February 18, a Wednesday, was unusually eventful even for me. Seminar class was at 9:30 AM and today Dr. Ivy himself was teaching (All hail Dr. Ivy!). The subject was Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” I’ve heard that poem discussed in three separate classes now, and I still say the wrong things about it. Mournful knells, owls, twilight, and graves just thrill me right out of any ability to articulate. If I even had it to begin with. Poetry keeps me constantly amused. . .or maybe I keep myself constantly amused.
I left soon after seminar for London, dragging my camera with me. I have an impressive second-hand camera, and now that I’m taking a Photography course I can occasionally work it properly. After a few shots at Paddington I was off on the metro to Piccadilly Circus in order to search out the Virgin Atlantic office so I could change my plane ticket back to the States (I want to stay here a little longer, like the rest of my life). So our intrepid heroine (me) bravely set out from the statue of Eros towards Green Park in pursuit of the elusive VA office. And it WAS elusive; I asked a doorman, a guy behind the cell phone counter at the Virgin (not Atlantic) store, the Tourist Information booth guy in the metro, and a lady at British Airways before I was well and truly satisfied that…the Virgin Atlantic office did not in fact exist in Piccadilly. Alas.
Slightly dejected, I continued toward Green Park and passed St. James’ Church, which made me very excited. I’d read about it in one of the multiple guidebooks at the Whiteknights house library. It’s the church William Blake was baptised in (note interesting British usage of ‘s’ in “baptising”). There was also a flea market going on outside in the courtyard; Sting’s “Field of Gold” was playing in one of the stalls. I poked my head into the Church proper and spent a brief period of time admiring it. William Blake interests me greatly. I saw a painting of him at the National Portrait Gallery, and he had an ever-so-slightly crazed look in his eyes. I guess anyone who could see as he did would appear slightly unhinged. There is a whole gallery devoted to his work at the Tate Britain, which I visited in January; after walking around in the dimly lit room and peering closely at blonde girls, Satan, and a griffin-powered carriage for awhile I thought—Nope, still don’t like him. His paintings are creepy. To give you an idea of what I mean by “creepy”: they have been used in both Hannibal and Red Dragon.
My next stop was the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts. There had been a marvellous Pre-Raphaelite exhibition there some months previously, but today I only took photos of some of the architectural decorations on the outside of the building, mailed a postcard to my brother, and continued on to the metro. I arrived at King’s Cross (of Platform 9 ¾ fame), and walked past the imposing St. Pancras to the British Library. I was rather upset by my first sight of it, since it’s modern and red brick. I had had a vague misconception of a building rather like the British Museum, with columns and pedimental sculpture and the lot. However, what was inside made up for the disappointingly modern exterior, and I spent quite a long time looking at the displays of illuminated manuscripts and original writings by everyone from Charlotte Bronte to James Joyce. His notebook looks as if a hyperactive eight-year-old had a hand in it; I saw a play recently which helps to explain that. Apparently he had very bad glaucoma, which I did not know. Bless his heart.
Being an Art History major, the Lindisfarne Gospels were my favourite section of the display, with lots of tiny animal heads delicately worked into the curls of interlace. Emily and Tina found me hunched over the glass case, and then we joined Safia for an evening of—wait for it—Ralph Fiennes reading the poetry of W.H. Auden, in the auditorium next door.
I would like to take a moment to clarify and run this by you one more time. Ralph. Fiennes. Reading. Poetry. AAAAAAAH!!!!! Do you understand?! This is the man who spoke entire sentences with his eyes in The English Patient. This is the man who ran around angsty and naked with a full body tattoo in Red Dragon. This is the man who actually made me like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. (Despite my Gothic sensibilities, Heathcliff generally irritates me). He played the lead in Hamlet, for crying out loud! And I got to see him in the flesh, saying things like “Lay your sleeping head, my love, human on my faithless arm.” Well, all right Ralph, if you insist…
Mr. Fiennes also read my favourite Auden poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” injecting just the right amount of urgent intensity into it. Cue sighs, swoons, etc. After the readings everyone filed out of the small auditorium; he went into a side conference room with a select group of people running the show, I imagine for photo ops and drinks and things like that. Safia, Tina, Em and I lurked outside the door and debated what to do. Should we breezily waltz into the room, acting like we had a perfect right to be there? Should we wait outside indefinitely and hope for a glimpse of him? Should we just abduct him and make him return to Reading with us? While we discussed our options, the door of the room opened and HE peaked his head out. (At this point I was fairly speechless, and had the same feeling in the pit of my stomach I get when anticipating a shot at the doctor’s). He furtively scanned the people standing around as if he were searching for someone. Not me, unfortunately. I could almost see his thought process: “Stay here in the safety of the conference room doorway? Or make a mad dash out into the public sphere and risk mauling?” After a moment he stepped out and walked quickly by us. Em turned and was on the verge of asking him for his autograph when I grabbed her arm rather hard out of sheer nervousness, allowing him to escape. I have a very deeply ingrained instinct Not to Make an Ass of Myself*, and I was mortified at the thought of actually flagging him down. How can I explain it. . .it would be like approaching Tennyson (if he were still alive) and asking him to proof-read my poetry. Demeaning for all involved, you see.
Luckily, Emily is of a forgiving nature and he passed us again a short while later. As I restrained myself, Em did manage to speak to him although we did not have time for autographs. He gave us a hunted look while he hovered in the doorway and then an extremely nervous parting smile. He never could smile properly; he always looks better when brooding in dark corridors. To his credit, if faced with the four of us all of a sudden, I would probably smile nervously too.
*Everyone who knows me will immediately realise this urge does not always STOP me from making an ass of myself, and doing things like writing this article.