My Very Own Carnival

image by Maria Kristin Steinsson on flickr
image by Maria Kristin Steinsson on flickr

On Saturday I had gone to Covent Garden to get a few necessities and had to stop for a street performance. I never do this, having come to hate the bovine crowds they attract and the general baseness of the spectacle. But there was a tall, handsome man in a pinstripe suit on a giant unicycle, and he was about to juggle. With a little girl. Not juggle the girl, but the little girl from the audience was going to throw the pins to him. He’d asked her to catch him, and when she put her little arms out you could see his heart melt. What followed was a kind of sentimental physical comedy like I imagine true clowns could do if, you know, they weren’t terrifying. I haven’t laughed so hard or been so fleetingly happy for a very long time. I threw a lot of money in their hat.

On Sunday I went to Camden. I met my friends Amanda and Liza and we lost ourselves in Camden’s labyrinth of desire– there is no other place I know in the world that is so full of the phantasmagoria of hippie-gothness. And there is no other place that is also so very crowded, perpetually and inscrutably, with muggles.

Which brings me to the Dev, or the Devonshire Arms, the center of the London Goth universe until a recent pubco takeover. We were meeting Poggs for another friend’s birthday thingy there. Poggs had to give me directions to the Dev– I know, I lose serious goth points for that, but I hadn’t been in years. In fact, I had not been to the Dev since its takeover and reinvention as the Hobgoblin. It was a disappointment. The cider was off to begin with, and when I asked Poggs what is that smell? He clarified, “That’s wee.”

We sat at the kiddie table next to the main party’s table, and behind us were a group of crusties which momentarily gladdened me in a superficial way. I thought, foolishly, that this proof that someone was keeping it real in Camden. Not long after this fancy occurred to me, a seven-foot tall mohican entered with a dwarf in a box.

Yes, you heard me.

With an obvious sense of theatre this pair went about tussling, the dwarf not wanting to get into the box again and the mohican trying to pack him away. At some point the dwarf visited Poggs in an intimate and rather canine way and then later became fixated on a member of the party who he decided looked like Bono (the gentleman did share certain eyewear-choices, it’s true). Dramatic taunting and impromtu chants about the third world ensued. I was impressed with the restraint of Mr. Not-Bono, who was very Zen about being bullied by a crowd of crusties and a very angry dwarf, and this seemed to piss off the dwarf and his drunken friends even more, until the dwarf decided he was going to throw his beer on Not-Bono to make his point. I saw this about to happen, and I knew it was going to land on us, the cute goth girls in the party, and completely miss Not-Bono…but it was one of those stop-motion moments where you think you can stop it, get out of the way, avoid disaster somehow…but no.

All over Amanda ‘s skirt and my Sanrio purse…I think it was Staropramen, too. What kind of crusty-loving dwarf drinks Staropramen? Poggs had summed the night up nicely…life’s rich tapestry. Indeed!

Cocks and Staches and Stouts

photo by bubbahop on flickr
photo by bubbahop on flickr

Yesterday I went into town to see my friend V for a beer in the City.  It was strange to be back– starker now that most tourists are gone, and perhaps the lay offs have sobered the place, emptied it out? The shadowless St. Paul’s, now diapered in canvas and scaffolding, and Paternoster Square with its big bronze pineapple crowning the concrete fan of pavement– I always feel misplaced there, like the extra that’s wandered on the wrong set or like I’m the apple in a Magritte painting.

While perching by the churchyard, an extremely handsome, well suited man stopped me and asked the way to Paternoster Square– I told him he was almost there, and pointed, but he walked away as I was explaining about the pineapple– which is really the information you need to know you are actually there.  His loss. When people ask me for directions and I actually know them, this makes me feel like a Londoner, almost.

My friend and I met in the Cockpit, our favourite pub on the corner of a little side street.  The place is run by two men with magnificent moustaches and no matter how crowded it is I never have to wait too long to be served. I was amused that last night as I stood at the bar some gentleman called to the landlord, There’s a lady at the bar! I think he was trying to do me a favor but there was a tone of wonder in his voice.  The pub is usually filled with suits, bankers decompressing from the hard work of bringing the entire world to its knees, toasting each other while looking forward to the next day when they can hold all economic recovery hostage to their whims.  But I digress!  The place is painted dark red and decorated with steins and paintings and statues of cocks–  some of it perhaps from when the tiny, circular bar was actually a cockfighting ring.

V and I joked about the vertiginous spiral staircase to the ladies room. After our third (or was it fourth?) round, they were closing up, putting stools on tables.  I ventured up the stairs and as I came down I saw a little door open in the side wall of the flight of stairs– an Alfred Jarry sort of moment (each floor of his flat was cut in half to make another floor)– where the mustachioed proprietor crawled out!  I jumped and said, Ha-llo! to cover my embarrassment and he just looked at me like, Lass– you’re squiffy!

On nights like the last, London seems to say: I love you, why don’t you say it back? And then it goes and takes my favourite necklace of 15 years.  It must have fallen off on the tube. I feel naked without it.

Lads on tap

Yesterday I found myself at the Great British Beer Festival. It was “hat day” and most of the drinkers had on some kind of headgear– cardboard new year derbys, giant guinness pints with plush shamrock brims, white caps emblazoned with the Saint George flag and in the case of one gentleman, disco 45s taped together.

Even though one senses CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) is trying to change their “Beard, Belly, Beer” image, it’s not really happening. I found it to be a strange mix of British nationalism (the tee shirts for sale of a British bulldog pissing on the Euro sums it up) and indulgent self-deprication (ie– the “I ate all the pies” teeshirt.) But ultimately, it’s a celebration of liver execration (see Oliver Reed themed shirts on special.)

