London Calling

Bicycle on London street with sign


You expect fog and drizzle, gloom and sodden streets, but when you emerge from the Paddington tube station, you find yourself blinded by the noonday sun. You’re deliriously tired, but it’s exhilarating to be off the plane at last, to be able to walk with long strides, to exhale out the last vestige of recycled airline air, to be alerted by the painted words on the asphalt at your feet. 

“Look left,” cautions the one just beneath you. “Look right,” urges the one on the opposite side of the street. Good thing too, since even though you know “they” drive on the “wrong side” of the road, you’ll spend your entire time here looking exactly the wrong direction every time you enter a crosswalk.

You find a taxi queue and take your place, and before long you’re comfortably ensconced inside one of those legendary roomy black cabs, gawking out the window at all that history. It’s everywhere, it’s church spires and hidden gardens, it’s impossibly charming doorways and unexpected graveyards, it’s ornate gates and chalked pub menus, it’s just history and it makes you realize all at once just how very young we are back home, where a building that’s 200 years old is historic with a capital “H,” but here, 200 years ago is just the other day.

When you finally get to the East Side, to the University of London’s Queen Mary College, to the blue gate where the guard sits and nods as you walk by, you’re getting used to the idea that home is here now, at least for this little while, and when you get your room assignment and walk into your dorm room, you set down your bags, set up your iPod, hit “play” and smile.

Because you’re here, you made it, and now all you have to do is figure out what, exactly, 79 students and five faculty members are doing here, and how, exactly, to describe it in a way that makes it more than just words on a page, but makes it just as real as it is at this exact moment.

This year marks five years since the inception of USD’s London Summer Program, which was founded in 2003 by David Hay, USD’s director of undergraduate theater and associate professor of English and theater, in conjunction with English professor Cynthia Caywood.

“It originally started with a focus in just English and theatre, as these are our disciplines,” recalls Hay. “Over the years, we’ve expanded, in part due to (former Arts and Sciences) Dean Drinan’s strong interest in the program.”

USD professors David Hay and Cynthia Cayhood flanked by students on a study-abroad trip to London.

USD professors David Hay and Cynthia Cayhood flanked by students on a study-abroad trip to London.

While the choice of housing for the students in London’s East End is pragmatic — the Queen Mary campus offers affordable housing, classrooms, food services and other essentials — in truth, the purpose is to broaden students’ horizons even more. “We want students to have consciousness of parts of London beyond where they might see plays and go to museums,” explains Hay. “Being here helps them understand cultural complexity and diversity, and helps them understand how other people in the world live.”

While earning three units in three weeks sounds intense, when the mandate is to “use London as your classroom,” even the hardest work feels a lot like adventure. Case in point? The day that associate professor Eric Pierson’s British Media Systems class went to Hyde Park to take in the massive concert celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday. There, his students were surrounded by flag-hoisting revelers from around the world who seemed personally invested in marking the momentousness of the occasion. The historic tribute to Mandela included performances by stars like Annie Lennox, Joan Baez and Amy Winehouse. 

“The whole point of bringing students there was the lesson that this event wasn’t about them,” Pierson recalls. “Students were exposed to something outside themselves; they were immersed in celebrating the potential of what could be.” The event was clearly moving for Pierson: “Just the idea that he could be imprisoned for 27 years and not come out of jail bitter is amazing to me,” he says.

But by the first Monday, June 23, participants were expected to jump headlong into their studies. Alongside Pierson’s class, academic offerings included Ethics in Theatre/London Plays in Production — co-taught in the classroom by professors Larry Hinman and David Hay — British Political Culture, led by professor Virginia Lewis, and a course on the Medieval Church, helmed by long-time USD professor of religious studies Gary Macy, who now teaches at Santa Clara University.

