Friends, I wrote this early this morning before leaving the apartment for my long day in London, and am transferring it now to the blog in an attempt to get caught up … It starts last Saturday.
After our visit with Mary Arden, Penny and I drove from Stratford to Penny’s sister Liz’s village in Hertfordshire, Penny navigating the traffic and I reading aloud the whole way from a potted history of England she’d bought, the complex saga of kings and queens, sons and daughters, nobles and peasants, Catholics and Protestants, France and Spain and somewhere in there, Christopher Columbus going off to discover new territory hooray that’s us!
It was Barbara’s older sister Elizabeth – Liz – who sent a sweet, heartbreaking letter in July 1965, telling me that Babs had not survived the heart operation. Before this trip, Liz and I had never met, but as with Penny, it felt as if we’d known each other a long time. Liz is a medical miracle; she survived a terrible battle with cancer and lives with energy, humour and determination. She moved into her compact semi-detached house which had only a back lawn only 11 years ago, and in that time has created a spectacular garden, what I’d call the classic English garden – flowerbeds encircling a patch of perfect grass, flowers, grasses, bushes and trees somehow in perfect proportion, balanced for shape, size and colour – mostly purples, mauves and pinks, though she’d planted some creamy yellow petunias in pots on the patio. “I needed something bright nearby, for the eye,” she explained. The garden wasn’t stiff, it was artless, a relaxed tumble with nary a weed in sight. Reluctantly, I left it to come inside for dinner.
Liz cannot eat; she is fed by a constant drip through a tube directly into her stomach. But she had cooked us a fine meal and sat with us while Penny and I and Liz’s son Warwick ate. And then we all settled in to the parlour to watch the final “Britain’s got talent.” When they took a break for the voting, Barbara and I said goodbye and drove to our next destination, Wimbledon. I hoped the dance group Diversity would win, and when we’d unpacked at our hotel and gone to the local pub, we heard that they did win. Poor Susan Boyle – or SuBo as they call her here now.
This final stage of our voyage was important to both Penny and me. Fairlawn Road in Wimbledon is where Barbara lived during our correspondence. I had visited her here either in 1964 or 65, though have absolutely no memory of our encounter. Both Penny and I hoped that if I saw the actual house, my memory might return, but I’m sad to say that didn’t happen. The house must have been a lovely place to grow up, on a quiet street near a huge park. Penny remembers running laughing home from the park in 1965, dashing into the house to be given the news that her sister had died in America. “My mother flew back with a white velvet coffin,” she said. “No one should have to endure that.”
She showed me the places that were important to her, including Wimbledon Common, and we drove to see the tennis palace so I could take pictures of it for my mother. I’m glad we went; it helped me to imagine Barbara here in this tranquil place. But it did not help the hole in my memory.
So then, the last, short trip back to Christina’s in Barnes, where I took both women for lunch at the White Hart on the Thames, and then Penny left to drive home. Our trip was a risky venture – even loving couples can be ready for divorce after a few days of travel, and here were two complete strangers arranging to live and travel together for eight solid days. But we both knew it would work, and it did, spectacularly. I admire Penny a great deal. She cares about children, education, community, friendship and family, and is the sort of generous, trustworthy friend you can count on. We came together as two women who shared a ghost, and parted as two best friends. Barbara would have been delighted. Perhaps she is.
In the pastoral bliss of a hot Sunday in Barnes, I unpacked and packed again – off on the bus and tube to Piccadilly Circus, to live for a week chez Christopher, the eldest son of Lynn in France. Christopher has lived in this tiny apartment between Liberty’s of London and Carnaby Street for at least a dozen years, and now his girlfriend Christina lives here too. Luckily for me, they went to Italy for a week, leaving me their keys and the most perfect location for six days in London. But I had to get there first – Regent Street had been turned into a street fair, a weekend long celebration of Spain, and there were a million people, booths, stalls, and performances to navigate with my small, borrowed suitcase before I found the address. The noise here is constant, a small price to pay for the convenience of the locale.
I had housekeeping to do the next day; I’d left at Penny’s in Sheffield the converter plug that allowed me to use my electronics here in England, had been running my computer on its battery for days, and struggled all morning to find a replacement plug – found one that was faulty, had to take it back only to find that it didn’t work in any case. Finally, got an expensive plug for the computer from the Apple store and just hoped that the camera battery would last. I was also trying to figure out where I’d fly to the following week and how, had arrangements to make and wrestled to access the wifi, to no avail.
Finally took my computer and charger to an internet café, where I received an email from my son. I’d learned last week that Sam had suffered a huge tragedy – a good friend of his had died suddenly. He was taking it hard. This was the lowest point of my trip so far: after a morning of trying simply to get myself on-line and dealing with the infuriating minutiae of travel in the chaos of central London, I sat reading a despairing letter from my bereaved son. I wanted to fly home instantly. All I could do was write him as reassuringly as possible, knowing that he’s living with his sister, his dad is on the same continent, he is loved and surrounded by friends. I know he’ll get through. But it was a hard hour for his globe-trotting mother.
