Readers must recall my groans in my very wet first year here, when recorded rainfall exceeded that of the last 200 years by over an inch. They may recall as well my delight swooning over this year’s summer and autumn. It’s been fantastic going outdoors in shirtsleeves, sans brolly! No wonder! It’s the warmest driest year since 1778, and parts of green and fabled England are evaporating into dustbowls! Horses are not to jump on hard soil, and many football pitches are considered too crusty and dangerous for matches. Sunsets have been brilliant and colorful. (Or colourful.)
This month I revisited museums, joined ladies for lunch, and just enjoyed being in town. Mailing packages home entails trips to the American post office with boxes, a trek in itself. We had cocktails at the Embassy and several Thanksgiving dinners. We watched UT football at Bodean’s BBQ and went to a concert. I gave the pub crowd copies of my painting of our Duke of Kendal. My hero of the month is the writer who put an ad into the NY Review of Books wanting a lot of sex with someone she liked before she turned 70, in 3 years. She got amazing response, even if she did kiss and tell via her book.
Fauré’s Requiem is part of many church concerts, especially in November, the month of all souls and all saints. I sang it with a local church choir, small, but all music students! They could go onstage in a sec, and sight read anything. I felt like a crow with canaries, but how invigorating to sing with their diction, verve, and emotion. We wore robes, something I’d never done in past choirs.
The first part of the month means fireworks popping repeatedly for days, many illegal, as people prepare for Guy Fawkes Day on Nov. 6. There are big fireworks in several parks. Afterwards, Remembrance Day ceremonies take several days, and all the nation seem to participate; perhaps it’s because they have lost 3 million in war. I have written of it before, but it’s so touching that I’ll include it again.
On Saturday night, the Queen and family were at Royal Albert Hall for the ceremonies, begun in 1927 and now televised nationally on the Beeb. The circular hall is formed by tiers encircling the floor below where events are staged. Duty, honor, and country are the themes, and from the youngest recruits to the oldest white head, marching stiffly but ramrod straight, they remind us how many will never answer the bugle. “They shall not grow old as we grow old…age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn; at the going down of the sun and in the morning…” The crowd answers “We will remember them.” A bishop, robed and mitred, offers a Christian prayer near the end. The uniformed troops “ruh-moooove HEADgear!” prior to three cheers for the queen: hip hip “hooray!” shouted each time as each hat is raised. The British may have problems running trains, but in tradition and spectacle, they set the standard.
After all the hymns, band music, choirs, marching, and shouted commands, over dead silence one voice calls, “When you go home, tell them of us and say -- for your tomorrow, we gave our today.” The vast hall is absolutely still: red poppy petals float from the ceiling onto civilians and veterans below.
Sunday morning Elizabeth laid a wreath at the Cenotaph, and was followed by many other prominent persons, thus surrounding the monument in a sea of red. There were 3 WWI vets who survived muddy trenches to lead the parade, for the first time in an open car, all over 100 years old. About 30,000 others, including Aussies, Ghurkas, Canadians and other commonwealth members marched past a memorial opposite Horseguards Parade. There too the blind, those missing limbs, grandchildren wearing old medals on blazers, and war widows, some very recent.
Tuesday, the 11th, the queen laid a wreath on the new Australian monument near Apsley House near Hyde Park Corner and as Big Ben chimed, the entire nation observed two minutes of silence. Radio and TV stop, companies cease work, and even the planes at Heathrow waited to start their engines. Nearly everyone wears a poppy for the entire month: newscasters, royals, corporate leaders, bartenders, and even some cars sport the little red petals on front grills. All proceeds help vets.
The previous Saturday is always the Lord Mayor’s parade, the man who runs “The City”, the square mile of financial London. His hat is a large black tricorn, trimmed all ‘round with black ostrich feathers, and on his shoulders, near a lace tie and over a velvet cape, his golden necklace, the badge of office. The same necklaces can be seen in many ancient portraits. His golden chariot comes at the end of a long parade, which this year included, along with schoolchildren and civic groups, several hundred Swiss marching in medieval costumes, bringing their bands and a “bear” on a chain who walked along shaking hands with throngs of viewers.
