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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hercule Poirot meets the Romans

London's treasures await

On the morning of our third day in London, as we left Hercule Poirot's home in Whitehaven Mansions, my strength began to ebb.  I work out regularly at the gym, do my best to stay lean, fit, and healthy, and take walks around my neighborhood when the mood strikes and my schedule allows.  It had been a long time since I had felt exhausted by merely walking around.  But clearly my long walk yesterday around London, on top of our first evening’s stroll to such sights as Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and Whitehall, were taking their toll.  I slowed down, not out of breath but lagging in energy, and, with muscles burning and joints crying foul, walked the few blocks to my next destination.

The Museum of London is just that: a history of the city from prehistoric times until today.  London has existed far longer than any American city: it was founded as Londinium a few years after Christ’s death in the first century, following the invasion by the Roman emperor Claudius.  Yet tribes such as the Iceni and Celts inhabited the land long before that.  And London as we know it today did not spring into being overnight.  London was destroyed and rebuilt several times, before being abandoned and forgotten.  Eventually people found a reason to return, re-founded the city, and from there it grew, enveloping nearby towns and villages such as Westminster and Whitehall, until London became the sprawling metropolis we know today.

What interested me most was the city's Roman period.  After watching the vivid portrayal of life of the Empire in films such as “Gladiator,” in TV series such as “Rome,” “I, Claudius,” and the Doctor Who story “The Romans, in novels like “Roma Eterna” by Robert Silverberg and “Imperium” by Robert Harris, and from reading historic works by Suetonius, Cicero, and Pliny the Younger, I was curious to see how the Empire had influenced the development of civilization in England.  But as I dragged myself inside, my breathing fast, my mouth dry, and my concentration nonexistent, I knew I was in no shape to take in all that this museum had to offer.

Pay unto Caesar for your refreshments!
In the museum’s cafĂ©, we refreshed ourselves with water, soda, and examples of some of the baked goods that England is famous for.  Even though it was earlier, we called this our “elevenses,” as the English call their midmorning break.  Then we braved the exhibits.

Award-winning and best-selling author Connie Willis once remarked that she loved it when something in one story led her to read another.  I’ll go farther than this: under fiction’s powerful influence you may find yourself hungering to read or watch stories in genres you might not otherwise seek out.  You may even find yourself braving difficult nonfiction that you ordinarily wouldn’t touch with the proverbial ten-foot pole.  I imagine that is the case for Connie Willis, as her time travel novels exhibit such attention to detail that she must enjoy studying history.  

I contemplate a new suit
Some might question the wisdom of spending my limited time in London inside a museum, but the time I spent there left an impression upon me.  For so much of what drew me to visit England was its fiction.  In addition to the great stories about contemporary life, some personalities are burned indelibly into my consciousness.  King Arthur and Merlin.  The Emporers Julius Caesar, Claudius, and Nero.  Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy.  Queen Victoria.  Doctor Who.  Winston Churchill.  Hercule Poirot.  Some might cut such a list in two, dividing it between Fiction and Fact.  But what we think we know about those who lived in the past is often enlivened by Fiction, and those who lived only in Fiction survive in our hearts because they bring the past so vividly to life.  Time and necessity bring these disparate partners together; love entwines them in our hearts.  To paraphrase Mr. Spock, I find the interrelationship between the two fascinating.

I left the Museum of London sated, invigorated, and hungering for more.

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