John McCrae wrote of the first world war’s carnage in Belgium,
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below…
On November 11 in London, at 11 AM, Big Ben began to strike the hour as thousands were gathered below. It was a cold Remembrance Day on a Sunday. A two-minute silence ended with a fired gun and then trumpets as the somber Queen strode forward to lay a wreath of red poppies at the Cenotaph, a thick marble obelisk at Whitehall that is carved with a laurel wreath of victory from 1918. She wore black, colored by a corsage of red paper poppies that volunteers sell in every street and tube station. Next came Philip, in a Royal Navy Admiral’s uniform, to lay a wreath. Then Charles, in a Rear Admiral’s uniform, then the Princess Royal, Ann, in an Admiral’s uniform, then Edward, in the Navy commander’s uniform he recently wore on active duty, and finally, in an Army Field Marshall’s uniform, the Duke of Kent. The Prime Minister and other officials followed with wreaths, as the Royal Marine band softly played, in white pith helmets and Navy uniforms. Queen Mum, at 101 and famously beloved for her WWII visits to bombed London sites, watched from a balcony nearby. Her brother Fergus was killed in the Great War. After repeated wreath laying, the stark cream-colored Cenotaph seemed to rise like a pale shaft floating amid a red poppy sea.
Three thousand marchers then passed by six abreast, many elderly, from every continent and regiment: Fiji, Malaysia, Bermuda, Botswana, Kenya and around the globe. Some wore military ribbons and regimental pins on civilian lapels to mark their youthful battles. Spectators lined the streets, scarcely a one without a poppy, the symbol of remembrance. One sign read “The young shall never forget.” Bands played, pipers piped, bearskin hats, kilts, and tiger skins on the bass drummers filed by, and the event was televised, as it is each year. After a couple of hours, it ended with prayers and hymns. The archbishop read, and other faiths stood by, as he concluded “in Jesus’ name.” Statistically, nearly half the nation are unbelievers. The choirboys sang more heartily than the Queen, O God Our Help in Ages Past. In the nearby lawn at Westminster Abbey, thousands of little wooden memorial crosses, each with a poppy and with a remembrance written upon it, studded the grassy lawn. The British do this extraordinarily well. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.
The night before, Mike was able to get tickets to Royal Albert Hall from MoD (the Ministry of Defence spelled with a c) and we were privileged to witness the remarkable annual Festival of Remembrance, which opened with the Household Cavalry State Trumpeters in gold jackets and black helmets. They wore an elaborate embroidered crest on their chests, and from their long trumpets hung golden banners like those in fairy tales.
The Queen sat in the royal box, marked by a dark velvet hanging rectangle embroidered with her crest, with Charles, Phillip and the others. (Not Camilla!) We sang God Save the Queen. On the circular bare floor below us, surrounded by three tiers of red and gold velvet seats, poppies were formed by overhead lighting. At one end of the floor, a scarlet jacketed military band played, first old tunes like I Got Rhythm, Embraceable You and Someone to Watch Over Me. Musicians are also trained to work as medics in the battlefields, unlike Americans. A Cockney comedian, Max Bygraves, recalled his Air Force experiences and sang oldies: Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner, Down at the Old Bull and Bush, Kiss me Goodnight, Sergeant Major, and Doin’ the Lambeth Walk (oy!). The crown joined in vigorously. A young Judy-Garland-as Dorothy lookalike sang Over the Rainbow. The old retired soldiers from the Chelsea hospital, founded by Charles II, strode by in brilliant scarlet coats and black tricorn hats. The Air Force band looked dull in comparison as they marched in gray green with plumed hats.
There were Gold Star mothers, camo-clad Bosnia vets, nurses, Ghurkas, and Bletchley Park workers, the ones who for thirty years kept silence about breaking German codes with the Enigma machine while they created the forerunner of modern computers. As with many wartime experiences, the Americans stole their fire in PR and took credit in their movies. The British ruefully shrug: not all workers get the glory.
Drummers marched abreast and all lifted their white-gloved hands simultaneously past shoulder height with each beat, resembling tiny windup toys. Military marchers swung their arms shoulder high, and to emphasize that swing wore long white gauntlets. Swinging in rhythm as the group marches past, the spectacle would inspire Radio City! At the same time, the crowd often claps in rhythm with the band as various sections march into the arena. (In the Navy, this was called “giving them the clap.” Tch!) Many of the audience wore regimental lapel pins.
