28th February 2014 – £21.50
Joined by Shelagh Deeney & Emmet Deeney
The infamous White Tower was the first addition to London’s iconic skyline and I imagine the locals objected to the ostentatious monument to a swaggering foreign power much more than we did with the Shard. For hundreds of years, the Tower of London loomed over the Thames as a stark reminder to England of its ruling classes. Now, it looms over the Thames as a stark reminder to England of its touring classes. It is the world capital of tourism. It’s where tourists come to out-tourist each other. It’s a place so touristy that my parents and I, three Northerners dressed in macs and backpacks, were made to look as local as Danny Dyer buggering a pigeon to the Lambeth Walk.
Like every wave of outsiders travelling up the Thames, those in the Tower saw us coming and slapped us in the face with a £21.50 entry fee (and later had the gall to speak of folk being executed for extortion). Historic Royal Palaces must be laughing all the way to the Royal Mint with this one. They understand that the ToL is an essential visit for most tourists, like the Eiffel Tower or Christ the Redeemer, and ergo can charge whatever they can get away with. I looked to my phone’s train ticket app for an example of the furthest destination I could afford for £21.50. Blackpool. I joined the queue and shut up.
Luckily, as we entered the keep, or whatever it’s called, a Beefeater was starting a tour of the grounds and jolly glad I was to be part of that crowd, too. He was a tall, portly man with stentorian delivery that diminuendoed at his sentence’s end. He had the kind of ever-so borderline xenophobia (“Americans, if you’re looking for the bathroom it’s called a toilet”) and sexism (“Ladies, if you trip on this step, I will catch you and we’ll share a moment. Gents, if you fall over, you’re on your own”) common for roles of this nature, but I think he fell just on the side of what we in 2014 call “charming”, but he might not have long left. Regardless, he was a gifted storyteller who shared accounts of the castle’s most bloody and vicious acts and couldn’t’ve given one scintilla of a shit about the kids listening, lips all a-quiver.
The thing with Beefeaters is that I’m not sure I could ever trust someone who’s named after what they have for dinner. I’d be a Babybelleater.
Once the hour-long tour had ended, we were left to our own devices and, despite it being a relatively quiet day, we still felt swamped by the throng of visitors. Our first port of call was the famous and recently refurbished Crown Jewels display and what a miserable ordeal it was. We huddled masses are invited to gawp at the dripping opulence entitled to one family. There’s eleven tonnes of gold in them walls, and every gram of it’s bullshit. One’s taken along on conveyor belts that zip round crowns, sceptres and a coronation spoon (?). “This is the most valuable collection of crowns, coronation regalia and jewels in the world”. So? Should I be humbled and impressed, or am I meant to fall to my knees in a nationalistic spasm, wanking and sobbing as I whistle Jerusalem. It stinks, let me tell you, and at £21.50, it felt like I was propping up that tawdry falderal.
Outside the building for the Crown Jewels was a collection box for donations. Entry fee, tax-payers’ money, profits from ancillary items, and donations?
It’s said that if the ravens leave the Tower, the monarchy will collapse. Of course, our progressive, secular society doesn’t kowtow to such asinine superstition, so the Tower of London have chopped half a wing off the remaining ravens, for good measure. Stay classy, lads. We were promised that “the birds are well looked after”. Yeah, I’m sure they could say that of most Geishas, or the fella from Misery.
Inside the tower itself was an armoury display much like the Royal Armouries in Leeds but not quite as boring. The problem with displaying weapons is that, for me, they become as obsolete in interest as quickly as they do in combat, and by the end I wanted to shoot every last halberdwith a space laser. The whole experience is pretty specious. I wasn’t learning anything and felt as if, much like the Tower at its inception, I was meant to be rendered agog at its monarchical splendour. The top of the Tower was pretty much empty, except for a video presented by the History Channel. Now, I’m sorry, but have you ever watched the History Channel? I’d put more faith in a balanced and academic historical lecture from MTV Bass.
And they kept banging on about this Coronation Spoon. Who cares? It’s a spoon. I’ve got a drawer full of them at home.
It should be said that there was a fair old chunk dedicated to giving the kids a hands-on experience with loads of stories that seemed pretty interesting, so fair play. There were bow and arrows, swords, and helmets to play with – see kids, history can be fun!
The animals are long gone. The site was apparently a primitive zoo for the respective monarchs and had elephants, camels, ostriches, baboons and even lions. There was a story about Mary Jenkinson, a local woman who was taunting a lion to the point of the beast turning on its tormenter and killing her. She became the first person on these islands to be killed by a lion and, by all accounts, she deserved it.
It seemed that the royal beast keepers tried very hard to be as cruel as possible to their four-legged charges which, you would think, strikes a tragic chord to our collective modern ear. But a quick boat ride upstream will take you to the London Sea Life Aquarium where you can see those practices still very much alive.
Looking forward to the best bit? Well don’t get your hopes up because this nominal gesture could be the Tower’s nadir. I don’t support the practice at all, but it would be churlish of me to say that it doesn’t contain a morbid intrigue, and it felt strange to say I was looking forward to it. However, this two-bit farce was over in a heartbeat, which is the opposite of torture by definition.
There was a voting machine asking whether we thought torture was always right, always wrong or a little bit ok (as a joke, I suppose). Turns out I don’t share the beliefs of the vast majority of you.
The Tower of London goes a long way to mythologising the United Kingdom, with the lions of England and Scottish unicorns everywhere. It’ll be interesting to see just how united it is come this September’s referendum and if the Beefeaters are forced to turn their unicorns into magic glue.
The entry charge is just not acceptable, especially with some of the exhibits being old and mangey and their stories not being told nearly well enough. It seems to fit into the History Channel’s “black and white storytelling” remit perfectly, with even the greatest monarchs being shown as despotic bastards and the rest being utterly feckless. As you probably guessed, I’m no monarchist, but even I know things weren’t that binary.
If I garnered one thing from my visit it’s that we should privatise the monarchy. I’ll readily admit that I’ve a limited knowledge of economics, but I could think of nothing more regal than having Prince Philip sponsored by Renault Kangoo, living at the Sportsdirect.com Palace @ St. James’ Park
And I saw a Beefeater on his iPhone.
My English-teaching mother described it far better than I’ve tried here:
“The tour was good, the tower was shit.”