisiana Territory, to bring back samples of new flora and fauna to be identified and classified. This too was part of the Linnean revolution.
Royal Society of Chemistry
Displayed here is Robert Boyle’s seminal volume, The Sceptical Chymist, 1680. Here Boyle challenged the accepted beliefs of his day which dated back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle who had asserted that everything in the world was made from four elements – air, fire, water and earth. With Boyle’s revolutionary thought, modern chemical analysis was born.
The Geological Society
And then there was the great hoax. On one wall of a conference room was a painting of Englishmen discussing the purported discovery of “fossil” evidence for a new prehistoric man, who had been unearthed in Sussex, quite close to London. Discovering Piltdown Man was used to prove that Britain was truly important in the early evolution of man and, in fact, early man appeared first in Great Britain, not necessarily Africa. As you may (or may not) recall, later study of these finds in the 1950’s showed the bones to be a conglomerate of touched-up animal and human remains and that Piltdown Man was a massive scientific hoax. The painting is here in a prominent place to remind us of the dangers of letting wish overcome the facts.
OpenHouseLondon enabled us to visit these royal societies and to honor great thinkers of the past and to see their seminal intellectual works. Right here in Burlington House, we saw the roots of the treasured western tradition of reason, scientific analysis and objective inquiry, all honored and pursued until this very day.
Sunday, September 17, 2017
CHURCHILL’S WAR ROOMS
|Churchill's secret phone room|
|Portrait of the Prime Minister|
|Central military command: mapping and planning room|
Anticipating the conflict, military planners in 1938 developed the idea of protected war rooms for the Prime Minister and military leaders responsible for guiding the nation and its war efforts. These leaders also felt that they had to remain in London to help maintain the morale of the general population. Hence, the origin of the underground cabinet war rooms, windowless, often quite airless, where Prime Minister Churchill and his senior military staff lived and did much of their strategic war planning. In 1940, during the Nazi Blitz bombing campaign, a massive layer of reinforced concrete up to five feet thick increased protection and enabled the cabinet war rooms to expand.
This warren of protected spaces included a cabinet room, several map rooms with banks of old style single line telephones, dormitories for staff, small narrow private bedrooms with desks for senior military officers, a kitchen, a mess hall, a square room with switchboard operators and another square room for up to nine young women typists responsible for the preparation of communiqués and top secret documents –everything needed to live, meet, and plan was underground. These indeed were very close quarters; the typists’ room was probably sufficient for four women but held nine desks with clanging typewriters. With everyone committed to the war effort, the existence of this underground command center remained a complete secret throughout the war and was opened to the public only in the 1980’s as part of the Imperial War Museum. In 2002 it expanded to include a museum dedicated to Winston Churchill’s life with special focus on WWII.
Accompanied by his chief of staff, General Ismay, and smoking his ever-present Cuban cigar and drinking his favored Red Label Scotch, Churchill spent many of his waking and sleeping hours in these war rooms. A small closet of a room, disguised as his personal loo, just off his narrow bedchamber housed the direct phone line between Churchill and Roosevelt. A code-scrambling encryption system was installed in the basement of Selfridge’s department store that was connected to a similar terminal in the Pentagon, enabling Churchill to speak securely with President Roosevelt.
And throughout it all, Churchill reflected:
I felt as if I were walking with destiny
and that all my past life
had been but a preparation
for this hour and for this trial.
I was sure I should not fail.
Below are several images of London.....
But I would be remiss if I did not mention the September 15, 2017 rush hour terror blast on the Underground at Parsons Green in which 22 persons were injured, some burned seriously. This jihadist attack involved an improvised explosive device in the form of a “bucket bomb” with nails and a timer. Fortunately the bomb failed to detonate properly to do its fullest damage. Isis claimed responsibility for the attack.
Quite immediately, the prime minister raised the terrorist threat to its highest level, Critical. The government is now deploying soldiers and additional armed (many heavily armed) police on to London’s streets. Street cameras are evident throughout London monitoring everyone’s activity. As of this moment, and as reported in the press, an 18-year old Syrian refugee has been arrested. And a second suspect was taken into custody on the day we arrived home.
Our American-owned hotel, feeling itself vulnerable, began screening and searching persons entering the lobby. In addition, it closed off its circular driveway.
|British Museum - Parthenon Frieze|
|Rush hour at Cafe Nero|
|News kiosk near Parliament|
|Selfridge's Department Store|
|View from the Tate Modern|
Friday, September 15, 2017
Over 2,000 years ago, these hot springs were a sacred spot to the goddess Soulis. Early Britons frequented the springs as a favored place for hunting since animals gathered around the warm springs throughout the year. As these pagans became more sophisticated, they focused on the springs as a sacred place where, in the midst of the rising steam, they communicated with their gods. They built an elaborate temple with carved stonework, calling it Aquae Soulis (Romanized name).
When the Romans invaded and settled Britain, they brought their own gods along with their language and customs. Also marveling at the hot springs, they placed Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and warfare in residence at this favored spot and worshipped her during their occupation of Britain. Building on its pagan roots, the names merged and the goddess of the hot springs at Bath became known as Soulis Minerva.
