Virginia Creeper on our roof garden and on London walls everywhere flames bright red, screaming that fall is here. Birch leaves near our window glow yellow. Having happily acclimated to warm climates for nearly half my life, I dread endless winter’s dreariness. Nights are longer. I made pesto from our remaining rooftop basil and invited Inge for dinner after we walked to Billy Elliott at the Marble Arch Odeon. I babysat for Sam, my next door stand-in grandchild, and will paint his portrait before he moves home to the states. Mike reports that Australians love everything American and are the friendliest people he’s ever seen, and that Canberra, unfortunately, looks a lot like Lubbock. No word on what he saw in Singapore.
The Saudi Royals at the end of our mews have chopped down the ancient ivy cascading over our arched brick mews entry. You can now read the white street sign “Hyde Park Gardens Mews” and below it in red, “Westminster W2” without leafy interference, but the brown brick wall is stark and bare, no longer invitingly green, with spiderlike root marks left on the wall. The family (and their servants, Rolls, and chauffeur-who-shines-the-Rolls) have left for the winter, leaving the servants’ quarters occupied and the 5 story attached house vacant. There is scaffolding on part of the house; they’ll paint. Scaffolding rises in London faster than magic beanstalks.
In a daylong watercolor class at the Wallace Collection, we used gouache in the manner of Bonington, who lived in France and died at 26 of consumption in 1828. I don’t use gouache much since it’s opaque, but it was great fun being with painters! The V.P. of the Royal Watercolor Society introduced us to Bonington and taught our small class; he mentioned that Victoria’s nearby portrait was done at an angle to minimize her large bosom. The museum enclosed its courtyard as a Millennium Project, which thus opened up a basement, adding galleries and a workroom. While in this former private mansion in Manchester Square, behind Selfridge’s, I revisited Hals, Caneletto, Velasquez, and Poussin, hung on rich silk wall coverings near carved marble fireplaces. I take nearly every visitor to visit; there’s lots of furniture, clocks, armor too, for horses and men, and a nice gift shop. The new restaurant is good but slow and expensive, I’m told.
Picture this art installation: the pope, in white gown and mitre, wearing his pope mocs and carrying his crosier, lies on the ground, with a 2-foot meteor nearby. He’s in The Apocalypse show at the Royal Academy, very weird. Since I was nearby on Picadilly, I walked down a few doors to see it. To enter, one bends to climb through a little wooden cubbyhole door. The guard took a look at my raised eyebrow and quickly volunteered that it was cramped and claustrophobic, and, “Madam, would you like to use the other entrance!” In a skirt, I entered the “wusses” doorway, standing. Inside the dark space, my eyes adjusted to a video of rooms of a house, as far as I could see, and we were all standing in the dark amid piles of mattresses, boxes, and junk. The artist likes making spaces within spaces. I liked an exhibition of thousands of tiny soldiers, in Nazi uniforms, some with three heads, some chopping off heads, some bare-breasted female centaurs, some bisexual, lots of blood, bridges, tanks—some sunk in marshes, a burnt church, hanging or beheaded men—you get the idea. These horrific scenes, like kids’ soldiers and model railroad scenes run amok, are in large glass aquarium-like cases, resembling a 500 year old 3-D Hieronymous Bosch painting.
There were some purposefully badly executed gray paintings in one gallery; another held a mirrored entry arch into a video of a person smashing a mirror. (Interesting smashed patterns however!) I liked a serene lucite and white round temple of contemplation. One person could enter its central womb area to watch a video, but there were many in a queue ahead of me. The temple’s pristine perfection contrasted with another gallery’s pile of trash, a fan blowing on it and lights behind it over the viewer’s shoulders. The shadow on the wall formed a couple sitting on a hill, and the real objects on the trash hill made shadow grasses, waving in the breeze. Then the round screen of lights moved, throwing colors, from dark to luminous and beautiful, enveloping the shadow couple in a celestial beauty. Do you watch the trash, the shadow, the light? Interesting juxtapositions. What’s your version of the final days?
The show closes on a comic note: Jeff Koons, always inventive, (he married Ciccolina, the Italian stripper) made a huge red balloon-knot dog, the kind birthday clowns make, in the middle of a big gallery, perfectly reflected in an enormous silver mylar balloon on the wall. He also has two huge paintings of plastic toys: silly subject matter, gorgeously painted, shown in a classic gallery. The curator gave international artists free rein to imagine the last days of the world, and since the Wallace has been going since 1766, many styles have come and gone. My own paintings compared seem gutless and tame! Renaissance drawings will be next, but currently at the British Museum there are over 130 drawings of Correggio and Parmigianino, stunningly beautiful and still in marvelous condition after 500 years. Most are small, under glass cases, gathered from collections worldwide, with enough madonnas and putti to decorate a thousand Christmas cards. There are vigorous pen and ink sketches and quiet studies of folds, hands, and feet. That museum is one of the wonders of the world itself. Whatever your interest, they have examples, in enormous breadth. (The Egyptian stuff is my favorite. I can spend all day looking at decorated coffins, papyrus, and tomb furniture: ‘ow ‘bout a case of mummified cats?
