It’s August and London is an anthill of tourists! They obviously aren’t cowed by mad cow disease, foot and mouth, peak plane fares, or fashion statements made using thick white socks with sneakers (“trainers”) and shorts. Trafalgar Square is still packed with pigeons, both feathered and tourist. We’ve had typical London weather: sweltering one minute, rainy the next, then cold.
Across from Nelson is the majestic National Gallery, presently featuring a Vermeer show, which requires an occasional elbow for close views of the small rare paintings. The crowded basement rooms in the newer Sainsbury wing are fraught with occasional deodorant fadeout. We bought timed entry tickets including supper for £18 each, since many days were already sold out. The US Metropolitan and National Gallery are well represented in ownership of Vermeer, whose entire known output is but 35 paintings. The rooms preceding most of Vermeer’s work showed the Delft love of tapestry, precious metal, and home life in the seventeenth century, when Dutch traders gathered riches from over the globe. De Hoock and other Delft masters featured representative flowers and Calvinist vanitas paintings, (everything will die, prepare for Judgment) along with white walled churches left after Protestant iconoclasts cleared out pictorial representations. Instead of Papist angels and clerics, Vermeer’s girl in the red hat, the milkmaid, the virginal (i.e. harpsichord) players and others created a beautiful show, but clearly these pieces were meant to be enjoyed quietly and close up, as if in the dim rooms where once they hung. Vermeer, a Catholic whose mother-in-law had a good painting collection, died penniless, not unlike Rembrandt. I nearly saw a large show of his work back home, but it closed due to the work stoppage that Newt Gingrich and his boys created in Washington DC, so it was nice to have this opportunity abroad.
We left London for Italy and the only fly in my ointment was caused by my allergy to neoprene. I swam for about a half hour wearing new goggles. The next day, I tried not to look at anyone for fear I would send them screaming. My eyes are red, itching, tearing, and swollen, and skin beneath the goggles is peeling and mottled. I‘ve written to Speedo, since this is my second bout of neoprene goggle ghastliness. Bloody hell.
Have I mentioned Mike’s London Health Plan: “Don’t get sick”? The National Health Service promises that everyone will be delivered from long waiting lists. Yet the European Court of Justice recently said EU citizens may not suffer undue waits. British patients thus may now be sent out of the country for surgeries, whereas heretofore, they had available care at home. (Cataract surgery wait in Germany, 0; here, 29 weeks; hips take years and heart patients sometimes die before being seen.) Portland Hospital is a private hospital, still known for being the closest thing to a 5 star hotel, but not all of us can fit into their famous Maternity ward.
When seen in the A&E (Accident and Emergency) area, over 60’s statistically wait over 4 1/2 hours to be seen, but Londoners over 65 waited 6+ hours whilst their Welsh brothers rushed through in two hours. Under 40’s waited merely three hours. However, I go to Physical Therapy for free for my hip, in 30-minute segments. Decisions for the nation are made from a centralized London government bureau, and currently railroads, schools, and Tube are involved in the same titanic political power struggles that medicine has seen.
The government promises 10,000 additional doctors, to make 1.9 doctors available per 1000 people, versus 3 doctors in France and 3.5 in Germany. Nurses, like teachers, are being recruited worldwide, since this year’s new licensees are the fewest in 40 years. I don’t know US numbers, and I’m well aware of 42 million working Americans back home uninsured. I’m just sayin’.
The grand Savoy Hotel was the first in London to have more than a couple of loos for its entire guest populace, and Escoffier set its culinary standards. High above the Thames embankment, River Room window seats offer diners a view of passing working barges and tourist boats. The elegance of the building is met by the staff: waiters in tails quietly attend every need. This is where we celebrated our anniversary. We’ve used their upstairs coffee room’s pre theater dinner for £17 (formerly £15) but this was worlds apart, in size and furnishings and we thank our Austin visitors’ generous gift for a perfect, perfect evening. Dinner, service, and the elegant ambiance were unforgettable. As always when I write these pages, I realize how lucky I am. The house champagne is Dom Perignon. At eight, a combo starts—piano, bass, clarinet/flute—and smoothly spins American standards from the ‘40’s and ‘50’s as diners have a “knees up” on the small dance floor amid the tables. It could’ve been Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room. We fox trotted, Lindy-ed, and even broke out a Texas two-step on the sole country number, and I tried to keep my “Yee-hah” fittingly quite moderate in volume. The unforgettable evening was like Wonderland, and the cost was something awesome indeed.
