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winding up London

Spent last night writing a catch up – here’s Tuesday June 2 before “War Horse,” and Wednesday, and then yesterday, Friday. Today is Saturday; it’s pouring with rain and I leave central London at the end of the afternoon for Barnes. I set off early this morning intending to watch the old City of London wake up, but was defeated by the rain – came back and went shopping instead, visiting Kate Moss’s trendy TopShop – unbelievable crowds and quantities of stuff – on Oxford Street. Will try to get to the Portrait Gallery and then do a clean up and get out. Can’t wait to get settled somewhere quiet. Can’t wait to come back to noisy, vibrant London.  Here’s earlier in the week: 

On Tuesday it took me all morning to make arrangements for my flight next week to Montpellier, wrestling with the EasyJet website for an infuriating hour in the net café before grinding my teeth in rage and returning to the flat to make a phone call and get it done. Made a ham and cheese sandwich and walked to Regent’s Park for a pleasant picnic in the last of the hot sun – for a bit it was full-on summer, 28 degrees, except that from then on, it got colder and colder until I was shivering in 3 layers again (and tomorrow may go as low as 5!) The Brits have no concept of heat and cold; when it’s freezing out they wear tank tops and shorts and when it’s boiling hot they’re in suits and sweaters. Incomprehensible. 

As I sat on my Regent’s Park bench, I read the new “Time Out in London,” remembering that my Ottawa friend Isobel worked for the magazine when it was new in 1971. We hung around a bit together in those days in London. She was so cool then and she still is; now she runs PEN Canada. “Time Out” was crammed with things I won’t get to see and do. (In fact right now, as I write this, it’s Friday night and there are at least 3 theatre things I should be seeing. But just could not get out again, once in. Writing to you, instead.)

Set off from the park to the British Library, to see an exhibit about the life of Henry V111 (who reigned from1509 to1547.) It’s a paper trail exhibit, really – birth and marriage certificates, a love letter to Anne Boleyn who was resisting his advances – with good reason, it turned out – letters from about-to-be-beheaded wives, analyses of the British monarch’s relationship to Rome, decrees, lists of hundreds of executed people, an inventory of his possessions after his death … It’s a lament for a man who was at the beginning an accomplished musician interested in many facets of life, and at the end was a closed-minded and unhappy tyrant. Who left a great deal of old paper behind.

I went upstairs to the permanent collection and as usual, my tiny mind was boggled. Boggled and, as a writer, thrilled. There are original pages from manuscripts by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte (“Reader,” delicately scratched on the page, “I married him.”), Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. There’s a page from Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, and the original of “Michelle,” by Paul McCartney, on the back of an envelope, and “A Hard Day’s Night,” scribbled by John Lennon on the back of his son’s first birthday card. Shakespeare, Leonardo, The Lindisfarne Gospels from the early 700’s, the Gutenberg Bible from 1450, a fourteenth century Haggadah, the Magna Carta – yes, the actual Magna Carta on parchment from 1215 – Captain Cook’s journal, a letter from Florence Nightingale … enough.

As I keep saying here … phew. I returned to email and dine on my Marks and Spencer microwave meal – roast lamb, new potatoes, carrots and peas, reasonable and delicious – and then to set off to see “War Horse,” which made me so happy and the woman behind me so miserable. 

On Wednesday, after my hour at the net café, I set off for the National Gallery. I loved this amazing, spacious, beautifully laid out museum, enjoyed my time there much more than at the frantic Louvre. I listened to the guides chatting to the many school tours going through – kids all in their uniforms looking so proper and tidy, not like our kids, that’s for sure. “When you look at a painting,” one said to the group of 11-year olds sitting quietly on the floor before him, “find things that catch your eye, that you find interesting or pretty, and put them in a special bag. Keep looking and putting things in your special bag so you can go back and think about them later.” 

What good advice, I thought. I’ll try that. Only before long, my special bag was packed to overflowing.

Vermeer – another of his funny little women, at the virginal. A particularly lovely Poussin – the discovery of Moses. Claude Lorrain, a landscape with Aeneas on Delos. Suddenly I was piling things into my bag: I have been to the holy island of Delos, now only ruins, and here was Lorrain’s evocation of it in its heyday with a domed temple of Apollo and sacred trees. In the Spanish room – Velasquez, El Greco – I noticed that suddenly Jesus, Mary and the saints all looked Spanish, much darker than usual with flaring eyes and dark brows.

After an hour, my new rule – I found a spot to eat my ham and cheese sandwich. Must take break. Must take break. Must go back to art.