Actors played roles of wounded soldiers, medics, and drove ambulances and cycles over the floor; a spotlight illuminated each scene in a big darkened hall. I was ready for a helo descent à la Miss Saigon! Newsreels of lost ships and men rolled on a large screen: 4000 allied ships and 60,000 submariners met Davy Jones in WWII. This is the hundredth birthday of Britain’s sub force, and the youngest and oldest (age 92) strode by. One in three submariners died in WWII, one in four in WWI. (In the US, say sub-ma-REEN-er; here it’s sub-MAR-in-er.) Films of New York on Sept. 11 preceded the appearance of a New York fireman with British rescue workers old and young, and police: it brought a standing ovation. 8 million BBC viewers watched from home and many eyes, like ours, brimmed with tears of pain and pride.
The conclusion came as the Archbishop of Canterbury in his robes led a sacred procession of servers with hymns and prayers. After Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, there were prayers of Thanksgiving and Remembrance, a reading from St. Paul, and Guide me O Thou great Redeemer. The President of the Royal British Legion, a General, read:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We will remember them.
All responded as one, with gusto: We will remember them.
Two minutes of absolute silence followed; red poppy petals softly floated from two huge baskets in the high dome overhead. Tears flowed silently down many cheeks. I’d long since dehydrated at the mystery and majesty.
Another General read: When you go home tell them of us and say--For your tomorrow we gave our today. We heard God be in my head, And in my understanding sung before the blessing and then the Navy hymn, Eternal Father, as the churchmen filed out. Then all the military marched to a huge gathering on the floor, and we again sang God Save the Queen, to which Elizabeth smiled and gave her below-the-chin-for-the-cameras wave. The men’s leader shouted “Hip, hip” and they simultaneously raised caps and roared “Hurrah!” thrice. I have left out many parts. If any of you ever have the chance to be in London for November 11, go to great lengths to participate in Remembrance Day.
28,000 Americans died while stationed here. After World War II, the British built them a memorial chapel at St Paul’s. The honor roll of the dead holds hand lettered parchment pages in a leather book, turned daily to new pages and new names. Christopher Wren labored 40 year after the Great Fire of 1666, commissioned by Charles I to replace the embers of old St Paul’s. His church, rebuilt in the 20th century after German bomb damage, is now being refurbished beneath plastic sheets and a web of scaffolding. Mike climbed 543 steps (over 34 stories) to the dome.
My Uncle Art was stationed in England and Belgium when I was very young, and I recall my mother’s leading me in bedtime prayers for his safety. I got dolls from other countries, and strange money. “And please bring Uncle Artie safely home from England.” I learned decades later that he was at the Nueremberg trials at war’s end as an Army sergeant. He was always wonderful to me.
Britain is in the process of rewriting urgently their immigration and detainment laws, putting more restrictions on terrorist suspects. Britain’s been seen as a soft touch to some who plot her downfall. There were 80,000 asylum claimants last year. Only 9000 were returned, of 30,000 scheduled to be returned because of false asylum claim. Most are young men, often from the middle and far east, desperate for a better life, as in the US and other countries. They live in council flats, funded by taxes, to be close to the hearing centers. Most are in London, with 4000 in Glasgow, and 2000 each in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. They receive spending money. Britain doesn’t require a citizenship process like the US, and is now considering mandating English skills and history tests before granting benefits of citizenship.
Although they certainly do ceremony well, Britain is not a nation of flag wavers, like Americans. Rather, they tend to be a bit embarrassed by shows of national patriotism, perhaps because of their colonial past. Any taxi driver will back me up—but they as a group show a very strong dislike of immigrants who won’t speak English and assimilate. (My own observation.) Rather than a Union Jack, taxis are more likely to display the Cross of St. Andrew or St. George.
Sixty eight percent of Muslims in a statistical survey said it was more important to be Muslim than British. Four of ten say Osama is justified in mounting war against the US, and think young Britons are justified in going to help him fight; ten percent justify attacking the World Trade Center. One 18 year old Scottish Muslim says he’s ready to strap himself with explosives and take on the Army, at home or abroad. I’ll gladly pay for his ticket to Kabul. Meanwhile, the Real IRA were stymied in a planned car bomb attack in Birmingham, and luckily, damages were far less than planned by those mad Irishmen. Muslim or Irish bombs—both kill.
However, as I look back on a Catholic childhood, with Catholic school, nuns, priests, neighbors, and pre-Vatican II unquestioning belief, I see how my family and friends bought the whole enchilada of faith and mindless obedience. I’m sure there would have been far more people loyal to the pope than President Truman or Ike among many Catholics. My dear mother disliked Gov. Dewey because he had a mustache, and her level of political savvy hasn’t evolved a whit. She’ll be 89 soon.