I love the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square, right behind Selfridge’s. Since I paint, teach Art History and have been an art museum docent for years, I eagerly applied to their new volunteer class. My reply: “The last group of guide lecturers were trained eleven years ago and they are all still working with us, and we hope that the new recruits will remain with us for at least five years. I hope you will understand our reason for not taking the application further.” So much for having conducted hundreds of tours at home!
The Notting Hill Carnival is Europe’s largest street fair and is held on the bank holiday weekend in August. It marks the end of summer rather like Labor Day in the US. Colorful floats and costumes make a cross between the Rose Bowl Parade, Mardi Gras, and a Jamaican/reggae/rasta extravaganza. Into Notting Hill, the shi-shi neighborhood of elegant white plaster row houses, came a million and a half revelers (two million were predicted, but because of last year’s murders, there were fewer) and ten thousand extra police.
Sunday was the Carnival children’s fest, and Monday, Mike worked till noon but then we departed. Our local Circle Line Lancaster Gate tube stop assisted Carnival levity by skipping the nearest stops that day, so we walked in bright sunlight, eventually passing storefront makeshift stands selling aromatic grilled corn on the cob, water, beer, bottled rum and vodka drinks, and whistles on lanyards. “Show yah girl ya love huh, man, buy huh a whistle!” The shrill whistles constantly screamed from revelers lining the packed parade route. However, they were often lost as stacks of pounding black speaker boxes as tall as I fastened onto trailer rigs paraded past, pumping ear-splitting party sounds: the deep bass vibrated my chest bones. We watched as some elaborate and colorful costumes passed, but there was a problem getting the paraders out at the end, so there were many, many delays in the procession. Spirited dancers wearing pastel gossamer butterfly wings that touched both curbs carried on, and groups of feathered headdresses gleamed above sequined tan and black African antelope or giant African masks. Slender turbaned showgirls shook their booty along with many a massive mama. Everyone was laughing.
We tapped our feet for an hour or two, inhaled an occasional aroma of weed, (“cannibis” here) then wandered past stands selling crafts and foods; we bought ice cream and lamb on a stick. Trash bins were already overflowing below heads of many eager parade viewers hanging out of windows, some waving flags or paper flowers that added to kaleidoscopes of changing color. I wondered about lost kids and irreversibly lost hearing. We finally walked home through Hyde Park along Bayswater. Instead of stopping at a festival pub for drinks, we watched the Beeb’s second/concluding part of “Victoria and Albert.” He died at 42 and she reigned 40 years more, for a total of 65: a nice afternoon indeed, but maybe too quiet for true revelers.
The “old” Tate Britain hasn’t been very busy since the showy new Tate Modern stole its thunder when it opened in the Battersea Power Station on the Thames. However, there is a show of Michael Andrews that is really nice. (You weren’t supposed to have heard of him. Few have, but he was in the “London Group” that includes Bacon. Auerbach, and Freud.) His very painterly work filled several rooms, and he used photos and collage to construct some of his huge scenes, which vary from family gatherings to views of Edinburgh to vast green Scottish hillsides. His strong sense of color and value place hundreds of colors in his greens, for instance: browns, golds, grays, blues, blacks, and acres more, washed together, sometimes dripping together. There is also a show of Gillray cartoons from the turn of the 19th century, lampooning royalty and politics. The Tate holds the Turner collection, and also has John Singer Sargent’s girls with the lanterns, the Pre-Raphaelite Millais Ophelia lying and dying in the stream, Moore, Hepworth, and many others. Andrews died in ’95 and I feel richer for having “met” him.
Only about a quarter of British brides pledge vows in church. The Church of England, C of E, are concerned. They are mulling banning the banns, or making them optional after 800 years, to encourage more church weddings. Vicars ignoring 12th century banns risked fourteen years in jail, since bigamy or clandestine weddings were a great concern. Engaged couples who’ll wed away from home churches must still petition the Archbishop of Canterbury, though nowadays many people don’t live in an area long enough to decide which church is “home.” Many weddings occur in stately manor homes and gardens or in municipal offices. Thousands of churches needing care and upkeep, many picturesque, are being sold as offices or galleries, and the church would like to reverse that trend.
I close with news of something I’ve dreamed of doing for a long time: I’ve rented a villa near Siena for late spring 2002. I want to fill it with artists. Rent Tea With Mussolini for views of that ancient town. I’m signing up for Italian classes!
Throughout the UK, gardeners take full advantage of gorgeous long summer days.
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