Raphael’s portrait of a pope, so vivid and real. Leonardo’s famous “Virgin of the Rocks” is not here but even his “cartoon,” a preparatory sketch of the Virgin sitting in her mother’s lap and holding her child is beyond stunning. I hear a guide in the next room asking the children to guess how many paintings are in the gallery. “Close,” she says. “The answer is 2300.” It’s brilliant to get children looking at art at such an early age – every museum I’ve been to here was full of school tours led by child-friendly experts. Once kids know how to look and why, perhaps they’ll keep looking for the rest of their lives, and museums and galleries will flourish.

I learn from a sign what the INRI that’s sometimes written above the cross means: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum – Jesus, King of the Jews. Have wondered about that for years.

Rounded a corner and gasped – an old friend! During my spring here in 1972, I was reading a book about art and loved a Botticelli painting of a young man. It’s in the National Gallery, I read, and realised that meant I could go, right then, and see the real thing. So I did – put on my jacket, got the tube and walked up to admire the actual young man. And now, here he was again, just as I’d left him more than 30 years ago. “How’ve you been?” I asked, but he just looked at me enigmatically. He was painted around1480, yet so alive he could be walking in the room beside me. 

By now it was 2 p.m.  Time to skip around the corner to Haymarket, to see “Waiting for Godot,” starring Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup. An amazing cast but not an amazing production, I’m sorry to say – I felt somehow they were cheating us, sauntering through it, phoning it in, except for the least well-known actor, Ronald Pickup as Lucky, who was formidable with a gaunt, haunted face. Ian McKellen is so talented, he’s mesmerising even when he’s half-asleep, but Patrick Stewart was just too robust and jolly as one of Beckett’s tramps. I’ve never imagined Vladimir as jolly, with music hall timing. It just doesn’t work. I had no desire to stand up and offend the people behind me, luckily.

Straight from the theatre to the Leicester Square tube stop and onto the Northern Line to Hampstead, up the hill to #11 Pond Street where my friend Tony Bingham has his shop. While Tony finished work, I was happy to walk on Hampstead Heath. I’m sure we walked on the Heath when we lived in London as a family, in 1956-58. It looked familiar – green and wild. Much nicer, I thought, than tailored Regent’s Park.

I wrote about having dinner twice with Tony in Paris, and now was invited for dinner at his home here. When you’re on the road, these invitations into someone’s home mean a great deal. And into his shop too – what an incredible place. Tony could work for the British Museum antique musical instruments department – or at least, he runs his own. His shop is teeming with musical treasures, including ten foot high drums from the South Pacific, a very old inlaid spinnet, innumerable wind instruments, oil paintings of people playing or otherwise making music, and books, including a few scholarly works on instruments that Tony has written himself. To tell you the truth, I marvelled at his expertise and life-long persistence and also thought it something of a nightmare, all that dusty old stuff, hundreds, maybe thousands of special pieces that he has travelled to find, bargain for and buy. The first time I went to his home when we started dating in 1971, the sofa was covered with antique oboes. Nothing has changed, only now he owns the house next door to that apartment, plus the shop and many more oboes. The house was a wreck apparently, filled with squatters when he bought it. Now, he told me, it’s worth two and a half million pounds.

And nice it is, filled with paintings of music and books and old stuff. Oh yes jugs, Tony also collects jugs and metronomes and many other things. And his wife Blossom, who’s Australian, collects Australiana, so there are a lot of kangaroos. Luckily for me, Tony also collects wonderful wines, so we drank several my father would have adored – a Puligny-Montrachet particularly, one of his favourites. Tony cooked, Blossom who’s a sexual health nurse got home from work with a friend, and we dined. Very enjoyable.  Floated home on the tube. A touch of a hangover the next day – more Puligny-Montrachet went down than I’d realised.

A miscellaneous note about this green and pleasant land: the abundance of free newspapers. Every late afternoon, the streets are jammed with immigrants handing out free evening newspapers. On the tube, everyone sits reading them. I guess they pay for themselves with advertising; maybe this is the future of the newspaper.

Re Thursday morning and my determination to be at the Tate Modern as it opened: I’ve learned since there is simply not the concern here that there is in Paris about when and how best to get into museums, because here they’re all, extraordinarily, free. A much more pleasant experience than lining up to pay – you just walk in and there you are, surrounded by masterpieces. There aren’t even any bag checks like in France. You just walk in. Also, the commentaries beside the works are well-written and informative, the security is discreet to the point of invisibility, and many works are not encased in glass, so you are face to face with the brush strokes, the colours, the very breath of the painter – it makes such a difference.

I’ve written about the Tate and the British Museum, my day of art excess (until today.)

Thursday night, a delicious evening in with my feet up, watching telly. I delighted in a program called “Springwatch,” the most British television program ever, all sex and violence with two hosts and various field correspondents rhapsodising about birds and animals. We watched footage of ring plovers actually mating, how racy is that? We saw a kestrel mother kill a rabbit and feed it to her 5 chicks. “She has actually made a larder with the excess food,” exclaimed the hostess, “for later!”

