An American Game—Part I

On a pleasant late Sunday morning, our last full day in Cambridge, Dennis Ryan and I took a taxi to the famous Orchard Tea Room in Grantchester, just a couple of miles from Sidney Sussex College, our home away from home. The Orchard is more than a room, it is an apple orchard as well. Tables and chairs are scattered under the apple trees where, since 1897, Cambridge students, faculty, townspeople, and tourists have taken morning coffee, lunches, and afternoon high teas.

The Orchard grew in popularity when the poet Rupert Brooke, then a popular graduate student of King’s College, took up lodging in the Orchard House in 1909. Brooke attracted a great following at the Orchard, among them John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Bertrand Russell, and Ludwig Wittgenstein—the so-called Grantchester Group, or the neo-pagans as Woolf called them. A poet of the First World War who never saw action, Brooke is famous mainly for one poem, The Soldier.  You are probably familiar with its opening lines: If I should die, think only this of me / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England. The foreign field in which Brooke is buried is an olive grove on the island of Skyros in the Aegean. Brooke died, not of battle wounds, but of a mosquito bite and an ensuing blood infection. He was not yet 28.   Brooke’s presence, and the presence of the other neo-pagans, is memorialized by a simple display board in the orchard that was just a few feet from where Dennis and I sat.

Orchard Tea Room orchard

We offered to allow management to take our pictures and add them to the board, but we were rebuffed. Undaunted, we finished our lunch and strolled down a short and gnarly path to a rusted gate that opened onto a large, green meadow where the Grantchester Cricket Club was assembling for a friendly afternoon cricket match with Liddgate-Ousden.

The featured image above is the Meadow. We chatted with a few of the players who were standing around and they graciously invited us to sit with them on the sideline as the match was about to commence. Dennis and I sat for a time and watched the match unfold, aided in our understanding by the commentary of Johnny Anderson, about whom you will hear more in a subsequent post I am tentatively calling A Connecticut Yankee In King Johnny’s Court. That will be the third of a three-part post on cricket. This is the first. The second post is tentatively titled It’s Sorta Like 43-Man Squamish.

Cricket is, I suppose, the quintessential British sport. Wherever the British Empire reigned, cricket reigned too. Its origins are lost in the misty veils of history, but when the tower of St Bene’t Church (you’ll recall that we strolled by the church in an earlier post) was being built, about 1020 AD, a form of cricket was already being played in England.

Cricket is a truly international sport played by millions of people in 92 countries.  But not, seemingly, in the United States. And that is ironic because cricket was once the national game of this country. “The Hell, you say!” Yes, I do say. I do not lie to you, Gentle Reader. Cricket was one of the first outdoor sports to be played in America. An 1844 cricket match between sides (cricket “teams” are called sides) from the United States and Canada was the first international sporting event in the modern world, predating the revival of the Olympic Games by more than 50 years.

In 1751, the New York Gazette and the Weekly Post Boy reported on a match between a London “eleven” ( as sides are often called, there being 11 men on a cricket side) and one from New York City. This may be the  first public report of a cricket match in North America.  Both sides were probably from New York.

An article in the  Smithsonian Magazine in 2006 noted that the rules of cricket in North America were formalized in 1754 when Benjamin Franklin brought back from England a copy of the 1744 Laws, cricket’s official rule book. By the way, Dennis and I were admonished by one of the cricketers on the Meadow at Grantchester, “Rules are for Monopoly; cricket has laws.” One further reads in The Smithsonian  that “there is anecdotal evidence that George Washington’s troops played what they called “wickets” at Valley Forge in the summer of 1778. After the Revolution, a 1786 advertisement for cricket equipment appeared in the New York Independent Journal, and newspaper reports of that time frequently mention “young gentlemen” and “men of fashion” taking up the sport. Indeed, the game came up in the debate over what to call the new nation’s head of state: John Adams noted disapprovingly—and futilely—that “there are presidents of fire companies and cricket clubs.””

Abe Lincoln reportedly turned up somewhere to watch Chicago play Milwaukee in a cricket match in 1849. By then, an estimated 10,000 Americans were playing the game, and many more were watching.

The website of the United States of America Cricket Association, headquartered at Miami Beach, says that there are 1,000 clubs with more than 600 playing fields, and more that 24,000 active players of cricket in this country.  I suppose they should know and why would they lie? So, say what you will about cricket, but do not call it un-American.

But, let’s face it, most Americans dismiss cricket as an elitist game played by girlie-men who  dress in traditional whites and break for tea. And it’s slow. A match can take days to play. As slow as a baseball game might seem to some, cricket unfolds with glacier-like slowness. The longest recorded cricket match (a “Test” match—you’ll learn about that in Part II of this three part blog on cricket) was between South Africa and England played in Durban in 1939. The match lasted nine days (about eight hours each day with tea breaks of course), and ended in a draw when the British side had to board a boat back to England. International Test matches last five days. The friendly match on the Grantchester Meadow was going to be played in an agreed-upon two hours. Johnny’s wife was bringing sandwiches to the Meadow at 4 o’clock.

