As soon as I told you that it never snowed in London, we had the first real snow in nearly ten years, and it was wonderful. Big, fat, slow-falling fluffy flakes coated every tree and car, and we had a wonderland of chimney spires and steeples coated, iron fence posts, streetlamps, and pavements all gleaming under a furry coat. Short and sweet, like the fruits in a Breugel painting that symbolize sweet sin and are soon gone, except that no devil awaits on the other side to exact tolls.
I visited the Versace show at the V&A with neighbors and was amazed at the dense enthusiastic crowds at the exhibition. Each outfit was imaginative and lavish. Every leather jacket, whether aimed at gay men or high style women, (sometimes obvious) was quilted, embossed, or padded, and the fantastic dresses, from gossamer to metallic to leather, were wired, pleated, beaded, embroidered, and tucked: daring, eyecatching creations screamed “look at me!” An example is the gold safety pinned black sheath gown that Elizabeth Hurley wore, which is low on top, open at the sides, and slit very high indeed from the bottom. There were scores of ballet and opera costumes displayed in one area, dramatically lit, an embroidered plastic dress, and a short wedding dress movie, filmed as Naomi Campbell pranced down the catwalk. There were examples of Oroton, a heavy gold fabric Versace devised. The last room had clothing we touched and handled: fabrics were reverently examined by students, old ladies, and a gamut in between. Gianni’s life (1946-97) which ended quickly and tragically in murder, began in southern Italy but ended in international empire. He never believed that less is more, but piled it on, elegantly and happily so.
I made another trip to Stoke on Trent with the military ladies, and bought lots of things, mostly for our children. China, often seconds, may be purchased by phone, but getting up at 4:30 AM to start a bus tour at 6 from a little RAF base west of town is one way to be sure to see most factory stores! We got home at about 8 PM, but the savings and camaraderie balanced some of the sleep deprivation. One bargain was Spode Christmas dinner plates, at a pound fifty each—under $2.00. For kids I bought Portmerion and Wedgewood to augment their collections, but not everything is low priced. The town, once a busy center of the finest English production that rivaled imports from China, is faded: it’s dark, grimy, and poor. The tall brick smokestacks that housed one production center after another are quiet, bleak victims of air pollution laws. Grit covers many walls, and the bleak brick factories would make good settings for a Dickens movie. The line springing to mind is Blake’s “dark satanic mills.” The regard for fine china and tableware, once the rage among wealthy families with servants to wash and carry all those individual pieces, has diminished. Butlers’ pantries no longer have storage space for tureens, casseroles, soup platters, and saucers. In Texas, much entertaining is done poolside on plastic and recycled paper.
Winter toys with us, luring us into thinking it’s ending, since among the cyclamen at the end of the month are a few daffodils, iris, and two brave forsythia flowers at my kitchen window, harbingers of color riots to come. Yet February is due to blow in with a blustery 3 degrees Centigrade. (Double it and add 30, for 36 degrees Farenheit, approximately.)
At this time of year, the London area is full of beloved pantomimes, a Christmastime phenomenon. Since West End theaters are so expensive, most pantos are in the suburbs and nearby small towns, and a friend who sees more plays and films than anyone declared that we had but days before they ended for the season. Four of us took a train to High Wycombe, walked a couple of blocks, and expected little. Instead we found a new and modern brick building housing a theater, well lit, with comfortable plush seats and a lobby full of mostly parents and kids. The play was Cinderella, and the males playing female roles, pratfalls, asides, audience participation, and general overkill were great fun. At one point, the audience was covered with cold, fat snowflakes drifting from above. The orchestra played, dancers danced, singers sang, children shrieked: an excellent performance, with many scene changes. All derived from the Comedia dell’arte, years ago.
Dame Edna, the wicked stepmother, is a well known female impersonator who wears rhinestone-studded cat-eye glasses. “She” strode about in a myriad of costume changes with enough boas, capes, sequins, dangling necklaces and glittering earrings to outfit a Trocadero troupe. (“Edna” also appears for the Queen.) Danny LaRue has had thirty court appearances and started in WWII and is famous for “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The two stepsisters, one tall, the other short, were as graceless as England’s Olympian Eddie the Eagle, and appropriately devoid of manners. Their costumes followed suit, and actors were hissed and booed as evil antics demanded. A children’s entertainer and a national TV chef played other roles, and we learned of their fame only from the theater program, not the telly. Shouting “Look out! He’s behind you!” is sometimes heard from the excited young audience.