They lack elaborate balloons or floats, like a New York Thanksgiving parade, but the mood is much the same, and there are elaborate outfits and bands, some royal, and many mounted. Since the Lord Mayor bailed out Charles II many years ago with a loan, he alone besides the monarch may use the carriages in parades. He has 6 magnificent matching horses, and the monarch has 8; others must get by on 4. He gets no salary, and will probably have lunch and dinner out most days, and deliver a speech, during his term. The Lady Mayoress will attend functions as well—over 300. They’ll live in a huge mansion for the year, near the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, the Bank of England, following custom.
With a group of college clubs one Sunday morn, I visited The Red House, “more a poem than a house,” the only house ever built by William Morris in 1859 to serve as his home and a meeting place for brilliant friends, a sort of “palace of art.” It cost £4000. Morris believed that good design and good life are one: have nothing in your house that’s not beautiful or useful. Furnishing his home led to starting his famous design firm.
The two story red brick is very Gothic in design, with turrets and pointed arches, influenced by his interest in medievalism, Chaucer, Arthurian legend, and a recent French visit, with large tidy gardens laid out inside its high wall. Classic plants of trellised roses and old fashioned flowers were favored, perhaps like those on French tapestries or medieval illuminations, and they often were translated into Morris’ designs. Originally croquet and bowls were part of the pretty lawn’s party games. There is a beautiful brick well in the back lawn, a focal point with a high pointed circular roof that echoes the steep pitch of the house’s varied rooflines.
Webb chose brick because it was what local English farms used, rather than stucco, which only pretended to be stone, or slate, which wasn’t local. Rosetti had convinced Morris to give up architecture for painting, and Morris later married Janey, the pale teenage model he met in Oxford. John Ruskin, the art critic, was a great backer who also championed Turner. They were all young and happy, just starting families. Even the servants were young, and the house parties were full of games, carriage rides, and grand meals.
Bexleyheath is a town formerly three hours’ train ride from London. Morris’ house there once sat in an orchard alone atop the heath; now it’s in the middle of a suburban town. Tidy subdivided plots face the high red brick fence, and commuter trains to London run often. His architect, Philip Webb, and his pre-Raphaelite friends, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and others have left paintings and stained glass mementoes, but not much original furnishing remains. The master bedroom was once hung with blue serge embroidered by Janey and her sister, using a daisy pattern from a medieval illumination from the British Library, but today walls are bare. Morris designed wallpaper, but had none originally in his home. Fragments of murals remain, and stained glass windows, painted ceilings, tiles, fireplaces, and two large cabinets, but not much else.
Morris left to move back “over the store” in Bloomsbury, London, to oversee his designs being printed on cloth and wallpaper, and only lived in the Red House about 5 years. Finances, health and personal issues took tolls on the group. Ars Longa Vita Brevis is still inscribed over the fireplace. During the war, the National Assistance Board filled the house with ration stamps and painted the walls brown. In 1952 it sold for £3500, less than it cost a century before. The “beautifullest place on earth” was acquired by the National Trust in 2003. Fittingly, the trust grew directly from Morris’ commitment to saving Britain’s architecture when he helped found The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
In London, the Royal Academy exhibits Andrew Lloyd Weber’s painting collection, which includes pre Raphaelite and Victorian pieces. It was interesting to place the work of the group in a more personal context after visiting the Red House.
Since England is still losing young men in Iraq’s Basra, and has lost others in Sierra Leone, Bosnia, and other hotspots, the nation is aware of those who serve, ready to give their lives. But they were reluctant to follow Tony Blair’s vigorous foray with Bush into Iraq, especially with no guarantees of WMD. Bush’s visit to London set high water marks in numbers of police and closed streets for fear of massive protests.
