Since April, I visited family in five different states, painted with ‘Seven Across’ friends in California, got a new hip (and Physical Therapy) in Texas, flew home to London, froze, flew to Berlin three days later, and returned to swelter. (I visit grandchildren twice yearly so we'll know each other!) We were startled on returning to our mews: protruding metal rods and wood scaffolding enveloped next door’s brick top to bottom, and trucks often clog our brick alley. Kathy and Paul's colorful pots of flowers have disappeared, but so has the ugly yellow skip (dumpster) from their front door. The interior, completely gutted and roofless, is partially covered with a bright blue tarp, and my life, it seems, will be accompanied by pounding hammers and noisy whining drills. The crew is Polish, and I hear cheerful da's. Weekends so far are work-free, and seldom has silence seemed such a friend.
Nearby, acres of scaffolding have disappeared to reveal what once was the hotel for the Great Western Railway at Paddington Station. The train station is busier than ever, with the Heathrow Express aiding and abetting Tourist Season. Baggage check-in is available here instead of in Heathrow's chaos, and four Tube stops rumble below the train tracks. We love the convenience and hope to remain in our flat till we leave, although we learned recently that our owner may sell. The cream-colored hotel, crowned by tall twin cupolas, had been covered since we moved here, and I await the its opening, expecting elegant bars, restaurants, and amenities all a short walk away. I soon tagged along with Mike to his Berlin nanotechnology meeting and while he studied, I played. Read about it in another section.
What do you know about nanotechnology? It's important. It addresses carbon objects a billionth of a meter thick, so normal physics rules don't apply. A nanotube's diameter is 10 thousandth the diameter of a human hair. We could make incredibly strong stuff that was really thin! The problem is making stuff out of nanotubes, which is why scientists are scratching their heads. (Spring some of this at your next cocktail party.) Mike's Office of Naval Research helped sponsor much international basic research and assisted several eventual Nobel prize winners.
London is hot and humid, more than Mediterranean cities now: our fans are humming. Hyde Park lawns look like Seurat's Grand Jatte or a Prendergast watercolor, with people biking or strolling, skating, horseback riding, or, if they're kids, chasing ducks and swans at the Round Pond outside Kensington Palace. Prone bodies sprawl everywhere on the grass, almost like cheery battlefield casualties, flattened by the heat.
Some skaters practiced weaving backwards through a series of plastic cups on the path, but only a few made it, looking over their shoulders without sending cups flying. As a pretty girl's feet flew out from under her, she landed hard on her butt, legs outstretched and long pony tail flying. Her boyfriend quickly offered assistance. (Skater Mike is sporting a huge black butt bruise that began as a strawberry, and has taken over one whole cheek and thigh!) One man strode deliberately to the edge of the pond, hefted a white soccer ball over his head with both hands, and hurled it into the center of the pond. I guess he disapproved of a game! The Moslem ladies wore kerchiefs and the Arabs sweltering long black chadors, but they were balanced by plenty of revealing bikinis and short shorts. No topless sightings as we wheeled past. Biking has been forbidden near the palace, but there are new temporary rules. I hope they last: it offers clearer breathing than next to cabs’ diesel exhaust on the park motorway. Some urban bicyclists wear masks to filter the carbon monoxide.
Navy friends are visiting, so we all heard Sunday mass from Poets' Corner inside Westminster Abbey, followed by a coffee in the cloister. There are no tours on Sundays, the church is quiet and solemn, and ushers wear morning coats. As our friends headed to the Cabinet War Rooms in St. James Park, we visited the abbey's museum which we've passed often. We were delighted to see the monks' domed chapter room that Henry III built, where in 1245 men gathered daily to read a bible chapter. Walls are covered with badly worn paintings of the final days, as reported in the Bible, with The Evil One, churchmen, and harlots vividly portrayed in what seems tempera on worn wooden wall panels. Stained glass windows in the circular room once held shields of the room's donors, but 1941 bombs left only part of the originals, surrounded by replacement glass. Rare glazed patterned floor tiles are original, but later.
