Friends, I’m alive, but have no internet where I’m staying and have been busy. Here in London at an internet cafe near Carnaby Street, briefly, before setting off for the British Museum and Library again, this Easter Sunday. Happy whatever you celebrate to you all. Here’s an account of Thursday and Friday, my journey from Paris to London and my first day here. I’ll catch you up with the rest tomorrow or later. All is well; equilibrium and internet restored, and I’m in the thick of the joy of it all.
Thursday, an easy ride on the Eurostar from Paris to London eating as usual the entire time – sandwiches bought the day before on the rue Mouffetard, when of course the Gare du Nord, a French train station, is full of delicious food for the journey. Sat next to a charming young woman from Bournemouth who has lived in Paris for 10 years, loves France but will eventually move back to Britain. I noticed that French ways have not affected her – she ate an entire packet of Lu butter biscuits en route.
The sun was actually shining when I got out at St. Pancras, so I decided not to take the tube but to walk to Carnaby Street. I felt that immediate hit of London, just like last year – a youthful, scrambling, chaotic creative energy. Got Christopher’s keys and into his apartment to dump my bag, immediately went out to wander about before the inevitable rain. Had a look at Kate Moss’s TopShop and other Oxford Street shops. TopShop seems to have doubled in size since last year, overflowing with teens buying handbags. Handbags everywhere. What is that strange new leather-like substance?
Back to the Mac store with my computer, where a wonderful young man sorted out my internet and I learned that you can use the Net there for free. Picked up my emails, sent a few, headed home. Trouble. The key did not work in Christopher’s door. Tried and tried, could not get in the door. When I’d picked it up, the security man had said, “It’s been tested and it’s pretty sure to work,” so I thought – there has been a problem with the key before and here it is again. Luckily my hosts were coming home at some point that evening.
I hid my computer and set off to the Noel Coward theatre to see a matinee of “Bedroom Farce.” Got the best seat in the house at the last minute at a third the price – 20 pounds – and thought, how can I go wrong with Peter Hall and Alan Ayckbourn? Well – let’s say that when I leave a theatre, I like to feel that I’m bigger after seeing that play, or heavier or lighter or better, something. Couldn’t say any of those. It was a very competent British farce with some wonderful moments – but I thought it dated and trivial. The elderly gent next to me had a marvellous time. God, he was like my grandfather – vest, neatly combed white hair, pale shiny tight skin. But Percy would never have gone to something called “Bedroom Farce.”
I just felt – Sir Peter Hall, one of the greatest of British theatre artists – is this what you are doing now?
Home in a thunderstorm so fierce I sheltered in a poker club on the way. Back hoping that Christina would be home – no, tried the key again, sat on the landing reading “Time Out London” plotting my trip, wandered some more – Liberty’s, absurdly expensive –and then at last Christina came home, showed me that the key has to be turned hard. Christopher came home very late and I took my hosts out for curry. The noise from the streets below their apartment incredible – Carnaby pubs jammed, everyone standing outside to smoke in the bitter cold. My hosts were up at 4.15 a.m., out to Scotland in the freezing rain, I moved to their bed. Hooray.
Back to the friendly Mac store full of my brethren, to check email. Penny, who’s coming in tomorrow to spend the day with me, wants me to try to get tickets for us to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Academy of Art so I dress in my usual seven layers, today including two pairs of socks, and set out to do so, only to find out that you cannot buy tickets in advance. What will we have to do? Right – we will have to QUEUE.
Then – wandering in the increasingly strong rain, with no set plan. Fortnum and Mason – luxurious excess in fancy boxes and tins. Down a side street, I stop in front of a museum disguised as a store. Above is written “William Evans, Gun and Rifle maker, est. 1883,” and in the window is Rule Britannia: sturdy wellies, shooting bags, tweed suits for both sexes, sturdy raincoats, Liberty scarves, Viyella shirts, Fair Isle cardies, tweed caps. Does this kind of life even exist any more, or is it a movie by Merchant and Ivory? The real Britannia now, it seems to me, is buying pleather in TopShop.
On to St. James Palace – when I ask a policeman what it is, he says, “It’s a minor palace, ma’m,” and that nearby is another minor palace where Prince Charles and his sister Anne live. I continue to a major palace – Buck House. Nearby, in lovely Green Park, is the Canada Memorial – a kind of fountain with water sluicing over granite engraved with maple leaves, and on the steps around, garbage left after picnics. But the sound of running water took me back to the real woods – truly Canadian. The rain much stronger now – people walking through beautiful St. James Park pretending it’s fine, a group of Italians walking quickly and shivering under “I heart London” umbrellas, obviously just bought. My own umbrella turns inside out in the bitter wind. I am on the Princess Di Memorial Walk, and it’s a lovely place, thousands of daffodils, many kinds of pink and white blossom, and exotic ducks and geese. There’s a very lonely ice cream vendor.
And there – the Institute of Contemporary Art, just the thing to escape the rain, I don’t care what they’re showing. But of course, it turns out to be a terrific show of a man called Billy Childish, a crazy poet, musician, artist – his paintings, his poems, and videos of his films and music. One of his books is entitled, “This is my shit and it smells good to me,” which perhaps gives you the idea. He’s a Van Goghy character, even to look at, lean with jutting brows and sharp cheekbones, and his paintings have great sweeping smears of paint and angry brush strokes.
A coffee, and back out into the rain, now wearing both my hat and the hood of my coat. Great, down the road another nice place – Somerset House, an 18th Century mansion which is housing a photography exhibit – photographers or their estates have donated pictures to be auctioned off for a charity for the homeless sponsored by Prince William. And good work it is too, including Canadians Burtynsky, Robert Polidori and, believe it or not, Bryan Adams. I saw a photograph I recognised as by Willy Ronis, whose work I saw last year at the photography exhibition in Arles. That made me feel cosmopolitan.
Set off to find the John Soane Museum but gave up, too cold, wet and tired. Went to get a cheap theatre ticket instead, and to buy groceries at Marks and Spencer. Home to heat up a delicious microwave dinner and have a glass of wine before setting off again to see “Enron,” an extraordinary show detailing, in drama, music and movement, exactly how that financial disaster happened. The first act is brilliant, the second is much too long and preachy, but the whole thing made me feel that my trip had been worth it, just for that. It’s what theatre is all about, the best – angry, fascinating, instructive, controversial, combative, entertaining, funny, tragic. It’s done simply with projections at the back, neon lights moving up and down, and simple props like boxes moved by the actors. I talked to an American woman at the intermission. “When do you think they’ll take it to New York?” I asked her. “Maybe they won’t,” she said. But I have read since that it will open soon in NYC. It’s a devastating portrait not only of the Enron greed, but of all the parties connected to them, their law firm, their accountants (Lehman Brothers portrayed as Mutt and Jeff idiots in one big coat.) Perhaps not something New Yorkers will rush to see?
And then home, walking along the Chinatown on Gerrard Street. At home I have often walked through our Chinatown on Gerrard Street, but here, there were thousands of people, including young British men in shirtsleeves and young dollies in little dresses and high heeled shoes, and I in my seven layers still with puffy fleece, hat and gloves. But it wasn’t raining. That’s all that matters.
Stay tuned for Saturday with Penny, stunning art and theatre, and Easter Sunday – a quiet day in the heart of this spectacular place. Over and out, for now.