I had my own painting show, the first here, on a Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately, it was a holiday weekend and many were away, since visitors and Londoners alike take off at every opportunity. We served wine and cheese, sold several, and I’m already planning another for spring. As usual, I was surprised by who buys what, and very pleased, as ever, for my work to be chosen. I continue with a few commissions, often of picturesque homes here leased by Americans who want a souvenir before they leave. I enjoy doing the paintings and know they’ll be cherished afterward.
The euro, ready for the Continent in January (despite all the confused old ladies and criminal money launderers who will result) will let Europeans compare true costs. Levi 501s cost £ 47 in Spain, France, and Germany, but £55 here—about $82. A Compaq laptop, £1080 in Spain, is £1900 here. British pay about 18% higher prices than Europe. What else British to report to you? You can now smoke dope in England with no fear of jail, but you can’t sell a spliff to a friend. One in four British women, approximately, have had an abortion. Six percent of Oxford professors are female. Harry Potter has opened to huge fanfare, despite American reviews. Virgin Airlines trips are from £399 for 7 days in Boston, including hotels; Continental, United and KLM offer $210 London fares from the US. Don’t come for free medical care, though: waits for routine orthopedic surgery are 4 years. One 71 year old is waiting until his appointment in 2003, and afterwards it will be 30 months until his operation! A government survey confirmed that British trains charge most, have the worst service, and that traffic tieups here are the worst in Europe.
Here’s how you get a flu shot in London, if you’re under 65. Go to your NHS provider in person, since a call won’t suffice. Fill out a form, and leave it. Go back when called, and pick it up. That allows you to locate a pharmacy to buy vaccine, but many won’t carry it. Make an appointment with the provider to have the shot (“jab”) administered. Or, after living here nearly two years, you discover at a drinks party (cocktail party) you can use the Navy docs after all. Wander in, inquire, get it straightaway and go! They’re also treating a persistent skin inflammation on my left hand, which is healing.
London theater and restaurants, as in New York, are suffering a lack of tourists, but it’s easier to get in now. We saw Pinter’s The Homecoming with fantastic acting by Ian Holm as Max in a perfectly dysfunctional family onstage and Ian Hart, who’s a teacher in Harry Potter films. Mike got half price tickets at the Leicester Sq. booth for the hit revival Kiss me Kate which was a delight: excellent singing of Cole Porter tunes. We also dined at The Ivy, London’s favorite spot for the last four years, which is good, but dear. Normal reservations can take months. I went to a charity Christmas bazaar which was nice, but the Junior League in Austin is the top fundraiser in the US and sets a high standard which the London charity didn’t meet. Italian classes continue. As I write, however, I’m in my nightie, it’s 5 PM, and I’ve been puttering since morning. A delicious sluggardly day—gives a new meaning to “dressing for dinner.”
Hook ‘em Horns! The football prowess of UT hasn’t been overlooked a bit! We expat Texas Exes saw the A&M game on tape at Biagio’s wonderful hue bar again, thanks to an alum, and including Aggies, we had over 100 raving fans. UT moved nationally to the no. 3 slot after the win, so a final bowl game will offer yet another chance to wear orange and drink beer. I chose ‘ritas, no salt, to replenish my disgracefully low tequila intake. For the game Sunday night, Mike will already be in the US for work.
We had an outing to Twickenham stadium to see England rugby wax Romania by the biggest one-sided score ever: 134 to nil. (Does anybody else say “nil”?) We drank an awful lot of beer, but then Mike and I came home to watch a video instead of staying out ‘til 2 AM with pals. Yeah, it’s age! The weather is still cool and gray, but not too wet, with jacket and hat usually required, and the ubiquitous scarf. And always a brolly, just in case.
One Sunday we were on the roster to serve coffee at the Farm St. church, so we biked over through the park. However, Hyde Park roads were filled with police vans and hundreds of cops in bright chartreuse jackets, some on horseback. By our return, we picked our way through a sea of marchers with handouts, signs, banners, and stickers, forming to march to Trafalgar Square, some chanting. There were many brown skins, mostly male, some saris, burkas and turbans, but also universities and other groups, and many ages, from strollers to walking sticks. A few posters wanted peace; some showed George Bush or Tony Blair and said “wanted for treason.” Others were in Arabic and Urdu. It was quite noisy and pushy, but nonviolent overall, and depending on the police or marchers, numbered 10,000 or 25,000. We cycled home to finish the Sunday paper, then ate two dinners: the first a military group’s Thanksgiving potluck, and the second our friend Sylvia’s dinner party for her visiting brother. She is a fine artist: check sylviaedwards.com and you’ll see what I mean.
