Sunday, September 24, 2006

Wind Shaking the Barley on Kilburn High Road

Our cultural events for this week were a film, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," and an historical walking tour of the nearby Kilburn High Road.

"The Wind That Shakes the Barley" is an excellent historical drama set during Ireland's struggle for independence. We saw it at the Tricycle Cinema, a theatre that was founded by Emma Thompson, who tapped her Hollywood colleagues for donations and raised the millions necessary to again provide a cinema to the Kilburn area, which had once been home to Europe's largest movie theatre (about which more later).

Good heart-breaking drama often leaves me feeling wrung out, and "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" certainly had that effect. But as I told Holly, I have some built-in protection against the emotional impact of films. I'm a storyteller myself, after all. As I watch, I'm always thinking, "What's the worst thing that could happen next?" Since, sure enough, that's what will happen, I'm ready for it. I don't fall into the trap of thinking, "Oh, no! Surely he won't do what I fear he's about to do, will he?" Of course he will. That's how this whole story-making business is done.

The poet Marvin Bell recounts finding a very old how-to-write-fiction book. At the back of the book, there was a multiple choice test. Given a story situation, the reader who has studied the book is asked to choose the answer that best represents what should happen next in the story. "The gimmick was easy to spot," Bell says. "The correct answer was always the cruelest one."

"The Wind That Shakes the Barley" makes cruel storytelling choices aplenty. It's also a very good cinematic history lesson. It left me really angry at the British Empire. At the end, if there had been any 1920's British Imperialists in the lobby of the theatre, I might have punched one of them in the nose. I guess it's a good thing for me and for them that they're all dead now. Serves them right, too.


Our free walking tour, led by Silver Cane Tours, began at the Kilburn tube station (which could be called the Kilburn el station, since the trains through this area run on elevated tracks rather than underground). Kilburn High Road is an ancient Roman road. During the middle ages, pilgrims on their way to St. Albans would have to pass through a section of the road where dense forest allowed cutthroats to hide among the trees and waylay travelers. To get through this bad neighborhood --- Shoot Up Hill --- the pilgrims would stay at the priory, Kilburn Abbey, until their numbers were great enough that they could safely dare Shoot Up Hill.

Across from the Kilburn station on the brickwork supporting the elevated track is a mural depicting, among other things, H. G. Wells and his crashed time machine in Kilburn. The mural is a product of the Signal Project, an effort by a collective of grafitti artists who, as our guide said, pursue with religious intensity the goal of having grafitti art recognized and valued. Another figure in the mural is the "Mother of Invention," pushing a pram. I'll have to go back and take some more time to look at this work.

Some of the other things we saw on the walking tour:

The Black Lion pub, with a listed interior. (The U.S. equivalent would be "having an interior that is in the national register of historic places.")

Crook Undertakers, a very old family-owned business and the origin of the expression, "I'm feeling Crook."*

*Actually, no. This was our guide, Simon, having a bit of fun. But Holly and I, as ignorant yanks, didn't know enough about the claim to be the least suspicious of it. Fortunately for us, Simon did not attempt to sell us shares in the Tower Bridge.

At the Tricycle Theatre's Kilburn High Road entrance, there is a mechanized sculpture with a glass window. If you put fifty pence into the slot, the curtain behind the window opens to reveal a city skyline, the facade of the theatre, and little cars passing by on the street. Lights come on in the miniature city.

The Tricycle's live theatre occupies a special niche. They perform other kinds of shows, but they have a tradition of developing performances that dramatize official inquiries. A dramatization of a Guantanamo Bay inquiry is a recent production that has since gone on the road.

Further south on Kilburn High Road is the State Cinema. It opened in 1937 and could seat 4,000. There was a grand front entrance for the upper classes and a side entrance for the plebes. An enormous chandelier modeled on the chandelier at Buckingham Palace decorates the foyer of one of these entrances. Guess which one.

