What a month! I needed roller skates to keep up. We began west of London with a flat-out fabulous party at a Victorian brick home near Winchester in hilly, green Hampshire, which was filled with tents (marquees here; tents are for campers) and worker bees to benefit Naomi House, a worthy children’s hospital charity. Guests’ clothing ranged from tuxedoes to shorts for the lads, and the ladies all looked pretty wonderful in whatever. Near the stables were booths of makeover artists, fortunetellers, reflexologists, and masseurs--even for feet! Sheep, pups, horses and chickens lived nearby. Areas behind the organic vegetable garden had live theater performances in another marquee. That garden is entered through a new circular sculptured gate at one end, and raised beds filled with many kinds of vegetables are separated by wide gravel walkways. We dined at round tables of 8 in the large marquee beside the rose garden amid tables of linens, glowing candles, and flowers. Small candles floated in the pool, blown to one end by faint breezes, creating a wavy little corner of light. The big dancing marquee had two bands, so there were no music pauses on the dance floor. Early in the evening, we sacrificed the meringue lessons and opted instead for the wine tastings. How much athleticism does it take to do those enticing, bouncy South American dances, anyway? Waiters flowed smoothly through the crowd with trays of hors d’oeuvres. We danced after an excellent dinner, and played at the craps tables, staying later than we’d planned, but what fun it was! Charity auction items produced vigorous bidding: people animatedly shouted ever-escalating bids for designer gowns, vintage wines, and fishing in Scotland.
Many tourists never leave English cities for the countryside, but what a loss! There are miles of rolling green lawns and fields, ancient and modern towns, farms, lakes and mountains. It's easy to think of King Arthur or Robin Hood and catch up on characters from 007 to Merlin! Arlesford is the cress capitol of England, with low-walled watercress fields sometimes flooded by clear Arles River canals. The town in charming, with an old Saxon church and several inns and arty shops amid more pedestrian businesses. Our hostess and our daughter were college friends; we attended her wedding in England many years ago and stayed in a house listed in the Domesday Book--before 1066.
After the party, blanketed by a thousand stars, we walked down a quiet country road to our thatch-roofed B and B. Earlier that afternoon we drank tea in the garden with our Dutch hostess, formerly married to the mayor of Winchester and now a watercolor artist and sculptor. Her home overflows with antiques and artwork. Rethatching is very expensive today, and few craftsmen are able to do a fine job of layering all that thatch, but those unique homes with thatching are required to replace thatch with thatch. The next morning, we peered through inky darkness for our cab, which took us to Heathrow for my 6 AM flight to Malpensa Airport in Milano. More about that in another chapter.
Returning to gray London was hard. No golden walls, purple bougainvillea climbing the staircases, or swaying palms here! (There are wonderful plants here, however.) We are experiencing the coldest summer since 1813, within a degree. I wore a sweater! Texas sandals are replaced by socks and shorts by jeans, and my paintings seem to burst with so much color they look strangely out of place here, almost garish. Stores here have slashed prices on tees and sandals, while soups and bright light box sales (to ward off depression) are at winter levels. Cruises and trips south are sellouts. So few visitors are in the parks that ducks are not getting enough to eat. Apples and barley are delayed in ripening, and Dutch flowers will cost more next year. This is on top of our wettest April on record ever, which flooded Scotland and led to train circuit failures. Fuse boxes are exploding and tracks buckling, which means some trains have been delayed up to six hours. This month is also sale month in all the stores, so I could probably do some of the shopping that I missed in Italy; however, even on sale, prices here are steep.
We eased my reentry with Mike’s fine dinner and champagne, and a trip to the Royal Academy the next day to view the Scottish colorists, 1900-1930. Mike cooked hots and ‘burgers at the Ambassador’s July 4th party with a group of Texas Exes while I was gone. A light mist became pouring rain as he walked home, cabs being in short supply. American firms (Starbucks, McDonald’s, etc.) donate foods and goods, bands play and British dignitaries are invited. They’re free but Americans pay, unless, like Mike, they’re the hot dog guys. Mike saw Fosse too, on a last minute half price ticket. He’s in Belgium this week; I hope to get things together before heading for Washington to meet Ellen's new baby Jack. By September, her Timmy will begin first grade.
We missed greeting one set of friends, but others came from Austin for an enormous American Bar Association meeting. Five thousand American lawyers offered London journalists and entertainers open season on commentary. We met at Quaglino’s, a trendy, delicious and noisy Terry Conran restaurant. Then we walked to Picadilly Circus and Trafalger Square immersed in garish neon and noisy traffic. On Saturday, Mike was back and we all re-met for breakfast in Kensington just as if we were back in Austin.
Elizabeth, the Queen Mum, picked a splendid day to celebrate her 100th. She is admired for remaining in London during the war with her daughters, and visiting bombed out sites. However, one man near me hissed, “She was rather unpopular when she was young because of her awful treatment of the servants. Of course, that was back when one ooowned one’s servants!” Quite.
