My second year in London began as I returned from Florida in fog blanketing our Gatwick train in thick mist: the crowded carriage plowed through eerie white clouds drifting on the tracks, as if dry ice were oozing white clouds in a stage set. Stark tree limbs thrust through smoke as we chugged by, and even the boldest graffiti looked hazy on railway walls. At home, I found that Mike had arrived just minutes before from his trip to DC. We seem to end up reading at 3AM or dozing after lunch after transatlantic flights.
This is a great time of year to travel inexpensively in Europe: every newspaper lists deals. London has several airports and innumerable airlines; the Eurostar chunnel train offers 2-fers. Ferry lines have weekend specials abroad, where thrifty British shoppers stock up on wines, and fancy hotels offer free meals and champagne. English people are astonished at how few Americans have passports; they ask me why we don’t travel in Europe more! The papers did report, however, that the past autumn was the wettest since 1766. Pack a brolly.
We visited one of the oddest museums in town, Sir John Soane’s. He died in 1837, the year of Victoria’s accession, and the house is as he left it. It overlooks a beautiful green square in Lincolns Fields, with benches, gravel paths, and gardens, in a neighborhood bordering on law offices, courts, and smart gentlemen’s clothing shops—maybe catering to those who wear black robes and white wigs. Soane, once architect for the Bank of England and Clerk of the Works for Chelsea Hospital, amassed a huge private collection. He donated it to the nation by an act of Parliament, with a stipulation that it not be rearranged—thus his sometimes odd placements.
The house is a warren, packed to the rafters by this former Royal Academy professor. Walls of dark red match a fragment of plaster he found in Pompeii. Signs explaining marble busts, columns, sarcophagi, reliefs, statues, and jewels are scarce. Hogarth oil paintings of The Rake’s Progress hang on tall sliding wall panels near Piranesi drawings and engravings—under glass, unfortunately! Reynolds, Turner, Fusulli, and Canaletto paintings compete with framed architectural drawings and ivory table and chair sets beneath them. No wall or doorway is unadorned. Ten thousand books in cabinets and glass-backed cases are crammed into every space. Some skylights are yellow to enhance the dim light; elsewhere are quaint cupolas and stained glass. Tiny courtyards are packed with antique statuary, much of it cadged from Italian ruins. The basement holds a large Egyptian sarcophagus carved from a single piece of alabaster, with a figure of the goddess Nut carved in the bottom among the hieroglyphs.
Soane bought two attached homes next door after his family and collection overflowed his own home, and today international visitors queue to peer into parlors, narrow halls, tiny gardens, and rotundas. Soane’s creation surely would send modern decorators into spasms. Any housekeeper would swallow hard before going in with a featherduster!
The neighborhood surrounds an area still used for outdoor enjoyment. Lincoln Fields belonged to the Dominicans in 1276 until they moved to Blackfriars, then became a large walled mansion that the Earl of Lincoln bequeathed as a residential law college. Graceful brick buildings and courtyards date from the 1400’s. John Donne preached at a new chapel’s consecration 200 years later. Arms of Henry VIII, Pitt, Walpole, Newman, Disraeli, Gladstone, and others adorn the chapel, but we couldn’t get in.
In outdoor London a few royal occasions are routinely marked with smoke and clatter. They are unbelievably uncrowded, poorly publicized, and extremely fun to see. Everybody gets a front seat, even from pushchairs! (i.e. strollers). They occur on set dates: the Queen’s Accession (Feb. 6, the day of her father’s death), the Queen’s real birthday, April 21, Phillip’s birthday, June 10, and Queen Mum’s birthday, August 4. Horses and teams of uniformed cavalry pull cannons on shiny caissons onto Hyde Park grasses at noon, and fire them off, one after another, twenty one times. Horses gallop furiously to the Bayswater Road end of the park after unhitching the cannons, and the firing occurs in front of the pricey hotels on Park Lane. With a resounding boom BOOM, white smoke rises, spreads into the trees and fills the area; echoes reverberate. The area is cordoned off with plastic tape by the police, some mounted, wearing chartreuse fluorescent vests. A military band plays before and after. (Band members also wear spurs, but march only as far as their nearby bus!) After a trumpet signal, mounted soldiers sweep along park lawns with a clatter from Bayswater Road, quickly hitch up their cannons, and smartly trot up Edgware Road, perhaps to the consternation—or delight— of drivers.
I followed the band as they marched under the bare trees, walking my bike and enjoying the music. I imagined in days past how frightened young lads from the hinterlands might have been, as they followed that music through acrid blinding smoke, in battles for their monarch far from homelands and families. I imagined how hard the pipers must have found it to keep playing and marching amid blinding smoke, booming guns and neighing horses.