The after Christmas sales were everywhere, since London shops only do sales twice a year. I looked around Harrod’s but was able to resist. Once January ends, there are no sales until summer.
We went by tube and train to Hampton Court, Henry VIII’s reparation gift from Cardinal Wolsey, formerly Archbishop of York, once chief minister to the new king. Wolsey planned his home as the Episcopal palace, became Lord Chancellor, and made apartments for the visit of Henry VIII and his wife, Catherine of Aragon and their daughter Mary. The king would’ve traveled along the Thames in his barge of state with his retinue, back in the early 1500’s. Rivers were smoother than roads. The court lies west along gentle green banks near Richmond, and in summer, there are boat rides available from London. The red brick towers would’ve been visible from afar.
Wolsey’s gift didn’t work well enough to keep his head, alas, but as a builder he insisted on the best, although there have been many additions and modernizations. One was the House of Easement, a wing added by Henry: communal bathrooms. In all, Henry spent what would be about 30 million dollars today on his palace. Another modernization was by Christopher Wren, who initially planned to tear down nearly the entire Tudor red brick complex and redo it in a baroque style. He ran out of money, so Henry’s bricks have been repointed and remortared, using materials as close to the originals as possible. Henry, immediately disposing of Ann Boleyn, was betrothed to Jane Seymour here, his third wife, and their son Edward was baptized here two days before Jane died following childbirth.
The lavish chapel, with carved woodwork and painted blue ceiling, is still used to this day, once the site of a Knights Hospitaller chapel from about 1236. The chapel, installed for Henry in the 1530’s, holds the nation’s finest example of a Tudor fan vaulted ceiling, says the handout. The carved 17th century baptismal font at one end came from a later Wren church in the City. Here, Henry learned of the infidelity of his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, still a teenager. “Anything in pants!” snorted one guide. (The fourth marriage, by proxy, to smelly Germanic Ann of Cleves was never consummated; Henry gave her a distant palace once they met in person so sightings of “the mare of Flanders” would never again offend. Wolsey arranged that marriage and paid dearly.)
Here Henry married his last wife, Catherine Parr, two years later in 1543, and by this time was overweight, sick, and crabby. He refused to see anyone or to sign documents: a signature stamp was made. Henry soon had all chapels gutted, and reaped tons of silver and gold, not to mention whole monasteries, to give to his friends who’d agreed to ditch the pope. Outside, 60 acres of formal gardens running down immaculate green lawns to the manicured canals, filled with swans, must not look too different today from Henry’s days. English swans in open waters belong to the Queen.
In the Tudor kitchen section, some copies of those swans, and also peacocks, deer, and boar, were on wooden slab tables, newly killed, although the audio guide explained that probably actual butchering would have been done nearby, and not in the building. An adjacent room was hung with rows of rabbits and birds. Huntsmen must have kept busy, and the skinning, plucking, smoking, aging and salting of all that meat, plus egg gathering, fishing (fish was eaten every Friday and all through Lent), snaring, and tracking make it easy to see how towns grew up around palaces. The labor required to keep them seems endless in days when only the royals could hunt deer. The cooking utensils are the best examples in England from that period. There are rotisseries, countless pots and stacked bowls, water jugs, platters, and cutlery of all shapes and sizes.
Tudors ate lots of meat and few vegetables, and we peered into the vast charred fireplaces and at rows of round dull black pots with separate brick fireplaces beneath each of them. Nearly all chefs were male, and little boys might’ve slept by climbing up a ladder into the loft, lying atop sacks of grain between errands for their overlords. They needed lots of grain for breads, which thickened soups and after 4 days, grew stale enough for use as a trencher, or plate: a quarter ton was used daily at meals. At the table, salt, enormously expensive, held the place of honor. Think of elaborate salt cellars in museums. Roman soldiers were paid in salt: they were “worth their salt”!
The buildings, with courtyards in their centers, are filled with old furniture, paintings, and tapestries. The section furnished in the William III period has an enormous art collection, added to Cardinal Wolsey’s own vast Renaissance art collection, which constitutes a national treasure: Titian, Cranach, Bruegel, Correggio, and more. The carved Great Court, with Wolsey’s, Henry’s, and all the wives’ crests in stained glass windows, could hold 600 diners, enough for Wolsey’s court. Henry’s court, double in size, needed two sittings daily, but sometimes the room was lined with straw beds instead, and used as a dorm for the servants. Henry visited many of his castles at varying times of the year.
