I was sooooo happy just to be in London and home for the holidays! Let me try to describe some of London at this season. Window boxes in neighborhood brick or stone buildings have replaced summer’s cascading petunias and pansies with cyclamen (purple, pink, rose, and white, sometimes interspersed). Jerusalem Cherries and Dusty Miller seem to be favorites, and ruffly ornamental cabbages. Hanging baskets from light posts have the same plants, with trailing ivy. The park trees are mostly bare, and every person wears a scarf against the wind. Men with bristly brooms and wheeled carts go around sweeping the pavement, but are no match for the leaves, plastic bags, and circulars that compete with cigarette butts for street litter. It almost never snows in the city; on the warmer coasts there are a few palms.
In Trafalgar Sq., still littered with construction to add pedestrian access, the 75 foot tree from Norway stands tall, lit by white bulbs. Since 1947, Norway annually donates a tree recalling the war, when England sheltered both its king and exiles fleeing Nazi occupation. The spraying fountains and shiny black lions below Lord Nelson reflect the bright lights, and it’s easy to see why, in these northern climes where it’s dark by 4PM, the concept of a light of the world is so powerful. There are fewer pigeons: feeding “flying rats” was banned by the mayor last year.
Strings of white lights decorate Oxford Street (a continuation of Bayswater Road, near our corner) that holds major department stores: Selfridge’s, Marks and Spencer, Debenham’s, John Lewis. Only busses and taxis use the street and it is never, ever quiet. The pavement is as crowded as the street. Selfridge’s has picked up the sales that Harrod’s lost when the royals pulled out of their customer base over Dodi-Diana dating. Register receipts thank us “for our custom.”
Several arcades in the city offer a stroll through consumer Wonderland. The Burlington Arcade runs for a block off Picadilly, near the Royal Academy, and every shop’s window is filled with baubles for the rich: silver, diamonds, hand rolled Irish linen handkerchiefs, perfumes, antique humidors, fine leather and the like. When a shoe-shine man kneels in front of a customer you can smell the waxy polish as he works. New Bond Street is also light-filled, and its shops are Sotheby’s, Ferragamo, Armani, and art galleries, some specializing in antiques. The windows are among the most elegant in the world. As in any major city, a few Mercedes or Rolls sedans idle, with chauffeurs inside.
Near Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, there is a huge new white marquee—a tent, but they don’t say that here—that features a Star Trek Adventure. It’s up till April, and the park service will get 600,000 quid to repair its squished grass afterward. That’s a million bucks. Several neighborhood groups are up in opposition, since they also hate the summer concerts in the park, but the Marble Arch tube station will surely be filled with Trekkies for months. Nearby is another new event, an outdoor ice rink, in its first year of operation. The arch is lit up a soft violet at night, and looks very pretty, but there is no chance of a comparison with Rockefeller Center! The music is played very loudly as skaters glide or lurch along, adding more commotion to a corner of the park facing very heavy traffic.
There are Christmas concerts galore each year, and my first of this season was across from St. James Park at the stately stone Guards Chapel, rebuilt after its 1944 hit in the middle of the 11 AM Sunday service. The tall apse is covered in gold mosaic and perpendicular angels, and the roof of the nave is flat wood. From the upper walls protrude poles hanging a patchwork of various size regimental flags, richly embroidered, some tattered victims of age or warfare. Guard ushers wore high necked scarlet jackets with gold braid, looking quite Christmassy themselves; their opening trumpets sounded below black bearskin hats from the altar. The Guards choir also sang, thirteen men.
The concert was a benefit for the McMillan trust, which assists those with cancer. Prince Charles is one of the patrons; his full page photo smiles from the program (programme). I think every charity here has a patron, and the royals are favorite targets. From the pulpit, Harold Pinter read T. S. Eliot, David Frost read St. Luke (and kissed my friend Inge before the program), the visiting Westminster Cathedral choir sang wonderfully, and an opera singer, Janice Watson, added a grand flair. I was quite moved at the reading of a Pablo Neruda poem, When I Am Dead, since I had so recently visited his home in Chile.
