I’m now in Austin, Texas, a good place to be, but far from London. Our departure from the UK closes this segment of our lives. Moving is a pain for computers and humans: we’ve been weeks unconnected. Thanks to you who encouraged me to keep building these journals, which began merely to keep in touch with family and a few friends. They’ve helped me remember and relive what I did for four years, and for some of you, they’ve offered vicarious visits to pyramids, the Kremlin, or the Eiffel tower.
Our final holiday season in London was marked by the usual holiday luncheons, dinners, cocktail parties, and calorie-challenged days and evenings. It was my turn to arrange the Lunch Bunch, and we dined wearing colored tissue Christmas cracker crowns in the National Gallery, overlooking Trafalgar Square and its giant Norwegian tree below Lord Nelson on his pedestal. Shopping, packing, mailing, cards, and concerts kept me flying, and I worked on painting commissions into the nights. We saw movies: Love Actually which features London in splendid holiday decor, spiced with blue language and a bit of nudity. Master and Commander dwelt on swordfights and gore, but featured Russell Crowe, excellent ships, uniforms, and the sea. I’ve met several people who’ve read all the Jack Aubrey adventures; Mike likes all that naval stuff. We saw the musical Bombay Dreams, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s full stage Bollywood extravaganza, for my birthday. We continued sorting, I taught my last art classes, hosted a home art show over 2 weekends that did nicely, and packed up the rest.
We met English friends for a seasonal candlelit concert at Marylebone church. We attended a splendid repeat of last year’s Guards concert at their Birdcage Walk chapel, the singers and bandsmen in their smart scarlet military tunics. We walked past as many Christmassy shop windows as we could. The neighborhood’s mulled wine and mince pies were as good as ever at our Hyde Park area fest: hot dogs cooked in street grills by jolly men went for a pound, minus any mustard or relish. Father Christmas roamed the streets, but our mystery celebrity guest was detained by late trains. We never knew. The Messiah packed Albert Hall, and was fantastically performed with over 400 singers, but first we had holiday cocktails at a friend’s. We read newsy cards, shared Christmas dinner, wearing our paper crowns, and finished off with plum pudding, aflame and topped with holly. We dined with our doctor from home and also with former neighbors returning from California,
We saw in the new year first with Sylvia, then with Larry and Darlene, who will move to Naples. Mike fulfilled his fervent wish and cooked a Christmas goose the next day for Sylvia, Maria, and Elfia, her mother. Dickens couldn’t have enjoyed a finer dinner, but I think that bird will be a rarity on our menu. We ditched our ordinary overheated sardine-can Latin services at mammoth Brompton Oratory, and opted for midnight mass at our small neighborhood church, St. John’s, in Hyde Park Crescent.
But first we stopped in at the pub, where regulars distributed Yule cards, and at the piano, June added carols to her endless repertoire. (Cards to us said Eileen and Tony, or John, or even Mike. We sing together every week but still don’t know everyone’s names!) I’d never thought a pub appropriate for Christmas Eve, but the family spirit of that community is tangible and warm. If you’re a cleric, I’m passing the word for Vicar Steve Mason that St. John’s is looking for an associate pastor. Americans are welcome; the previous vicar hailed from N’Orleans.
Although weary from our trip and using Maxine and Jeff’s flat while they were on travel, we’d been invited to the British Museum Library reopening. Should we go or just bag it? Busses along Oxford Street take forever, and this evening was no exception, so finally in exasperation, we jumped into a taxi, fearing all the wine would be gone. Not to worry. There was no wine, due to a glitch in the Museum Friends hospitality department, and the queue soon dissolved after we nabbed a few olives, the only hors d’oeuvre available. The average age of attendees is always high, so the crowd was quite restrained: veddy English!
However, the restored library, looking as spiffy as in 1828 when it was constructed to house George III’s books, is packed with fantastic displays, shelf after shelf, usually behind glass doors. There are Peruvian pots, Greek sculptures, daggers,Egyptian carvings, Ashante drums, bones, stones, jewels, manuscripts, and tools. An elaborate engraved Chinese bronze vessel is from the 10th century BC. There is a copy of the Rosetta Stone (real one’s in the other room) that says “Please touch.” The show includes every imaginable area of collection, when, during the Age of Enlightenment, scientific scrutiny began arranging the world into spheres of learning. The craftsmanship on the ceiling matched the wonder inside the cases, brought home to England by curious explorers worldwide.
A tall young woman stood beside a table on which lay a large blue book, carefully turning its pages with her white gloves. I inquired to learn that names inscribed single file inside were donors, listed by a hard-working calligraphy volunteer over the Christmas holidays. I’m at the top of a page! I’d quite forgotten I donated and feel delighted to be “on the books” at such a marvelous place! We left for Konaki, a cute Greek restaurant nearby, and finally had wine and olives there instead of at the BM.
With friends I caught St. Petersburg’s Hermitage show of Rubens paintings and drawings at London’s Somerset House. Rubens’ ceiling in the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall is now 400 years old, and this show displayed some preparatory paintings in loose brushwork and thin paint. There was a stunning finished crucifixion scene, brilliant with color, for comparison, with a few other finished paintings. The Reformation church was eager to keep its sheep in the fold, fearing Protestant growth in light of Vatican corruption. Rubens’ powerful brush brought church commissions and fame. He was a statesman, diplomat and scholar and would make a charming dinner guest.
