Ah, yes, spring in Britain. What I remember about every visit to England in my life is that I was always cold. And let me tell you, since my arrival, I have been very, very cold. Cold cold cold. Today I went out wearing five layers – a t-shirt under a turtleneck sweater under a cardigan under a fleece vest under a raincoat, with scarf and hat. And still I was cold, until the sun came out briefly and it was really hot, until the sun vanished again and it was freezing and pouring with rain. My dear hostess does not have her heat turned on, of course, so it is not much warmer inside, but at least it doesn’t rain in here.
But no, I’m not complaining, oh well just a little bit. Twas ever thus in England. I have never understood how one of the most culturally advanced, articulate, brilliant cultures on earth does not know how to keep itself warm. But then, I’m just a spoiled namby-pamby North American who has never suffered through a war. What do I know about suffering? Nothing. And so they’re going to give me a little tiny taste, called cold.
I got the bus from Barnes today into London. As I sat by Barnes Pond waiting, an elderly lady waiting next to me began to chat, and by the time we got onto the bus we were firm friends. I told her I was getting the tube into London and she said no no, you must take the scenic route, so she took me with her onto the number 9 bus, a red doubledecker. She got off on Kensington High Street and I continued to Piccadilly Circus, walked up Oxford Street and found my friend Christopher’s place. I have known Christopher since he was a newborn – he’s my friend Lynn’s firstborn and only son, now, incredibly, in his late thirties, an executive at a London bank. He has the most central address – a tiny apartment between Liberty’s of London and Carnaby Street. And the thrill is that he and his lovely girlfriend Christina, who’s from Madrid, are leaving London in a few weeks for a week in Italy and giving their place to me. I will for a time exchange the pastoral splendour of Barnes for the hurly-burly of central London.
Christopher’s sister Myriam arrived with her one-year old Issaak, and we all went for dim sum. Myriam too I’ve known since babyhood; now she has a Ph.D. in feminist 3rd world economics and is married to a Muslim from Mauritius, where she mostly lives. Interesting people. She went off with the baby, and the three of us set out in the rain for St. Paul’s Cathedral, extremely splendid with a bonus – Evensong was taking place so we could hear a choir resound through the vast domed space. I thought Charles and Diana married at Westminster Abbey but it was here, so I could visualise that endless train trailing up the steps at the front. (Before we left on our jaunt, I said, maybe we should wait, it’s raining, and Christopher said, if you wait for the rain to stop in London before you do anything, you’ll do nothing. So we left.)
Then we walked across the Millenium Bridge, across the wide, busy Thames, to see the recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern Art Gallery. The Tate is a huge success, an old factory turned into a vibrant space for modern art. All the museums in London are free, and this one is particularly packed. And then we had a glass of wine at the top of the OXO Tower, with a great view of the city on the other side of the river. We walked back across and I got the bus home, with their key safely in my bag.
A few observations: again, London could not be more different from Paris, a sense of abandon, creative chaos, architectural anarchy – but of course, a great deal was destroyed here during the war, leaving lots of gaps for change. Somehow in comparison with Londoners, Parisians seem conservative, self-possessed, tradition-bound, with the best and worst that entails. Christopher said the Brits are jealous that the French have France and think it’s just too good a country for them. At least in France, the sun shines occasionally, often enough that grapes can grow. No wonder this is a nation of gardeners; no wonder they talk about a green and pleasant land. There’s an extraordinary amount of green space in London, huge parklands, all gorgeously green because it’s WATERED SO “£$%^& often.