Saturday, June 23, 2007

Tourists in London

The London Eye

As a thirteenth birthday present for Peter, we took the train down to London on Saturday morning and crossed two of the standard tourist attractions off our list: The London Eye and Madame Tussauds. The British Airways London Eye is the largest ferris wheel in the world, taking its passengers 130 meters (426 feet) over the Thames in space-age glass and steel capsules which comfortably hold 25 people. It's expensive (£13/$26 for a 30-minute "flight"), but provides spectacular views over London—especially of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey across the river. The queue to board was long, but moved quickly, and the ride was perfectly non-threatening, even for someone like me who is afraid of heights!

The birthday boy on the London Eye

The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey from the Eye

With so many things to choose from in London (my list still includes St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London, and the new Rembrandt and Hals exhibit at the National Gallery), Madame Tussauds would not have been my personal first choice, but it was a fun—if crowded and expensive—place to take teenagers on a star-studded tour of hyperreality. It's a strange experience, wandering around having your picture taken with wax effigies of celebrities. Peter posed with everyone from Albert Einstein to Jimi Hendrix. At left, the boys pose with Captain Jack Sparrow. Both the London Eye and Madame Tussauds are operated by the large UK entertainment conglomerate Merlin Entertainments, which also operates the Sea-Life Centres (such as the one we visited in Birmingham), Warwick Castle, and Alton Towers, Britain's largest amusement park. Will spent Friday at Alton Towers on the Kenilworth School Year 10 reward trip.

Wax museums became hugely popular in the nineteenth century. In America, Charles Willson Peale's famous museum, established in 1784, included waxwork figures. During her miserable sojourn in the United States, Mrs. Trollope even started a wax museum in Cincinnati, with wax figures created by the young sculptor Hiram Powers. But the most famous wax museum has always been Madame Tussauds, opened on Baker Street in London in 1835.

Clara battling it out with Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France.

Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to have had an interest in waxworks: he mentions them several times in his notebooks, where he collected ideas for his writing. I have always thought that waxworks may have inspired the chapter in The House of the Seven Gables where the narrator seems to circle around the dead body of Judge Pyncheon. Hawthorne was fascinated with questions of life and art. Stories like "The Artist of the Beautiful" and "Drowne's Wooden Image" are obsessed with the attempt of art to imitate, or even recreate, life and the human soul. Hawthorne was exploring these questions at the beginning of the age of machines, an age in which human skill and creativity had been unleashed in new and unexpected ways. Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein, was fascinated with these questions, too. How far can humans go in exercising their almost god-like powers of invention? It's interesting that Shelley, in exploring this question, creates a monster. Madame Tussauds had its start during the French Revolution, and the popular Chamber of Horrors still includes wax depictions of the Reign of Terror (including the actual guillotine blade that beheaded Marie Antoinette) along with its gallery of cool-looking nineteenth-century killers. The French Revolution is the classic historical example of the pursuit of human reason and perfectibility ending in slaughter, of god-like creativity ending in god-like destruction.

The boys with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

The first thing you come to on a visit to Madame Tussauds is a room full of Hollywood celebrities, with strobe lights and glitter balls and music playing to create the atmosphere of an Oscar night party. It seems a far cry from Madame Tussauds original wax depictions of Voltaire and Robespierre, icons of the human potential for both creative reason and mad destruction. The first thing Will wanted to do was to have his picture taken with Brad Pitt. Why Brad Pitt? "Because of Fight Club," Will said.

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