Cricketers are quick to argue that the game is far more dynamic, and more dangerous, than baseball. Johnny, our guide to the arcania of cricket, showed us a cricket ball: it is heavier—by half an ounce—than an American baseball. A cricket ball has a core of cork, is sheathed in layers of twine and cork shavings, and then wrapped in a bright red leather casing.

cricketball

Johnny said that a cricket ball launched at a batsman by a skilled bowler (that’s like a pitcher in baseball) can be a dangerous projectile. The bowler, unlike a pitcher in baseball,  is in a full run after sprinting for up to 30 paces before hurling the ball. and unlike a baseball pitch, which is not intended to be bounced off the ground, a cricket ball, more often than not, is bounced off the ground of the cricket “pitch”whose grass has usually been trimmed and rolled to a concrete-like hardness. Johnny says that he has been hit in the chest by a “bouncer” and that it “hurts like hell.” Johnny said that the best bowlers can launch a ball at 95 miles per hour or more. That’s as fast as a major-league fastball. Johnny said all this and we believed him.

So, I don’t know about cricketers being girlie-men. And I certainly would not call a cricketer that to his or her (mostly his though) face. Johnny, for example, is a six foot and solidly built 62-year-old who had been a Cambridge policeman before he retired. No girlie-man he. But, Dennis and I both agreed, he did look fetching in his dress whites.

 

This Blessed Plot

It’s such a beautiful day, Gentle Reader, that I am wondering if you’d walk with me for a time. I’ll take you on a guided tour of some of the sites around and about Sidney Sussex College. Are you game? You are? Lovely! Grab your walking stick and your old slouch hat and we’ll be on our way.

So here we are on Sidney Street looking south I think. Just to our left, as we’ve exited through the Gate of Sidney Sussex College, you’ll see a fine old book store.

Sidney Street looking from Sidney Sussex College
Sidney Street

If you turn around, you’ll get a charming view of the Sidney Sussex Chapel Clock and Bell Tower.

Front of Sidney Sussex College
Sidney Sussex Chapel Clock

Seen enough? Okay, let’s walk just a few feet and turn right onto Green Street. Look, there’s Bill’s Restaurant where Dennis Ryan and I ate three meals during our week in Cambridge and then had dessert and Bellinis on the last night of our stay.  Bill’s is a happening place—always busy, always friendly. Bill, or one of his minions most likely, makes a very good hamburger.

Green Street
Green Street

Take care on these cobblestone streets, Gentle Reader. They are ancient and uneven and can pose a problem to those of us of an age who walk on tender knees. We’ll just walk down Green Street a bit longer and then turn left onto Trinity Street.

Trinity_Street,_Cambridge
Trinity Street

We turn onto Trinity Street just at the corner of Trinity College’s Great Court. We will amble on for a bit. Trinity Street becomes King’s Parade as we pass by King’s College and its magnificent Chapel. Then it become Trumpington Street. A little confusing perhaps, but this is England after all.

There’s the Senate House on our right. It’s an early 18th Century Building of neo-classical design. It was where the University’s Council of the Senate met. The Senate House is now mainly used for the degree ceremonies of the University of Cambridge. It is also the building upon the roof of which Cambridge students once hoisted, overnight and unseen, a derelict Austin 7 automobile from which they had removed the engine and transmission. If you read the blog post Boys Will Be Boys, you know all about that. That’s one of the buildings of Gonville and Caius College in back of the Senate House. Alum of G&C are termed “Caians.” Among the notable alums are John Venn whose Venn Diagrams you have undoubtedly come across, and Francis Crick of double helix fame, whose path we will cross a little later on in our stroll. Steven Hawking is also a Caian.

Senate House and Caius College
Senate House

Now we are on King’s Parade which, I am sure you have noted, is dominated by King’s College and King’s College Chapel.

Kings College on King's Parade
King’s College and Chapel

That’s the Senate House on the far right. Remember? We just walked past it. King’s College was founded in 1441 by Henry VI. The Chapel is maybe the most iconic Cambridge building.  There are eight Nobel laureates who were either students or fellows of King’s. A notable alum is Alan Turing of Bletchly Park fame. Bletchley Park, you’ll recall, Bletchley Park was the home of British code breakers during World War II. It housed the Government Code and Cypher School, which successfully decrypted the secret communications of the Axis Powers and broke the German Enigma code. Yes, they did that by stealing an enigma machine, but let’s let bygones be bygones shall we? Other notable alums are John Maynard Keynes, Salman Rushdie, E. M. Forster, and, perhaps most important of all, Sir John Harrington. What’s that you say? You haven’t heard of Sir John Harrington? But he makes your life better each day, several times a day I suspect. Sir John was the inventor of the flush toilet!

Getting a wee tired are you? Let’s walk just a bit more and then we’ll stop for refreshment. We’ve come to Bene’t Street where King’s Parade (formerly Trinity Street) becomes Trumpington Street. I want to show you the Corpus Clock on the facade of the Taylor Library of Corpus Christie College. Here it is. What do you think?