Next, with our house guest Heather, I attended a concert at Marleybone Church Carols by Candlelight, as a benefit for Parkinson’s Disease, with the Ealing Choir singing, lustily joined by us all from time to time. There were many candles burning amid green boughs and I wondered how many churches burned during Christmastime. The candles’ glow was beautiful. The patroness of the organization was HRH the Duchess of Glouster , who gave a reading. I have unsuccessfully tried to discover at what level the HRH comes into a title: Dutchess? Countess? Princess? Is it inherited or conferred? No one could say.
Another Service of Lessons and Carols I attended was at St. Margaret’s Church, nestled next to Westminster Abbey, used as the chapel for the House of Commons. After organ solos, the procession entered with the choir and the congregation singing Once in Royal David’s City, 5 verses. The canon of Westminster and rector read, and all prayed, sang, and listened, as Genesis, the Our Father, Isaiah, Micah, Luke and John were read between carols sung by choir and congregation. Celebs in the audience often read at these events. It’s a great Christmas preparation, and the choir was, as usual, male with the littlest lads looking quite angelic as their soprano voices soared. You can understand why castrati might’ve appealed to fussy choir directors, after listening to such splendid harmony!
Another concert occurred in Bath’s fantastic cathedral, beneath towering fan ceilings and near a giant Christmas tree. Mike and I took the train from Paddington for an overnight stay, after I spied a special rate in the back of the Times. We lunched at the Pump Room, where princes and playboys took meals after the steaming waters and heard a wonderful pianist. In 1599 Bath Cathedral replaced a ruined Norman building, but Christian communities had come to the area since 676. We’d checked in to the Bath Spa hotel, and walked around town, concluding at the museum of Roman artifacts and local history. The frigidarium, tepidarium, and caldarium were left from the invasions from 43 AD through the fifth century, and perhaps there were gift shops then too. In 973, St. Dunstan and St. Oswald crowned Edgar first effective king of all England. In 1539 Henry VIII had the site sold and buildings destroyed so then the ruined abbey became a parish church. It was bombed in the war but restored. We also tried to visit the American museum, but after a lengthy and foggy taxi ride to the top of a very tall hill, we learned it was closed. Ten pounds shot!
The concert, just before we galloped to the train station in the rain, was done by girls in the choir school, but included no readings. A female choir is unusual, but the cathedral school had choirs of both genders. Benjamin Britton carols and several atonal pieces didn’t overly please Mike, and there was no joining in by the congregation, but the musical quality and gorgeous reverberations in that enormous cathedral were awesome indeed. There were German and French pieces, and he can hear Adeste Fideles someplace else.
Our elegant hotel package included champagne and fresh fruit awaiting us, dinner and breakfast, and the grounds and athletic facilities are fantastic. The dining room must use acres of linens at every meal. A decorated tree hung overhead like a fuzzy sparkly green chandelier. In lieu of dinner the second day, we opted for afternoon tea as the light faded, on plump sofas near a bright crackling fire. Bath is one of the prettiest towns in England, even in the cold rain, and is filled with history. Its name rhymes with Goth, not math.
There have been more Christmas luncheons, pub crawls, drop ins and gatherings than I can mention. At one, I won a suitcase in a drawing. I also learned that at Christmas dinner, you don’t pull the Christmas cracker yourself. Cross your arms over your chest, holding your cracker in one hand, and grasp the cracker of the persons next to you. Everyone at the table does the same. Then all pull. You’ll keep your own prize, of course, which may go flying through the air, and wear the tissue crown through the meal. You’ll read the corny jokes aloud. (“What do you call a fairy who hasn’t had a wash in weeks? Stinker Bell!”) I’m told the cracker custom is growing in the US too, and if it isn’t, it should.
The city’s windows are usually filled with glamour at this season. Harrod’s chose the James Bond film as their theme and draped slinky blondes across boots and bonnets of ultra- flashy sports cars from around the world. Selfridge’s chose a theme of love, which wasn’t geared only to Christmas. I heard no favorable comments on it. The Red Cross decided to have no Christmas decorations whatsoever, lest they offend anyone not of the Christian persuasion. They suffered ridicule. Muslims interviewed by an interested press said they didn’t mind. There are hundreds of green Christmas trees twinkling with white lights high along light posts on the streets of Kensington especially. The city looks beautiful.