A typical weekday began with breakfast at an eatery informally referred to as “The Curve” on campus at the University of London. There, visitors could opt for the full English breakfast (eggs, grilled tomatoes, baked beans, sauteéd mushrooms, alarmingly overstuffed sausage), or opt for the more familiar tea and toast. It was a safe bet that by 8:30 a.m. or so, program site director Caywood would be settled at a table, ready to hold “office hours” and answer any and all questions, ranging from inquiries about the logistics of working the machines at the on-campus launderette to the intricacies involved in obtaining a password to gain Internet access at the computer lab.

Most mornings were devoted to class work followed by afternoon and evening outings to cathedrals, museums, landmarks and theatres. From St. Paul’s Cathedral to a tour of the BBC, from the Tower of London to 10 Downing Street, King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe to the British Library, students were immersed in their studies in most memorable ways.

“It’s been really fun and really busy,” said Megan Lenahan ’08. Her vibrant fashion sense has a hint of punk rock bravado, allowing her to blend in with locals without being immediately marked as a Yank. There’s a tinge of nostalgia for her college days in her wistful delivery; British Media Systems marks her last class at USD. “Everything we’ve done with this class is really interesting, and there’s more than enough time to go out and explore on your own.”

“Part of the value of diving into the culture is there’s all of this stuff that you’re not going to be quizzed on,” explains Pierson over lunch. “It can be hard, because you’re trying to balance class work with all of the other distractions competing for students’ attention.” And while there’s no denying the allure of nightlife, the reality of essays, quizzes and demonstrable gained knowledge tames after-dark revelry to a manageable level.

However they spent the previous evening, on this particular morning, students and faculty from all four classes are up and about early, scattered from one end of Mile End to the other. This being a USD program, what they’re doing is giving back to their (temporary) community.

The ethics group is heading to Whitechapel Mission —“created in 1876 to help the homeless and rootless of London, specifically street sleepers” — to cook breakfast and sort clothing. Walking past high-rise housing projects, shuttered pubs and not-yet-open shops, a dozen or so students cluster together at a bus stop. A roadblock quickly arises when a trio admits to having left their “Oyster Card” bus pass back at their rooms. A brief discussion about the moral consequences of riding the bus without paying ends predictably: Professor Hinman walks those students back to campus to fetch them. (“I am the ethics professor, after all.”) The rest hop on the next bus; the others will catch up later.

(A few stops later, a group of police are milling about at the curb when the bus pulls over. No one gives it a second thought. Later, word trickles down that the bus that the Oyster Card group subsequently caught was stopped by those officers and a group of ticketless riders was detained, maybe even arrested. Seldom has an ethics lesson had quite such a vivid, well-timed payoff.)

Once assembled, the group gets a quick introduction to Whitechapel by manager Sue Miller before taking over from students in Hays’ class, who’ve been on-site since 6 a.m. One pair is selected to go into a separate room and work with clients in need of “life skills.” Seniors Angela Tremolada and Kyle Madison listen intently as coordinator Sunya Scott peppers them, scattershot, with information: “People come into this room because they need something. Maybe to use the phone, maybe they lost their kids. You never know what’s coming through the door.”

The students exchange an alarmed glance. “Look, they come here to get breakfast and showers, but some people are on the streets because they want to be on the streets,” she tells them. “We don’t mind. We’ll take you back no matter what.”

Less than 30 minutes later, Kyle is deep in conversation with a client. “OK, so where did you stay last night? Got it. On the bus in and around Tower Hamlet.” Angela is helping Jolanta from Lithuania. “I think she just wanted someone to talk to,” she says later. “I think she was just lonely.”

Senior Kelly Dreyer takes a break from washing dishes long enough to reflect on the experience of providing hands-on assistance to street-dwellers. “My sorority does a lot of community service, like raising money for the armed forces. I like this because it’s a much more direct form of making a difference.”

For some students, experiences like these can actually change their entire world view. “This day has helped me realize that I can do a lot more than I think I can,” Tremolada subsequently wrote in an essay about that day. “I can overcome things I am afraid of. I went into the project thinking, ‘How can I help them? I don’t know how to do this!’ and I left feeling very accomplished.”