My brother Pat from Warsaw is visiting London for some tests. He recently wrote: “Very happily back from a few weeks in Dushanbe. I don't recommend the place. I waited in Luxembourg for a few days for our ride - a Russian cargo plane. Slept in the armored cars we delivered. $170K for the ride. Once in Dushanbe our team of eight was only allowed out with a bodyguard. These guys looked like Napoleon with their hands inside their coat. Half the people have gold front teeth. Nice people--mostly Iranian roots. Didn't see Osama so no reward money. Our team was great--we worked in a compound comprised of two adjacent houses - the unofficial "Embassy." Our cooks were new, and it showed. Lots of meals were not fit to eat. Loads of flies. Most of us had the runs. We all shared one toilet and one shower. Russian air fresheners weren't making it. Tajikistan is very poor, with some people starving and a lot malnourished. Post had about 5 permanent Americans and 75 guards, although the place looked pretty peaceful to me. Weather was good, except for the dust storm. Ambo complained about our noise. Tap water was milky brown after it rained. Hot water or just water sometimes missing. Electricity was intermittent. Count your blessings. Shared a bedroom with two, one of whom snored loudly, so I slept with headphone-like rifle range ear protectors. Worked long days, weekends, holidays, etc. Post now has cameras, alarms, metal detectors, x-rays, communications gear, power systems and conduit infrastructure. Flew out on Tajik air - exciting.“
Thanksgiving here is not observed, but we sent for tickets to the St. Paul’s vestry for the American ceremony to count our own blessings. Normally it doesn’t require ticketing. (Oh, the times.) The cathedral, which holds about 2500 (biggest church in the world after St. Peter’s in Rome) was full, and our Marines carried in the stars and stripes before hymns and prayers.
Afterwards, we visited the new British galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum, reopened after three years and 31 million pounds, on three floors and chronological. They are as wonderful as the writeups say: whole rooms recreated from previous lush times, and tapestries, draped beds, paintings, marbles, and candelabra in high ceilinged spaces, gracefully arranged. Thousands of objects are newly displayed. The V&A takes heat as the “sisty ugler” because it’s seen as stuffier than some of the other museums here, with lower visitor numbers. It’s great. Henry VIII’s writing box, his Holbein portrait of Ann of Cleves, whom he married by proxy and then despised and divorced, Francis Drake’s jewel from Elizabeth, the new fashion of drinking tea, the Duke of Norfolk’s music room—all are there with Chippendale’s chairs, Canova’s sculpture of the Three Graces, and the Great Bed of Ware. The last is now shown draped in woolen fabric that specially woven, dyed with vegetable dye of the times, 1590. The counterpane was woven with gold thread. Twelfth Night alludes to a “sheet big enough for the bed of Ware,” since 43 men and their wives supposedly slept there. Sitting up, as many did due to bronchial problems. Imagine the coughing. The graces, commissioned in France by Josephine, must be returned to Scotland for display in three years, so do hurry by.
The V&A isn’t the only enhanced face here: the Tate Britain (the old Tate) had been lolling in the shadows of the lively Tate Modern, written up worldwide for architecture more than art perhaps, in its refurbished electrical power building on the Thames. It just revealed its new look, funded with lottery money, with a new wing and show of Victorian nudes. It’s gorgeous, and opens much new space to this beautiful building. Far from perceptions of staid modesty, Victoria and Albert loved paintings and sculptures of nudes, I learned. In the show is an elaborate statue of Lady Godiva, a well known British heroine, sidesaddle on a feisty silver charger, a gift from Victoria to her husband. Victoria became queen in 1838, married, and had nine children before Albert died at 42 and she carried on. Their private rooms were filled with nudes as well. The large show is a taste of painting and sculpture for the last two hundred years or so, and proves that it wasn’t just those debased Frenchmen who used the body so well in art. There are other Godivas—she was, after all, Saxon—and Cupid and Psyche, Pygmalion and Galatea, with even a few French movies exposing the jiggly bits, and postcards with naughty ladies photographed sans knickers. There is some frontal male nudity too, but Playboy is in no danger! To stifle the public’s occasional objections to immorality in art, artists merely tied the scene to mythology and omitted pubic hair. Voila, l’art!
Mike and I will be in the US separately then return for our second London Christmas. I’d hoped for a British Museum trip to Egypt, but will wait until the world calms down. It’s very dark by four, making holiday lights on Regent, Oxford, and Bond Streets twinkle that much brighter. I close with an old Sunday Times article from September, about a sunny Italian place near seaside Camogli, where I painted. “A petrol station in an Italian fishing village is planning to employ topless women to fill tanks. The move could revive the flagging tourist trade in Santa Margherita Ligure, say local fishermen. The mayor, whose permission is needed, says: “I have nothing against it, but employing topless girls could distract the drivers.” Oh, one would hope!