A hundred ten thousand marchers however were pretty well mannered, making noise, toppling a statue of Bush in Trafalgar Square, and crossing two bridges over the Thames. They were allowed to march down Whitehall, which alarmed many, but perhaps because of the Turkey bombings, the world was more aware of the deaths caused to western citizens than they might have been. The prez, staying at Buckingham Palace with the Queen, never heard or saw protesters. He and his 700 accompanying Secret Service people and staff, in 3 planes, conducted the first State Visit since Coolidge. The most recent was for Putin. There are usually two state visits a year. This one ended at the Dun Cow Inn, in the northeast, where Tony Blair’s district lies, and gave the dignitaries a chance to relax a bit over a pub lunch, but even for that short pub stop, security cost over a million pounds. (An MP needn’t live in or even near his district.)
Queen Victoria, who grew up in Kensington palace, was the first to use Buckingham Palace as a royal home, but some of the 600 rooms are house offices. It was first used by George I as a town home, and “tarted up” by Nash for George IV, who died before the transformation was finished. The Bushes stayed in the rather staid Belgian Suite, so named because a Belgian king first stayed there. 400 staff oversee things there.
I volunteered, with a few other Americans, to accompany some press to Inigo Jones’ Banqueting Hall (1622), with the Rubens ceiling. The ceiling canvas, commissioned by Charles I, was removed during the war. Charles I was executed there in 1649, and Oliver Cromwell used the room for his audience hall as Lord Protector until 1660, when the monarchy was restored under Charles II. (Your continuing history lesson.) The ceiling is awash with figures and colors and not always available to see.
My bus batch was mostly good natured Americans and Brits. I ended up with quite a boring day, sitting on an empty bus with the driver, Jackie. We never did get back in time for the pick up because of traffic, so another bus got them. It was interesting seeing all the police in their fluorescent vests, and the huge American flags lining the Mall and also hung outside the Admiralty. At the Marble Arch Thistle Hotel, I drank coffee and waited around, as noisy helicopters hovered overhead . Various men (very, very few women) sat at computers filling the next room, and we all stepped over all the equipment wires and cables lining the floors. I saw no one I recognized; in fact besides police, all I saw from the bus were smokers huddled outside chilly office doorways. The Colin Powell press conference I returned to see was cancelled. I had quite an anticlimactic day.
I thought Bush did pretty well in his speeches but don’t think he changed many minds or approaches about Iraq, Climate Control, Guantanamo prisoner trials, Israel, steel imports, or the price of tea in China. Britain hopes to be a bridge between America and Europe, adding a voice of reason and a history of friendship. They have their hands full, especially with a new Tory leader, Michael Howard, just aching to make inroads into Labor policies.
I’ve mentioned the high house prices in London. Recently at our neighborhood association meeting upstairs at the Victoria Pub, I told one gentleman that my husband worked for the Navy. He remarked that the US Navy several years ago decided to sell any residence over 3000 feet, so they sold the house they’d bought for £10,000. He felt lucky to get it for £450.000 in the ‘90’s: he wouldn’t take less than £6.5 million today! Buying a home here means paying stamp tax at purchase, and the rate changes with house prices. To buy a home will add 30 to 50 thousand dollars to the price. No people without vast family money could live here. We, like so many friends, are assisted with rent or could never live in London.
The State Dept. keeps some nice homes for a few staff, unlike the military. Most Navy families with children live in the suburbs and take trains in, since school costs are included in their transfer. Private education is expensive, and sometimes there are no places even for interested students. Civilian banks and insurance companies often pick up school costs for their people. The single biggest challenge facing Blair now is how to pass “top off fees” to university, meaning families must pay part of college fees depending on family income. It is hugely divisive and as is, would fail, so Blair will seek compromises. Fees have largely been paid by the government, even to the finest schools here, but colleges demand more income to stay up with other top institutions and avoid losing faculty to the US and others.