Because it was midwinter and cold, but sunny, we enjoyed rooms and exhibits with scarcely any crowds. In midsummer, the costumed tour guides explained, over velvets and under feathers and furs, rooms were jammed. In an entire day, I never got to walk The Maze, and the small banqueting house along the river is closed in winter. I did see the nine huge Mantegna paintings of Caesar in the Lower Orangery, although in very dim light, since they were damaged years ago by cleaning. They’d come from the Gonzaga palace in Mantua, Italy, and were purchased by Charles I, once a prisoner in this castle. Nearby grows the Great Vine on stalks as big as your thigh, possibly the oldest in the world, producing grapes since Capability Brown planted it in 1768. Beautiful formal sunken gardens were once fish ponds for the palace, but now hold fountains surrounded with interesting plants. The grass tennis court is closed in winter, and a golf course is on the grounds someplace.
Other famous tenants were William and Mary, of the house of Orange, and a “modernized” wing is decorated to their period by Wren. It’s only 300 years old. After climbing a lavish painted stairwell glorifying William III as Alexander the Great, a large room was designed to impress visitors before they entered the throne rooms. The Guard’s Chamber had a huge carved stone fireplace and very high ceiling, where soldiers guarding the king gathered. Every wall was decorated with circles and rectangles formed from 3000 spears, bows, crossbows, rifles, guns, and every kind of armament available. Enemies were to think twice. The apartments are the finest Baroque state apartments in the world. Wall carvings are by Grinling Gibbons, a name I never knew before coming to England, but one familiar to most people in this country. His carving fee ate up a quarter of the decorating budget. There are few chairs in the palace, since no one sat or turned a back when the king was present. His might be the only chair in the room.
George I was the first Hanoverian king, who spoke only German and never brought his wife to England. However, his despised eldest son used Hampton Court often. The Queen’s State Apartments served Caroline II, wife of the future George II, then Prince of Wales. She received visitors, petitions, and entertained. Her fondness for lace required enormous expenditures as ladies went skyward in their headpieces. Her tub sits on an oilcloth in a small room, draped in a cloth, and she would sit next to it and be bathed. This was considered novel, and the task of bathing so exhausting that a nap was recommended afterwards. (Public bathing was associated with brothels; one wore a shift and cap.) The lavish decoration continues, showing the 1700’s, and the Georgian section shows the apartments of George and Caroline after 1727, when he became king. He’s the last king to spend time at Hampton Court, until his wife’s death. Their child died at birth.
The palace is occasionally used by royals and served many other purposes. The King James Bible came from a conference there; famous persons have lived in grace and favor apartments, such as Lady Baden Powell, whose husband any boy scout knows. Victoria opened it to the public, and even in the mid19th century nearly 200,000 people visited this exciting palace.
I revisited Brighton with a friend, and as we toured the 19th century Prince’s pleasure palace, with minarets and splendid Chinoiserie, I realized I’d forgotten that the township owns it; it’s a rare palace not owned by the royals. We spent the entire day agape at all the delightful and elaborate palace furnishings and information. We also missed the town art gallery and seaside pier, but the sunny train ride gave us a chance to enjoy green rolling hillsides outside the noisy city.
In England, one wears a bathing costume, not a swimsuit. I’d also forgotten that bathers once used separate beaches for men and women as they engaged in the new health craze, but remembered the wooden boxes in which they were wheeled into the water, pulled by horses. Then one clambered down the steps into the cold sea—and remember that this is a nation where people may wear coats in August at the shore. Since the town had been primarily a fishing village, townspeople were hired to help bathers undergo total immersion, as recommended by Dr. Russell, prominent health guru at the time. The fishermen became known as the “Brighton dippers.” Visitors were even encouraged to drink sea water, perhaps mixed with milk if it wasn’t enjoyed au naturel. A hearty English ale seems a better choice!
The Royal Pavilion began as a modest farmhouse in 1787, when George was Prince of Wales and visited an area where he could pursue gambling, racing, and women. He built his secret Catholic wife a home nearby, and she entertained with him in Brighton. Those days allowed royals to misbehave with discretion. He became regent when his father was too ill to rule and was king after 1820. He ruled for only ten years, and his brother William IV for another seven before Victoria took over in 1837 and sold the palace after stripping it of chandeliers, mantels, wall coverings, woodwork, doors, and much more to take to other palaces. Now the town has done an incredible job of refurbishment, with handmade wallpapers, expensive drapery, and a wonderful look at the past. My favorite object in the pavilion was still the huge carved silver dragon hanging from the 40 foot tall dining room ceiling, holding an elaborate one ton chandelier. Wall tables nearby hold a rare Regency collection of silver gilt (silver covered with gold). Everything is beautifully maintained. Building skills before computers are worthy of admiration!