The blue sky and soft breezes were a beautiful backdrop to the mall (rhymes with pal) , where every lamppost along the parade route was hung with a huge red white and blue Union Jack, topped with a crown and golden tassels. Two bombs earlier in the day were found and blown up, snarling train traffic for hours. (Idiot IRA thugs.) Now it was 5:30, and bobbies, on foot and mounted, were in high spirits, gently keeping curbside crowds at bay (me and others, lined 6 deep) and the roving international film crews and helicopters overhead were scarcely noticeable as the parade passed. Marchers were leaving the nearby Horse Guards parade grounds, where a ticket was required for admission.
There flowed groups of soldiers in their varied uniforms, and representatives of all the Queen’s charities, some in carts, vintage cars, and floats. Representatives from children’s homes, prisons, wildlife groups, commerce, and the arts marched, and Queen Mum’s beloved jockeys. Motorcycle gangs revved and waved. Busses decked out with balloons and banners drove past. (“Party On, Ma’am!”) Two tan corgis were walked by a dignified man in black tails. I never saw any camels, but read about them later. Vintage planes flew overhead, and finally a team of jets roared over floating red, white, and blue contrails across the sky. People near me shared information on which uniform was which, which movie star, which historic team, which caisson from WWI. I’d photographed one of the Royal Hospital Chelsea pensioners in his scarlet jacket and battle ribbons, and later, when I saw him again, I asked if he’d like a copy. “Why, yes, of course!” He smiled, and before I could write down his name, he fumbled in his pocket for a gold stick-on address label for me! A/CPL Doug Woolford. He wasn’t sure how the some inner circle with tickets were chosen from his group, but claimed he’d had a great time out with us all. He looked WWII or Korea vintage.
Some of the most remarkable sights of the parade were teams of horses. There were countless carriages from the past 100 years, with liveried footmen sporting boots, whips, and tall hats. The horses were gorgeous, and if one had a blaze and four white hoofs, so did the next, high stepping smartly, totally together, often with braided and beribboned manes and tails. One matched team was more beautiful than the next. I don’t know if anyplace else in the world has such a large supply of well-trained and marvelous beasts.
At the end, the royals appeared, in closed cars rather than in the carriages they’d ridden earlier in the day. Elizabeth, Queen Mum, was in pink with a large pink hat. She brought many waves and cries of Happy Birthday. Margaret, Fergie, Anne, the children and many others were there, clearly visible, but not Charles or Elizabeth. My new pals on the street rattled ‘em off one by one. (In a recent poll, Charles won least favorite royal.)
I walked past Buck House (Buckingham Palace) and along the park, enjoying a strawberry ice cream cone (nowhere near Italian gelato) and dodging errant soccer balls flying out of the park in large numbers from many games there. A red double decker bus at Hyde Park Corner took me to the Windsor Castle, a packed pub in Kensington with a nice but noisy beer garden in the back, where the KCWC golfers were meeting. Three hours, two pints, and many conversations later, I walked home, which took about 45 minutes in a perfect summer evening. My “dinner” was half a bowl of chips, since real food was taking an hour and a half (meaning fries, y’all; “crisps” are potato chips) and, if I may use a Reagan era definition, my veg was catsup. Three food groups: fat, starch, and alcohol. When I got back, I realized that Mike was home, wondering where I was! I thought he was due in tomorrow night! (Usually his schedule’s on the refrigerator.) His trip to Brussels went well, focused on international food safety. He’s less interested in the food part per se than in better understanding the workings of European organizations. EC requirements push into many national sovereignties and customs. The French are horrified that they must now refrigerate cheeses sold in open air markets for centuries.
KCWC sponsored a pub walk along Baker Street, in the paths of Sherlock Holmes. About twenty people attended, plus a blue-badge guide. (The badges are a sure sign of tested knowledge.) We saw the bank that sits where supposedly Holmes and Watson had rooms, and learned the bank employs a secretary even now who answers mail to Sherlock from all over the world. We traced Holmes’ steps through several adventures, sampled 3 pubs en route, and stopped for supper afterward on Christopher Alley, a tiny restaurant area off Oxford St. packed with diners, many sitting outdoors beneath warm kerosene heaters. A group of traveling musicians performed as some of us new Sherlock experts dined at an Italian restaurant.
On a recent evening stroll in Hyde Park, we watched the sun color the sky, completely infusing it with soft pink. Glowing Serpentine waters reflected pink back to the sky as if an embrace, with dark green-black shrubs offering a cutout foil at the edge where geese and ducks rippled the quiet pastel water. The bustling city forgotten for a time, the whole world seemed to be basking in ethereal pink. It’s a scene I can call to mind with the same clarity of Wordsworth recollecting his daffodils. Poetry is emotion recalled in tranquility. We love evening walks in the neighborhood and in the park. The cascading flower baskets hanging on Westminster’s utility poles seem now to have quintupled in size: petunias, ivy, geraniums. They are supported by merchants, and a truck comes by to water them. They beautify the city.