I revisited Kensington palace. I’d forgotten that it was build in the 1680’s in what was a small outlying village for William and Mary. After they took the throne, coming from the Netherlands, he needed to save his ailing lungs by avoiding London’s dirty air. Wren created the palace gardens. I forgot that men used to wear 2 pair of stockings with knee britches, the inner one to hold the hair on their legs inside. (In reading about Hadrian, I read that his slaves shaved his legs in the baths!) London ladies wore ostrich feathers and long trains to be presented at Buckingham Palace to the queen until 1939. I’d forgotten about Victoria’s bed, and the clock and golden chandeliers, Vasari’s painting of Venus, and Grindling Gibbons’ wood carvings. Queen Mary displayed thousands of china pieces she’d collected in the Netherlands. Her initial M intertwined with her husband’s W is a well known design. Her sister Ann succeeded her as queen, and died old, fat, and blind after 18 babies, only one of whom lived to 11.
It’s not as grand a palace as many others, but I spent a pleasant afternoon, with tea in the Orangerie. Diana’s gowns are also on display. My bike chained to a gate caused staff consternation, and I was nearly asked to leave. It turns out the Irish had put explosives in tires (“tyres”) and blown up buildings! When I left the palace, a guard went inside. I think he’d been stationed aside the bike throughout my visit.
An English guest at my KCWC coffee related how she’d been presented at Buckingham Palace by her mother, who’d been presented by HER mother, ad infinitum. She practiced curtseying with a perfectly straight back, tutored by the lady who taught “DON-sing.” Try it! Don’t lean forward even a jot. I’d forgotten that George I’s court “greeted” one as one walked up the black Irish marble stairs to the audience room, via portrait figures of lords, ladies and even servants appearing to lean over the railing along the wall, smiling.
There are now four Turner exhibitions simultaneously going on in Britain, two in Birmingham, one in Manchester, and one at the Tate Britain, and it’s not even an anniversary year. London’s one focuses on Venice, and isn’t a whole lot different from the times around the 1820’s, when Thackery complained that he was “weary of gamboge!” because London was so besotted with Venice exhibitions and that lovely golden hue. Venice also fascinated people like Charles Dickens, James Fenimore Cooper, and Lord Byron. Turner, a barber’s son, was the youngest admitted to the Royal Academy, and won many prizes, but some critics thought he painted “pictures of nothing, and very little.” He is probably the best known English painter, but he had a long life, 76 years, and traveled his beloved nation with his brushes (1775-1851). Engravings made from his paintings graced homes internationally, and because he was a good businessman, Turner grew rich.
From the 1840’s on, he painted more seascapes and water, and the “Turner in Venice” show in London certainly focuses on his fascination with light on the water of the city so enamored of English tourists. (Or, “enameled of” as Mike quips!) However, Turner spent only about 4 weeks there in total, in three trips, the first at age 44. There were as many small watercolors as large oils, and it was interesting to see how a few pencil marks and a quick brush repeatedly brought together warm orangey browns with cool blues and blue greens. And gamboge. The show included Canaletto, Bellini, his student Titian, the official painter of the Republic, Tintoretto, and Veronese. Many scenes were the same as I saw last month in Venice in person, including the bridge of sighs and the winged lion of St. Mark. An interesting note was a reminder of the difficulty of travel to France to see new art during the Napoleanic wars. The Republic of Venice fell in 1797; the city was occupied by France and Austria until the 1860’s, just before Italy became a nation.
Here’s Lord Byron’s take on the city from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, around 1815.
‘I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs;
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O’er the far times, when many a subject land
Look’d to the winged Lion’s marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!’
Many associations bear the Turner name, but one renowned £20 000 prize is annually awarded to a modernist. There have been awards to an unmade bed, a light flashing on and off in an empty room, and this year, contenders include inflatable life-size male and female dolls having oral sex on the floor. The publications have had a field day, and you can put all the printed imagery together to get a pretty good picture. Interviewers stand far enough away from the dolls so you see them in the background. There is also video art, art by a transvestite potter, and other work up for consideration. The prize will be awarded soon.
