Oh, No! Consciousness! The price of sleeping poorly in a cold, cold room. The electrical failure appears to be both ongoing and include everything that’s not an overhead lightbulb – heating, fridge, electric teapot. I guess I have to ask for help. Meekly, resentfully, I pull on yesterday’s travel garb and present my dilemma to the desk clerk at the hotel next door where we picked up our keys. He encourages me to locate the fuse box or circuit breaker. “It’s up there somewhere on the left,” says our clerk, airily flapping his hand. With baleful tone, I promise to return should my attempt at problem-solving prove unsuccessful.
Without much trouble, the circuit-breaker is found and tripped. The fridge turns over, beeping and flashing, cryogenic cyborg that it is. Electronics can now be charged, ensuring that we will not get lost, GPS-wise. I brew a French-press pot of coffee. I love stimulants. The croissants we bought at Maison Bertaux are colossal. Stupendous, even. The girls appear at the appointed time – 9am. Breakfast is merry; sleep be damned. Semi-ambivalently, we marshal our energy and wander off to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square.
The riches there very nearly overwhelm this guy. Being Europe, there’s a surfeit of transcendent work by artists not much represented in the US, like Raphael. The first marvel is the Wilton Diptych, a late-medieval painting from the 1400s representing Richard the Second kneeling before Mary and Baby Jesus and their backup singers, the Blue Disgruntled Angels. Other unforgettable paintings: The Arnolfini Portraitby Jan van Eyck that depicts a tender, somber couple standing in a bedroom. It has been long-suggested that the woman is pregnant, but she may just be holding the bulk of her voluminous green skirt in front of her. Her husband, it has been noted, bears an unfortunate resemblance to Vlad von Putin. Diego Velazquez’s The Rokeby Venus is a gorgeous 17thCentury nude. Her back is to the viewer as she gazes into a mirror that in turn shows her face to the onlooker. Her hips are keenly observed. Very sexy for being complicated and very old. The focal point down a long series of rooms is George Stubbs’, Whistlejacket, a magnificent, life-size portrait of a rearing, thoroughbred stallion painted on a neutral background. A mesmerizing Turner called Rain, Steam, and Speedis wild, all brush strokes and atmosphere. According to the card, a ‘hare’ is theoretically visible not getting run over by a locomotive.*
There’s much more to puzzle at, for example, what we’ve come to call, ‘The Pickle Painting’. In art history it’s known as The Annunciation with Saint Emidius by Carlo Crivelli. However, the large pickle in the foreground adds an element of What-The-Fuck to what was merely a hideous painting of the Virgin Mary being zapped by a golden laser beam while a saint with a Lego metropolis in his lap looked on. Adding confusion to the hogwash symbolism, a pale apple appears next to the giant pickle. Oh, and let us not forget The Dream of Saint Josephpainted by a French dude depicting Joseph’s swoon upon realizing that he’s been cuckolded by God.
We lunch in the Gallery’s lovely cafeteria, then trundle gamely off. Behind the National Gallery lies the National Portrait Gallery, a long, illustrated meander through British history, from kings and queens to celebs known and unknown.
Broad Court naptime. At four o’clock the mission is to search the neighborhood for less enormous croissants. Fabrique in Covent Garden yields cinnamon buns AND cardamom buns. Hey! Now let’s find Foyle’s; it’s the London bookstore of record. Alice leads the way: she’s the epic reader of the family. We separate, but soon we regroup, book-in-hand or, in Ali’s case, pile-in-arms. I buy a way-posthumous authorized biography of the current Queen’s grandmum, Queen Mary, who was evidently a piece of fucking work. Blurbs call it ‘hilarious’. On our amble through Covent Garden and Soho, we had passed a restaurant near the Donmar Warehouse called Flesh and Buns. Inexorably, we are drawn back. A most excellent Asian fusion meal, though the buns, as always, are odd. Window shopping, then home. An early night.
*Among the 18thcentury paintings housed in The National Gallery is one that really resonates for Joss and me, a large, scientific tableau called, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright. In 1999, the two of us saw a most excellent play, a mystery about medical ethics, based on it.