Corpus Christie Clock
Corpus Clock

Awesome! Yes, I agree. Big too. That gold disk at which you stare (blink your eyes now) is nearly five feet in diameter. Let me tell you a little about it. The face is 24-carat-gold-plated stainless steel. There are no hands or numerals as you can observe. The hours, minutes, and seconds are displayed by the opening and closing of those slits you see on the face. They are backlit with blue LEDs. That peculiar looking insect on the top that looks like a grasshopper is called a Chronophage, “time eater.” Let’s watch it for a time….You see how the Chronophage moves its mouth appearing to eat the seconds as they pass. Did you notice that the beast blinks its eyes? It likes what it eats, I think. By the way, Cambridge Students call the Chronophage Rosalind. No, I don’t know why. Can you read that Latin inscription below the clock? Mundus transit et concupiscentia eius. Your Latin’s a little rusty you say? It’s from the Vulgate John 2:17 and translates (thanks to Mrs. Nina Carlson, my high school Latin teacher) as, “The world passeth away and the lust thereof.” Yes, I agree, more’s the pity.  Just a few more words about the clock and then our little tour is almost complete. The clock is accurate about once every five minutes by design. The irregularity, according to the clock’s inventor, John C. Taylor, reflects life’s irregularity. Except for a motor that winds the clock’s mechanism and provides electricity to the LEDs, the clock is entirely mechanical. The clock was conceived and funded by John C. Taylor, a wealthy inventor and fellow of Corpus Christie College. Taylor donated £million to the project which took two years and 200 people to complete. It was dedicated on September 19, 2008 and unveiled by Stephen Hawking.  Expectations are that the clock can run for 200 years. Speaking of time, perhaps we’d best move on if you’re ready.

We don’t have far to go. In fact, if you turn around, you’ll see we are on Bene’t Street. See the sign above the Chop House’s Window?

Bene't Street sign
Bene’t Street

Are you oriented after gazing at the Corpus clock for so long? That’s King’s College off to the left. No, let’s not eat at the Chop House. I’ve got a better place in mind and it’s just down Bene’t Street. There’s but one more stop before we eat. Here it is on our right, St. Bene’t Church, the oldest building in Cambridge. Those in the know figure it was built around 1020 AD, well before the Norman Invasion in 1066.

St_Benets_exterior
St Bene’t Church

Bene’t is a contraction of Benedict. Bene’t is an Anglo-Norman name. Benedict is the Latin form.  The church is affiliated with Corpus Christie College for which it served as the chapel until 1579.  The tower was probably built around 1020, but the bell-openings are a “modern” addition, having been added in 1586 or there about. The bell tower contains six bells, five of which were cast in the 16th or 17th centuries. The bells still ring, but it’s best not to ask for whom they toll.

Turn around. There’s our final stop on today’s tour. Right across the street. It’s the famous Eagle Pub.

Eagle Pub Entrance to RAF Bar
Eagle Pub

It’s really a very large place and probably the oldest pub in Cambridge opening in 1667. It sits on land donated to Corpus Christie College in 1525. The College still owns the land and is the Eagle Pub’s landlord. As an aside, the various Colleges that comprise Cambridge University (there are 31 colleges) own about 70% of the land in Cambridge.  The Eagle is famous for at least two things: the RAF bar and Francis Crick and James Watson. I might add the bangers and mash as well. But you see we are entering the Eagle through the RAF Bar. Look up.

RAF Ceiling II
RAF Bar Ceiling

During WWII, the Eagle Pub was frequented by Royal Air Force airmen who would put a chair on a table, or sit on a chum’s shoulder and burn their names and unit designations into the ceiling with candles or cigarette lighters, or otherwise affixed the graffiti with lipstick or charcoal. When the Americans came to England in 1942, they carried on the tradition. Over time, the graffiti became covered with nicotine and other deposits. A pub regular got permission to clean the ceiling to reveal what was written underneath.

But wait, there’s more. In the early 1950’s, the Cavendish Labs were located on Free School Lane just around the corner from St Bene’t Church. The Eagle was a popular lunch spot for the scientists and staff working at the lab. Among those who lunched at the Eagle were Francis Crick and James Watson, credited with unraveling the DNA code. Crick and Watson are reported to have eaten lunch at the Eagle six days a week. On February 28, 1953, Francis Crick announced to all that he and Watson had “discovered the secret of life.” Those gathered at the Pub shrugged their collective shoulders and waited for Crick and Watson to stand everyone to a round. Whether that happened I don’t know, but Crick and Watson are memorialized with a plaque.

Crick and Watson Plaque Eagle Pub
Crick and Watson Plaque

Well that’s the tour for today. Let me stand you to a pint or two of ale, Gentle Reader, and I highly recommend the bangers and mash.

Bangers and Mash at the Eagle Pub Cambridge, England
Bangers and Mash at The Eagle Pub

Doesn’t get much better than this does it? Sort of reminds me, as we sit here quaffing a brew or two in the historic Eagle, across from the ancient St Bene’t, enjoying our bangers and mash, of Shakespeare writing in Richard III:

 This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea…
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

 

And the Hunter Home From the Hill

“Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

So reads the self-penned epitaph of Robert Louis Stevenson. It is carved on his gravestone at Vailima in Samoa where Stevenson lived from 1890 until his death in 1893. The Samoans called him Tusitala which means “writer of tales.”

In my own way, in this blog, I have tried to be a “writer of tales.” The stories are mostly true or as true as my failing memory can render the events about which I have thus far written. I have not even changed the names to protect the innocent.

I read Stevenson’s epitaph as recognizing the struggle of travel. Stevenson was, of course, a world traveler well acquainted with the rigors of travel on sea and on land. The sailor’s life in Stevenson’s time, even now, was a hard life on an unforgiving sea. The hunter’s quarry is often elusive and difficult to track, yet the hunter needs to provide. But now, rest at last is their due and we all know where the paths of glory lead, do we not.