England won the rugby World Cup in Australia in overtime, a huge boost in the arm for a nation who often is an also-ran in sport. Fans waited at the airport at 4:30 AM as the team landed. Jonny Wilkinson is the best known name in England today, his picture on every front page, and he and his teammates are nice lads, so different from the overpaid footie yobs, too often in the courts for many sins! Wales and Scotland were in the running, but lost playoff finals. There will be royal honors, parades, and lots of advertisement riches ahead.
Krispy Kreme has made it to Britain, sold in Harrod’s where customers queue for a taste. Britain is now a close second to the US in obesity. (Is it scones with clotted cream and jam?) Prince Charles has weathered noisy charges brought by a loose cannon concerning his sexuality, but those seem to be blowing over. Charles’ accuser has past issues of imaginary incidents that are well documented. And the Queen has issued an injunction against printing private scenes snapped in the palace by a press spy footman.
Michael Jackson’s arrest was well covered by British papers and TV, and his new album zoomed to No. 1 despite pedophile charges. The Righteous Brothers are down to one, sadly, minus Bobby Hatfield, so we’ve lost that lovin’ singin’ as well as Art Carney this month. There were long obits in the Times. Whether in science, politics, entertainment or the military, lengthy obits here offer thorough recaps of those who distinguished themselves and often make fascinating reading.
The American Embassy continues to be surrounded by huge concrete blocks, patrolled by bobbies in fluorescent vests and machine guns, and we went through two metal detectors, had bags x-rayed, and showed photo ID’s to get into a reception.
The building in Grosvenor Square holds portraits of past ambassadors, from our recent submariner Adm. Crowe to Walter Annenberg, including five presidents: two Adamses, Monroe, Van Buren and Buchanan. Eero Sarinen designed the 1960 building, which then looked very modern amid traditional buildings nearby. He designed the USAF Academy chapel and St. Louis arch as well. The “peppercorn rent” in a 999 year lease, does really pay a fee to the Duke of Westminster of a peppercorn a year.
A river running through a city adds lots of ambiance and London is no exception. In summer it’s light ‘til very late, but in winter, when it’s dark at 4, and often wet, the river is lit with so many brilliant lights on either side that there seems to be special brittle magic emanating from the flowing Thames. There are walking bridges where one can consider lights in the buildings flashing as diamonds on the water, and paths to walk alongside as brilliant wavelet shapes constantly change. There are railroad and motor bridges as well, stony and fortress-like. In winter, trees lit with colored spotlights soften the riverbank in front of Festival Hall by spraying mist upwards, forming mini rainbows. In the meantime, ferries and barges continue on workaday rounds.
Festival Hall was the first major building undertaken after the war, and it’s still a wonderful vast place with views of the river, many bars and restaurants, a CD shop, gift shop, and easy access from either the tube or the riverside. It hosts crowds of all ages and the night we visited, we heard a cool jazz concert downstairs at a packed bar before heading to the concert hall. Before we heard the philharmonic played with a Charlie Chaplain film, we hadn’t realized how much music Chaplin himself wrote to accompany his silent films, but often because of the plot, the music is nearly lost. There’s a disconnect when someone skids down a staircase, falls headfirst into a pool of water, and you’re staring at two feet facing the sky. Nonetheless, Chaplain was self taught in violin and cello, and played piano and organ, composing over a 40 year span.
Kurt Masur is the principal London Philharmonic conductor, and the orchestra plays at Glyndeborne Opera Festivals, where we’ve never gotten, alas. We heard Carl Davis, the New York born composer and conductor, as London-born Chaplain clowned in The Cure, 1917, where everyone got drunk at the spa. Davis has long worked in TV and film. In City Lights Chaplain befriended the blind flower seller and the music was his own. There’s a wacky boxing match to win money for the girl’s eye surgery.
In nearly three years to complete the movie in 1931, talkies became news. Since the famed Little Tramp was so international, what language would he speak? Chaplain stuck to music, except for a few parts in the new technique of synchronized sound, as when he swallowed a whistle. He didn’t write all the notes, he said, but “la-la’d” to a friend who put it on paper. He eschewed a comic music, which he felt would interfere with what was happening on screen, and tried for romantic and elegant sound.
