Saturday, November 27, 2010

50 UK Days: Week 6.5

One week ago today, I took a drive through the Yorkshire moors up the northern English coast with CC, RP, and GS to visit the seaport village of Whitby. I had been here before, a few years ago, but when I visited with CC and her children, it was May and I had made the mistake of assuming it would be warm, and so had a miserable time when the wind blew like a banshee and it started raining horizontally. They never let me forget it. So I felt the need to redeem myself, and was duly prepared to brave the elements this time, bundled up in multiple layers of clothing. It was still mighty cold, but better able to withstand the weather, it was worth it. The village itself is known best for the ruins of Whitby Abbey on the top of the hill, which you see framed by the whale bones in this picture I took there. It is a beautiful seaside village. The smell of the salt air, the rush of the waves from the North Sea, and the intense winds that blow against your face simply exhilarate you as you walk out along the pier down and down to with the lighthouse. As you walk along cobblestone streets that run up and down the hillside, you’re surrounded by crooked cottages, fishing boats, quaint tea shops, and fish-and-chip pubs, truly giving you an English experience. There also are plenty of tourist trap shops, but it’s such a pleasure not to see a single Starbucks or McDonald’s taint the environment. The Romantic in me easily sees me renting one of these cottages overlooking the North Sea one day soon, giving me solitude in a picturesque world in which to write my next novel.

Literati may recall Whitby as an important part of the beginning part of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or perhaps recall scenes that take place there in A.S. Byatt’s Possession. The ruins of the burnt-out abbey are picturesque and worth visiting. But Whitby truly made its mark on the world during the 19th century from the jet industry. Jet is a black polished gem carved from rocks excavated from the sides of the cliffs along the northern coastline. Because jet is so plentiful here, Whitby became the biggest international center for the art and manufacture of jet jewelry in Victorian times. It was made popular by Queen Victoria once she went into extended mourning after Albert’s death in 1861, and society thereafter dictated that women could only wear jet jewelry during periods of mourning. The ornately carved surfaces in the form of heavy black beads and large brooches appealed to the Victorians. But by the end of the century, jet had lost its popularity with changes in taste, and rapidly Whitby collapsed economically as a result. Today tourism is the village’s chief commodity, and it is a popular spot with the British. While jet isn’t as popular as it used to be, there are still a number of shops that sell contemporary and historic jet jewelry. You can see more pictures from Whitby and Liverpool in my updated photostream.

The next day I made my way back to London, and it didn’t take but 2 minutes after stepping out of the train at King’s Cross Station to realize what I had completely forgotten: London is not England. The incredible chaos of the urban experience hit me like a proverbial brick. Living in NYC, I’m used to this level of insanity, but I realized suddenly how having stayed in the north for the previous 5 weeks, even in cities like Leeds and Liverpool, nothing prepares you for London. It is an incredibly cosmopolitan city. You hear a multitude of languages spoken all around you, and there are more skin tones here than anywhere else I have ever been. NYC largely can be divided into 3 broad groups: Whites, Blacks, and Latinos. The implication of skin color is intended, as the US arguably is still divisive based on skin color over cultural background. Of course NYC is more complicated than that (Orthodox Jewish, Russian, and Korean neighborhoods comes to mind), but it’s still nothing like the quilt of ethnic differences you see throughout the streets of London. There are communities of Indians, Pakistani, and Arabs here, plus East Asian, African, Caribbean, and continental Europeans from Poland to Italy as well. All of them come to London because it is the economic capital of Europe. Paris and Rome are historic cities that rely on tourism, but London, like NYC, relies on its financial center to stabilize not only it’s own national economy but that of the entire European Union. London is also changing fast, becoming more forward-thinking in a way I don’t see that NYC is. There are number of high-speed railways under construction, that will take people from the outer suburbs to the city center in shorter time spans. The new architecture going up, partly for the Olympics in 2012, but also to sustain a rapidly-growing international population outside the city, is quite impressive and transforming the long-standing tradition of East London as a cultural wasteland of impoverished Cockneys.

And yet, as I’ve also written about, this is a city that is fighting its own economic hardships, facing student riots and terrorism, and handling the criticism of politics as each of the two major parties blame the other for poor management. The upcoming royal nuptials might serve as a good case-in-point. The perception outside of England is that people here largely are in favor of the monarchy and its historic presence, and that there is a small minority of zealots who want to get rid of it. In fact, from the conversations I have had with people here, the opposite is true. More people are grumbling about the potential millions of dollars of tax-payer money that will be spent just for security for the wedding, for instance, and this type of criticism has been downplayed as the ravings of a minority. It’s worth noting that the recent speculation in The New York Times about who will design Kate’s wedding dress is a topic that hasn’t even entered mainstream media here. If it did, I suspect the critical feedback would only escalate out of control. I wonder, though, what the NYT article says about the interests of Americans? For a people who revolted against the monarchy in order to establish a democracy, it seems rather odd how Americans have romanticized the same institution it worked so hard once to overthrow. Then again, I shouldn’t talk. If I were to get an invitation to the wedding, you know I would be there in a heartbeat. And then there would be the problem of what to wear...

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