London Revels in Anniversaries of Sex and Scandal
Sunday, April 5, 2009
As is often the case with London during the second weekend in February, the city was a roiling cauldron of demon lust. Even by its own standards, however, this past February was one to remember. For one thing, Saint Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday, thereby increasing the pressure on couples to do something special (even as worrisome economic news led one BBC pundit to suggest that Londoners scale back their efforts and simply draw baths for each other).
For another, the country had just begun saluting the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, that great naturalist and champion of sexual selection. Preparations were also proceeding apace for a Britain-wide celebration of the 500th anniversary of the ascension to the throne of Henry VIII. (Ah, oft-wived, scandalous Henry!)
To top it off, Feb. 14 would mark the 25th anniversary of Torvill and Dean's sensual, gold-medal-winning ice-dance rendition of "Bolero."
People, London was marinating in the rewards and hazards of erotic exploit.
And then, just when it seemed the atmosphere couldn't get any more iniquitous, a young lad from Sussex by the name of Alfie blasted into the national consciousness courtesy of a Feb. 13 headline in the Sun:
"DAD AT 13."
Wow. And the thing was, Alfie looked even younger than that in the front-page photo, a doe-eyed kid clumsily cradling a newborn baby girl. He stared forlornly out of the tabloid at millions of Britons, who stared back with fascination and revulsion. Politicians felt compelled to remark on Alfie's tryst with 15-year-old Chantelle (the phrase "broken Britain" was heard a lot), while Alfie himself sputtered his way through interviews. (Reporter: "What will you do financially?" Alfie: "What's 'financially?' ")
It was a story destined for the water cooler, and the next day the tour guides at Hampton Court Palace, Henry's 16th-century abode outside London, did not disappoint, a trio of them gathering to see who was the most scandalized. Alfie-gate was variously an "outrage," "disgraceful" and, like seemingly everything else in recession-addled Britain these days, "Gordon Brown's fault."
And then the guides dispersed. It was time to lead groups of 20 or so visitors on merry tours of the home of a monarch with a sexual appetite so voracious it necessitated six wives, two beheadings and the Reformation. As the guides tell it, the large red-brick castle 12 miles southwest of London, which Henry took over from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in 1525, eventually devolved into a den of wantonness.
A story line like that makes for a ripping tour, you have to admit, especially now that Henry's refurbished royal apartments have reopened to the public to great fanfare, as has the stunning throne room. More to the point, tours include visits to the gallery where guards dragged Catherine Howard (wife No. 5) kicking and screaming after Henry charged her with adultery, ordering her execution. Or perhaps you'd rather stroll through Anne Boleyn's Gateway, seeing the place where wife No. 2 repaired after a spectacular coronation, or the tennis court where Henry supposedly was volleying when he was informed of her execution. And no fan of turpitude would dare miss the Great Hall. The premiere performance of that matchless paean to sexual jealousy, "Macbeth," is said to have taken place there in 1606 with James I and Shakespeare himself in attendance.
Contrary to belief, there apparently is no truth to the rumor that Anne carried out a secret affair with one of Henry's servants on the grounds of what later became Kew Gardens, but we take our segues where we can. The vast London green space, which is home to the world's largest collection of living plants, is having a birthday of its own this year, its 250th. Accordingly, all 300 acres have been spruced up, as have its famous Victorian conservatories. But it's what hasn't changed at Kew that truly astonishes.
"It might be the oldest potted plant in the world," hedges a sign under a cycad that dates from 1775. The African native, its 15-foot-long trunk in a pot the size of a dishwasher, sits in the south wing of the gardens' most iconic structure, Palm House. True, the trunk is these days growing almost horizontally, but you can hardly expect better from a tree that has lived through the French Revolution, two world wars and the career of Torvill and Dean.