From Rudyard Kipling’s Club to Westminster Abbey for Animals



Our outing last Saturday did suggest that we owe a debt to “The Georgians,” subject of a special exhibit at the British Library. They invented the Middle Class.  It was the prosperous 25 percent of the population in London that gave birth to cultural events as well as to the taste for beautiful architecture and furnishings.  It is through that lens that I experienced the privileges below.


We had a superb meal with Professor Stanley at his “gentlemen’s club” on the Mall, whose members included Rudyard Kipling and T.S. Eliott. It now has lady members, too; in fact ladies have saved the day by an infusion of much-needed pounds. The rooms have been refurbished to match the original style, carpeting and all. The dining room is especially pretty with the moldings and ceiling painted white, standing out from warm but dignified latte walls. This room has the longest pendant chandeliers I have ever seen, providing intimacy in spite of the raucous noise of a college dinner hall coming from the long table at the front where members without guests can dine at a cost-conscious prix fixe. We three had no-doubt-dear pheasant on our plates for the mains, and our dear old friend (now 90) ordered a wonderfully spicy French wine.
Getting there was not easy. First of all, I caused a huge argument in the morning, set off by my frugal husband’s resistance to a taxi. We had taken taxis on previous dates at the Atheneum, and almost a decade later I have a deteriorating spine and a numb right foot, so it made me feel less appreciated than I would have liked. He claims that taxis take too long (they can, but not always). He says the same of buses. I suggested we walk to the South Kensington tube station and then take a taxi, and he agreed, sulkily, but by four o’clock I was relenting. It seemed too cold to walk that far. Therefore we went to Earl’s Court station. Then, ha! The first train to arrive dispatched all its passengers and told them to wait for the train behind them.  It was such a huge crowd at the rush hour that we waited for the third train. It, too, paused longer than usual, waiting for the tunnel to clear, and then we advanced to Piccadilly Circus slowly, but without problems – except that at the destination there were two sets of escalators, and I was afraid to lose the shoe I couldn’t feel. My husband actually began to behave in a more gentlemanly fashion and took my arm.
The walk down Lower Regent Street was exhilarating with the statelier buildings brilliantly lit to show off the cornices and parapets. The club was not far, and our host was waiting in the bar with comfy leather chairs where (he claims) he sometimes falls asleep after meals. After all my worries about what to wear (there being no doubt I had to have the heavier, less elegant coat), I did fit in nicely wearing a modestly checked ensemble. Some of the women wore pantsuits – I gathered they were new members. Younger ones, obviously guests, wore  flouncy dresses and clung to their young men, perhaps also new members.

I couldn’t keep my eyes from wandering to the oldest woman in the room. She walked briskly but hunched over a bit, with white hair tucked up in several clasps, and wearing a neat black skirt and jacket with white blouse and pearls, and  pumps. She had really good legs. She walked much more energetically than her husband, also white-haired, and in black tie. I don’t know if she was one of the new female members, perhaps a distinguished barrister, or the wife of what looked like a Very Dull Important Person. She probably gardens (the bent back) but takes long walks on weekends (her calves).

We left at 10:30 after three good-byes. Eric had worked out by consulting maps and timetables that we could catch the Route 14 bus on Piccadilly and ride all the way down the Fulham Rd. to a block short of Redcliffe Gardens. Ha, again! It took no time at all, and we enjoyed the slight rain at either end.




Walking to the Natural History Museum wasn’t so bad, but once I got inside I felt engulfed in dark, and there wasn’t a seat to be had. People were standing all around the model of the Diplodocus in the huge center hall, snapping photos, pointing out the hard-to-see giant fake dinosaur skeleton to children, even babies. The Diplodocus was a gift of Andrew Carnegie in 1905; the original is in the Carnegie Museum (Pittsburgh), United States. King Edward VII, who requested it, had seen a picture of it in a museum in Edinburgh. It wasn’t until 1993 that curators knew the tail would have been held high to balance the neck, and the position was changed.