We saw the full, noisy nests of weed-warblers, skylarks, swallows, wrens, goldfinches, goshawks, linnets, chaffinches, robins. “Those robins look quite tatty,” scolded the hostess. “Are they moulting already?” We were informed that the skylarks came to feed their young 23 times in an hour. You’ll be happy to know that this is a good year for the honeybee. And to finish, we glimpsed a wild polecat, a fox family and a rare albino badger. If you would like to check out this wonderworld of nature for yourself, it’s at bbc.co.uk/springwatch.

Today, Friday morning, I set off at a good clip through Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square – the school groups lined up already outside the National Portrait Gallery – to the Strand and, in the rain, to the Courtauld Gallery in stately Somerset House. I’d never even heard of this gallery on previous visits, and after visiting it, I can’t understand why. It’s a perfect small museum/gallery, a more diverse version of New York’s Frick. I was alone with a host of masterpieces for a very long time, till inevitably the school groups arrived. Since this is the only London gallery I’ve had to pay for – a whole five pounds – these must have been exclusive schools. But I managed to keep ahead of them as much as possible, to enjoy the work in solitude and quiet. 

The Courtaulds were Hugenots who fled persecution in France and settled in England – the lucky English. They were silver-workers and textile manufacturers, and eventually, art collectors who founded a school of design and this museum. Room after tranquil room of masterpieces, usually one or two per master – a relief after the enormous collections I’ve been visiting. One perfect Cranach the Elder – coy, knowing Eve handing a befuddled Adam the apple, while peaceful animals lie nearby unaware that the world is about to change for good. Tiepolo, Breughel, Rubens’ portrait of Breughel and his family, a tiny perfect Claude Lorrain, Botticelli, Bellini, Veronese.

For the first time I wondered, looking at all the stunning Virgins and babes, why Jesus in his infancy never wore diapers. He is always naked. Do you suppose Mary toilet-trained him at such an early age? Or perhaps, immaculately, he simply had no bowels.

Suddenly, in the next room, we jump 301 years from 1588 to 1889, Van Gogh with his bandaged ear. I watched a program on BBC last night about self-harm, an exploration of why people inflict deliberate physical damage to themselves, and here was Van Gogh, who mutilated his ear after an argument with Gaugin – self-harm more than a hundred years ago. Most of the paintings were without glass, so I could clearly see in the Seurats all the countless tiny brushstrokes of dots. Modigliani, Renoir, Rousseau, Manet’s famous “Bar at the Folies Bergere,” Monet, Renoir. Monet painted a single tree, bent in the wind on the Mediterranean – like a Provencal, Impressionist version of Tom Thomson’s famous bent tree by wind in northern Ontario. Made me homesick.

More! Pissaro, a whole wall of Cezannes, Whistler and another cherry tree, Degas bronzes, including a nude study for the famous child ballerina in her dress, Toulouse-Lautrec, Derain, Matisse. The collection includes gorgeous sculptures by these painters – how much more talented could they be? A group of school children were sitting in the room behind me, and when I heard them respond to questions about the art, I decided they knew more about it than I. Onward in my blithe ignorance, with my overflowing special bag, to Dufy, Vlaminck, Braque, Vuillard, Bonnard, Utrillo. A few great works by painters I don’t know – Van Dongen, Larionov, Sickert. A Bloomsbury room – Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant – as far as I know, they were all sleeping with each other. A great lithographer called Winifred Gill, and then – be still my beating heart – a whole room of Kandinsky, including one called Improvisation on Mahogany, sublime blobs of colour that I would like someone, please, to buy for me. Just a hint. 

This museum, like baby bear’s bed, is just the right size. I am full full full but not groaning with excess, and make my way to the café in the basement, to rest, drink coffee and eat the ham and cheese sandwich that I’ve brought with me on my outings every day this week. I can’t help but overhear the women at the next table and think, everyone in Britain sounds pompous and affected to me. It’s because as a Canadian, I’m used to that accent meaning pretension and affectation, even arrogance. But this is just women chatting, in plummy voices.

“Do you awllways weahr gloves to do the washing up?” asks one.

“It’s not fayhr,” pouted the woman at the theatre the other night.

On my way out, I realise I’ve missed the room on the ground floor and I almost sigh – oh no, I’ve got to go and see more medieval masterpieces, including carved ivories. And then out into the pouring rain.