And it’s a dude kind of affair. Where is a woman’s place in this scene? (“If only these were brains” across the bust of a baby doll tee shirt.) There were women there, don’t get me wrong, but we were like some brave, alien race. (“I have the PUSSY. I make the RULES” tee.) I felt a special allegiance with the women who were not under the arm of a man. Women who had come here because they liked beer, not because they’d been dragged along.

When 4:30 came round and the suits started rolling in, things went in the Lad-derly direction– a wink’s as good as a nod– if you catch my meaning. That kind of direction. But before then I got some drinking in. Not as much as I would have liked, mind you. All my careful planning (light to dark, start with thirds and NO CIDER) failed me.

It was a bit of culture shock. In America, passionate, real beer drinking of the CAMRA type is not directly associated with sloppy machismo or flag-waving. I found it all rather overwhelming. To get oriented I committed what felt like sacrilege, going to the international counter first. It was very small, and mostly featured bottled stuff. I was looking for Rogue but my country was singularly represented by Sierra Nevada. I shuddered and slid down to the German section. Behind me, all of Britain was represented and I held out my glass for kolsh. It was illogical, ridiculous really.

And then I had a dunkel.

I was about to try the Bavarian Andrechs spezial when my friends convinced me to branch out, go native. Wink wink, nudge nudge, say-no-more.

The Hambleton Nightmare Porter was singularly spectacular, and worth the price of admission. I only wished I’d had a whole pint of its malty comfort. I sat with my friends Liza and David on the floor of the utilitarian Earl’s Court Exposition Centre, splitting a plate of buttery Wensleydale cheese and ale chutney with biscuits. It was perfect. For a moment I understood this English pride precisely– the urgent love of the countryside and the bounty of tradition and all that. And I wanted another pint.

My friends were set on cider and I caved– I broke my no cider rule– why? Cider makes me drunk and does my pallet in. I had something that was quite drinkable if not memorable, and it predictably went straight to my head. I felt an achy melancholy creeping up, like what I get when I drink champagne. The choice was either to buy an Oliver Reed tee shirt and keep up the red-cheeked work or go home. Of course the later course won out.

I even thought of going back to the festival today by myself just to undo this grave error. (Does she go? Is she a goer?) Next year I’ll start at the Yorkshire counter and work my way widdershins around the island, map in pocket. (said the actress to the bishop.)

Beer, Bombs and Bones

A token representation of the 11,000 VirginsEdith, Bob and I are in Cologne. Yesterday we went to another brewery, strictly for research purposes, of course. The Pfeffen kölsch served there was very different there from the kölsch at Fruh– fruitier and more like an ale– a bit like Fuller’s Discovery, but with a creamier head, more carbonation and served much colder. I drank it with the seasonal dish– asparagus with Holländische sauce, potatoes and salad. It was delish.

We also went to the Roman museum whose impressive collection is mainly gleaned from the 1941 discovery of a Roman settlement adjacent to the Dom. The site was discovered while digging to build an air raid shelter.

I was particularly fascinated with the delicate and almost ephemeral Hellenistic gold work as well as the “local deities”– Celtic & Germanic goddesses whose names are unmentioned. They resemble the Ursuline virgins in the Ursulaplatz with their benevolent smiles and diadem coiffures. Like the virgins, these goddesses are now decorative objects. Moon-headed, they sit in threes on little couches, the triple goddess present as trifling objects next to the monumental columns of Jupiter’s temple, souvenirs from a forgotten destination.

Three impressive floor mosaics are almost entirely preserved. One features a pattern of swastikas. One can only imagine the sense of vindication the Nazis might have felt uncovering this, even as they were burrowing for shelter from the bombs that would eventually destroy the city.

The souvenir shops are full of black and white postcards depicting the city in ruins. Here is an image of the damage Köln endured in WWII. The Dom remains standing, and the smog-blackened facade greets you as you leave the train station. No matter where you are in Köln, you can find your way via the spires of the Dom.

Cologne is a city that wears its scars proudly, incorporating fragments of the old, pre-war buildings in the modern restoration. Even the cobblestone streets were laid by hand again in the 1950s, giving the town a kind of postmodern melancholy.

Today we also visited the Ursulaplatz, the main reason why I was excited about visiting Köln. Many years ago I wrote a poem based on the story of Saint Ursula in the Golden Legend. The whole thing is quite grisly, as are most of the women saints’ deaths in that book. More popular than the bible at the time it was written, The Golden Legend was a kind of compiled oral hagiography. Many of the female saints in the book are almost superheroes, despite their grizly deaths, or maybe because of them. Ursula is no exception. I love the suggestive number of her entourage– 11,000– and the gory depictions of mass slaughter. Campy blood and guts! Even the doors of the Ursulaplatz feature the headless bodies of the virgins piled atop one another. The story of Ursula has always suggested to me an “open” space in the patriarchal medieval church– a willful woman would leading an army of girls down the Rhine– it suggests many subversive possibilities. I’m sure I’m not the first to imagine the story another way, and maybe this is the reason for the sadistic deaths of many of the female saints in the Golden Legend. A strong woman is safer dead, rewarded and silent in heaven– but I digress.The Ossuary of Ursulaplatz
Above shelves of Reliquaries, the bones spell out latin words. (photo by Edith Abeyta)

The impressive ossuary in the Ursulaplatz supposedly contains the bones of the virgin martyrs. However, history seems to suggest these bones were from a mass grave of some sort, and in order to explain the multitudes, the story was embroidered. One version has monks digging the bones up and putting them back together so that some of the virgins actually materialize again in Frankensteinian fashion. Whatever fable one attaches to this morbid spectacle, it is impossible to not see it as a kind of percursor to the modern horror movie, but it also transcends this facile comparison and becomes something more: a consoling attempt to make whole a brutal array of fragments– a poetic display of remains, not unlike Cologne itself.