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last day in London, quiet Tuesday in Barnes

Knowing that later in the day I was decamping from Carnaby Street, my top choices for Easter Monday morning were to go to the Tate Modern to see a retrospective of the work of Arshile Gorky and other treasures, or to the Victoria and Albert Museum to visit my friend William Morris. It was cold but not actually raining.

Instead, I sat upstairs in a double-decker bus with a group of excitable Italians – when we went down Sloane Street, a centre for high-end fashion, they began to shout out the shop names: “Gucci! Pucci! Armani! Fendi! Prada!” For some reason, this Easter, London is full of Italians. When we rolled down King’s Road, I got out. When I lived here in 1971, King’s Road, all of Chelsea, was the epicentre of hip, with interesting, funky shops and inhabitants dressed in the latest. A male London friend wore 3-piece suits with Converse sneakers and another the first pair of platform boots I’d ever seen. So groovy.

But now, it turns out, King’s Road is just another Yuppie shopping street, with the same old Banana Republic-type shops, including the height of non-coolness, a Marks and Spencer. Of course, these days, those adorable tiny multicoloured Chelsea houses cost millions of pounds, so it’s no wonder artists and kids are no longer there. Further up the street, I came upon the Saatchi Gallery, which is very cool, showing modern Indian art. There were some marvellous things – a group of people made of twisted electrical bits, neon strips and lightbulbs – and some very odd – a taxidermied camel folded up into a suitcase – but all vibrant, original, powerful. The Chinese and Korean photographers at the Prince William-sponsored exhibit I saw a few days ago were among the strongest works on display. It’s not only with their leaping economies that these emerging world powers will dazzle us.

A double-decker ride back along Oxford Street, the shops and streets overflowing with bargain-hunters. I found myself a corner in the chaos of the Mac store and did my emailing and posting, and then prepared to leave the heart of London. Wouldn’t you know, as I rolled my bag towards Piccadilly Circus to get the tube, the sun was strong and the day was growing hot. Hot. Briefly.

My English friend Christina (not to be confused with the Spanish Christina from the Carnaby Street place) lives in Barnes, a beautiful little town just on the southern outskirts of London. Barnes is a little further into spring than London, colour everywhere, all the blossom trees, forsythia, daffodils. And like before, bathing in Barnes pond are a gaggle of Canadian geese.

I felt like a missionary for a minute – Christina and her brother here have a minor medical condition, and I’d brought from their Toronto sister four boxes of a Canadian product which helps it. Remembering last year’s Suitcase from Hell, Christina was about to mock the size of my current suitcase – I’d intended to travel light but somehow that did not happen, did I tell you? The bag weighs 11 kilos, not nearly as bad as last year’s but not a feather, let me tell you – but when she saw all those boxes, which would not have fitted into a small suitcase, she held her fire.

I’d arrived a bit earlier than planned because I wanted to watch a docudrama about Vincent Van Gogh on BBC 1, linked to the show Penny and I’d seen. It answered a few questions we’d had: Vincent would definitely have been diagnosed these days as bi-polar; his preacher father considered him “eccentric” and wanted to have him committed as early as 1880. Vincent drew an exact copy of Millet’s “The Sower” five times, over and over, to get it exactly right. And Theo died of syphilis. But mostly, the show showed again how tragically lonely and tormented Vincent was. I felt differently about his suicide – perhaps he would not have lived much longer in any case, without Theo.

Incidentally, Vincent was played by a great young actor called Cumberpatch. My great-grandmother’s best friend was named Hattie Cumberpatch; I wear Hattie’s ring always on my right hand. So I feel another link, however tenuous, with Vincent. And one more thing I learned … Rembrandt painted over 90 self-portraits. Nobody told him to stop being such a self-centred egotist. I think his work is the equivalent of today’s memoirists. Rembrandt was painting the memoir of his own face.

Christina had made a great dinner and then we watched the “University Challenge,” in which students from Oxbridge battled each other – amazingly clever and knowledgeable, that bunch – and then the last Inspector Frost drama on telly. I hadn’t seen any of the others, but the last one was good. Christina’s place is a haven this time, as it was last – a quiet place to stop for a minute. Though the coffee bar where I’ve just paid a fortune for the internet is anything but quiet – full of the noisiest British children. I think this country is changing. Its children are.

The sun is out, with a biting wind. Time for a walk. Off tomorrow to Berlin. Am I really here?

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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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