026“Dippy” consists of 292 “bones” stretched out almost like a snake, the tiny head facing the entrance and a tail curled away from the hall’s end wall. I was not impressed. I thought maybe the rest of the dinos would be more accessible and photogenic, but they, too, were cloaked in darkness, apparently to conserve them.  There are some newer ones on exhibit and they are electronic. Oh, well….
There’s nothing like the first time. In 1975 I took my younger son, then 10, to the Field Museum in Chicago. I had not been there before, but growing up in the Midwest, I had heard about the dinosaurs.  They were in a light, airy room, and although by today’s standards the displays were fairly colorless, the skeletons were huge enough and rare enough to seem like a Wonder of the World. Today at the Field Museum you can explore the Jurassic age in 3D cinema. Oh, well…
IMG_3471 I did enjoy my tart and elderflower tea while sitting at a corner table with a book about the female brain. My goal, after all, was simply to get postcards, and I did find two I thought worthy of Maya. I also purchased a slim book, FOLLOWING IN DARWIN’S STEPS, with dense enough text and yet with clever illustrations. At 4:30 I left for the flat via the route where I could stop at a small grocery – we are nearly out of everything – and where I could catch a bus. I will return with my husband. I would like to go through the giant cocoon and hear more about David Attenborough.

 033THURSDAY, JANUARY 23, 2014

My husband pointed out that the Natural History Museum was dim yesterday because it depends on skylights, and there was no sun. Of course, and there rarely is. On reflection, I am sure that part of my intolerance was caused by the noise.

The famous Victorian symmetrical structure that fills a long block along Cromwell Road is cast iron, wrought iron, stained glass, and terracotta, with brick, granite, and Portland stone. The footsteps and voices bounce off floors and walls in the huge halls, and even whispers seem to roar around small galleries. The café is like a train station.

If you look at the museum’s website you can find out why this is so and why it will ever be thus. The building, opened in 1881, was not only an aesthetic triumph, but a scientific one. First, comfort was built in to attract the public. The heating system, pioneering for its time, today is being copied. Instead of radiators, three coal-fueled boilers and fans send heated air through the building and eventually out through its iconic towers, while fresh air is sucked into the building through vents in the floor. A microscopic example of the architect’s blending of technology and art can be appreciated in the vent covers, decorated with bumblebees or blossoms.
Alfred Waterhouse was inspired by German Romanesque church design for this building. His temple to Nature (aka “Westminster for animals”) seduces arriving visitors with successive round arches and columns simulating the basalt pillars in the Fingals Cave in Scotland. Inside the center hall there are two, massive, curving staircases that ascend to a mezzanine that wraps around the huge space, affording a wide view of the giant Diplodocus. The entire structure is treated as a canvas for biodiversity. Prof. Richard Owen, the superintendent of collections, was as interested in extinct species as living ones, and although he was not in agreement with Darwin, who thought they were linked. Owen was determined not to forget all that had been lost.

It would take hours to “collect” pictures of all the terra cotta critters here.  In addition to the sculptures of animals, many surfaces are encrusted with bas relief of plants. Why terra cotta? Taking a cue from the Italian Renaissance, Waterhouse knew garden clay was fairly impervious to acid smog. His encyclopedic accomplishment was intended to stand the ravages of time.

On another visit, perhaps on a brighter day, a patient person might walk around looking at the ceiling paintings of plants. There are 162 in the main hall. North Hall, housing statues of Darwin and his defender, Thomas Hendry Huxley (The Great Debate), is overarched with 18 panels depicting important herbs, 14 of which are poisonous. The online text reminds us that people were fascinated with the subject of poisonings in those early days of pharmaceutical trial and error.  There were so many fearful mysteries then, and we did not expect to live to see them vanquished. Sixty years later German bombs destroyed a part of the roof over the laboratories, but did not touch the collections.
The museum’s Darwin Center, designed by a Dane named C.F. Møller, and finished in 2009, is another story. It is mostly clear glass, and a marvel of pathways through, around, and across educational vistas. The website provides glimpses of how far we have come in our understanding of Nature and how far we are willing to go.

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