Traffic had been totally unbelievable the day before, due to a strike of tube drivers. They claimed safety was behind it, and plan three more Monday strikes. Some tube stations were not working, busses and trains were packed, and roads impassable. Area business lost millions.
Inge, our well-connected Danish neighbor, invited us to the London Guildhall for the annual Tacitus Lecture, hosted by the Worshipful Company of World Traders to which she belongs. Lectures are named for the Roman orator. Our speaker was Sir David Potter CBE, founder and Chair of Psion in 1980, and Chair of Symbian, founded in 1998 to create a standard operating system for mobile wireless devices. The revered hall, which I wrote about earlier, is more than 800 years old. We sat under a high carved wood ceiling next to 30 foot tall carved monuments on the wall: Nelson, Wellington, and Pitt statues stood alongside flags of the ancient guilds. Many wooden and stone wall niches on special occasions hold gold and silver plate from host companies, or elaborate floral decorations. A musicians’ balcony is sometimes used by the Lady Mayoress to view meetings when her husband presides.
Potter’s lecture addressed importance of communication by new means. Comparisons were made about times past when citizens were required in agriculture and industrial work, now declining. Software is the engine creating today’s revolution, whether in books, photos, inventory, medicine, music, arts, or research. Potter indicated that of course there would be adjustments, with companies going out of business, but overall, keep those computer stocks, folks.
The wine reception was in a marvelous former chapel, with Gothic carved stone walls and stained glass nearly a thousand years old. The audience seemed to be 90% older white men, including many masters and past masters of other guilds—Firefighters, Car Men, Taylors & Bricklayers, Launderers, Stationers & Newspaper Makers, and so on. Masters wear colorful ribbons around their necks, with hanging gold, brass or embroidered badges indicating their office, and are addressed as “Master.” There were many solicitors and bankers. The few women I met were largely “the lovely wife of” (a role I play so well!) and were my age. I met a young scholarship winner, doing commodity trading, and she won’t leave Britain because her musician boyfriend is here. I saw one African face, and very few swarthy complexions. We felt lucky to participate, watch, and learn.
We packed up our ski gear soon after, and were ready to fly to Italy until BA cancelled our flight. That story is in a later chapter, so instead let’s consider British beer. At any pub are many varieties, and you must know what you want! (No tipping at pubs.) I often ask for a pint or a half (half pint) of lager. Lager is similar to American beers, clean and cool, with around 5% alcohol, a bit more than American brews. It’s aged one to three months to ferment with a yeast that works in cool temperatures, and the name comes from storage, in German. It’s probably the world favorite.
Ales are an older form, hazier in appearance, made and sometimes served at warmer temperatures, with no aging required for fermentation. Ales include porter, stout, bitter, pale ale, or abbey beers. Colors may be darker, bronze or copper. Bitter is Mike’s usual quaff, so named because of a depth of hop bitterness to the brew. Special or best or “extra special” bitter (ESB) ales contain a bit more alcohol. Old Speckled Hen is such a brew. I love the name, and found that it’s sold in the US.
Real ale is a third type, unfiltered and unpasteurized. When a draught of “real ale” is pulled from the publican’s hand pump, it is very lightly carbonated and still actually fermenting. It won’t rise on its own like keg ale, nor is the yeast killed. What Americans might call draft beer is pasteurized and injected with carbon dioxide gas. So. Wanna play darts?
For Anglophiles, a delightful read is Bill Bryson, an Iowan who spent several years here. He gently pokes fun at foibles and attitudes in Notes from a Small Island, written in 1995, as he travels the length of the island up to John o’Groats in Scotland.
I’m reading Wellington, a Personal History, by Christopher Hibbert. I think the Iron Duke would not be first on my party guest list, but I’m learning more about Waterloo, politics, and who slept with whom. He believed in being very well prepared for battle, and supplied his soldiers well with equipment, but he also witnessed wanton drunkenness and pillage. His marriage to a drab worrier was a bust right from the altar, yet he foolishly passed over many available and interesting women; he was kindly to other people’s wives and children but remote and demanding to his own. He served in many offices at home and abroad, including P.M., and sometimes could barely stand being in the same room with the vain boorish Regent, later King George IV, or his conceited brother princes. Wellington championed repeal of laws prohibiting Irish political participation, hoping to avoid civil war. It was he who had specially tailored boots made, that caught with to the public: Wellingtons, or wellies. Useful in this weather!
After a great lunch with the OWL (Officers’ Wives, London) wives in a tiny alley off New Bond Street, I schmoozed through several area art galleries and bought a book by the late Edward Seago. He painted oil landscapes of his East Anglia region, and traveled in Italy, Morocco, and France. I continued my walk past Hermes, Rolex and DKNY en route to the Royal Academy. The Gucci store featured the same strange men’s white jersey slacks in its window that we had seen in Verona, perhaps perfect for a British “Rent Boy” but not on most men I know!