USD Professor Eric Pierson joins students in cleaning graffiti off a bridge in London during a study-abroad trip.

USD Professor Eric Pierson joins students in cleaning graffiti off a bridge in London during a study-abroad trip.

Translating their hard work to those kind of big-picture life lessons proves a bit more of a stretch for the crew clad in protective suits scrubbing graffiti off the brick wall alongside the Regent’s Canal. Eric Pierson’s communications students are scattered along the bike-path — which runs parallel to the university campus — working to eradicate spray-painted blurts. Pierson’s right in the thick of things, flinging sudsy water with abandon. When asked whether he’d considered taking on a more supervisory role, he laughs.

“That’s not the way I work,” he says, bending over to inspect his progress. “I just wouldn’t feel very good about not being right here with them.” Junior Ashley Rather has resigned herself to a day spent getting down and dirty, and her co-worker, sophomore Willa Croll, nods assent when asked if she’s making progress. “I keep thinking that some of the brick is graffiti,” she says, frowning at her bruised knuckles. “I think I’m actually scrubbing through to the brick itself.”

A few miles away, Virginia Lewis’ group has been on the job all morning, and there’s no end in sight. They’ve been prepping and painting the interior walls of the Tower Hamlet Carers Center, an organization that “provides advice, information and support services to all carers within the borough.”  These carers — known as “caregivers” in the U.S. — are defined as “someone who, without payment, provides regular and substantial help and support to a friend, neighbor or relative who could not manage without their help.”

The students just know that they’ve got a whole lot of work to do. Luckily, identical twins Matt and Mike Chitlow are on the job; since their family owns a paint company, they’re able to give useful advice about how best to get the job done right. While the students work, center director Lynn Middleton talks about the work that’s done there. “We have a number of carers who’ve very clearly said that until they came here, they were suicidal. I’m a carer myself for my father, and I know how hard it is to get things into place for him. Everything’s a constant battle. You’re constantly trying to sort things out.”

Nearby students keep working, but clearly they’re straining to listen in. “This area, the east end of London in particular, is the poorest area in the country,” Middleton says. “But when someone walks in the door, very often we can provide some tangible, on-the-spot relief for them. Just listening makes a big difference. They’re not coping,” Middleton says, jaw set. “People say they’re fine, but we look at their eyes and we can tell whether they’re telling the truth. Sometimes they just dissolve in tears.”

Gary Macy is a fast walker. His students try, unsuccessfully, to match his long strides as he whisks through the streets of Oxford, where each block manages to be more charming than the last. “This is known as the Bridge of Sighs,” he says, pausing for a brief moment. A dozen pairs of eyes drink in the graceful, windowed arch above.

“It’s one of three in the world; besides this one, there’s one in Cambridge, where I went to school, and the original one in Venice. When we used to walk across it at Cambridge, we would always let out a little sigh.” Dutifully, everyone sighs, then it’s back into high gear in hopes of keeping up with Macy’s breakneck pace.

After spending a convivial time at the Eagle and Child — the pub where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien discussed their writing with each other and other members of their writing group, the Inklings — the plan for the afternoon is to make the rounds of Oxford’s medieval colleges. On the agenda are New College, Magdalen College and Christ Church; at least a dozen other interesting possibilities are options for those with stamina. As engaged as his students are, Macy knows it doesn’t hurt to toss a little pop culture into the mix: “Christ Church has the Harry Potter dining hall,” he says. “I believe it also has the ‘whomping willow,’ whatever that is.” The students all but flutter with excitement.

USD students ride the Tube in London during a summer study abroad trip.

USD students ride the Tube in London during a summer study abroad trip.