Was my trip so very burdensome that I am reduced to quoting epitaphs as I sit recuperating in my familiar and beloved bunker at Stately Johnson Manor South?  I suppose not, although schlepping 50+ pounds of luggage through caverns measureless to man that masquerade as the Toronto and Heathrow airports, as well as the “Tube” from Heathrow to Kings Cross Station, the train to Cambridge (and then reverse the trip) is backbreaking and bone grinding as far as I am concerned.  Walking the narrow, cobbled, and uneven streets of Cambridge with knees that are aged and protesting tested my mettle as much as my mettle has been tested lately. But I steeled myself to the moment by recalling the words of another of my favorite travel writers, George Kennan, the American adventurer famous for his explorations in the Kamchatka and Caucasus regions of Russia in the 1860s and 1870s.  Kennan wrote that the Caucasian mountaineers say that heroism “is endurance for one moment more.” So I kept on truckin’ for one moment more, muttering under my breath, “feets don’t fail me now,” and eventually, Dennis Ryan and I arrived at our various destinations.

And then we were back in the good old USA. And then I was boarding a plane to Detroit headed eventually to Madison. I believe whatever gods may be took some pity on me after testing me so severely for so long. In Buffalo, I was steps away from Delta baggage drop when my stalwart travel companion, Dennis Ryan, dropped me off at the departures entrance of the Buffalo airport. There was no waiting line. Then I was ushered off to TSA security pre-check. There was no waiting line. I was through baggage drop and TSA in less than 10 minutes. But (there’s always a but isn’t there) my departure gate was at the far end of the airport, a long walk away. Undaunted, I saw a courtesy cart with a driver and asked him to transport me to Gate 23. We were there within minutes. I had not yet broken a sweat, and, believe me, I break a sweat easily.

The plane to Detroit left on time, arrived early at Gate A 73. I had to make my way to Gate A 15, a long way away—but not when you have a moving walk-way about thirty feet away that deposited me at the base of an escalator to the express trams, one of which had just arrived as I came off the escalator. Into the tram and in five minutes, maybe less, I am at Gate 15. I had still not broken a sweat.

Flight to Madison was about 45 minutes. The longest walk of the day for me was from Gate 9 to baggage claim, maybe 4 minutes. My baggage was coming around when I got to  claims. I snatched it off the conveyor, walked out the front entrance where my brother, the ever-reliable Tom Johnson, was waiting for me. From touchdown to getting into the car, maybe 15 minutes. If the logistics of travel were always this easy, I might travel more than I do. On the other hand, I might not. Smart money is on the “might not.”

So here I am, back in my beloved bunker, surrounded by my books, photos, and the other assorted treasures I have accumulated over years of haunting thrift stores, antique shops, junk stores, and rummage sales. My stuff—it makes me happy and content. I am once again at peace with the world and myself, and always with you, Gentle Reader, always content with you.

This is not a final post. I have more tales to write about the Cambridge trip. Moreover, Cromwell’s Head  is not just about the trip to Cambridge and back. It is about the search for answers to life’s persistent questions, and that search will continue though the memories of Cambridge may fade. But for now, I am where I long to be. I am the sailor home from the sea, the hunter home from the hill.

 

 

Sometimes I Sits and Thinks; Sometimes I Just Sits

I actually do like travel writing; not travel so much, but travel writing is an excellent way to experience the wonders of the world without the travails of travel. Now pay attention here, this is important: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, travel originally meant “bodily or mental labor or toil, especially of a painful or oppressive nature; exertion; trouble, hardship, suffering.” Ain’t it the truth. If it’s in the OED, it’s the truth.

Jessica Mitford, writing in The American Way of Birth, also notes that travail referred to the pain of child birth. Let me tell you, although I have not an iota of moral or physical authority to make the claim, schlepping 50+ pounds of luggage around gargantuan airports may be the closest that I’ll come to the travails of childbirth.

So, travel and travail. Linked with hoops of steel. How much easier to sit in one’s own personal space and experience the world by reading about it. And that brings me to one of my favorite travel writers, Pico Iyer, the British born, Indian essayist best known, at least to me, as a travel writer in such books as Falling Off the Map, The Global Soul, The Open Road, and my favorite, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. What a wonderful concept: adventures in going nowhere. That’s where I want to go next. I am sure it would be my favorite destination. Reached without passports, boarding passes, security checks, schlepping luggage. Erehwon, land of my dreams.

It’s not a new idea, of course. The 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, suggested that “All the unhappiness of men arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.” Believe me, Gentle Reader, I am practiced in the art of “sitting quietly in my chamber.” Nobody does it better than I, I make bold to claim.

So, well I will concede that Dennis Ryan and I had a grand time during our week in Cambridge, I am ready to be home in my quiet chamber reflecting on Pico Iyer’s admonition that, in this frenzied world, sometimes we need to sit still long enough to find out what moves us the most.

 

Traffic Cones and Santa Hats: Boys Will Be Boys.

Cambridge may not be the “city of dreaming spires” as Matthew Arnold dubbed Oxford (Oxford, in Cambridge, is known as “the other place”), but it does have its spires and among the highest are the four spires on Kings College Chapel pictured above. The four corner spires soar to a height of 151′.