The Romans built an extensive two level structure with pillars and carvings surrounding the hot springs – the great, east and west baths. Much of its original structure remains and archeological excavations in the recent past have revealed even more architectural detail about the baths and their use.
|Remains of Roman temple|
|Aquae Soulis in Roman times|
|2,000 year old scholar with scroll|
|Gold mask of Minerva|
STONEHENGE: A MARVEL AND A MYSTERY
One drives through the Plains of Salisbury with its rolling British countryside – sheep grazing on a grassy knoll on one side and cows lumbering in the distance on the other. It is a pastoral unassuming scene. And then one arrives at a site that is awesome in its size, conception and mystery. It dates from 4500 years ago when man transitioned from hunter/gatherers to farmers. It is called Stonehenge.
Stonehenge reflects that a commonly shared GOAL, unknown to us, drove early English nomadic tribes to design and build this colossal construction. One stands there and understands that man cooperated on a massive scale and over a very long time to achieve this goal. For example, it is estimated that it took 200 men 90 days to move a single stone to the site from where it was likely quarried. Some stones even came from as far away as Wales by a combination of water and land transport. Their most important mechanical device probably came from cutting down and using large trees to help roll each estimated 30 ton stone up and down the adjacent rolling hills until it reached Stonehenge. Stone tools were used to chip and shape the stone before it was raised on end. Holes were dug in the earth to sink the base and help tip each stone to an upright position. Other areas have been uncovered that also have vertical stone monuments. But only at Stonehenge are horizontal lintels placed across these vertical pillars.
How did Stonehenge get its name? Stone is pretty obvious – referring to the massive stones brought together at the site.
Henge -- referring to circles of earth artificially built up on a grand scale to reshape the natural contours of the earth. These artificial mounds circle the stones in the center. Some are burial mounds filled with ash from cremation; others are conical knolls whose purposes can only be guessed at.
Archaeologists agree on one primary purpose of Stonehenge. It serves as a clock aligned with the movements of the sun to predict and then mark the summer and winter solstices.
|Neolithic peoples carved with stone tools|
|Raised earth rings circle Stonehenge|
|Rolling countryside (missed the cows and sheep)|
|Vertical pillars with horizontal lintel placed across the top|
One leaves Stonehenge awed by early man’s intelligence, his early capacity for social organization and his astronomical understanding. This Neolithic man created a monumental goal and implemented it over the centuries using creative thought, human strength and determination.
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
HUGHENDEN MANOR: BENJAMIN DISRAELI’S COUNTRY ESTATE
The country home of Benjamin Disraeli tops a hill in the town of High Wycombe about ½ hour by train from London’s Marylebone Station. Disraeli served as British Prime Minister several times during the 19th century. Dizzy purchased the home in 1848 and lived there until his death in 1881. A guide from the National Trust took us through the manor house while recounting many anecdotes about Disraeli and especially his pithy comments and acid wit. Of the thousands of books he inherited from his father Isaac D’Israeli he only retained non-fiction. If he wanted to read fiction, he said he would write it himself which he did.
“Should the Mr. Gladstone (his rival in the Liberal Party) fall into the Thames, it would be a tragedy. Should anyone jump in the river to save him, it would be a catastrophe.” “William Gladstone has not a single redeeming defect.” Clearly, the two men were bitter political rivals!
“Nurture your minds with great thoughts. To believe in the heroic makes heroes.” Or…”Grief is the agony of an instant; the indulgence of grief, the blunder of a lifetime.”
Disraeli was Prime Minister at a time of the fullest expansion of the British Empire. A great achievement for a boy born Jewish whose father brought him to conversion when he was only 12. Taking advantage of his new religious identity, he entered politics and rose to be Queen Victoria’s first minister.
Hughenden Manor also served a critical, secret purpose during WWII when the British realized that they needed a center to analyze photographs and produce more accurate maps of Germany for Bomber Command. Its WWII code name was Hillside and just became revealed in 2004, after the expiration date of the Secret Act. The manor was a mere 10 miles from the Royal Air Force (RAF) headquarters and was situated in a hilly part of England where it would be hard for the Germans to attack . The Spitfires and later, the Mosquitoes, flew over German targets armed only with high speed, high-resolution cameras to photograph these enemy sites. Upon return to England, they landed at bases near Hughenden, transferred their film to motorcycle couriers who then drove them for processing at this secret location. Specially trained photo analysts would examine the film (sometime with 3-D) and begin a map-making process. Finished maps with only the needed details for the flight navigators would be taken aloft for the bombing runs. The British dropped bombs by night; the Americans by day. The landmarks on those special composite photographs were critical to each successful Allied raid.
So many of the British manor houses were occupied by military personnel that no one in town thought anything unusual or special was going on --- just another group of soldiers doing their job in SECRET AND SILENCE.
As we walked the footpath through fields and stiles en route back to the High Wycombe train station, we passed the town museum where an English Civil War reenactment group was conducting a demonstration. The English Civil War preceded our own Civil War by about 220 years. With drummers drumming and 20 foot pikes, these Royalist soldiers marched across the field to fight for King Charles and his divine right to rule. The local children loved the action and the pageantry as did we.
|Disraeli's Study and Library|
|Hughenden Manor House. Disraeli remodeled to give it a neo-Gothic exterior.|
|Map work room in the Ice House|
|Exiting a stile on the public path crossing the manor lands.|
|Training for a historic battle with kid-length pikes.|