We attended a small elegant Christmas Eve dinner with our friend Sylvia and her family in her art-filled flat, and afterwards Mike and I walked in the chill night to midnight mass at Brompton oratory. The seats and aisles were filled; we felt like sardines, packed into a rear side aisle. Hundreds of people left during the sung Latin gospel, or during the lengthy but exquisite singing, backed by strings and brass. We stayed for over an hour in those elaborate arches , and left before mass ended, snagging one of the taxis lined up along Brompton Road. We’ve legged that distance many times, but it was raining and we’d been standing in an oven.
The next day we hosted a delightful dinner for nine: Virginians Hal and Joyce, Berkeley’s Alex and Judith, Cdr. Rob and Libby, a clarinetist, and their Charleston Symphony oboist guest, Liz. We had crackers and flamed a Christmas pudding with a sprig of holly on top. (We cut all the holly from neighborhood gardens.) On Boxing Day we were guests of Larry and Darlene at an elegant dinner party, where we had a chance to toast a new engagement: Mark, from MIT, will marry Yulia, from Uzbekistan, now getting her second master’s, and gorgeous to boot. Judith and Alex were there too. There were other gatherings, and the season seemed to zip by faster than ever. I’m convinced there is a formula for time’s passage that speeds up as one ages!!!
All these events occurred between the time Mike returned from the US and Christmas, and then for New Year’s, we went to Paris. What had become of our precious plans to veg out? Patrick’s band would be at the Fléche d’Or Café (Golden Arrow, la gare scenique), an old brick railroad station and would have New Year’s Day off. We were offered our friend Noelle’s flat off Rue Sebastopol, and took the Eurostar over in time to buy a few things for supper before a Metro trip to the nightclub. We knew the band would arrive too late to see us much before the show, since they’d been held up in Berlin by snow, but we saw Pat for a bit while the other boys caught 40 winks.
The lines out front meant the club was full during the vigorous flamenco dancer and guitarists, and packed after midnight for The Stingers, so much so that I inquired about the sorties de secour, emergency exits. Everyone was dancing and drinking, but it was impossible to get drunk. You couldn’t get through the smoky crowds to the bar, and scotch was E7.50 a shot! My first drink was wine, but I definitely felt the urge for heavier fortification. One of the bartenders was about 6’6”, black, with gold chains, a backward baseball cap, and baggy jeans. He looked like he was from LA but was African. I was in sequins and velvet. (Think Mrs. Howell on Gilligan’s Island!) No one accidentally lit my clothing on fire, but they did light a line of lighter fluid along the bar several times during the evening, making for a vigorous line of bright flame. I took a few photos, and at 2 AM we left early to find ourselves in streets nearly as full of people as if it were midday.
Christmas decorations were hung above the streets, and trees gleamed with thousands of white lights. The metro, free all that day, had closed, but we found a cab after awhile and slept in on a rainy new year’s day. The scenes I’d imagined of champagne bottles popping around the Eiffel Tower remain in my mind, to be experienced another time. London had no street celebrations at all this year, since Trafalgar Square is being reconfigured for pedestrian access. The mayor is being derided for this.
We met Pat at his hotel (le Formula 1) and went off by Metro to stroll the fashionable Madelaine-Opera boulevards, and had a great dinner with Pat before seeing him off in their big red van. The drivers have changed each week, and Oscar, a German from the record company, was eager to drive the boys to Burgundy and Barcelona. They’d fly home from Frankfort and have plans for return gigs in August.
I’ve finished Captain James Cook by Hough, and highly recommend it, especially to anyone who’s traveled to Australia or New Zealand. Mike is finishing Roy Jenkins’ bio Churchill, and loving it. Jenkins died suddenly this week at 82 and was probably the most important English politician not a prime minister in this century. His obit took two full pages of the London Times.
Politically, gun violence is up 20%, the firemen have shortened their strike days, the Cherie Blair tempest in a teapot has calmed, and the Seymour Leisure Center (Lezh-ah Cent-ah) ladies locker room has been refurbed. There are individual showers instead of one vast drab barn with an open shower at the end, and benches near the lockers. It looks less like a refugee center. The pool has a new skylight. I hope to see more of the place in 2003. Happy New Year.
Chef Mike carving a Christmas goose in his Times wine club apron.
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