Between a palace and a war place

Anglotopia Final Edition – Day 23 – Kensington Palace and Imperial War Museum 

It was my last day in the UK, so I came up with a strategic plan to visit Kensington Palace again – I was there on my first trip years ago – and the much-recommend Imperial War Museum.

I hopped the Tube to the familiar Gloucester Road station, grabbed a coffee at Cafe Nero – scoring my second free coffee thanks to their loyalty program, which meant at least twenty-two coffees consumed at their shops over the course of three and a half weeks – and tried to outstrip the looming rain clouds as I speed-walked to Kensington Palace.

I had barely made it inside to get a ticket when the clouds let loose with their summer fury, the rain pounding down on those enjoying the previously-sunny day in Kensington Park. People ran, screaming, for cover, as I was sure it was cold, and the deluge came down like it was mad at the earth.

Whew. I was inside.

Kensington Palace still felt like the same cozy place I remembered from my last visit. I enjoyed the Victoria exhibit, and the King’s Apartments and Queen’s rooms, as the palace seems more like a home than a wealthy showpiece of power. I don’t know, it’s not like it is my home or anything (far from it considering I live in Hong Kong, land of tiny apartments in the sky), but it has a lovely vibe to it that most grand homes don’t have. I could see why Queen Victoria liked Kensington, and why the current royals seem to favor it.

After exploring the exhibits around the palace, I had a hot cup of tea and a slice of cake in the cafe, blissfully watching the rain strike the glass wall and wither down. I had an umbrella, but my first day in England had proven the futility of umbrellas against a truly furious English summer rain, so I resolved to wait inside for the time being until it lightened up.

I curled up in the chair, scouting out some nice acoustic tunes courtesy of Spotify, and lost myself in a book and another cup of tea as the world got a nice washing outside.

About an hour later and my brain completely tripped up on cozy contentedness that can only come from a rainy day, a book, and hot tea, the rain finally let up enough to allow the hostages of the palace to wander out once more. The paths were soaked, the trees dripping, and the flowers half-bent to the rain’s force, but the earthy, fresh and dewy scent of the grass was magnificent. It was enough to fill my lungs with the chilled fragrance – an English garden in its glory.

In Hong Kong, it’s hot almost all year round (save for the once-in-60-years icy cold snap we froze through last winter), and it smells like humidity and wet plants all the time. Nevermind the salty fish stink if you’re near a wet market. The best smell is in November, when the state flower of Hong Kong, the bauhinia orchid, blooms on trees, filling the air with its magenta scent, complementing the sunset orange hibiscus on bushes and the slightly dry scent of leaves that refuse to turn colors. It’s a small window, but right now, I a very happy to have a bauhinia tree near my house. The smell is better than most Febreeze air fresheners.

I left Kensington Gardens behind for a Pret A Manger, as I needed a quick and tasty lunch, before hopping onto the Tube once more for a trip under the river and to the Imperial War Museum. Along the way, I noticed the oldest horse-brigade firestation in London, near the palace. The streets weren’t busy, and traffic quite sparse – the rain really had scared people off. It began to pour again as I reached Waterloo station, so I commissioned a cab to take me to the museum instead of walking and getting soaked to the bone.

Nothing like going from the tranquility and beauty of Kensington to the rawness of WWI laid out in brilliant, exacting detail at the Imperial War Museum.

Now, in our humanities department, we are divided over which wars we prefer to study. Wars that we study intensely for some reason or another. It’s like a maths department having a favorite maths equation or something. I have always studied WWII intensively, from Nanjing, Hiroshima, Eastern and Western Europe, and the rise of suburban America post-war. It has always fascinated me. Others in my department are WWI studiers. I have to say – the Imperial War Museum pulled out all the stops on the British side of the war.

As someone who hasn’t studied WWI a great deal compared against WWII – or, rather, I’ve mostly studied it through the lens of the celebrated WWI poets – I learned a great, great deal at the museum. The entire first floor was dedicated to the lead-up to the war, the consequences abroad and at home in Britain, along with the new war technologies, the use of gases, and the ultimate winning of the war and pick-up afterwards.

The artificial limbs and pieces of facial reconstruction were very telling – WWI had been a savage and carnal war, the likes of which the world hadn’t seen before – and, unfortunately, would see again just about twenty years later. The Crimson Portrait by Jody Shields is a fictional account of the post-WWI Britain, complete with how the artificial faces were constructed – the masks and pieces for men damaged horribly by gas, shelling, and explosives in dirty trench warfare.

The 20th century was one of the most fascinating centuries in human history, perhaps the most fascinating. Compare its opening in 1900 to its end in 1999, and the scientific, political, social, environmental, and economical changes in those 100 years against any other century. Sure, the 19th century saw a great many advancements, but I think the 20th century outshines it all – in the goodness and the in the worst of humanity.

While there was a WWII section of the museum, it was not, in my opinion, as extensive as the WWI part. Upstairs, there was a Holocaust exhibit, something which I wanted to see. However, I noticed something very quickly – that after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, after standing in the gas chambers, seeing the shooting wall, the jail cells, barracks and train tracks and railcars – that the scale model of the death camp could stop me absolutely cold in my tracks. I came into the room with the model, knowing what I would see, but something about seeing it as a small white model created this rush in my head. To be honest, I felt like I might actually cry.

The emotions hit me so quickly, so unexpectedly, that I leaned against the wall, and another tourist came up to me to ask if I was okay.

I nodded, and when she looked at me for explanation, I said, “I was just there – and no model can compare to that horrible place.”

Really, that’s all one can say. No museum will ever be as raw and frightening as Auschwitz. As wandering in the former Krakow Ghetto. Or as seeing Terezin as the ghostly place it is. But we need these places to teach us if we cannot visit ourselves. We need these museums as reminders that evil is insidious to disguise itself as mere words to feed the discontented masses, then deeds, then acts of pure hatred and intolerance.

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As we enter an age of post-Brexit and post-US Election, an age where walls seem to sound safer than bridges, the need for vigilance, for being, as Cheryl Strayed says, ‘warriors of love’, is more important as ever. On this Veteran’s Day in the US and Remembrance Day in other parts of the world, the best way to honor sacrifice is to not let it be in vain, to be heroes in actions and deeds, and to let “never again” be truly, “never again”.

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