The Caravaggio exhibition was vast, and the Royal Academy was packed. Several galleries were painted strong colors, dark reds and greens, and the last room was filled with enormous paintings made mostly for altars, often in preparation for the Jubilee Year of 1600, for which new Pope Clement III had urged building and refurbishing church properties. There were Rubens, Annibale Carracci, Reni, Gentilischi and those from what became the Baroque Era, with theatrical lighting, lots of angels, eyes rolling heavenward, and naked ladies built more substantially than Twiggy. Rome became Mecca for painters, fueled by the Counter Reformation, when exaggerated emotion and devotion were the order of the day. Paintings of Philip Neri, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier were commissioned to stir the faithful. Susanna undresses in front of the Elders, Judith beheads Holofernes, Agatha’s bloody breast is cut, Catherine clutches her martyr’s wheel and palm sign of triumph, Magdalene repents, and Cecelia, her music, and her chastity are all there. Guys performed, gals showed skin or prayed. This taught lessons when few could read, and then, many years later, Fellini filmed La Dolce Vita.
Prop. Hooker. Lock. Fly. Centre. What do these words mean? I joined about 20 Texas Exes (Yeeee-HAW!) for my first Rugby game. The Tetley’s Bitter Cup final was at Twickenham, ”The Home of England Rugby,” also the location of the Rugby museum and an official team equipment store. There are two gold lions on plinths out front, and a lifesize bronze figure of a kicking rugby player. Rick, our ‘Horns Fearless Leader sports director, is a Harlequins season ticket holder and sometimes player. (Go Mighty ‘Quins!) The modern concrete stadium, normally vacant in the top tiers, (to which we climbed) was sold out. We met at the Reef Bar in Paddington Station on Saturday at 11:30-ish as directed, then took the train to Twick’n’m for a 3 PM game. Near the station, fortunately, is O’Neill’s bar, packed with Guinness drinkers, and much larger than it looked from outside. Victorian light globes hang from black iron fixtures and the stained yellow wood paneling is probably original; another bar and food section opens up in the rear and snakes around to a side bar and an outdoor beer garden. The ratio of male to female was probably 25 to 1: nice odds!
We strolled to an endless line of double decker red busses across the street for a jovially packed ride to the stadium, serenaded by a bloke in our midst. He was funny, but oh so politically incorrect! I won a friend by chiming in on “The Sexual Life of a Camel,” proving my college years weren’t all wasted on books. The men on the bus were of every age, grade school to granddad. All day we saw Newcastle Falcons’ black and white jester hats with bells on every point, black and white banners on sticks, curly Stooge wigs equally divided down the center, black and white, and also some ‘Quin shirts and flags, but fewer. No wigs. NEC Harlequin colors, to match the jester on their shirt front, are a patchwork of black, red, light green, gray, and chocolate, and perhaps were designed by the same people responsible for English flowered bedspreads. Once the game begins, stadium bars close, and no one may carry more than 2 glasses into the stands. (They don’t search pockets or purses for “wee bot’ls” to ward off the chill.)
The crowd of 71,000 was hugely enthusiastic, but well mannered indeed, with flag waving, the “wave” and singing to recorded music vigorously done, but no foul language or fisticuffs. We began with God Save the Queen, and at the end, winners congratulated losers, and the large staff in chartreuse bibs gathered ‘round the pitch holding up a red mesh cloth “fence” which remained unbreached. In the road outside, police on horseback controlled the crowds. Face the horses toward the army of strollers in the street, and crowds will pass right through. Turn the horses sideways and the street is immediately blocked. Traffic passes smoothly. Who’d gamble with the back end of a horse?
Tickets are £28, about $42, and there is train and bus fare on top of that. Plus a few beers. These are not cheap outings, where salaries are lower than in the US. Many Newcastle fans live in the Geordie north near their team, several hours away in good weather. Recall the “coals to Newcastle” line of Shakespeare to remind yourself of coal mining there. A Geordie accent is not the queen’s English, and is disparaged by plummy-voweled Londoners as a sort of bray.
The weather, originally bright and sunny, turned chilly during the two 40 minute halves, but with five minutes to go, the ‘Quins were well ahead. The ball must be “touched down” to the ground to score, so if one team keeps the other, although they may be across the goal line, from touching, there is no score. The ball, like our football, stays in play even if someone is tackled with it. No passes may be forward, only backward or lateral. Players wore no pads and only one or two wore helmets—early types like old Harvard ‘14 football photos. However, Newcastle just managed to squeak the ball over the line at the end of the game. Even so, the ‘Quins had enough margin to clinch a victory after much rolling in the mud in their shorts and tackling one another. But wait! There were a couple of minutes at the end for “injury time,” which don’t show up on the clock, so they played on. Damned if Newcastle didn’t seize the ball and score! In the very last minute of stinking injury time! They won the huge silver cup, probably are still hysterically drinking champagne out of it, tho’ it seemed they sprayed most of it straight from the bottle onto each other.
