Saturday, April 10, 2010

Desire and Death at The Tower of London


29 March 2010

Today, the W___ and I visited The Tower of London. It is such a magnificent historical site filled with ceremony, affairs of state, the ghosts of past prisoners, sorrow, death and as I learned but already knew to a degree, it is replete with desire- the desire for power, wealth, control, protection and the throne.  And it is also full of sexual desire.  Anne Boleyn arrived at The Tower in 1533 to be crowned Queen Consort of King Henry VIII.  The King had fashioned an entirely new religion, The Church of England, (which fomented years of strife and pain), just to fulfill his sexual desire for her and the need for a male heir to the Tudor throne.  Queen Anne returned a mere 3 years later to be executed on trumped up charges of incest and adultery.  Love doesn’t last forever especially where royal dynasties and their power and longevity are concerned.  Women were expendable.  Henry VIII had 6 wives in total.

Initially, my desire for and about The Tower centered around the Crown Jewels which I had seen on my last visit to the castle in the summer of 1988.  Unlike then, the Crown Jewels are now housed in a larger and more accessible exhibition space behind 2 massive, thick steel vault doors- the desire for protection, ceremony and the continuity of the royal line.  To be bluntly honest and a bit crude, the Crown Jewels make me cream in my pants.P1010061  Who cannot be moved to tears, lust, envy, greed or joy when seeing the Sovereign’s Sceptre that was made for Charles I in 1661 and then altered in 1910 when it was set with the Cullinan I, a 530 carat monster of a diamond.  At first, you think before you actually see the stone that it will look like mere glass, but nothing prepares you for the sparkle, depth and dynamism of the diamond when you see it in the majestic sceptre.  I am certain with a little tweaking that I could rock this gem as a pin, pendant or even a ring with a much needed support device included to hold up my hand.  Being colorless, it would go with everything even a jumpsuit and a white powdered wig.


To go along with my new piece of jewelry, I will need a tasteful head covering and I could certainly wear The Imperial Crown of India made in 1911 for the coronation of George V as Emperor of India.  The monarch and his wife, Queen Mary, actually went to the subcontinent to be crowned in a great pageant of self-assured imperialism.  As none of the English crown jewels could leave Great Britain, a new crown was needed for the foreign ceremony .  The 1911 crown consists of a gold and silver frame set with 6,002 diamonds and colored gems with the emeralds and sapphires coming from India for symbolic effect.

Coronation of George V Emperor of India

During the long ceremony George V in full state robes despite the heat received the homage of Indian princes.  That evening the King wrote in his diary, “Rather tired after wearing the Crown for 3 1/2 hours…it hurt my head as it is pretty heavy.”  The casualness and banality of the monarch’s remark focusing on his own discomfort expresses a sort of boredom or nonchalance in face of the imperialistic display of the coronation ceremony.  It ignores the horror of the subjugation of an entire race.  Such a subjugation would, I assume, in the King’s mind be seen as natural, ordained and Christian.  After the event, the Crown did not remain in India, but was returned to England.  Its ₤60,000 cost was paid for by the Indian people, but of course the real cost to them far exceeded that sum.

Lady Jane Grey at the age of 16 only wore her English crown for 9 days and never even had a coronation like George V.  Her tenuous claim to the throne was crushed by her cousin, Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s first daughter by Catherine of Aragorn.  Lady Jane was imprisoned in The Tower and eventually executed on a small green area in front of Beauchamp Tower.P1000490  Her remains lie under the altar of the Chapel of Saint Peter-ad-Vincula located in The Tower grounds.  When we visited the chapel on our tour, I said a prayer for Jane.  I was upset thinking about her and the other Tower victims which numbered nearly 1500.  Being upset is not the emotion of the tourist.  (I find it hard to write about this feeling without sounding trite.  I did experience something for Jane and all the Tower victims that is not easily put into words.)

DelarocheLadyJaneGrey When I was living in London in the summer of 1988, I would obsessively  visit  a 1832 painting by the French artist Paul Delaroche depicting  the execution of Lady Jane Grey.  This painting for me captured all the pathos, tragedy, horror and tense anxiety of the event.  Her plight at the age of 16 resonated with me at the age of 20 as she was caught up in events beyond her control.  At that moment in my life, in contrast, I felt in charge.  I had just finished  2 successful terms studying art history at the University of East Anglia in Norwich and that summer I was interning at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a deliciously scrumptious museum like a little decorated cake.  The museum is filled with exquisite 17th and 18th century English and European paintings.  That summer in part  was about the fantasy of travel, of being the other (another other) in a foreign place and assuming a new identity.  It was the first time I had really lived on my own not in a dorm and it was quite wonderful being young, free and optimistic.