Chaplain’s father died an alcoholic at 37 and his mother had a breakdown, so he grew up in institutions. He came to the US while touring with a music hall company and joined the Keystone Film Co. in 1913. Later, as a parent of 8 with Oona, Eugene O’Neil’s daughter, he took refuge in Switzerland when McCarthyism became unbearable and continued rewriting music for his old silent films. In ’72 he won an honorary Academy Award and in ’75 was appointed KBE by Queen Elizabeth. He died in 1977.
We wrote to the American Embassy for tickets to St. Paul’s thanksgiving service and arrived nearly an hour early on a sunny morn, as encouraged, with photo ID’s. The vast church, the towers and most of the front completely covered with scaffolding for its refurbishment, was closed to all but ticket bearers, and surrounded by police in fluorescent vests. We showed our red tickets at one door and were directed around to the front: ”These are the good tickets! You’ll be up close!” We walked past metal temporary fencing through metal detectors, and inside, past ushers in tails, with red velvet ribbons and golden medallions around their necks. We sat below the center dome, below metal scaffolding high above us inside it. The church is getting ready for its 300th anniversary in 2005, and the metal reminded me of teens in braces who would one day display beautiful smiles.
We watched one Navy officer put on his uniform jacket with gold sleeve stripes, since no American may presently wear a uniform outdoors in Britain. Soon, behind a huge gold crucifix, the white-cassocked clergy and choir processed in from one side and down the middle aisle to a thundering organ and beautiful singing, as the Navy, Marine, and US flags were each draped over the altar. It’s always stirring to hear the Star Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful, but especially so when one’s homeland is so far away. I spied lots of hankies as I used my own. The choir, American volunteers, sat in carved seats behind red lampshades in a perpendicular space to the altar below golden mosaic arches, and we joined them in several hymns between lessons and prayers, with a homily and the president’s proclamation. From the carved wood pulpit, we were reminded of the pilgrims in 1621 and Lincoln’s proclaiming Thanksgiving in the midst of the civil war in 1863 before a partially sighted woman gave a pitch for the collection for the blind. Then it was off to celebrate at Maxine and Jeff’s with a fine turkey dinner with friends. We brought hors d’ouevres.
The area around St. Paul’s has been under construction for several years, and finally the huge holes in the ground have been filled with tall blocky brick office buildings surrounding the cathedral. Perhaps they’ll look kindlier when they’re all occupied, but they offer little grace. The City area, the financial district, badly needs space and grows taller and more crowded.
Things I’ll really miss when I leave: reading the daily London Times for too long, my neighborhood association, world class galleries and museums, good TV news broadcasts, intriguing restaurants and pubs with international menus, easy and cheap foreign travel, hearing various languages spoken daily, unusual British verbiage: knackered, chuffed, knees up. Most good friends made here have been other Americans however. The English have always been very friendly but they are not swift to embrace newcomers, and we newbies needed friends fast. I’ll miss the restaurants that always replace silverware, because no matter what you order, a waiter brings a napkin-covered tray with new correct silverware. (I won’t miss the prices, especially with the dollar weakening daily.)
Things I look forward to when I leave: having a real space to paint and mess up, a real garden, wide store aisles and someone bagging my groceries, driving my own car right into my own automatically opening garage, NPR and good Austin radio, air conditioning, and sunshine. I also will have more time available by not writing this journal! How did Pepys do it? Writing in America, one includes commas or periods (“full stop”) within quotation marks. In Britain, they go outside the quotes. Confusing stuff.
“If it weren’t for the painting, I couldn’t live” said Winston Churchill. I’m very thankful for art, health, and at this time of year especially grateful for family and friends, who enrich my life in so many more ways than I could count. Happy Thanksgiving to all! We have fewer than 7 weeks of adventures left here, and 4007 things we haven’t yet done. What challenges!
Topiary hedges are often included in British gardens, many very elaborately shaped.
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