The Chapel itself is a marvelous example of late Gothic Perpendicular architecture and boasts the largest fan vault in the world. Construction was commenced in 1447 under the reign of Henry VI and completed, more or less, in 1547 shortly after the death of Henry VIII. It is, perhaps, the most iconic symbol of the City of Cambridge. If you, as I, listen to NPR’s Christmas Eve broadcasts of The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols you are hearing the Kings Chapel Choirs and the townspeople of Cambridge gathered in the Chapel. With its soaring stain glass windows, and the fan vault, the Chapel is a monument to the potential of the human spirit and truly a work of kings.

But does that stop your determined Cambridge student prankster from thumbing his nose at this edifice dedicated to the greater glory of God? It does not. For example, sometime turning the night of November 28, 2009, Santa hats were placed on the four spires of the Chapel.

Santa Hat on King's Chapel Spire

Remember, to reach the peak of the spires one ascends 151′. It was probably the first time in the 563 year history of the Chapel, that all four spires had been climbed at the same time. University authorities were pretty sure that the prank had been perpetrated by Cambridge students and were not very happy. It took several steeplejacks with ropes and ladders a couple of days to make the ascent to remove the offending hats.

On another occasion, someone put a traffic cone on the top of one of the spires. Scaffolding was erected to get to the cone but work had not been completed before the work day came to a close. The next day when the workmen returned, they found that the traffic cone had been moved to another spire!

But wait, there’s more. In June of 1958, students somehow got a derelict Austin Seven car onto the roof of Senate House, a massive Neo-Gothic edifice constructed between 1722 and 1730. The engine and transmission had been removed from the car, but still. It took University authorities a week to get the wreck off the building.

Austin 7 on Senate House

On at least two occasions, cars have been suspended from the Bridge of Sighs at St. John’s College. The cars are floated down the Cam on punts, secured to the underside of the bridge with cables, and when the punts float away, Bob’s your uncle, the car is hanging from the bridge.

Car suspended from the Bridge of Sighs

Now I’ve titled this post Boys Will Be Boys. I am not being sexist here you know. If these pranks were perpetrated by University of Cambridge Students, then odds are that it was boys who were the perpetrators. Although today about 40% of Cambridge University Students are women, such was not always the case.

The first women’s college at Cambridge, Girton, was not opened until 1869. Even then, the women of Girton (there were five) were located away from the site of the other colleges and instruction was given by lecturers who took a train to Girton when their spare time allowed. It’s reported that a priest, passing by the location of Girton College, referred to it as “that infidel place.” Not until 1948 were women actually awarded a degree. Previously, though they were allowed to attend lectures, and even take the exams required for graduation—upon application—the University Council declined to award degrees but allowed University Fellows of good will, and in their spare time, to read and mark exams completed by women students. The last all male college to admit women was Magdalene (pronounced maudlin) and on that occasion, in 1985, Magdalene students wore black armbands and flew the college flag at half-mast! They marched around the college carrying a coffin symbolizing the expected demise of the college. But, surprise, surprise, the rating of the college on the Tompkins Table, an annual listing of all of the colleges of the University based on the performance of their undergraduate students on that years exams, went up, and continues to rise!

Well, there’s more to the story of women at Cambridge, but they appear to be less inclined to foolish, and potentially dangerous pranks. Boys will be boys, to be sure, but Women will be Women and that’s something for which we all ought to be grateful.

An Asylum

Oh, Gentle Reader, what a special day this day turned out to be. Dennis Ryan and I became tourists by taking a 45 minute punt tour on the Cam guided by Dan, a punter and teller of tales of the first water. He was never at a loss for an anecdote during our leisurely punt up the “backs” of the colleges of Cambridge that abut the Cam. His stories, mostly true I think, were entertaining and informative (if we can rely on their accuracy and I think we actually can).

Then Dennis and I hopped aboard a tour bus that makes an hour circuit around Cambridge and Madingley, the site of the American Cemetery. At Madingley—a 30 acre site, which is officially American soil—you will find 3,809 headstones with the remains of 3,812 American servicemen. You will also find a wall inscribed with the names of 5,127 American servicemen missing in action. Included on the wall are the names of Glenn Miller, the American musician, and Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the man who might have been president, both lost at sea, 1944.

Interesting enough to be sure. But the moving moment of the day, for me, came when we made our way back to Sidney Sussex College at about 4 o’clock on a lovely Cambridge afternoon and graduation day for many of the Cambridge colleges, including Sidney Sussex College. When we pushed open the great wooden gate that stands as a bulwark against the madding crowd (and, believe me, the streets were filled with madding crowds today), and entered into the almost cloistered tranquility of the college grounds, before us stood five fresh-faced youths who, having completed the prescribed course of education for mathematics, physics, and linguistics (the degree taken by the young lady, Julia Black, on the right in the featured image above), were about to receive their Cambridge degrees. As Ms. Black revealed to us her degree, the last one to do so, she said it was really “the only proper degree among the lot.”