In London again, we heard music at Westminster Abbey Sunday morning at the wonderful choral mass, and “down th’ pub” for Sunday night singing. I learned a few more verses to “You can squeeze me cabbages, or pinch me Brussels sprouts, you can stroke me cucumbers, the finest that’s about. You can prod me melons, but listen to me, chums: you can squeeze me gooseb’rries, but please - don’t – touch – me - plums!” I can’t wait to learn more. Our visitors love it, but the pub front room is so small that we never dare invite a whole crowd. Where would the regulars sit? It seems like a working class pub, but Bob, a balding baritone regular, had just returned from 2 weeks skiing in Aspen. One Chicagoan who visits London occasionally led a chorus line, after the pub closed at 10:30. Helen, the manager of our other nearby pub, the Victoria, just had a baby girl, Ella, her first. Ella sits in her pram as her mom works upstairs in the office.
There are lots of good pubs here, and we have enjoyed several pub crawls with visitors. One visits three or so, with a drink at each and dinner at the last. We went to the O’Connor Don, since our former workmates the O’Connors returned, and when I mentioned to the Irish manager that I was a McGee, he quickly replied, “Oh, then that’s where you got your good looks!” They are quick, those Irish. (Except for the Real IRA, who are killers.)
The Albrecht Dürer show at the British Museum, (1471-1528) which showed many of his works and even an original woodblock from which one print was made. Craftsmen carefully transferred his drawings into woodblocks, and he used agents for sales outside Germany in an early marketing coup. The show was chronological, nicely showing changes before and after Dürer’s trips to Italy and the influence of Mantegna’s Renaissance naturalism. The museum was very crowded in the exhibit area, and the prints and drawings are not large. Some small watercolors are beautifully rendered, whether a cow’s nose or a landscape. Etchings and engravings are finely done, and want careful examination, which was difficult when it involved squirming around other peerers. Dürer’s self-portrait at 14 is awesome, and I will show it to my artistic grandchildren as a goal. There were pieces done by those influenced by the master, including Rembrandt, and golden vessels from the days of his early goldsmith training. These pieces were among the British Museum’s earliest founding collections 250 years ago and are part of an anniversary celebration.
I’m teaching painting again, working paintings, back in Italian classes, but am confused, since students have learned several tenses that are Greek to me--not Italian! I’m reading What the Butler Saw about lives of servants. He is the boss of the servants, nearly always a bachelor so as to have few distractions and might eventually marry a housemaid and establish a fine boarding house, since he would know the requirements of the upper classes and sometimes even enter into their realm. I gave my “Who Was Cupid?” slide show to some C of E ladies on a cold morning with snow flurries. On those days, our windows rattle and cold air piles in. I long for double glazing.
Because of our large family, I spend time shopping and wrapping gifts that then must go to the American Post Office across the street from the Embassy. Usually I stroll over, unless the packages fit into my bike basket and I ride through the park. We’re allowed to use the Navy fleet post office, which means we’re spared the very high cost of international mailings via Royal Mail, which we use within England. Mail goes to Mike’s office.
We attended a neighborhood meeting on crime, since London has surpassed New York as a city where you’re likely to get mugged, and listened to 5 speakers on the panel. During the question time afterwards, we learned more about local prostitution than we ever dreamed! If the girls are arrested, they are back on the street later that night, or perhaps in your garage or garden entertaining clients, days and nights. Who knew?
Brussels has ruled that EU pig farmers must place toys in each pen of 60 animals so that the animals won’t pull each others’ tails or gnaw on a friend’s ears. The problem is that the pigs are rough playmates and need very very heavy toys. Fines can be £1000.
The month ended with an elegant formal dinner at the House of Lords with our neighbor Inge. She was with the London Maritime Association, whose dinner patron was The Rt. Hon the Lord Clinton-Davis PC. We three easily found a cab in our glad rags, and were totally unaware until the next day that 10,000 people had spent the night on the floor at Stanstead Airport, and that Heathrow had cancelled over 400 flights because of snow—the second this month. The patron’s wife arrived late to the dinner with his tuxedo, since it had taken her 2 hours to get to Parliament from north London. The amount of snow that caused the 17 mile tailback (traffic jam), stopped tubes and trains, and created all this chaos? Two inches. Naturally, there will be a government investigation.
Swans were once served at dinners. Those seen today in rivers and streams belong to the Queen.
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