The interior of the State Cinema is still gorgeous, with elaborate ceilings in relief painted light and dark blue, white, black, and gold. But there are no movies shown there any longer. The State is a bingo parlour now, with slot machines in the foyer. Gambling brings in enough revenue to keep the building beautifully maintained.

"We think of London as a one-river city," said our guide, "but actually it is a city of twenty-three rivers." We went to have a look at the number three river of London, the Westborn. Well, it was more of a listen than a look. We stood over a manhole cover where we could hear that, yes, it sounded like there was a river down there. The Westborn feeds the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, but like many of London's rivers, it runs most of its course under the streets now. No wonder the Thames is the only London river anyone thinks of.

We saw The Animals War Memorial Dispensary with a bronze relief dedicated to the animals sacrificed in the Great War. The guide noted that there is another Great War memorial to animals depicting a dog, a horse, and a mule and bearing the inscription, "They Had No Choice." That might be a fitting inscription over the graves of conscripted human war dead, too, but for some reason that particular motto has never been chosen for honoring people.

Next to the Animals Memorial is a tin chapel that is fitted inside and out like a naval vessel. It is unlovely, but not unloved. The priest who skippers her is applying for protection as a listed historic building, and I suppose that if the alternative is yet another news agent or fast food outlet, the tin shack with port holes on the doors might was well remain.

Our last stop was the site of Kilburn Abbey, where we saw a flint-and-mortar wall with a marker identifying it as "Kilburn Abbey 1134." The guide noted that the construction materials were of the sort that the Normans liked for church building, but he wasn't sure that the wall was genuine. He said it might be "1940's cheese." A bit further on, though, there was a pile of cut stone rubble that the guide thought was more likely to have been part of the Abbey.

A stretch of the winding country lane that leads to the Abbey from the far side of Kilburn High Road is still called Abbey Road. Yes, that Abbey Road.

Odds and Ends

At the Queen's Park Day celebration, the nice volunteers at the recycling booth gave us a sticker for our mail slot: NO JUNK MAIL. It's to discourage the people who come around slipping circulars and business cards and other printed matter through mail slots all over the city, and it you don't accept the paper to begin with, it's less that you have to recycle. Except that I've decided that I like my London junk mail, at least for now.

Thanks to junk mail, Holly discovered a nearby delicatessen that she likes. We received an Open Morning invitation to see an independent prep school which I might like to investigate just to see what it's like. Through the mail slot we get Grove, a free monthly magazine devoted to our section of London, and a second free magazine from the Brent Council telling us about local services and special events. (A public celebration of Diwali in October, and two weeks later, Eid-Ul-Fitr to celebrate the end of Ramadan.) If we ever want to order Indian food for delivery, we have many menus to choose from.

The most common delivery through the mail slot, though, is business cards for car services. The business is distinguished from taxi service in that car services are not allowed to drive the streets searching for fares. The have to be called on the phone, and they want to be very sure that no man, woman, or child in London is without a copy of their business card. We get a car service card through the mail slot about every other day, representing eight different companies so far.

For now, we won't put up a sticker saying NO JUNK MAIL, but I'd like to find one that says NO CARS.

From Philip Lees in Crete: “I hope you've learned how to pronounce Cherwell, Cholmondeley, Featherstonehaugh and Beaulieu. Otherwise, they may cut off your

electricity.” I’m sure Philip made all of those place names up.

Finally, only my friend Philip is threatening to cut off our electricity, but the TV Licensing authority is threatening prosecution. We received an OFFICIAL WARNING in the mail today. We’re again strongly advised to give in and pay our TV license, and we are cautioned as follows: “Officers from our Enforcement Division catch 57,287 people every year.” The precision of that number, the number caught EVERY year, indicates that once the officers have nabbed the 57,287th television scofflaw for 2006, they stay in their TV Licensing barracks to play darts and wait for January 2007. One shudders to think of all the viewers who get away with watching television for free at the end of each year, confident that the enforcement quota has been used up.


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