This is the month when the world continued its wait for WMD discoveries in Iraq as the locals wait for basic electricity, medicine, and water. More Americans died there in police actions while trying to restore order. America passed a big tax cut. The English are considering whether to sign the EU Constitution without a national referendum (will it lessen their sovereignty?) and whether barristers and judges ought to shed traditional wigs, larger and more elaborate for the latter. Afghans, after a pause for the previous war, are again supplying over 75% of the world’s opium—3400 tons (tonnes, here) annually. More travel, this time to Poland for a wedding.
Back in London, we went to the Tate Britain (Tate Modern’s the one at the old power plant; this is the “old” Tate with the Turners) and caught the last day of the “Constable to Delacroix” show. The explanation for the show was that after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Frenchmen could visit Britain once again. They were impressed with Constable and naturalism, so different from the history or biblical scenes demanded by the French Academy: Ingres, Gericault, Turner and Bonington were included. A lifesize reproduction of the huge “Raft of the Medusa” from the Louvre was backlit on a giant screen. The original is too fragile to travel. The next day Mike went to the US and Chile, but this is the longest I’ve been home in six weeks. It feels great!
I’m taking an art history class sponsored by KCWC; besides excellent lectures, we had a tour of St. Paul’s with a Sotheby’s grad, David, which added to my enjoyment of that fine building. Even if I already knew a lot about it and Christopher Wren! We also had a trip to the Cortauld, and I’ve gone to more National Gallery lectures.
The Chelsea Flower Show is billed as the finest in the world. This year, since it would be my last chance to attend, I joined the Royal Horticultural Society to be sure to get tickets. The Queen always visits on the first day, and I watched her on the BBC nightly telly report, as the MC’s got drenched by London weather. I got second day tickets, and since Mike would be in Chile, took my friend Judith. We took the tube to Victoria Station, but there we spied the endless queue for busses to the show. We snagged a taxi and were deposited at the door, just as the rains began anew. We wore wool suits, boots, and coats, but had decided to leave the brollys behind, unlike about 90 % of the other attendees. Mostly black bumbershoots popped up in a canopy, but we scurried into one of the vast white marquees holding thousands of exhibitors. The aisles were packed with visitors, especially at intersections.
During the letups we wandered through endless paths past small gardens: some had water running uphill, one had a rowboat tethered under a rough-hewn boathouse, some recreated meadows and waterfalls, some were Italian gardens with fountains, some country meadows (one with 4000 kinds of meadow plants), one recreated desert, one used all recycled materials with the plants, and more, more, more. An olive tree was “borrowed” from Italy, over 200 years old, to be returned. Other tents held fresh flower arrangements, some tiny rosebud bouquets or lacy nosegays, some taller than I. There were many sculptures, often too cute or saccharine for my taste. They were wood, steel, realistic, abstract, rough, sleek, mosaic, or recycled, and some included water functions.
Perfect fruits and vegetables were the most varied and beautiful I’ve seen. Booths sold wellies, pitchforks, seeds, pots, sprinklers, lawnmowers, furniture, and all you could imagine to help grow things. There were refreshment and toilet tents. (One never asks for “the bathroom” here, since one wishes to pee, not bathe! It’s the toilet or the ladies.)
The boathouse garden was made by convicts training to do garden work. There was a huge working flower clock like Edinburgh’s to mark the Queen’s 50th Jubilee, and that may have explained the extra use of purple this year. A wee stone crofter’s cottage with conifers, pillars and slate roof recreated the Highlands. Since front gardens are giving way to urban parking spots, plantings in tiny places were shown. The huge Merrill Lynch garden used the Greeks’ ancient Golden Section and geometry, and used blue flowers to recall Chartres Cathedral, which also was constructed using the harmony of golden proportions. Growers and designers from all over the country participate, and an Irishman selling leather boots fortified with Gore-Tex stood in a tub of water as he hawked his wares.
We liked a garden with Hans Sloane’s bewigged statue. It had trees and flowers from the old world in one half, the new world in the other. Sloane died 250 years ago; he gathered over 800 plants in Jamaica while the governor’s physician, and conveyed a medical garden here in perpetuity. His collections began the fabulous British Museum. He was Lord of the Manor of Chelsea, but today the street named after him is so fashionable that its denizen luvvies are “Sloane Rangers.” Through marriage his land passed to the Cadogans, who own lots of London: they funded the display.
The outdoor restaurants were very wet, so we had a sandwich crowded into a vast food hall tent (“marquee”) with many others. Judith sat on the floor, and eventually I snagged a white plastic chair as someone left. Alas, we hadn’t been invited to any of the gala sponsor dinners that evening! Eventually the sun shone, near the 8 PM closing time, and we were lucky to catch a bus right to Victoria. We were exhausted, and Judith was freezing. Then, instead of taking the tube, I decided to take the No. 36 bus home, but since I took it in the wrong direction, I “detoured” far, far into south London, nearly to Brixton. One clue that I wasn’t headed to west London was the changing complexion of the riders, but I took the tube home after another fine day of adventure in this city.
I’m going to Pilates again and loving the gentle stretching and calm it brings, rather like yoga. Most of the teachers weigh 97 pounds, and most of the students must be well heeled, because it’s expensive! I’m trying to regard it as the golf-exercise memberships that I don’t have while living abroad. And because it’s individual, I can go whenever I please.
