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I have been on only one tour in London thus far, and it may not surprise you to learn that it took me through an area our tour guide called “legal London.”  It is in the heart of the city, and the buildings reek of old cases and serious, bewigged barristers.  We walked through Lincoln’s Inn, where young men used to bury their heads in books in the hopes of gaining favor with the powers that be, where barristers “took chambers.”  We went into the hall of Middle Temple, stepping back in time.  We braved the metal detectors of the Royal Courts of Justice.  It made me want to curl up with a copy of  Dicken’s “Hard Times” or a boxed set of “Rumpole of the Bailey.”

A couple of friends came through last week with their list of things to see in the brief time they were here.  Jean is a dedicated fan of Vermeer, and, although I was not able to get her into Buckingham Palace to see the one owned by the Queen, we could see “The Guitar Player.”  It is located in an English Heritage Property called Kenwood House.  The house is one of those palatial estates that looks as though it belongs out in the country, and it was in the country when it was built. Now it is on the outskirts of an inner suburb, Hampstead Heath.

The original house was probably built by John Bill, the King’s Printer, but from 1712 on Kenwood belonged to a succession of Scots. In 1754, it was sold to a rising young lawyer by the name of William Murray. An architect named Robert Adams began extensive renovations on the house in the 1760’s.

William Murray was the fourth son of the fifth Viscount Stormont, one of eleven children. His father was a noted Jacobite and had been imprisoned for supporting the cause.  It was obvious in grammar school that Murray was very bright, so it was suggested by the schoolmaster that he attend Westminster School in London.  The boy left home at the age of thirteen and never returned.  He flourished at school and was made a King’s Scholar in 1719, allowing him to be accepted into Christ Church, Oxford in 1724. At Oxford, the young Scot became fluent in French and Latin.

William settled in London, and with the help of a few influential patrons, he set himself up at Lincoln’s Inn to study law, acquire clients and argue cases. He fell in love with Chloe, a beautiful girl he met through his friend, Alexander Pope, but his prospects were so dismal that her parents refused the match.

In time, Chloe’s parents may have regretted their decision to marry off their daughter to a country squire. The Scot with the checkered background would go on to become Attorney General, Chief Justice of King’s Bench, and the first Earl of Mansfield. He would become one of the most important men in England.

Murray would gain renown as a judge, reforming mercantile law, reducing religious discrimination, improving court procedures and establishing a precedent that made slavery illegal in England. This decision, which promptly freed some 15,000 slaves, may have been triggered by his own family situation. He and his wife had no children, and they had taken in two great-nieces, one of whom was of mixed race. Her name was Dido Elizabeth Belle. The terms of Murray’s will greatly favored the other niece, but he did make it clear that Dido was to remain free.

Despite Murray’s place in history, his intimate connection to Kenwood House has been overshadowed by a bequest of significance.  In 1925, Lord Iveagh, otherwise known as Edward Cecil Guinness, purchased the estate.  Lord Iveagh inherited and greatly increased the family fortune in the brewing business.  He died before his collection of “Old Masters” were installed, but they now grace the rooms at Kenwood House.  Rembrandt, Hals, Van Dyke, Gainsborough, and the unassuming little Vermeer.

Despite the loss of its entire contents at auction in 1922, some of the original furnishings have been restored to the estate. In 1929, an Act of Parliament was passed to safeguard the house and the art collection.  We are fortunate to be able to visit it today for free and enjoy the lovely surroundings.  The guides are very knowledgeable, and we learned what it meant to be caught “red handed,” and how dangerous it was to be well-to-do in London at that time.

On June 6, 1780, Lord Mansfield’s house in Bloomsbury Square in London was trashed and burnt by Protestant mob in reaction to a decision by his court to protect the rights of Catholics.  Later that day, Kenwood itself was threatened by the mob, but a detachment of light horse was dispatched to protect it.  I am grateful to our guest for dragging me out to the suburbs.  It was a fascinating glimpse at a great urban home built before the towering trees were cut to build our house in Nova Scotia.


A Canadian friend had encouraged us to get tickets for the current production of “Hamlet” at the National Theatre as soon as we got to London, since she had seen the production at a movie theater in Canada. One of the National Theatre’s major success stories is to do broadcasts of their plays around the world. “King Lear” is coming up this week and we will probably see it at the Odeon cinema, since tickets have been impossible to obtain for the stage play. The Hamlet we saw was staged in modern dress, and Rory Kinnear was absolutely mesmerizing. The set design and the machinations of Claudius seemed to point at Putin’s Russia, and the first three acts flew by. The scene changes were ‘brilliant,’ as the British like to say. The last two acts seemed to drag, however, and the ending? Well, I won’t carp, but in my opinion, Shakespeare has done a lot better.

What is Hamlet’s problem? Aside from the fact that his uncle has murdered his father and married his mother? How could someone bungle revenge so thoroughly that absolutely everyone dies? My take on it is that “Hamlet” represents an extreme case of “seasonal affective disorder.” It gets dark up here far too early and stays that way far too long. We are presently at latitude 51 degrees 30 minutes, a bit north of most of the Canadian population, and Denmark is north of here. When we arrived in London at the beginning of January, daylight was disappearing around 3:30 in the afternoon! Does that sound healthy? If you are anything like me, it can send you around the bend.

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O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew;
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter. O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

We are talking about someone with serious issues. Get thee to a therapist, Prince! Get some exercise. Get a light box!

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Fortunately, the International Mime Festival hits London at this time of year, bringing a little laughter and light to various venues around the City. It took me awhile to realize that the word “mime” is interpreted loosely. It is really a Fringe festival, and the offerings range from circus to cinematic. We saw a Russian absurdist take on the idea of “hero” that combined elements of Kafka with technical wizardry disguised as magic; a bizarre, hilarious, manic American parody of Office as Apocalypse, with taxidermy taking center stage; an Italian/Icelandic pair of clowns from Denmark exploring, what else, end of life issues; and a French acrobat/juggling duo of “gardeners,” with the front page of a newspaper taking on a memorable role in a bit of cover up.

The month of January ended, as it always does, with my birthday. On this particular occasion we were favored with a visit from Katherine, a French friend who came bearing gifts– champagne, chocolate, pate, a selection of fine cheeses.  My wife invested in a wonderful cake and we celebrated the year’s end with an Italian colleague and his charming wife. Not too shabby, as my friend Bob used to say.

I’m counting backwards now. Sixty-five promises to be a very good year.  Peter Pan never did grow up, so who says you have to grow old?

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