Except that it is full of dead people.
Now, if one desires the majesty of the Abbey without the presence of historically significant corpses, London has an alternative. Westminster Cathedral, not to be confused with its more acclaimed older sibling, the Abbey, is nonetheless a place of fairyland magnificence. Its vaults are dungeon dark, while the mosaics and paintings and gold shine with an unusual radiance. Most importantly, at least to a certain percentage of the tourist population, there are no dead people.
Yet, for all this, Westminster Cathedral has but one bathroom. In the café. Which closes at five.
Thus, if need should arise after this time, your nearest toilet option is to be found outside the Church. Across the square.
In the McDonald’s.
Inside how many of the planet’s multitude of McDonald’s does one find monks? Not very many, probably none, you would think. But you would be wrong on at least one account. For across the square from Westminster Cathedral, in the dark recesses of the McDonald’s washrooms — if you are lucky — you will spot a grey-robed monk using the facilities, like a holy rat with a shaved head who has stumbled into a laboratory — or in this case, a lavatory.
This is one of the great verifiable oddities of England. The bishops keep on finding themselves in the House of Lords, while the House of Lords is regularly discovered in the House of God. There is a great mixing up of ideologies and peoples in that great city; incongruity is continually popping up like a jack-in-the-box.
Days later, on a Monday which sailed under the flag of Mystery, as perhaps all days — and especially Mondays — do, something much stranger than the cloister rubbing shoulders with the culture occurred, although it shares the same sense of randomness. Here is an account of what happened.
London’s Tate Modern is a very big art gallery. In fact, it is monstrous — in the true sense of the word. It is the sort of place where one almost imagines hearing a million savage roaring voices, rumbling like a dark and unknown river beneath the earth’s crust. It is the sort of place where the word dark is no longer a mere adjective. One feels dark when one walks through its vast rooms, chronicling the career of the modern artist. Something sick and stifling seems to press around you. Why the artists painted what they did — well, that is another matter. But there is a sense of something very black and very real in that place, as if the weight of all the building, of all the world, is coming down upon you.
It is a great relief to see the sky again, and find that it is not falling.
If one leaves the terror of the Tate, turns right, and travels down the street which faces that monstrosity of brick — as I did that day — the Tower Bridge will rise like a giant’s causeway on your left, and, across the Thames, the financial cucumber building, which looks like a misplaced trans-continental super-missile, will punctuate the skyline. But a short journey over the earth’s great curve and one finds oneself in an entirely different world. There it is… on your right… an alternate universe… a stuccoed circular building… the only one to have been built with a thatched roof since the great fire of 1666 — the Globe Theatre.
The Globe was full; the Groundlings (the so-called patrons — most of whom are on a budget — who stand in the open space which surrounds the stage on three sides) in whose fiscally prudent (or, shall we say, cheap?) company I found myself, chattered about this and about that, forming a pleasant buzz of expectation. Encircling the crowded courtyard and stage is a wall of staircases and partitioned seating. Above, in a circle of light and cloud like a gigantic eye, the sky began to show the first omens of evening.
Without any sort of formal introduction, a group of five musicians entered the stage, complete in their medieval regalia with horns, drums, and even, oh great curiosity, a lute.
“Look at that!” I cried. “A lute! What a strange instrument. Wouldn’t it be fun to learn?”
“It’s very hard,” said a slightly drawl voice beside me as the band struck up their tune. “I’ve tried to learn — several times.”
The play now began, but the night lay under a bizarre fate. The lead actress had been taken ill with something dreadful to her stomach, so one of the other minor roles took her place (the Globe’s budget being too small to support understudies), resulting in her original role being filled by some other performer who was only now becoming involved in the production.
I do not how long they had to prepare, but they were absolutely superb. Shakespeare’s spirit was in the house that night, the invisible director of a marvelous muddle.
The first act passed, and the intermission arrived.
“Well,” said my drawling neighbor, “I don’t think I’ll be leavin’ now,” alluding to the offer made before the production began of money being returned to any customer dissatisfied with the change of cast.
“No, I should think not!” I laughed.
Still curious about the fact that I so happened to be standing, in London, next to a man who played the lute, surely one of the more arcane instruments in the musical pantheon, I inquired, “You know, I was wondering; wherever did you find a lute to play on?”
“In Sydney,” he said. “I’m from Australia. I’m a guitar player.”
A brief silence fell between us. Then, for he had not really answered the lute question, I asked, “I am still wondering — where did you find a lute? They are very rare…”
“You made one?” I exclaimed, now thoroughly incredulous. “But… how?”
“Instructions. Found ‘em online.”
Then things just got silly.
For some reason I do not recall, he said, “I volunteer with the medieval society. It’s harder than it looks.”
“Oh, um, really?” I replied, still reeling at the improbability of it all, and wondering vaguely what exactly was more difficult than it appeared. “Uh, playing guitar?”
“Nah,” he said. “I’m a swordsman.”
If this was a movie, and you were the sort of person who watches movies with the subtitles turned on, they would have displayed the words “shocked pause,” in brackets. This is not a movie. There was no shocked pause. There were no brackets.
“What! Fencing? Or…?” I faltered, not recalling the name of the more medieval version of his professed sport.
“Both,” he replied, not asking for clarification.
This ridiculous exchange trailed off shortly afterwards, leaving only the hubbub and the night sky. Probably the finest conversation I got in London was with this guitar-playing, lute-building, sword-wielding (why does Australia even have a medieval society?), England-visiting Australian.
The play began again and the Auzzie’s chortle joined with the uproarious mirth of the audience. All was a swirl of amazement and surprise.
It was a Shakespeare that night. I believe it was one of his later comedies, though the sea of wit was shot through with veins of profundity, grim character, and heavy thought. Was it All`s Well That Ends Well? Perhaps it was Much Ado about Nothing? Or was that the title and subtitle of my strange day, of my strange visits to the Tate gallery, and the Globe theatre? “All was well, all is well, and, maybe, all manner of things shall be well.” So the latter seemed to whisper. Yet how absurd to receive such an enormous hint in so nonsensical a fashion, to hear such an outrageous thing in the face of such dreadful darkness. What a wonder that such ado made over so much nothing should raise a soul’s heavy head, and set it singing.
That is the tale of my strange adventure. London, with all its galleries of the horrific, and its theatres of the astonishing, is far away.
But the globe is nearby. And every night, as the actors venture onto its vast and stupefying stage, the original thatch roof (which, contrary to popular thought, was not consumed in the disaster of 1666) is set to burn. The fundamental oddity of London, with all its incongruities, with all its terror and its beauty, is not the property of that great city. No. The wonder of the world is never far off. It cost five pounds that night, but I hear it can be had for nothing in most places. It is to be found in all corners of the globe, which today, and all days, though its heart bears a ghastly, gaping wound, blazes like a beacon.
Davis Plett is a homeschooled resident of rural Manitoba, currently completing his high school education. When not enjoying the company of his family, guitars, pens, or pastels, he is to be found riding a mountain bike, or wishing he was. He would like to thank the Globe Theatre for their extraordinary performance this last summer, and the Australian for inviting him to join the play. In the great tradition of summarizing a writer’s existence in under one hundred words, this brief biography would not be complete without mention of various animals which the author lives with.
Davis Plett has no pets.