Meanwhile, a good percentage of the other students in the program are off at a barbecue a mile or so down the road at St. Clare’s, Oxford, a school that has an arrangement  with USD which allows about 30 students a semester to study abroad and earn 15-18 transferable credits. For a few top honors students, there’s an opportunity to undertake tutorial courses at one of Oxford’s venerable colleges, Blackfriars Hall. Later, this summer’s visiting USD students will be treated to their own tour of the city by one of St. Clare’s professors. But for now, a few dozen of them are enjoying basking in the sun while being treated to an outdoor feast, complete with barbecue chicken and lemony cake. In truth, what with all the lounging, flip-flops and laughter, the gathering resembles a weekend afternoon on an outdoor patio in San Diego.

A few miles away, Macy’s group is about as far from USD as one can get, standing in the portrait-laden dining hall of New College. The school, a constituent college of the University of Oxford, was founded in 1379. “There was a shortage of educated clergy after the Black Death,” Macy explains. “The site of the school had, at one time, been a burial place. The legend is that the mound on the grounds was a burial mound of plague victims. It’s not true, but it makes a good story.”

Macy’s students actually do what most professors doubtless wish their students would do: They hang on his every word. New graduate Anne Hoolihan’s entire face lights up when she talks about this class. “It’s a good mix of classroom learning and firsthand experience,” she says. “He’ll do a 20-minute lecture and then we’ll get out and see what that particular class is all about. My favorite was the Tower of London. It’s amazing to realize just how many have lived and died there.”

Senior Karlie LaRue is just as enthusiastic about the group’s trip to Westminster Abbey. “It was phenomenal. There’s just so much there. You know, Elizabeth I was buried there. All sorts of historical figures. As grotesque as it is, you can’t help but be fascinated.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she notices that Macy has moved on, and is just about out of sight. With an apologetic shrug, LaRue takes off in pursuit, determined not to miss a single syllable of whatever knowledge her professor might impart next.

While all the students in the London Plays in Production class aren’t theatre majors, a majority of them definitely have a bent toward the dramatic. At a showing of the acclaimed comedy The 39 Steps, one frets with much gesticulation that she might not be able to see the whole stage if she gets stuck with her assigned seat on the aisle. Another, senior Kyle Beck, casts himself in the role of keeping everyone within earshot entertained with constant patter, horrific puns and an infectious joie dé vivre.

While this event is an “all program” evening (meaning students from all four classes are in attendance), the night before, the theater/ethics group attended a showing of Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara at the National Theatre. The play, a dense thicket of big ideas about poverty, war and government, pits idealism versus pragmatism and shines a bright, hard spotlight on the notion that poverty itself is a crime.

At two hours and 40 minutes, it’s a long but exhilarating evening; while students scatter the moment the applause subsides, they’re assembled bright and early the next morning in a classroom, ready to launch into a spirited discussion of the brainstorm they’d witnessed the night before.

“So? What’d you think?” asks Hay. He quickly scribbles choices on the white board: Exceptional/Very Good/Good/Weak/I Slept Through It.

A visit to Canterbury Cathedral during a USD study abroad trip dazzles students.

A visit to Canterbury Cathedral during a USD study abroad trip dazzles students.

Junior Camille Monroe confesses that she found herself dozing well before final curtain: “I didn’t get the full experience, and I feel really bad because it’s happened with almost every single play.” But it was just the opposite for Beck, who was on the edge of his seat up to and including the final bows. “I thought it was so good and so engaging,” he says. “I know some people thought it was slow and that there were all these giant pauses. I thought just the opposite. I was most interested in those pauses. There was so much being said without being said, so much going on underneath.” Beck’s personality seems to be permanently set on “exuberant,” but he truly does want to get across how moved he was by the production.

“It sounds like you’re saying that the choices were really good,” Hays remarks. “In theater terms, choices mean, ‘How are you going to get what you want?’ Last night, sometimes what I was watching was the actor’s evaluation of which way to go to get from here to there. It’s like poker. Are you bluffing the straight? Or do you really have it?”

Eventually, Hinman finds enough of a pause in the back-and-forth between Hays and the students to get a word in. “Sometimes they say in music that the most important thing is the space between the notes. And that’s what’s coming out here; Shaw’s use of language is so supple, but often what’s important is what’s being shown beyond the words.”