In the building were 50 years worth of feisty Quentin Blake’s delicious ink drawings, many illustrating Roald Dahl’s children’s books, as well as a few books of his own. I hadn’t realized that Blake once headed the department of illustration at the Royal College of Art, nor that he wrote silly stuff too, like Dahl. Everyone’s children and grandchildren deserve to see lots of his imaginative and quirky drawings. The Jerry Springer opera had been an impossible ticket to get for a while and was one of the most irreverent and hilarious bits of theater I’ve ever seen. Men in diapers, tap dancing Ku Klux Klanners, elevators in hell, fat women in underwear or sweats – all are bound up with Christ, the Devil, and laced liberally with the f bomb. Lines like “My mom used to be my dad, snap, snap” with fingers popping, or lines like, “I can’t go to hell! I’m Jewish!” kept us howling. There was also some beautiful singing, albeit in modern tonalities. We caught the Saturday matinee at full price, but there were empty seats, and I’m sure we missed price deals. At exits, tuxedoed ushers handed out lapel buttons: “Three nipple cousin f***er” and “Slut Junkie” were ours. Mike insisted I remove them from my collar the next day before we went out.
We had dinner with Susan and Jim, hosted by our dear artist friend Sylvia followed by champagne at her warm elegant home. Another wonderful evening occurred in our old stomping grounds at Liz and Agu’s on Albion Street. Months before, we’d all decided on a progressive dinner, but then Liz’s grandbaby needed her in California, Christmas came and went, and Mike and I moved out! Duffs, Fentons, and Cortazzis brought wonderful food, we toted back wines from South Africa, and a merry evening ended with a rolled up rug and a bit of dancing in the dining room!
For my last trip to the Royal Academy on Sunday, we saw Phillip Guston and his odd comic figures and a Vouillard show that I’d seen in Paris. I’ve used my Friend membership there and at the British Museum more than any place else and love those places most in London. We even got into the Wolsely Restaurant, across the street, for a late lunch. It’s trés trendy these days, across from the Ritz. As we left, I furtively inquired about the older Italian man at the next table, since several staff came by to greet him. Was it an actor or film director? Were they hoping for work in his next production? No, he was the headwaiter at a sister restaurant!
We arranged our departure to spend a last Sunday night at the Duke of Kendal Pub, and fly home very early Monday morning. We have become friends with wonderful people there. Sunday morning we learned that Maureen, a vigorous Welsh woman, had just died, leaving her partner Maurice in hospice. Maureen always sat next to June at the piano, then Maurice until his stroke, then Rita and Joyce. Charlie and Les, as always, sat on the other side of the table. That weekend, Elaine and Stephen were visiting the new Picasso museum in Malaga, Belinda had a new job, and John was in Columbia to fetch home his new bride Cecelia. Graham said the best way to honor Maureen was to sing as she’d have wanted, and we did. Jane, Bob, Ken, and the regulars carried on, Catherine filled in for her mom, in My Old Man Said Follow the Van, and the evening’s music proceeded with gusto. Larry danced around the tables, broadly smiling beneath of poufs of white curls I sang my own farewell version of “My old man said follow the van” and Richard’s sweet tenor paraphrased “I’ll Take You Home Again, Eileen.” Les and Charlie sang their special songs, a high point every week, and I can hear them now as I write. They brought joy. Then Charlie called Mike and me to the piano, and with a little speech surprised us completely with a framed photo of the group, a big card signed by all, his own melodious piano CD’s, and a large plaster copy of the archway into the Royal Academy, with Athena and her owl at the keystone. We were gobsmacked, and very deeply moved. And chuffed, A word I like. At 10:30, when Sean rings out “Time!” and we stand, clasp hands, and sing “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again someday….” I nearly lost it. I am determined to get that group to Austin!
We leave our mews house with mixed feelings. I miss the London Times, the museums, British accents, horses clip clopping on our bricks, walking everywhere, the parks, the pubs, outdoor markets, serendipitous discoveries, and the constant buzz. We had the wettest year in two centuries, and the warmest summer in five. In Austin I enjoy having a car, having my groceries bagged, having a huge separate washer AND dryer big enough to hold a pony, lower prices, sunshine, gardens, and extra space. I hate bad TV interrupted constantly with ads, or news that substitutes lengthy weather for international news analysis! No wonder Americans don’t know geography. They see little that’s international. They know little science either: I read that fewer than a third, including President Bush, believe in evolution. I’d craved Texas weather, but we landed in fog so dense it seemed the plane’s wheels scraped the runway clean, like a cloud snowplow.
Our movers arrived in sleet, and then Austin had the first snow since 1985. But soon we had sunshine and the doors were open. I learned that I have at least two sales in the Hunt Gallery in San Antonio for paintings sent from London to show with friends from our Italy trip. Sadly, we learned of the death of a friend, Nancy Hahn. We stayed at a friend’s for 3 days, then wrestled enough furniture and bedding to sleep at home amid boxes and clutter.
Mike won’t work until April 1, so we slaved away each day until we fell into bed. We started the South Beach diet—no booze or fruit for the first 2 weeks, and few carbs ever— and didn’t cheat. An army of Mexican workers dug up the yard for a new sprinkler system and landscape lighting. Soon pictures were hung, but the computer issues were torture and we struggled for days. (Some British people think we never have anything that doesn’t work!) We hope you’ll come to visit us. Austin’s fun. My London Wonderland Tour has ended and normal life awaits! Thanks for reading four years of letters from London. Stay in touch!
The Avon River flows through Bath, where fashionable folks took the waters.
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