Look at their faces. Beaming, happy faces. Maybe the world will wipe the smiles off their countenances in years to come—I hope not—but in this moment, they were happy. A.E. Housman, the classical scholar and poet (you probably remember him best as the author of The Shropshire Lad), who was the Kennedy Professor of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1911 until his death in 1936, once said, “I find Cambridge an asylum in every sense of the word.” Although I am sure there are reasons to ascribe the sense of asylum as an “institution for the mentally ill” to Cambridge—Dennis and I have seen examples of street people who probably would be better off institutionalized, and there are no shortages of stories about more than eccentric Cambridge Dons—the sense of asylum as a place of refuge, of shelter or protection from harm, certainly applies here, as it applies to many colleges. Students at Cambridge are sheltered from the storm. They are supported to the extent they do not need to work during term, in fact, are actively discouraged from holding outside jobs; they live on the grounds of their selected college. For the three years of their undergraduate education they are provided with a tutor and a supervisor in addition to the lectures which, by the way, they are not required to attend. They must, however, meet regularly with their tutor and supervisor, the penalty for not doing so being that they are not allowed to take the exams for graduation. As an interesting aside regarding the extent to which Cambridge University was willing to go to protect its students from the evils of the world (read London), the train station is located well away from the enclave of Colleges. Not a problem with today’s modern transportation to the station, but more difficult in different and older times. In fact, the University had its own police force, called Bull Dogs, whose officers were empowered to arrest Cambridge University students who were found at the train station in possession of a train ticket.

I suppose the strictures now are not so confining as they were “back in the day,” but the sentiment is, at its core, grounded in a true sense of responsibility for the welfare of the students entrusted to the maternal arms of the Colleges. In loco parentis run a muck.

But consider the words of Michael Oakeshott, the British philosopher and political theorist, graduate of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College where he became a fellow, and commentator on education philosophy. He wrote that a college education is an “invitation to disentangle oneself, for a time, from the urgencies of the here and now and to listen to the conversation in which human beings forever seek to understand themselves.” Does it always work? Of course not. Did we listen to those conversations when we were undergraduates? Sometimes. But Cambridge, not alone among the colleges of the world, Cambridge does seek to allow students to disentangle and to listen to the conversations around them, conversations like the ones Watson and Crick had at the Eagle Pub on Bene’t Street where they lunched and talked about (and finally announced) unlocking the secret of life and then broke the DNA code. And so many more life altering conversations with the likes of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, Ludwig Wittgenstein; funny conversations among comic notables like Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, and John Cleese. How wonderful.

When I looked into the faces of these five undergraduates and saw the joy that reposed there, I thought that maybe, just maybe, they had found that shelter and protection from danger that is a sense of the word asylum, and that they had, for their time here, if not for all time, disentangled themselves from the urgencies of the here and now.  And for a brief moment of their time, before they marched into the Sidney Sussex Chapel to be released once again into the world, Dennis and I were part of that asylum. That, Gentle Reader, was worth the trip to Cambridge.

Carved in stone

One of my favorite writers of non-fiction is John McPhee, a long-time contributor to The New Yorker and writer in residence at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey where McPhee was born in 1931 and lives there even now. Acolytes of McPhee are sometimes referred to as “McPhinos,” a somewhat unstylish term of endearment. And while I may not technically be an acolyte, I have, on my own consideration, read enough of McPhee to deserve the title of “McPhino.”

McPhee might be described as the “master of the mundane.” I say “master of the mundane” maybe even the drab because McPhee’s subject matter includes oranges, the pine barrens of New Jersey, geology and geologists, truck and train-driving, construction of river craft, Bill Bradley as a college basketball star, Alaska, and the North American shad among a variety of other topics. Most of these subjects were written as long pieces for The New Yorker and subsequently worked into books. If you have not read McPhee, you have a lot coming to you. I urge you to read this master of the mundane and I wish you joy of the reading.

Aside from the topics themselves, for me at least, McPhee’s genius is to tell his stories through, not only his keen powers of observation, but also through the eyes, ears, and attitudes of the people who are always part of what he’s writing about. This has perhaps been the long and winding road to talk about an experience that Dennis Ryan and I had yesterday when we went on our search for the grave of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein is buried in the Ascension Parish Burial Ground about a 10 minute taxi ride from our lodgings at Sidney Sussex College. The cemetery itself deserves its own blog post and I may get to it. For now, I want to share our experience with you that is so McPhee-like.

You enter the cemetery grounds by turning off Huntington Road, a modern thoroughfare, onto All Souls Lane, an unpaved path wide enough for one car. If you go to the end of All Souls Lane, at No. 10 All Souls Lane, you will come to what was a small chapel but is now the site of American-born letter-cutter and stone-carver Eric Marland’s Alphabet Museum, a letter-cutting (read calligraphy) and stone carving workshop.

Ascension Parish Burial Ground Chapel Cambridge

Marland is an almost direct descendant of Eric Gill, the famous (some would say infamous) British sculptor and print-maker who was part of the Arts and Crafts Movement that flourish in Europe and America from about 1880 to 1920. Gill died in 1940, so Marland, who is not yet 60, did not train with him. Marland did train with David Kindersly who was, perhaps, Gill’s most notable student. In keeping with the tradition, Marland now runs calligraphy and stone cutting workshops out of the Chapel at 10 All Souls Lane. We were happy to meet Greg Hanlon from Melbourne, Australia, who takes time off from his accounting job at an IT firm, to follow his own passion of letter-cutting and stone-carving and to receive tutelage from Marland. From master to master to master, the tradition lives on.