Afterwards, we walked to another pub (surprised?) for a cold one, since we were already frozen, and gathered outside at wooden picnic tables along the river. Kerosene heaters struggled to create tiny haloes of warmth, and even our packed bodies of hundreds of people—men—stuffed together was inadequate for the job. I got home about 8, but left most of my compadres at the table. On my walk back to the Twickenham train station, every pub I passed was overflowing.
A few days later, I recounted my adventure for Nick, an Englishman from Mike’s office, and happily said I’d have to go see other sports competitions, maybe football (i.e.soccer) next. His jaw dropped, eyes widened, and his head spun around. “Oh no, definitely not! The likes of you doesn’t go to football!” Then he whispered, “It’s the lower classes!”
Times keep changing, but some things remain the same. Foot and mouth disease, not seen here in 20 years, is back in a particularly virulent strain and farmers are restricted from moving animals. Supermarkets expect to run out of meat. Enormous pyres of wood are built to burn dead carcasses of both sick and even nearby healthy animals, mostly in the north up toward Scotland. The disease kills neither man or beast, but makes animals impossible to sell or ship to neighboring areas for fear of spreading a disease that sickens, causing pain when they eat or walk. Hiking, biking, parties, and reunions near farms are stopped, and farm kids are kept out of school. Drivers have car tyres disinfected, and wellies are dipped into disinfectant troughs on entering and leaving animal areas. Park deer herds dating back to Henry VIII are at risk, as are hoofed zoo animals. 200 miles of common moor grazing land in one Devon patch puts all local animals there at risk. Farmers have already suffered from Mad Cow Disease and some from floods, and many will not survive this latest blow. France, Holland and Germany are on alert.
Thousands of manufacturers here are laid off, especially in automobiles, but the pound remains strong, and word is that Blair may offer a vote on adopting the euro, once the actual coins are introduced in the continent later this year. (We may only use euros here by credit card now.) 78% of British companies offer medical and insurance benefits to gay partners, versus 42% of Americans. Britain is generous with parental and maternity leave: Americans generally offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but here businesses offer 40 weeks, including six weeks on 90% pay and 12 weeks on £60.20—about $80, though many pay more. Some companies give a year’s maternity leave, says the Times. And all Europeans have more holiday time than anyone in the US! Carpe diem.
Driving in Florida recently and enjoying NPR, I was reminded of the awfulness of London radio. The Classic FM station plays one movement of one symphony and then yammers about its forthcoming “relaxing” musical agenda until it’s time for one more movement of one more piece. Then more talk before a little music. They love Vivaldi and anything over 100 years old, and totally ignore Glass. I switch off the inane birthday wishes to their Mums and chatty post-surgery greetings to a cousin in Surrey! The Beeb’s Radio Four is most similar to NPR, all talk. Pop stations are mostly loud Afro-Caribbean announcers, there’s no country western or rock to relieve things, and no All Things Considered. I miss the standard rich excellence of Austin’s KTMA or KUT, and will try to bear their annoying fundraising with more patience.
This month Dale Evans died, and Ann Morrow Lindbergh. Who knew that ol’ Dale wrote Happy Trails and The Bible told Me So? Or that Charles Lindbergh had carried on a long time affair?
They say Britain and the US are two counties divided by a common language.
To wit, my poem:
ODE ON A BUSY BRITISH DAY
Just running about in one’s car here is daunting
Because of the terms which one needs to be flaunting:
You’ll park in a Car Park, or Pay and Display
Or you’ll sniff out a spot at a kerb on your way.
Now you’ll need an inspection to suit MoT
And to pay for your licence and road tax, you see.
There’s a flyover leading to routes M or A, but
Fast coaches and lorries fill the carriageway!
Purchase litres of petrol past the roundabout,
Clean your windscreen, change tyres, fill your boot whilst you’re out.
Turn your bonnet towards home, luv, it’s been a brill day,
Have a fag and a cuppa, ‘coz it’s time for tay.
You can doff your wool jumper, get out of your kit,
And perhaps lounge about in your vest for a bit,
Just be sure that your body’s in sort of good nick,
For you’d be truly tatty to make us all sick!
You could mow in the garden and work on the sward,
Perhaps tart up the hedge with some daffs in the yard.
Pop a glance at the Beeb, is the score still nil nil?
Quaff a draught at the pub, which is just up the hill.
Do you fancy a Guinness or Old Speckled Hen?
Soon it’s “Time, gents!” and so the day ends, and Amen!
So savour the evening, with friends, wife and dogs.
There’s time out for fun before you pop your clogs