I ate Indian food with the OWL (officers wives, London), hosted a lively book club, and went to a KCWC meeting with a speaker on breast cancer. I won a split of champagne in a 9-hole golf tournament because my partners played well. I caught up on errands, and painted commissions of homes. Patrick returned from Barcelona, Paris, and Grenoble, and we saw Fosse and had good dinners. I hope he returns for Christmas.
A high point of our entire stay was dinner at the House of Commons. We received formal mailed invitations from British Marine Equipment Council and Thompson Marconi Sonar. Below Big Ben, we appeared in black tie at St. Stephen’s gate at half six on a Friday evening, in time to process through a metal detector. This was fine, particularly since the Israelis and Palestinians had renewed their warfare this week, with disastrous results. (No doubt there were also cameras: Britain is the most photographed place in the world, more due to IRA threats than traffic tie-ups.) After checking coats, we wandered through corridors filled with mosaics and statuary until we found our downstairs room, on the terrace along the Thames, where a clear plastic curtain held off the chill breeze and preserved the ladies’ hairdos. A very tall old gentleman in a bright red coat smacked a gavel smartly during cocktails and announced that the next tour was about to leave, which we joined. (“He goes with the room.”) A jovial Scot walked about 10 of us into the historic hall where Charles I was tried before his beheading, where Churchill’s body laid in state, and where Henry VIII played tennis. I felt history seeping into my pores.
High above, dark wooden oak beams formed one of the broadest and oldest roofs in Europe. St. Stephen’s Chapel, the original House of Commons, saw the beginning of the Civil War when Commons defied Charles I in 1648, eventually leading to Cromwell’s Roundheads and Charles’ execution, prior to the monarchy’s Restoration with Charles II. The rest of the palace was rebuilt by Barry a year after the Great Fire of 1834, in late English Gothic style. It glorified past medieval history amid the Industrial Revolution, but the interior decoration is quite Victorian, with busy decorated floor tiles. We visited both Houses, Commons and Lords, observing the two sides of long green leather benches which formed an aisle two sword lengths apart. There are small brass circles at the back of the benches for audio. Neither place has nearly enough seats for all members, and no one is admitted after the door is closed for a vote. Lords is most beautifully decorated, with a gold gilded area, once an altar; the Sovereign may enter at will. But there is a gate in Commons upon which she must knock, asking permission. We saw message systems, lobby rooms, and voting procedures, and I was called “that tall Texan” to whom several soft questions and gentle gibes were delivered with a strrrong burrr by ourrr Scottish guide. I think I upheld our state’s honor!
Dinner was served with white linen and low floral centerpieces at tables of ten. We ate in a large paneled room lit by brass chandeliers hung from a high ceiling. Smoked salmon prepared our palates for Beef Wellington, followed by port or brandy after the yummy chocolate and mocha torte. After “To the Queen!” speeches followed, overseen smartly by the man in the red coat who came with the room. I wish we’d thought to keep a souvenir (empty) bottle of the House of Commons Chardonnay or Claret, as a British friend did. His wife Sally confided that she was quite the talk of their village going off to this exceptional evening! We were quite pleased ourselves, but like Cinderella’s ball, all suddenly ended just before eleven. “Carriages at eleven” said the invitation; Big Ben struck the hour as we left the building.
With visiting friend Peg, I attended a KCWC neighborhood coffee near the American Embassy, visited Thomas Goode‘s incredibly vast china store, walked to the Courtald Art Gallery to see Monet’s Bar at the Folies Bergere, lunched at Fortnum and Mason, (a 200-year old intoxicating store on Picadilly with staff in striped trousers and tails), and visited Covent Garden’s buskers and shops. We had a great time, and after her husband arrived for the weekend, we all walked through the park to the Serpentine Gallery for art, then the Oratory for religion before viewing Dinosaurs and Earthquake exhibits at the Natural History Museum. After a pub lunch we shopped at Harrod’s, already swathed in Christmas decorations and bustling. Mike had just returned from Australia and Ag from European business. Mike bought a suitcase with wheels, Cellini microlite, at Harrod’s, a capitulation for him, since he has maintained for years that only sissies need wheels! Mike travels incessantly. Willie Nelson notes: “A hard head makes for a sore ass.”
We’re famous, sort of. On 14 October 2000 the London Sunday Times magazine featured an ad for Glenfiddich 12 year old single malt Scotch. A brunette model in white patent go-go boots looks alarmed: her Mary Quant 1962 red mini is caught in the door of a light blue wire-wheeled Jaguar convertible. It was shot in a rainy mews. I looked again! Wow! I remembered a note in the mailbox advising that there would be photography in our mews, and here was the result! The car is directly in front of our door. I don’t know if this counts towards our 15 minutes of fame, but we got no free whisky. My sister reported this ad also appeared in the Financial Times. I saved the page and framed it.