Eric Marlan and Greg Hanlon Letter Carvers and Stone Cutters

The Chapel at No. 10 All Souls Lane is a vaulted-ceiling, open spaced interior that Marland says is freezing cold in the winter and sometimes unbearably hot in the summer. He’s going to insulate it and put on a new roof, both expensive undertakings with no hope of financial help from the money-strapped Cambridge Council. But Marland is determined and I would not be surprised that were I to return to Cambridge a few years hence (that would surprise me), a good deal of headway would have been made. It’s clearly a work in progress. The interior space is furnished with long work tables, stone cutting gear, blank stones, stones carved with everything from obscure Latin to house numbers. One stone reads Vocatus Atque Non Vocatus Deus and is attributed to Erasmus but actually is one of the oracles of Delphi. A rough translation would be “Called for or not, God is present.” God should probably be god, and I think it might be more appropriately translated as “Be careful what you wish for.” Marland pulled out from under a table a framed original print of the alphabet designed by Eric Gill in Gill’s favorite sans serif font. Marland said, “We just found it going through some old stuff.” Gill had designed some of the carvings on the gravestones in the cemetery.

Eric Marland is a small, wiry, gregarious man. He wore a work brace on his left leg and walked with a slight limp. He and Greg removed a large, uncut stone block from the back of Eric’s van and, that job complete, Eric made use of some metal crutches to move around. Whether this condition is the result of his work activity or not, we did not ask.

Eric loves to share his knowledge and passion for his art with anyone who stumbles onto 10 All Souls Lane. He was born in Cambridge, MA but moved with his family, when he was very young, to Iowa where is father taught at the University of Iowa. Marland was not much taken with Iowa, to hear him talk, nor were his siblings. He and his brother left when each became 18. His sister left Iowa when she was 16. There’s a back story there, but the moment was not apropos to explore it. I couldn’t detect any Iowa accent, but he has picked up a Cambridge English twang. After our experience at the Champion of the Thames Pub the other day, I am a little leary about talking about accents. Let me say that Eric did not sound like Michael Caine.

I suppose we chatted with Eric and Greg for the better part of 45 minutes. It was more like we listened to Eric and that was perfectly all right. He’s a gossiper and had some stories which, true or not, were charmingly told. Marland is a sort-of docent of the grave sites though it is labor for which he is uncompensated. He was part of a refurbishing of  Wittgenstein’s grave marker which is a plain and simple ledger stone inscribed with Wittgenstein’s name and his years on this earth (1889-1951) cut in sans serif modern. Marland still keeps that site relatively free from the creeping vines and other undergrowth that have been allowed to grow wild in the cemetery.

People pop their heads into the Chapel mostly asking where Wittgenstein’s grave is and Eric is always ready to point it out. When we walked in he looked up from his work and asked if we were looking for Wittgenstein’s grave. “Already found it,” we said. “Lovely,” he retorted. We were looking for some other graves of people associated with Wittgenstein (George Moore, Frank Ramsey, Elizabeth Anscombe). We had found Anscombe’s but had walked by Moore’s and Ramsey’s graves. Eric was able to direct us to them.

I hope I’ve conveyed, “McPhino-like,” how wonderful our time with Eric Marland was. Marland is a craftsman of a different time I think. He’s ageless is maybe what I mean. I asked him “how many people say some variation of the “carved in stone” meme. I noted that I was not offering the cliche itself, only asking how many others did. He laughed and said that the notion of “carved in stone” was not all that accurate. Mistakes can be fixed. “Nothing,” Marland said, with what I thought was a twinkle in his eye, “is carved in stone.”

 

 

What foods these morsels be.

My good friend, Steve Bass, reminded me (as though I needed a reminder) that one does not go to England for its cuisine. So far I am in agreement with his reminder. Take, for example, the full English breakfast which Sidney Sussex College provides us as part of our “Sidney Sussex Experience.”

If there’s anything that makes a person British, I have to think it’s the full English breakfast. Tea and crumpets? Sure. Fish and chips? Sure. But beyond those culinary delights lives the Full English Breakfast. Consider the featured image in today’s blog (a continuation, by the way, of the events of July 18, 2017). It indicates what the British think are the essential ingredients of a Full English Breakfast. here are some individual preferences, but sausages, hash browns (McDonald’s are better), eggs (served just as depicted), baked beans (likely from a can), and bacon, the rashers of which remind me more of cured ham, sliced thin, than bacon. Of course, I like my bacon done veryveryvery crisp which renders the color dark brown.  Fried mushrooms (but not too fried it appears), fried tomatoes, and fried bread (which is not toast; do not call it toast) also make the list, but are deemed by the British Full English Breakfast eating public less essential. Black pudding is high on the list, but we haven’t seen hide nor hair of that here in College Hall at Sidney Sussex College. Other than the lack of black pudding (and maybe I just didn’t see the stuff), the Full English Breakfast here at Sidney Sussex is pretty  much the British standard.

Now, one might think that the Full English Breakfast, filling and satisfying if you are British, might not be a health-conscious breakfast.  You would be wrong. The sausages can reduce blood pressure and the potential risk of cardiovascular disease because of the niacin in the sausage skin. Niacin is also good for the eyes, skin, and hair.

