April 5th, 2013
I am in jolly old London, except it is less than really jolly; it is unseasonably cold and everyone is huddling into scarves and sweaters, ducking snowflakes and wondering whether climate change has anything to do with it. Italian tourists look frustrated; the Germans are just getting on with it. Canadians like to say we are used to it, but truthfully it’s just too bloody cold here. The sky is as leaden as the pound and the air is grey with smog. Sounds like a nightmare, but to paraphrase the poet-scholar, when a man [sic] is tired of London he [sic] is tired of life. It’s true. This is one of the world’s most advanced built cultures and one could and should never ever tire of it. I can see the Thames from my hotel window and that goes a long way to warming me up for the day.
A bunch of colleagues and I are here this week, along with the university president and entourage, to celebrate our UK campus in Harlow, mingle with alumni, and dine at Parliament. Last night about 100 of us enjoyed a traditional English meal—Yorkshire pudding, rib roast—in the members’ dining room at Westminster. Above you can see a picture of the vast stone hall through which one enters before advancing into the smaller and more intimate spaces of the Parliament buildings. We entered the glorious golden gothic walls of the Palace of Westminster, as it is often referred to, through the Cromwell portal and then through some serious security checks before coming into this hall. As one colleague noted, it’s not hard to imagine heavily robed medieval noblemen milling about the vast spaces, waiting for some edict from an impatient king—perhaps Richard III whose remains were just discovered not too far from here across the river.
I would have taken a lot more pictures inside the corridors of the Palace and the dining room, but no photographs are allowed once one leaves the hall. Even gesturing towards one’s camera brings sharp scolding rebuke from the officials guarding the House of Commons. We loitered in a grand lobby, ringed with large portraits and busts of politicians and iconic leaders, before permission was granted to enter the dining room. It’s all awesome, of course, standing in the very bowels of Western history, imagining the thousands of famous people who have tread the stone floors beneath our feet. There is a strong smell of dust and history in the air, dampness over everything, and an unmistakable maleness to it all. English history has certainly been dominated by men, a few Elizabeths and Margaret Thatcher notwithstanding, and you can feel it in the dimly lit Palace corridors. I am sure the décor and lighting of the place would look and feel different if some strong-minded women architects had been invited to participate in the construction. Except for electricity there is nothing even vaguely twentieth-century about any of it, let alone this century. That said, we loved it.
Dinner was lively. A hundred Memorial enthusiasts make a lot of noise. The new Lt. Governor of the province gave a rousing, witty address, reminding the room of his own experience as Memorial student and the remarkable growth of the university since then. Applause was appreciative and extended. Among us were many Memorial graduates, Rhodes scholars, a former president, donors, alumni, and the Canadian High Commissioner and his wife. A young woman now living in the UK said her experience at Memorial had more than prepared her for employment and in general for life, and she insisted that the cocky graduates of Oxford or Cambridge whom she had met living here were no better prepared. In fact, she said many of them knew “rubbish.” Indeed, it was a night of boasts and shared confidences. Everyone was happy about the university and its evolution and we all emerged from the event under the looming Tower of Big Ben with full bellies and a pile of new business cards. Collaborations and support have always been borne out of shared meals and wine, conversation and laughs. Such has been the case for hundreds of years in that dining room, I am sure, and so it was again.