But, being an ethicist, of course he steers the conversation to one of the play’s big questions: Which produces more good? Selfishness or altruism?

“For example, how do we, as a country, help others’ economies? Outsourcing may be one of our most effective forms of foreign aid. If you do something for selfish reasons and it results in good, does that make you a good person?”

He leans back in his chair, enjoying himself. “I mean, I love technology, but it’s an ethical quandary, because the military drives development. War drives development of prosthetics, brain technology. Shaw is pointing out that it’s impossible to keep our hands clean.“

Hay can’t help but jump back into it. “It’s the lifeboat analogy: There’s only food for six and there are eight on board. Two have to go. If you don’t like the moral choice, jump overboard.”

Nobody’s been thrown to the sharks just yet, but the students in Lewis’ British Political Culture class are on the move — sink or swim time — jostling alongside business-suited Londoners down the endless stairs, double-checking that they’ve got the correct platform, half-listening to the melodious female voice cautioning them to “mind the gap,” before hopping on the Tube to Charing Cross station and finding a seat on the train to Canterbury. There, the group settles into a cozy sort of collective doze, watching the countryside — thatched cottages, laundry on the line, thick hedgerows, ducks floating on ponds and flower-dotted meadows — zip by, clickity clack, clickity clack, clickity clack.

As we clatter along, Virginia Lewis provides a thumbnail history of Canterbury, touching on William the Conqueror, the murder of Thomas Becket, Chaucer, Henry VIII and the Church of England. “I seek a political angle for my students to view the Reformation,” she says. 

When the train pulls into the station, the group decamps and walks, raggle-taggle, through charming narrow streets before assembling in the courtyard of the awe-inspiring cathedral. After a bit of discussion at the ticket window, Lewis announces the plan: meet back here after lunch for a pre-arranged guided tour. At the word “lunch,” the students scatter, spirited away like so many dust motes floating on a passing sunbeam.

Docent docent Bill Charleton impresses with his breadth of knowledge and wry delivery.

Students in Professor Virginia Lewis’ British Political Culture class find themselves riveted by a docent’s articulate tales of long-ago intrigue related on a private tour of Canterbury Cathedral.

When they return — sated from a combination of sustenance, souvenirs and socializing — Lewis has hammered out details for a private tour. First, the group enters the breathtaking, soaring nave of the cathedral. Next, it gasps in unison. Then, impeccably dressed docent Bill Charleton impresses with his breadth of knowledge and wry delivery. “You will have noticed that many of the windows have plain glass, and you might wonder why. In the 1600s — you have heard of the Puritans? — then you will know that they were not very fond of icons and images. So during the period around 1640, they smashed the medieval glass.”

Again, a gasp, this time of disbelief. How could anyone deliberately destroy such beauty? “Another reason is that between 1939 and 1945, the Germans had a go,” Charleton continues. “Although no bombs dropped on the cathedral, the bombs blasting nearby blasted out the windows. Fortunately, some of the medieval glass remains, because the authorities had taken out of the windows and stored it nearby.”

We wend through the cathedral, fingers trailing across ancient walls, voices hushed, murmuring from chapel to crypt, chills up the spine, as if we are somehow touching history itself. Saxons and saints, martyrs and monks, a rich pageant veering on the overwhelming, medieval heraldry above our heads, while back in the nave, a choir raises voices together with such unearthly beauty that centuries pile up and soar into the cathedral heights, flown there by the sheer beauty of the music.

It’s quiet on the train back to London, again the reverie out the window — clickity clack, clickity clack — as we pass ponds dotted with swans, meadows punctuated with sheep, cottages covered in flowering vines, fields carpeted in goldenrod and we periodically stop in towns with names like Wye and Paddock Wood and Hildenborough and Orpington, and we realize to our very bones that home is very far away. — Julene Snyder

Bicycle photo by Julene Snyder. All other photos by Barbara Ferguson.


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