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One would not have to be too very cynical to conclude that the whole idea behind the Big Fat Royal Wedding is an attempt to shore up flagging interest in the Royal Family. There is a succession problem, after all. Prince Charles is perceived as something of a wacko, partly because he seems to have taken an odd, unhealthy interest in preserving the planet. Royals don’t do that. Their job is to consume resources on a vast scale. The castles, the clothes, the gold gilt carriage, etc. It is a all a question of entitlement, and the Brits seem to get a vicarious thrill from indulging their surrogate, royal selves.

If you want to get a sense of the scale of consumption, you could do worse than visit Hampton Court Palace. It belonged to Cardinal Wolsey before Henry VIII got his hands on it, but in just ten years Henry spent more than £62,000 rebuilding and extending the buildings and grounds. That would be approximately £18 million today. When he died in 1547 the King had more than 60 houses, but none were more sumptuously decorated than Hampton Court Palace.

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Henry’s palace was one of the most modern, sophisticated and magnificent buildings in all of Europe. There were tennis courts, bowling alleys and pleasure gardens for recreation, a hunting park of more than 1,100 acres, kitchens covering 36,000 square feet, a fine chapel, a vast communal dining room (the Great Hall) and a garderobe (or lavatory) – known as the Great House of Easement – which could sit 28 people at a time. It was not quite Versailles, but not too shabby as palaces go.

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In August, 1546, Henry played host to the French ambassador and his entourage of two hundred gentlemen – as well as 1,300 members of his own court – for six days. An encampment of gold and velvet tents surrounded the palace for the occasion. These sorts of feasts depleted the countryside, of course, requiring regular moves from palace to palace.

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Our own invite to the wedding has not been forthcoming, but we did take advantage of a somewhat impersonal invitation (extended by way of a poster in the tube station) to view a small collection of Dutch landscapes in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. It was Easter Sunday, and serious tourists had camped out in front of the Palace to see the changing of the guard. The Queen’s Gallery is tucked in close to the Mews, where the royal horses are being groomed for the Big Event. Most of the paintings were purchased by George IV, who had a penchant for the “good” life, but was also partial to paintings of rustic, rural scenes, where peasants brought in the hay in a soft golden light. For him, it must have seemed fanciful and fun.

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You might assume that time is not right to be plotting to overthrow the monarchy, but Republic, a tiny, London-based, anti-monarchist organization recently held a meeting in a pub just south of Queen Square. Forty brave souls showed up, united in a common cause. They would very much like the monarchy removed from their country’s pocketbook and constitution. Bolstered by fellow comrades in Commonwealth countries such as Canada and Australia, Republicans are hoping that when the international spotlight shines on the Royal Family during the wedding palooza, the flawed system will be laid bare.

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They argue that the monarchy is unaccountable and unrepresentative, a drain on public resources and it makes a joke of democracy: Only half of Britain’s parliament is elected, and the head of state can never be. They say the Royal Family cost British taxpayers £180-million (about $285-million) through payments, deferred taxes and security costs. The Royal accountant begs to disagree. Republicans have been given the green light to hold a street party on the day of the royal wedding in Red Lion Square. A spokesman said they will celebrate “democracy and people-power, rather than inherited privilege” on April 29.

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So, will it all come crashing down when the the Queen shuffles off the mortal coil? Don’t count on it. As “The King’s Speech” makes abundantly clear, the Royals may be a mediocre lot, but they are resilient. And if they have to skip a generation to keep the throne intact, it will probably be arranged. Prince William will be King before Charles has counted the royalties from his new book. The author of “Harmony” has a lot to learn about winning hearts and minds. He could have picked up a thing or two from his mother or his ex. Or the brand new daughter-in-law, the Princess Bride.


Cerberus was wavering. Even though we appeared to have no reservation for a room at St. John’s College, Cambridge, my wife convinced him that she had stayed at the college before. She described the room and the route to the dormitory.  The problem was our arrival on a Sunday. The reservations people were not available. Someone had dropped the ball on our behalf, but protocol and five hundred years of history were at stake. Visitors pay to tour the grounds of the College, since it is one of the oldest in Cabridge. The gatekeeper had to appear to be protecting the place without being entirely unreasonable.

He had already revealed that there were rooms available.  It was a paperwork problem. With a little nudging, the man finally caved. We trundled our luggage through the maze of 16th and 17 century buildings and out across the Bridge of Sighs. Ours was a modest room with twin beds and an internet password that didn’t work, but we had a place to sleep and our very own bathroom. It was not hard to picture the place in winter without central heating and we counted our blessings.

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Our ill-timed arrival was compounded by a misunderstanding over the rendezvous for dinner, but all’s well that ends with a good night’s sleep and a hot breakfast. My wife was happy with the reception she received for her talk and I got to explore the city the following day. Cambridge is captivating. It has been an important town since Roman times, but in the year 1209 a group of religious scholars broke away from Oxford and came here. There are now thirty-one colleges clustered around the city center. King’s College was founded in 1441, and its spectacular chapel took seventy years to complete. With its fan ceiling, beautiful windows and alterpiece by Rubens, it is an architectural marvel.

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I have been remiss in attending to this blog of late despite having plenty of new photos and an adequate amount of topics to write about. I blame taxes. For someone who loathes them as much as I do, the procrastination of the work itself  consumes an enormous amount of time and energy, not to mention the actual effort involved in gathering the numbers together. But we are all plagued with the same disease and it is not very interesting.

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Here in London, I have done due diligence as a tourist despite the taxes. St. Paul’s Cathedral (all the way to the top), Tate Britain, twice, Tate Modern, twice, a tour of the Houses of Parliament, that delightful bicycle wheel, London Eye, twice, the Museum of London, twice, the Imperial War Museum, twice and the Natural History Museum.

Not to mention Kew Gardens, Hampstead Heath and various other venues for plays, dance and other productions. I have to return to the National Gallery, visit the Portrait Gallery, British Museum etc. Time is running out and there is a lot to see.  My work beleaguered wife has seen very little of this.  Guilty pleasures.

There are always surprises. The kangaroo in the creation painting on the ceiling of St. Paul’s cathedral, done shortly after the first ship returned from Australia and England learned about black swans and marsupials.  The fact that “London Eye,” the most popular paid attraction in all of England, was intended to be dismantled after five years.  That the man responsible for inviting the members of the House of Commons to join the House of Lords at the opening of Parliament gets the door slammed in his face, all because of an ill considered act of Charles I.

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I have been impressed by British television. We have watched some fascinating programs on everything from the Bronze Age in Britain to the makeup of the universe. The shows on offer make the American counterparts seem paltry and dumbed down by comparison.

On my walks and on the underground, I am usually accompanied by my Ipod. Recently, I have spent many pleasurable hours in the company of David Mitchell’s “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” Nagasaki, Japan at the end of the 18th century. I’ve been on three harrowing adventures with Michael Forsythe, the compelling killer at the heart of Adrian McKinty’s thrillers. Both writers from the UK, Mckinty now living in Melbourne. I’ve just started on “Old Filth,” by Jane Gardam.

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When the sun finally breaks through the blanket of cloud that seems anchored to this city, it is dazzling. The residents fling off their coats, caps and mitts and stroll around as if summer had arrived. Today’s chill gives the lie to that illusion. I slipped on my fleece gloves as soon as we headed out for the morning constitutional. The dogs like the cold, most of them anyway. This old dog could do with a few more days of heat and sunshine, but the cloud and cold seem appropriate. This is London, after all.

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