For Memorial Day, which is also a bank holiday in England, we went to the “most visited site in London,” Mme. Tussaud’s. She began work with commissioned portraits of those sentenced to the guillotine. Nearly 30 years ago I made my only other trip, and, since Mike had never been, we decided to bond with the people. What a mistake! I should call the fire and police department and report dangerous overcrowding, and there were nearly no attendants.
The tour started easily enough, with a woman on the street selling tickets that allowed us to queue jump with no wait. We passed John Travolta, J-Lo, Ah-nold, and David Beckham, all wax. Put your arm around Mohammed Ali, or pat Kylie’s bum while your friends take a picture. Then we headed downstairs.
Ignoring the signs that the “Torture Chamber” was no place for those under 12, idiot parents dragged terrified screaming children past corpses on their steel studded rack, being regularly plunged upside down into a tub of water. Their blood and bruises looked realistic. Heads and skeletons dangled overhead, rotting “bodies” hung from steel cages, and screams rent the dank dark basement. Were any of them mine? Any sparks of claustrophobia would surely ignite in the narrow dark space, where the bodies crushing together and screams from the squeamish overcame the one middle aged lady struggling to help us “move along, move along.” There was a live performance (for a bit more than the initial $25 admission, and we had paid the cheaper “concession” price) that caused a bottleneck. The place was jammed with people from every nation, 97% wielding cameras. Thoughts of a recent cabaret fire popped into my head on the sort of afternoon that made birth control seem appealing.
Photos were possible with everyone, from the Queen to the young Beatles to a dais between Tony Blair and George W. Nicole Kidman was there, Indira Ghandi near Benezir Bhutto, Nelson Mandela next to DeClerk, and the mayor of London sat at one of the cafeteria tables. Henry and all his wives were there, but I couldn’t see Anne Boylin’s extra finger. Charles I and II had beautiful lace on their collars and cuffs. The living and dead were there, and the trip ended with a “London taxi” ride in moving carts passing England from its earliest days, passing the plague and rats, the Great Fire, the WWII bombs, and Twiggy. The shop was enormous and busy. Rather than spend another cent, we strode purposefully for the door and some welcome fresh air.
The day before, we’d walked to the Victoria and Albert for the Art Deco exhibition, which Mike had tried to see twice before. The earliest tickets we could get were for 3:15, so for a couple of hours we wandered happily in the wonderful British Rooms and other areas. The Art Deco examples of fine Cartier cigarette cases, steamship line lounges, modernistic tea sets, chrome store entries, or exquisite handmade clothing with clean modern lines soon gave way to American mass production after the stock market crash of 1929. Bakelite plastic replaced hand painted porcelain.
There were old film clips of Josephine Baker dancing, songs of Billie Holliday and Cab Calloway, Busby Berkeley dancers trotting down stairs perfectly together and skirts aswirl, and a wonderful sleek coupe convertible with leather upholstery. Sleek lines in paintings by Leger and Tamara de Lempicka were recreated in carpets and lamps, and we watched a series of slides of American skyscrapers like the Chrysler building. There were actual silvery building facades. Enmeshed in all the sophistication, it was easy to wish the shiny cocktail shakers held a cold martini, whether shaken or stirred!
That evening we attended the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London, which we’d done once before when my sister Mary Jo lived here. Then it was mid December, cold and dark. This time it was late May after an unusually pretty day. This most ancient unbroken military ceremony has continued for over 700 years each night as the Tower of London is locked and the Queen’s keys are secured. Because we were with a military group, we had a tour and fish and chips first in the Warders’ Club, which is filled with hundreds of plaques from visitors. We saw one from the Greece, NY police department, the Rochester suburb where Mike’s family lived, and several from Texas. Author Tom Clancy is a member, and donated a huge hand carved lance displayed in a tall narrow glass box.
Late at night we walked to the Tube but discovered that it had already closed. Fortunately, the no. N15 bus soon arrived (N is for night) and we sat upstairs in the front window, my favorite seats, and had an evening tour of the city on the way home, past Trafalgar Square’s lions and beautiful floodlit buildings.
On another evening, our friend Sylvia had a book introduction and art opening showing new watercolor paintings on thick handmade paper. She had punched impressions into the bulky white paper with knuckles, spools, silverware, and whatever else was handy, leaving permanent dents and deckled edges. She has had openings all over the world, and we realized how many of her guests we had met at her home. The colorful coffee-table book is available through Amazon, or visit her website.
I close with a nod to the illustrious Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing, his companion Sherpa guide, who climbed a mountain over 5 miles tall 50 years ago. They pioneered equipment and routes, but modern climbers can follow ropes and paths. The Times, an original trip sponsor, put out a souvenir edition, and there have been special TV broadcasts. Hillary at 85 was present for celebrations in Katmandu, but Tenzing died with alcohol problems partially brought about by the demands of fame. Their fortitude is an example to all of us.
A teacher was arrested in possession of a compass, a protractor and a straight edge. He was accused of being a member of the Al-Gebra movement, bearing weapons of math instruction! Heh heh.
This magnolia bud grew in my friend's Charleston SC yard. I painted it in oil and in watercolor both
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