Sunday’s chill wind meant I wore my leather jacket, buttoned up, as we attended Westminster Cathedral church, the Byzantine red and white brick Roman Catholic Cathedral, and later walked in the park. Summer, stay—please! We’re trying to track the finish times of Austin’s own hero Lance Armstrong’s in the Tour de France, but all I see is Tiger Woods in the Open, though there have been several big articles about Lance and some yellow-jersey color pictures in the Times.
The paper is full daily of the latest leaks from the Blair inner circle. Things look bad for Tony and Co.: the National Health Service is a shambles and government is trying to decrease waits to six months for surgeries and reform the worst hospitals. Private hospitals may now be paid to perform urgent procedures. Current waits might grow to years, yet over 60,000 surgeries are cancelled annually at the last minute for non-medical reasons. However, railroad travel is up 25% since deregulation and is due to increase by 50% in 2010, partially due to massive government investment after years of penny pinching.
Mike and I are becoming peeping Toms. The last house on our mews, white brick, black trim, next to the red brick arch, has been vacant all year. While everyone has planted flowers and trees in pots, that one doorway has remained stark and bare. Now, after many large trunks were delivered to the large house connected in front of it, there is an omnipresent large blue Bentley with a chauffeur, sometimes a Mercedes or two, plus sometimes a security man with walkie talkie. There are automatic cameras at the front door. Through the large basement windows next to the sidewalk, one sees a very large commercial-size kitchen, often filled with workers. The main entrance on Clarendon St. has large Chinese pots on the porch with medium-size conifers. Last night the lights were all on inside, with many chandeliers glowing, and we saw, through lace curtains, an elaborate feast set out on the table, with perhaps eight tall silver serving domes, flower arrangements, and gleaming glassware. People milled in the background. A smell of incense filled the air as we passed by on our evening walk. We hear it is royal Saudis—right on our street! I asked the chauffeur a few days ago if there was a chance they would put plants on the mews entrance too. Maybe he's too lowly to know.
The month ends with a ladies luncheon, an Elton John concert in Hyde Park, and a game of golf before meeting baby Jack. You don’t need to know about the luncheon. But you should know that in Hyde Park, my vague thoughts about sitting on a lawn blanket were blown away when I spied the tall green fence surrounding a huge area of the park near Bobbies on horseback and on foot. We walked past soccer games, dog walkers, and bicyclists with our expensive tickets and found our numbered tiered bleacher seats. Elton appeared, sat at his Yamaha piano/keyboard on a huge unadorned stage save for the backdrop, and that was it for the next 3 hours. He played and sang without stopping, as he’s done all summer. This is the end of his tour and the audience loved it.
He opened with “I hope you don’t mind, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve put into words how wonderful life is with you in this world” which is how I feel about you readers. The next song was one of welcome to your baby brother, which of course had me in a state since I could think only of baby Jack, and after that he performed Daniel. Elton had the whole monster crowd on its feet for Crocodile Rock and Benny and the Jets, and he played several instrumentals too. He played Rocket Man, Circle of Life from the Lion King while showing video of the Disney movie, paid a tribute to John Lennon, sang about a NY gun murder, and finally closed with the Norma Jean Candle in the Wind, ending the second encore. He changed tempi and keys numerous times, and pulled several echoes and bell sounds from the keyboard, but basically just sat and played and sang all evening, with no notes or music, and he never lost a word or wavered. He wore a strangely patterned green suit and white-framed glasses. Two large screens on either side of the stage had closeups, and the screen behind him showed varied effects. Even Mike said, “I know that song.” Once. He nearly clapped during some of the music, but caught himself just in time. Said he was tired from the Farnsborough Air Show, y’know. Busy day on the runways and all! But he liked it.
The golf was interesting. Mike had taken the day off. Before we left the house on a nice sunny morn, I took out non-essentials, such as a driver, umbrella, hat, and jacket, from my bag, since Mike would be carrying it and I would be pushing his bag on a cart in the tube. Then we stood in the doorway of the exit station in West Ruislip until the pouring rain stopped. We got to the course nearby, and, since they had no towels, we wiped off our dripping cart (“buggy”) with paper towels before setting off. Mike walked, and we joined up with a jolly very elderly man named Ted, with a mane of long white hair. He left before the second rainstorm. Eventually we were joined by Erin, who also left, but that was only in a sprinkle. We finished eighteen as a twosome in the sun, and had lunch on the picnic tables outside the club, then stopped in a store nearby to look at bikes. When we left, we walked in the rain back to the train station. (A long flight of stairs presents a challenge, when carrying the cart and golf bag and there was no working escalator or lift.) The whole event began before ten in the morning and ended at nearly six. It was the first time Mike has played since the fall, and my third eighteen since then. He made us dinner while I collapsed on the sofa, and that’s the end of the month for this journal, since I fly in the morning. We’ll have to see if golf is our thing here I feel it’s similar to the pig conversing with the chicken on ham and eggs for breakfast: for you it’s a contribution. For me, it’s a total commitment!
The lions was a symbol on many coats of arms: strength, dominance, pride.
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