Mike’s office had a change of command ceremony scheduled for the end of the third week of October, with many related activities. On Wednesday, I canceled my trip to Blenhiem Palace, Churchill’s birthplace, to join the office party. (Mike and I visited Blenheim many years ago.) We all met at the London Eye, the huge millennium ferris wheel alongside the Thames. Reservations must be made well in advance, and a full revolution of the wheel, with each car holding about 30 standees, takes about a half hour. As we began moving slowly upwards, I realized everyone around me was discussing the cog, the rubber type in the machinery (“Does that rubber say Firestone up there?”), and the torque. Engineers! A group of artists would have been noting the shapes of the changing water or the changing skyline. We ascended, much higher than Big Ben in the Victoria tower across the river, and all London revealed itself under drizzly skies. The perfect evening trip, it would seem, would include champagne and a full moon! But we had a great ride, and were nearly the last car of the day. We were surprised that the popular rides didn’t continue until midnight, with another workers’ shift coming on. “We got families, too, y’know!” one told me.
The next evening we challenged the laws of physics by crowding 40-some people into our house for drinks and gift presentations to the departing CO, who now leaves the Navy after more than 30 years’ service. (The Navy requires “up and out” at 30 except for flag officers.) Mostly they filled (literally) the living and dining rooms (living rooms are “reception rooms” or sometimes drawing rooms) to capacity. We had figured out how much beer and wine to buy for the crowd and bought double that number. When the crowd left, we had 3 bottles of wine left! It had been a busy week, with guests arriving from ONR offices in Singapore, Tokyo, and Washington. Afterward, we all walked to a small Spanish restaurant nearby which was excellent, but packed. By all of us.
The next day two busses threaded us past noisy Arab and Israeli protestors at the US Embassy, through London, past Westminster Cathedral, Parliament, and the Tower Bridge east to Christopher Wren’s beautiful campus at Greenwich. It’s home for the world's prime meridian and years of naval history. (Have you read Longitude, about the contest to use longitude to measure distances at sea?Many a battle was lost by aiming direction off by just a few degrees before proper clocks were made.) The Royal Navy abandoned that gorgeous campus in 1998 in cost cutting measures, but it is sad to consider that the elegant classical buildings with their symmetrical rows of stone columns, porticos, and pediments might be slighted in care. A college will use most of this unique majestic place.
The change of command ceremony, a mainstay of the Navy, occurred in the cavernous Painted Hall, its walls bursting with allegorical figures representing England blessed by Wealth, Power, and Justice, and figures of George I, Copernicus and others connected with the sea or navigation, all tended by putti. All surfaces were richly colored: in this largest painted hall in Europe, a brass floor plaque marks where Lord Nelson, the young one-armed admiral and Trafalgar hero, lay in state after his return to England. He’d been preserved in a vat of rum. At our ceremony, sailors smartly marched in the flags, Admiral Cohen, the head of naval research and Mike’s boss, spoke, bo’suns piped people “aboard,” bells clanged, and all went well. The reception afterwards was at the back of the room. (Years ago, I discovered that the arriving and departing skippers pay for these receptions, not Uncle Sam. We knew only two people in the crowd at Mike’s first submarine change of command in Rota, Spain.) There is a magnificent chapel next to the hall, and we had time to visit before the bus left. Nearby the Cutty Sark is open for visitors, the fastest tea clipper in the fleet around 1870. Its fame today is mostly from a scotch whiskey bottle.
We continued our internationalism with a small party of mews neighbors to bid farewell to Beth and Bob. Included were English, Italian, Swiss, French, American and Danish people, all in the immediate vicinity! Three young couples have babies, two of whom attended, and we noted how non-childproofed our house is! The three busy mothers are unusually beautiful, tall, with vibrant complexions and trim bodies.
Closing notes, “bits and bobs”: if it rains when you’re shopping, the umbrella goes in one hand, so all the bags hang from the other. If you have heavy groceries, your carrying elbow really drags! And if it’s windy, your ‘brolly arm grows very tired. You bag your own groceries—the cashier merely scans, and you toss things into the plastic while/whilst digging for money, credit card, grocery store card, whatever. Brits pay the highest grocery prices in Europe and the highest gas/petrol prices. Ford just lowered car prices by 13% after a report slammed car pricing in the UK vs. Europe. The average British woman wears a 36 C bra. You can buy a Rolls Royce Corniche convertible for $360,000. The BBC starts programs at all hours. Sometimes it’s 9:50 or 8:20 and a series shown on Tuesdays might end up finishing on a Friday. Next year the license fee for watching TV is going up another five quid to allow the BBC more entry into digital TV. It’s cheaper for black and white than for color TV, but everybody must pay license fees.