Henry had feudal lords, knights, barons, and free men meet to speak, parle, together in the Chapter Room, so this "Great Council" might be the evolution into the first Parliament. In that room the monks signed their Deed of Surrender in 1540 as Henry VIII nabbed literally thousands of pounds of gold candlesticks, altar furnishings, and vestments. The Pyx room, once a monks' sleeping room, later a royal treasury, displays a few rich gold altarpieces collected years later from those the king didn't manage to sell. Security is provided by a door requiring six large keys at one time. This is after a robbery in 1303. To forestall another such annoyance, a stone sill permits only a partial opening of the wooden door, and a 1661 gold liturgical cape, commissioned for a coronation, is displayed in a heavy wooden box assembled inside the stone room. The wide box, with the spread cape, could never fit through the door. (Would a power saw work today?) St. Margaret's fingerbone, enclosed in gilt silver, is somewhere in the display, with crowns, a throne, effigy of Charles II in his own robes, and more.
The last part of the museum holds, among other things, wax effigies of rulers and famous persons. Petite Lord Nelson is there, with his empty sleeve pinned to his jewel-clad chest. His legs aren't much larger than a twelve year old's, and I recalled he didn't have many teeth. He was small, and signage reports that even his mistress Lady Hamilton thought this was a great likeness. Queen Elizabeth I was there, garbed in velvet, lace, and yards of genuine pearls, and another mannequin showed her extremely pre-Maidenform undies. William and Mary and others, nicely dressed, stare from glass cases, proving that beauty and power aren't synonymous.
I often feel hypocritical or remote in church, like an outsider observing rather than participating, since I question beliefs and practices in Roman and Anglican churches. I love the sense of community and the beauty of the liturgy, and especially here, the wonderful music, which I know my Austin choir would enjoy. As a youngster, I believed mass attendance was the most important part of the week, but nearly everyone is more relaxed today. In England, we have never seen a full church except on Christmas Eve. Anglicans have kept every "high church" practice, the smells and bells, and specifically invite everyone to communion. Last year bishops "exchanged frank opinions" with Catholics about their reciprocation refusal, and Christian Northern Ireland still simmers with violence because of past religious and civil rights injustice.
After church, we visited the BP Portrait Show for this year, which, in my opinion, was not up to last year's: figurative dark serious stuff meant fewer pieces to excite me. However, I loved some black and white photographs, which usually don't turn me on. Next we enjoyed hot tea at perhaps my favorite table in London: at the window upstairs in the Portrait Gallery, with a bird's eye Thames-ward view of Lord Nelson, perched on his column, St. Martin's unusual pierced steeple, Big Ben, The Eye, and more. ‘Light tea’ meant an egg mayonnaise sandwich sans crusts, a scone with clotted cream, cake (a fruitcake slice) and tea, with two little jars of jam and marmalade. There are still pigeons in Trafalgar Square, despite the mayor's personal vendetta against "flying vermin." Reports of a decrease in tourism seem groundless, since hordes of Indians, Japanese, Italians, Germans, Africans, and backpacking Americans are met at every turn. The Vermeer show at the National Gallery next door sells out often, so we have tickets for dinner and that show next weekend and feel lucky, and TX Exes have a pub crawl scheduled.
The evening brought a light dinner for all of us on the roof from Chef Mike, and a trip to the Duke of Kendal for singing. June, the piano player, had celebrated her 76th while we were gone. Maurice, a stalwart tenor, had a stroke and can't sing any more, but is well enough to visit his twin sister in Newcastle.
I liked Bella Tuscany, by Frances Mays, after previously enjoying Under the Tuscan Sun. The San Francisco professor restores an Italian Villa after a divorce and is entranced by her new community and new love. She's mad for Italy and transfers her passion well. Previously I read The Volcano Lover, about Naples, Lord Nelson, and adultery near Mt. Vesuvius in the 1700s. Goethe, Napoleon, Mozart, and the King of Sicily slip into the Susan Sontag's romance based on fact.
I have new boxes of frames, mats, and watercolor paper. My teacher Barbara said to pick up my paintbrush even before my toothbrush; Carl said before I send a Chronicle, I must make a good painting. Instead, I'm making beds for our next guests, due soon. My new hip is doing just great and I'm walking all over London, but biking is easier. Ciao, dollings.