Lost in the City

The second Friday of the month is the day of the regular “open” meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society (at 4pm) preceded by parallel discussion meetings on topics that vary from month to month. This month one of the sessions was organized in memory of Bernard Pagel, who died last year and whom I knew a little, so I decided to go to that.

I met Bernard Pagel when I started my DPhil at Sussex University in 1985. He taught one of the courses on the MSc Astronomy and we research students were required to attend his lectures. I have to say he wasn’t the best lecturer I’ve ever had; he always seemed unable to look at the class, which is a trait I find quite disconcerting. But he did reveal a wonderfully wicked sense of humour. When a visiting seminar speaker arrived late and after the seminar explained he had dozed off on the train and missed his stop, Bernard suggested that he must have been reading through his transparencies.

I left Sussex to move to London around about the time Bernard retired from his position at Sussex but he immediately took up a chair at NORDITA in Copenhagen where age restrictions were somewhat looser. I had been working for a while with Bernard Jones in Copenhagen so I next ran into Bernard Pagel when I visited there. I still found him a strange and rather distant man, but as often happens the ice was broken when a group of staff, students and visitors went to a nice concert in the Tivoli Concert Hall. If I remember correctly it was a Mozart violin concerto. Afterwards, Bernard let his guard down and talked in a much more relaxed way than I had known before and we became quite friendly thereafter. He was in fact a man with very wide interests outside his own sphere of eminence in astrophysical spectroscopy.

After the meeting was over, I went once more to the Athenaeum for dinner with the RAS Club. I was quite surprised when, after the meal, it was announced that I had written on my blog about my previous dinner there. I’m not convinced that everyone there knew what a blog actually is but maybe some of them have found their way here…

Although I got back home to Cardiff in good time on the last occasion I dined at the Club, I had already decided to go to the opera on Saturday night so didn’t have to rush off to make the last train. Walking back to Bloomsbury where I was staying on Friday and Saturday I suddenly realized that it as almost exactly ten years since I moved out of London to Nottingham. In fact I bought my house in Beeston on 13th November 1998 and commuted back to London for about a month, as my position in Nottingham didn’t start until 1st January 1999.

On Saturday morning I decided to behave like a tourist so I first went to the British Museum. I intended to see the new Babylon exhibition, but by the time I got there after a leisurely breakfast it had sold out for the day so I had to content myself with the permanent exhibits. I don’t think I ever went to the British Museum in all the time I lived in London, so it was interesting although I got completely lost.

I did get to see the Elgin Marbles but I still don’t know how to play. I also ended up in a room full of mummies, which is something I find quite distasteful. Although the mortal remains are incredibly old, they are still human bodies and I don’t like the way they are stuck in cases for people to gawp at. Call me sentimental but I think these should be returned to Egypt and laid to rest with some sort of dignity. I also think the Elgin Marbles should go back to Greece, but for different reasons. If we hand them back, we might actually get some votes in the Eurovision song contest for a change.

The rest of the day I wandered around a few of the dozens of bookshops that clutter the area between Charing Cross Road and Covent Garden, feeling all the time like a complete stranger to the city. So much has changed that it’s nearly impossible for me to believe that I ever actually lived there at all. In one shop I picked up a (very expensive) old book of poems by Shelley and found the following lines (written about Naples rather than London):

I stood within the city disinterred;
And heard the autumnal leaves like footfalls
Of spirits passing through the streets

I didn’t buy the book. My mood wasn’t helped by the gloomy light. Although it was quite warm for November, there was a curious purple tinge to the late afternoon which I found a bit unsettling.

On my way back I revisited an old tradition of mine of peering in through the window of one of the electrical goods shops on Tottenham Court Road to check the football results. When I was living in London I was usually out most of the day on weekends somewhere in the West End, so that was the only way to keep apprised of developments. Nowadays I don’t go out as much as I used to, so I find quieter ways of filling the gap between the end of Final Score and the start of Match of the Day that seems to me to symbolize middle age.

Then it was time to get to the Coliseum for the opera followed by supper with Joao and Kim at Belgo‘s where our table, ironically, was next to that of a dozen very raucous girls from Cardiff in town for a birthday celebration.

3 Responses to “Lost in the City”

  1. Bo Milvang-Jensen Says:

    Hi Peter,
    I liked the Bernard Jones photopage which you link to! And the photo of you from 1995 is great! The directly link for busy readers is http://www.astro.rug.nl/~bernard60/bernardphoto/eadn.cosmpar.1995.2.jpg
    Cheers, Bo

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Would Joao be Magueijo? If so, what do you think of his variable lightspeed cosmological scenarios?

  3. […] when I was listening to an excellent talk by Richard Ellis at the Royal Astronomical Society last Friday about the current state of play in the (very complicated) field of galaxy formation. I hasten to […]

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