But wait, there’s more good news. Tomatoes also reduce the chances of a stroke. Baked beans alleviate arthritis and the symptoms of gout because of the folic acid and other good vitamins in the beans. I can’t think of anything good about fried bread, so I urge you to stay away from it.

So, with all due respect for Steve Bass, a man I have know for a half-century and whom I love like a brother, maybe one does come to England for the food…at least for a Full English Breakfast.

 

In America, they haven’t used it for years.

Oh, Gentle Reader, what a day we APs have had in Cambridge. So much has happened that I deem worthy of a blog post, I feel I must post several blogs about July 18 in Cambridge. This is not, however, going  to be a June 16, 1904 series of blogs and I am no Leopold Bloom or James Joyce, but it is the quotidian that provides us with life’s lessons and the small encounters of life are the stuff that dreams are made on.

I won’t start at the very beginning, with a full English breakfast in College Hall. That will be the subject of another posting. I want to start with our Mother Tongue: English. Bill Bryson wrote a fun read about the topic titled English—The Mother Tongue & How It Got That Way. He spends a good part of the book talking about the differences between British and American English. I am not sure that he always gets things right, but he gets it funny. While there certainly is a difference in the expressions that Brits and Americans use, for me, at least, that’s less interesting than listening to the lilt of spoken English by the British. Shaw in Pygmalion had Henry Higgins making fun of it and Lerner and Lowe set it to music (well, Lerner actually) in My Fair Lady. Higgins laments, An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him. The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him…There are even places where English completely disappears. Well, in America, they haven’t used it for years.

I love to listen to various British accents. As far as I am concerned, every British male over 65 sounds like Michael Caine to me. I love Michael Caine’s accent. It is working-class south London cockney. Michael Caine has an accent. It’s a great accent. I suspect even Michael Caine thinks he speaks with an accent.

But not all Brits think they have an accent. Take, for example, this “bloke” that Dennis and I chatted with this afternoon in the Champion of Thames Bar. By the way, I’ve posted photos with brief descriptions on my Facebook page which I think you can access by scrolling through the blogs and finding my Facebook link at the bottom. There you can meet the lovely and talented Beth, bartender at the Champion of Thames Bar (and daughter of the proprietor). But I was talking about this bloke we met. He was “passing through” he said. “Aren’t we all?” I replied. He had married and divorced an American woman with whom he lived for a time in Allentown, PA. where, he said, “she had a very nice house.” But now, divorce almost final, he had returned to the UK to take care of some family business. Dennis and I talked with him for more than an hour. He was a personable guy. Very pleasant. He had an accent. Or so we thought until he set us straight, with good humor, and maybe his tongue, Mother or otherwise, slightly in his cheek. “I was born in Oxford,” he declaimed, “where we invented the English language [no, not really, but who was I to say different even though I had read Bill Bryson’s book?]. I don’t speak with an accent, you blokes speak with an accent.”

Fair enough I guess. But, dammit all, I thought he sounded a lot like Michael Caine.

Cecily and Gwendolyn outside my window

You TV ornithologists will remember the distinctly British Pigeon Sisters of Odd Couple fame, Cecily and Gwendolyn. C&G were based on characters from Oscar Wilde’s delightful Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque play, The Importance of Being Earnest. The Pigeon Sisters would coo when they laughed, not unlike the two band-tailed pigeons cooing outside my window. They might be mistaken for owls so very loud are they and flapping wings and harassing each other, though maybe it’s a male and female and it’s a courting ritual. Whatever it is, it’s damn loud and here in Cambridge, at 7pm Cambridge time, I am trying to get some sleep. Until these British birds stop their owl-like hooting, I am unlikely to drift off into the healing arms of Lethe.

More’s the pity, because, by this time, I have been without sleep for more than 30 hours. So you see, gentle reader, Sinclair Lewis was right about the tedium of travel. The flight from Toronto to Heathrow was without incident and came in twenty minutes early. But then the pain sets in. Passport Control, a diabolical invention designed to sap what strength remains in you after a long flight, features those Disney World insidious snake lines. Then on to baggage claim which must have been in a seemingly abandoned warehouse somewhere in Scotland. Then the Bataan-like Death March to connect with the “underground” train from Heathrow that would take us to King’s Cross Station, there to get a train to Cambridge.

But, ironies of ironies, when I booked the rooms at Sidney Sussex College for Dennis and me back in late May or early June, I told the  power-that-be, when I was asked what time we might be arriving in Cambridge, we’d be arriving about noon on July 17. We pulled into the train-station at Cambridge and de-trained at noon on the nose. Do not forsake me, oh my Darling!

We checked into our rooms at Blundell Court, spartan cells that brook no luxuriating in thick mattresses, air conditioning, fluffy towels (and lots of them), and a well-stocked liquor bar. But it’s that old college experience that Dennis and I are seeking, as old men will do when they are trying to ward off nostalgia.

Having settled ourselves into our ensuite rooms, Dennis and I headed out to get the lay of the land, if you’ll pardon the expression. We walked around for a couple of hours, had a little supper, and made our weary way back to Blundell Court and our simple but clean (well, mostly clean I suppose) rooms having survived, if only barely, the second day of our quest for Cromwell’s Skull and Wittgenstein’s brain. That quest will begin in earnest tomorrow, if the Pigeon sisters outside my window will stop giving a hoot.