London – HMS Belfast and Imperial War Museum

Day two in London. And another relatively slow morning, though it is all very relative, since we got up at about 8am, and a slow morning for me during the holidays would be more like a rising time of 11am.

Ha.

Our first tourist destination of the day was HMS Belfast, a site son was eager to see, since he had been studying World War II at school. I was a bit more apprehensive, as I have a pacifist’s discomfort at the thought of glorifying war. We travelled to London Bridge and walked through Hay’s Galleria to the River Thames, though there was a minor incident involving an over-zealous security guard in the Galleria who disapproved of son’s tendency to climb on walls.

IMG_3203In contrast to the autumnal rain of the day before, today the weather was glorious – blue skies and clement temperatures. Definitely the perfect weather for exploring London – perhaps not the perfect weather for exploring a massive warship.

As I paid for tickets at the desk, an elderly gentleman leaned in far too close for comfort to ask the ticket vendor some questions. I bristled at his proximity.

“Excuse me,” he said to the vendor and into my ear. “How long is the journey?”

“It takes about two hours to get round the whole ship,” said the vendor.

“And how much is it?”

The vendor, clearly uncomfortable himself at the elderly gent’s lack of etiquette, pointed at the signs above us.

“All prices are up on the board.”

“And will I have time to get round the ship before it leaves?” asked the gent.

Both I and the vendor looked at him.

“It isn’t leaving,” said the vendor. “It’s been here for 47 years. It’s a museum, not a cruise ship.”

“Oh!” said the elderly gent. “It’s not a cruise ship! Oh, ha ha ha!” He laughed at his misunderstanding.

“It’s called HMS Belfast,” said the vendor, “it isn’t going there.”

IMG_3208As an artefact of war, I can have no beef with HMS Belfast. Actually, that’s not strictly true. As an artefact of the British sense of imperialism and self-satisfaction I can have no beef. The recordings of the sailors’ reminiscences and proud retellings of their part in naval conflicts didn’t quite attain that level of objective observation I prefer to see in museums.

But while I was uncomfortable with the tone, I was definitely impressed by the faithful and detailed archives and examples of what the ship was like to live and work on. I would definitely recommend visiting HMS Belfast; just take the self-satisfaction with a pinch of salt.

I wouldn’t recommend visiting HMS Belfast with an apathetic 7-year-old girl.

I was rushed round the ship, daughter’s only interest in it being comparisons with the Titanic.

“Is this ship bigger than the Titanic?” she asked. (It isn’t). “Did they use coal to power the engine? Was coal burned? Like on the Titanic? How much coal was used?”

I have no idea where this obsession with coal came from.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s find the engine room and have a look.”

We made it down the first ladder towards the engine and boiler rooms, lying deep within the belly of the beast, before I bailed out. The narrow corridors, steel walls, enclosed spaces and slow-moving snake of other visitors, blocking one’s escape route, are no place for a claustrophobe. Daughter and I both stopped, turned round, and scooted back up that first ladder. We never did find out about the coal. (I’ve looked it up. It had oil-burning engines.)

Daughter immediately tired of shuffling through the metal rooms and asked for an ice-cream. I was tired, too, so we grabbed a couple of bottles of fizzy pop and made our way onto the deck to wait for husband and son.

An hour later they appeared. An hour daughter and I spent on that deck, sunning ourselves in the glorious warmth, drinking pop and watching the other tourists: cute toddlers, voluble Americans, bored boys, hipster photographers, reminiscing senior citizens…

I could happily spend all my days as a flâneur.

To continue satisfying son’s fascination with war, I took him to the Imperial War Museum in south London, while husband disappeared with daughter in the direction of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.

IMG_3218The Imperial War Museum was brilliant. Again, I had a vague unease about encouraging the glorification of war, but this Museum was so much better at painting the full, gory, blood-spattered picture. If only it would drop that jarring “Imperial” from its name.

The ground floor is given up to World War I, and has recently been redesigned and reconfigured. We wound our way through the story of how the war started, how the different nations became embroiled and entangled; the relentless snowballing of conflict.

I came away with such a sad sense of how utterly pointless that war was, and how much the populace were deceived, misled and bullied into supporting it.

What did shock me was the oath taken by the soldiers on recruitment into the armed forces:

“I do make Oath, that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs, and Successors, and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully defend His Majesty, His Heirs, and Successors, in Person, Crown and Dignity, against all enemies, and will observe and obey all orders of His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, and of the Generals and Officers set over me. So help me God.”

Nothing about defending and protecting their own families, their loved ones, their livelihoods, freedom, democracy…

“And this is why I would never want to be a soldier,” said son. “Or support war.” The objective layout of the exhibition doubtlessly contributed to his statement. I learnt more about WWI in the hour we spent there that I did in 17 years of education.

The Museum is planning to restructure the World War II floor in the same way, hugely evolving it from the traditional, somewhat staid museum layout of exhibits in boxes, to the storytelling, interactive experience of the WWI section. It is expected to be completed by 2020. I’ll be back for that.

IMG_3220Son and I were so engrossed that when I finally looked at my watch I realised we had only 20 minutes to make it from the IWM site in Elephant & Castle to County Hall on the Southbank. On the map, this looks within easy walking distance. In real life, it isn’t – not in 20 minutes when you have sore feet and tired legs.

Son and I arrived 15 minutes late at the designated meeting spot, where husband and daughter were waiting for us, though husband said they had only just arrived themselves.

Husband took the children back to north London, and I met some old pals from my journalism training course in Locale, an Italian restaurant on Belvedere Street. This area of London is nothing like I remember it. In the 11 years since I left, there has been so much construction, so many new buildings sprouting into the grey skies, that not only is the city’s skyline changed but so are the vistas at street level.

The newness of the buildings and the expanse of concrete blocks make for a very disorientating experience trying to navigate streets I once knew like the back of my hand.

Locale was very pleasant. The Caesar salad I chowed down on was without chicken or halloumi, at my choice, which did make for a very lettuce-centric dish. But the dressing saved it and I finished the lot.

My friends’ pizzas seemed unexceptional but huge, so I would say good value. What was great about the place was the friendliness of the staff, every one of whom twinkled with a warm sense of humour. Our waitress was super-efficient. It seems that, finally, London is catching up with the rest of Europe when it comes to good service.

Several vodka & tonics down, and after a post-meal drink in a Waterloo pub, I wended my way home alone on the Tube. The battery of my phone had run out some hours before, and I had a moment of panic as I wondered how I was going to entertain myself for the next 11 stops. Then I remembered that, in the old days, I used to just sit and either read a book or people watch. For a moment there, I thought I might have lost the ability to do nothing. I’m so used to constant bombardment of the senses, it’s quite unnerving to suddenly find a sensory space in all the mayhem. One feels as though one must fill the void.

What I did then was a bit weird. I plugged my earbuds into my phone, then pretended to listen to music.

If there are any psychiatrists among you, I would welcome your absolute silence on this.

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