I catch the #9 bus to Knightsbridge, and sit on top with a Spanish woman falling to pieces nearby, sobbing into her cellphone about “este pais” – this country. It’s clear she is not happy in England. Then a family sits next to me speaking something incomprehensible – Yugoslavian, maybe, it sounds a combination of Russian and Italian. Anyway, the giant bus navigates the narrow streets and overflowing traffic – hats off to London bus drivers, true heroes – and I get out at Exhibition Road to walk down to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Another overwhelming gorgefest – can I stand it? Can YOU stand it? A brochure tells me this museum has ten kilometres of exhibits; I attempt a kilometre or two. In through the array of sculptures – there’s my friend Rodin – to the fashions – a collection of tiny shoes from 1720, through Courreges white boots in 1965, to Manolo Blahniks from 1996. A pearl-strewn dress worn by Diana and many beautiful ball gowns, wedding dresses, funny outfits. There’s a group of extremely handicapped people here, being led and pushed in wheelchairs as cheerful caregivers show them the bejewelled ballgowns. A surreal moment.

The Raphael room.

The Great Bed of Ware, perhaps the biggest bed ever made – 1590 – like a room unto itself. Shakespeare refers to it in “Twelfth Night.”

In front of the exhibits of artefacts, where possible, are plastic pull-out panels in Braille. This is a teaching museum – there are little rooms everywhere with teaching resources. Silver photography glass ceramics textiles prints paintings furniture – beautiful beautiful things. A museum devoted to beautiful things from around the world, through time.

I go to the theatre and performing arts wing – costumes, scripts, publicity and posters, a tutu worn by Margot Fonteyn, a Les Paul guitar smashed by Pete Townshend of the Who, Mick Jagger’s tiny size zero jumpsuit – he has no hips or butt at all – Kylie Minogue’s entire dressing room from 2007. There’s a film about the process of rehearsal, showing National Theatre actors preparing to be Toad, Rat and Badger from “Wind in the Willows,” and I realise that the movement coach working with them is Jane Gibson, who taught at my theatre school LAMDA in 1971. She sounds and looks just the same only her hair is grey. She tried to coach us to improvise being waves of the sea; she does better with Badger. And among the maquettes of theatre sets was the set of a production of “Long Day’s Journey” I saw that year. It starred Laurence Olivier, who did an unforgettable thing: playing stingy old James Tyrone, he climbed onto a table to change a lightbulb and teetered for a whole minute as if he were going to fall over. The audience held its breath. But he didn’t, and almost 40 years later, at the V and A Museum, I relived that moment. And remembered that also that year, I was lucky enough to see Suzanne Farrell dance and watch Alan Bates in “Butley” and Peter Brook’s famous “Dream” set in a big white room, with swings. Gifts given by the artists of this city, many years ago, still with me.

Another “get me out of here” moment – exit through the jewellery, unbelievable jewels, tiaras, looking at all the stuff I’ve missed, China, Japan, the Middle East, endless. Missed William Morris, whom I most wanted to see. Missed seeing the giant milk jug I remember marvelling at on my last visit here in 1971. Next time and the next and the next – it would take many visits.  Phew.

Saw a great t-shirt on my way out. “Bad artists copy,” it said. “Good artists steal.”

Walked along Brompton Road to another kind of treasure trove – Harrod’s. I wanted at least to take a look inside, as I looked yesterday in Liberty’s, around the corner from where I’m living and where every single thing is exorbitant. In Harrod’s I thought I could at least afford to buy a gift for my host Christopher from the Food Hall. Settled eventually on a box of Harrod’s chocolates and got out through the cosmetics section, where a dolly with a forest of false eyelashes tried to sell me an anti-aging cream, “as good as Botox,” for only 215 pounds the little pot. “It’ll last you 4 months!” she assured me, but I had reluctantly, much as I need it, to turn away.

By now majorly exhausted, I headed north into Hyde Park for the walk home – what a welcome oasis, big and green and relatively empty. I happened immediately on the most spectacular rose garden – every conceivable colour of rose, and I thought again, this city is an explosion of treasure, even if it has worn me out. I sat and ate my apple amidst the roses, and exited at the northwest end of the park, walking east along a dignified street. Saw one of the oval blue signs that indicates a great poet or artist has lived here – in this house lived the Bee Gees, it said.

To email at the internet café, where the Senegalese waiter Benin has taken a fancy to me and brings me free coffee, much as I ask him not to. And then home for more Marks and Spencer dinner and a wonderful television documentary, a young poet called Robert Webb talking about how much “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has influenced him, taking a journey to discover Eliot and also other favourite poets e.e. cummings and Philip Larkin. A whole documentary about the joy and importance of poetry – I must be in England.

And you must be worn out if you’ve actually plowed through all this. I am too.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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This blog evolves. It once was about travels. Now it’s a reason to be at the keyboard that I value.

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Theresa Kishkan is a writer living on the Sechelt Peninsula on the west coast of Canada.

I walk on. With my feet, and in my mind as well.

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Wherever you’ve come from, wherever you’re going, consider this space a place for reflection and pause.

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