Nothing to do but move onward. After checking the papers, I walked around getting theatre tickets for the next 3 days. Found Covent Garden, which on Mondays is also a vintage market, and bought myself a treat – some wood printing press letters from the 1890’s, spelling out my children’s names and my own. I’d looked at old block letters at the flea market in Paris and another in Oxford, so I knew these were a good price. And bought groceries at the Marks and Spencer nearby, where I also tried on a dress and had a shock. I picked out a size 10 to try on, my usual size, which was too small, and even the 12 was tight. Had I been eating so much fine British bread and pudding? But no, I’d forgotten that British sizes are different; I’m a size 14 here. Crisis averted. Didn’t buy the dress in any case.
That night I saw “Taking Sides,” a drama by Ronald Harwood about a German conductor being interrogated by an American major after the war about his failure to leave Germany, his possible collusion with the Nazis. It was an exploration of whether artists should be involved in politics or not – can they not? A bit muddled, but interesting.
Now a jump in time – I’ll fill in Wednesday later – the amazing British Library, my picnic in Regent’s Park and dinner with friend Tony in Hampstead. I jump in the chronicle to Thursday.
Yesterday morning, eager tourist, I was at the front door when the Tate Britain gallery opened. Another huge airy palace of art, with surely the world’s biggest collection of Turners. I struggle to like Turner, as people struggled in his own day, and there are some I appreciated, but mostly I confess I find him a wash of blurry pinks and yellows. There’s a big collection of pre-Raphaelites and their beautiful heavy-haired, heavy-lidded, sensuous-lipped women. Much Gainsborough, Romney, Reynolds – dignified British aristocrats and grand pink-cheeked ladies. I took a break after an hour, sat in the café reading yet another of the many free newspapers constantly available here – back to Constable’s rural scenes, Stubbs’ sleek horses, William Blake, John Singer Sargent, Whistler …
There was a special exhibit of a contemporary British artist called Richard Long who takes lengthy solitary walks and takes photographs, does installations, writes and paints in mud and other natural substances. I started to enter the exhibit and was told I’d need a special ticket. Where could I get one? Downstairs, replied the guard. Downstairs. By then my legs were like lead and though I wanted to see Richard Long, the thought of going all the way downstairs for a ticket defeated me. I looked at the free display that went with the exhibit, bought a postcard, and walked out into the sun, to sit in the garden next to the gallery eating my ham and cheese sandwich.
I’d already decided, despite my fatigue, to go from there to the Victoria and Albert Museum when right in front of me was a bus marked “Oxford Circus.” I changed my plans instantly and hopped on, deciding to go instead to the British Museum. The bus went right by Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and dropped me a block from home, so I came here for a brief rest and then onward. No time to waste – when again will I have such a great opportunity to explore London?
The British Museum – what to say? Millions of priceless artefacts; the entire history of the planet told with bits and pieces, from miniscule gold amulets to giant buildings and statues, carefully excavated through the centuries and shipped here.
The Rosetta Stone from 196 BC, in which the same text was carved in hieroglypics, the then-current Egyptian dialect and ancient Greek, allowing explorers for the first time to translate hieroglypics and so opening the door to an understanding of the ancient Egyptians.
“Ginger” – a “natural mummy” 5000 years old, a man of about 5’5” curled for burial in a foetal position with traces of his red hair still visible.
Mummies, sarcophagi – a whole window of animal mummies, especially cats
The Elgin marbles, with apologetic explanations about the British government’s attitude to the Greek demands that they be returned to Athens, from whence they came
Skulls, showing the dental difficulties of ancient peoples – they probably all had a lot of tooth pain – and bones showing arthritis and other diseases
The evocation of those names: Babylon Mesopotamia Levant Samaria Judah – the Philistines the Hittites
Many many many Grecian urns
The iron age the bronze age
A seventh century dog tag from Rome, saying, literally, if you find me, return me to …
The money gallery
The clocks and watches gallery
The art nouveau and deco gallery
The 7000 years of Chinese jade gallery, starting at 5000 BC
The collection of glorious Chinese porcelain from the various dynasties, and lacquer and cloisonné
Get me out of here, I am going mad, was what I thought eventually, and made my escape. Nothing like the British Museum to give you a sense of just how insignificant your itty-bitty life really is.
Today, Friday – will fill in when I can today’s exhausting visits to the glorious Courtault gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Harrod’s and Hyde Park. Now sitting in the internet cafe with, again, my time running out. Tomorrow a few final visits – hope to see the National Portrait Gallery – and then back to Barnes, to get ready for my flight, next Tuesday, to the south of France. Now that will be a shock – it’s cold here, cold and rainy, and everything is in my language. Back to a foreign country where hopefully it will be warm.
I miss home and my children and friends, but am still up, way up, way way up, for the adventure.
To be continued …