Yet, I was still haunted by Lady Jane and her fate as if it foreshadowed things to come in my life.  As I returned over and over again to see the Delaroche painting I wondered and wonder today what were her desires?  What did she wish for or want in her life?  Did she really want to be queen or was she a pawn of the men around her like so many other aristocratic women who came before and after her?  Her fate reminds me that we are all to a large degree not in control of our own lives.  And by 16, she was married.  Was it her choice or a political connection?  Her husband was also eventually executed in The Tower as well.

The Tower of London is, therefore, filled with sorrow, regret, longing- desires unfulfilled, but the desire of the state always prevailed here usually with the fall of an ax.  The deep emotions absorbed by The Tower stones and carved into them by prisoners

P1000495  Carved by or for Thomas Peverel circa 1570

P1000494 Graffiti carved in support of Lady Jane Grey circa 1554

seems curiously displaced or ignored by the current tourist nature and function of the site.  But then history is almost always written by the victors.  If only there was a Lady Jane diary. 

This desire for freedom, for an end to imprisonment or torture is in marked contrast to the tourist’s desire to see, to know, to accumulate on some level sightseeing accomplishments.  Tower check.  Big Ben check.  London Eye check and so on.  History though told through guides, tours etc. is in the end often evacuated especially in our ahistorical, postmodern, all media world.  The experience of The Tower is reduced to a gift shop trinket or a bunch of photographs some of which are never identified or remembered.

This desire to see, to objectify is clearly evident in the relationship between the military guards on duty in The Tower and its visitors.  The guards standing at attention and protecting the Jewel House or performing a ceremony like inspection or changing the guard are physical and photographic objects.  They are meant to represent security, protection, strength, the nation, The Queen, and the military prowess of the state, but they can only stand there passively and take it photographically so to speak.  They become objects for the scopophilic gaze of the tourist.

In their own head, the soldiers must experience an oscillation between excitement and loathing- pleasure at being looked at and discomfort at being a passive object fixated in pixels.  I am sure when a pretty girl takes their picture there is enjoyment.  But what if I am the photographer?  Is there panic, helplessness as I fix my homoeye on these young lads splendidly dressed in a military uniform?  Or perhaps there is pleasure too or just nothing.

P1000455 I photographed 3 soldiers at The Tower.  The first was wearing the great 18 inch black bearskin hat which just rocks.  One in every color please.  He was sort of cute and a boy’s appeal even if plain or downright ugly is always heightened by the wearing of a uniform (a denotation of masculinity).

The lad in the bearskin hat looked nervous.  The hat seemed to overpower him.  And the lapels of his long grey coat seem too big for his head and face as if he was a young boy playing dress-up.  He averts his gaze from the


camera in the close up I took in order to dispel the presence of my technological fixation? or more likely to perform his duty of being watchful and on guard.


The second chap had a very angular face with prominent ears and a large nose. He was wearing a beret instead of the bearskin hat and the same long, grey coat.    His look seemed totally absent and still as if he was resigned to his fate as a photographic object.


The third soldier was the ultimate prize.  He was engaged in an inspection, I believe, in front of the Jewel House.  His features were beautiful- a square jaw, full lips, deep set (blue?) eyes, well-proportioned ears and nose, lovely pinkish skin and red hair.  He reminded me of Michael K on Dlisted calling Prince Harry, Prince Hot Ginge.  Here is Private Hot Ginge wearing his grey coat, black beret with a red and white cockade and holding an assault rifle with a nasty looking bayonet.P1000484  If an ugly bloke can radiate attractiveness by donning a uniform, the appeal of a beautiful man in uniform is heightened beyond measure.  Here was my second desire at The Tower- Private Hot Ginge.

A friend suggested that this whole enterprise of photographing The Tower soldiers was a bit pervy and perhaps a violation.  I agree that objectifying a person not known to you in a photograph is a bit problematic.  And on the other hand I was not the only person photographing them.  They are part of the spectacle and allure of The Tower.  I am also sure that I was not the only individual with lustful thoughts.

Moreover, my photographic desire is not like a site such as in which people submit random photographs of guys taken surreptitiously on the train or on the street.  That scenario seems to me more of a violation, a visual invasion of privacy and dignity.  The soldiers in The Tower are part of the show and being objectified by tourists is part of the bargain.

So, I left The Tower with a few touristy trinkets for gifts- socks embroidered with Yeoman Warders for my dad and a pink lipstick case emblazoned with a crown for my mom.  I bought myself a beadedP1000705 coin purse of a London double decker bus.  Touristy, tacky perhaps, but ultimately swell.  The pound coins are heavy and who wants those in your pocket.

Unfortunately, I did not leave The Tower with Private Hot Ginge on my arm while he regaled me with stories of the castle and told me about our fantastic night on the town, saying, “ Let us go then, you and I, as the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table…”


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