YEEEEE-hah! We started the month properly on the second, with a celebration of "Texas Independence Day" (independence from Mexico, 1836) at the Texas Embassy. Texas Exes, Aggies, and Texas Tech alums devoured margaritas, fajitas, quesadillas, beans and rice. And Shiner Bock beer, drunk “On earth as it is in Texas!” The huge two story bar is actually owned by Aggies, and a fine time was had by all. A couple of tourist Texans accidentally wandered in and gratefully joined over a hundred of us for attitude adjustment. Rick Kelly, our vigorous “athletic director,” arranged all this, and I can’t imagine London without his gusto and humor. He sets up our football games, pub crawls, ski trips, and has a trip to Scotland on the books to see the Claymores play ball. A burly brunette ex-Marine given to irreverence and fun, he’s a great asset, but he might move to Birmingham and open a pub. Oh woe. I’m told one bumper sticker back home says: “Texas: Bigger Than France.” T’ain’t braggin’ if it’s true. Off to Paris on the Eurostar again. Tickets bought at least two weeks in advance are much cheaper than at the last minute. Mike’s are always taken care of, from work, but this time we bought mine in a newspaper coupon special, where I was upgraded to first class: the meal and champagne are gratis.
After Paris, I was thrilled to be home for three weeks! It takes longer and longer to catch up from old trips and prepare for new ones. Bills, grandchildren, gifts, shopping, and friends demand time: two lunches and a dinner for Ann and Phil’s departure helped fill my first week, and Mike was in the US for the second. I could be messy while he was away, stay up very late, eat standing up, and finally write this month’s chronicle.
One Saturday night, we scored last minute tickets for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, a silly story mixing fairies and pompous English law, adorned with outstanding staging and performance. It’s as fresh as when new 120 years ago and we had great seats. The refurbished Art Deco D’Oly Carte Theater has the alluring pre-theater prix-fixe dinners next door at the elegant Savoy. It’s making a G&S aficionado out of me. (£17 for two courses and coffee at the Upstairs Restaurant. Order the starter and the main, because you’ll get cookies and chocolate with coffee anyway! Buy ice cream at the interval of the play if you’re still needy, or get champagne at the busy bar, if you can squeeze in!)
Before dinner, we visited the Albert Cuyp (“Kipe”) exhibition at the National Gallery, showing Dutch 16th century art, a show organized in the US. It’s not the most exciting art, but a film and good signage offered a look at Dutch power and taste. British collectors awhile back were mad for the stuff. Three large plaster cows, one painted with a scene from Cuyp’s work, advertised the show on the lawn outdoors, since cows were symbols of fertility and wealth, and the Dutch esteemed both. Trafalgar Square, across the way, was filled with tents for the St. Patrick’s celebration and parade the next day. It’s a first for London, a pet project of the mayor. He still hasn’t convinced all the pigeons that Trafalgar Square is off limits.
The next day, as Mike left for the US, I met a visiting young friend at St. Paul’s for the 11:30 Eucharist. Daffodils and magnolias bloomed in the churchyard, and sunshine from the big clear windows illuminated golden mosaic domes during the choral service. Afterward, we looked at the tombs in the crypt, lunched in one of the restaurants, and crossed the Thames on the new footbridge (which has been repaired and no longer sways!) to the new Tate, to see the Andy Warhol exhibition. Alas! There was a huge queue, and they were selling timed admissions hours away. We opted for free art, toured all the works, and tried for farewell coffee on the sixth floor, with a Thames view from the terrace. We couldn’t shoehorn ourselves into the dense crowd, and even the shop was packed. Tourist season has begun. The New Tate has been busy ever since it opened.
A coach trip to Woburn Abbey wowed me. An hour and a half north of London, this gorgeous place is one of the few stately homes in private hands, still inhabited, and a pioneer in attempting to circumvent the awful tax laws here that force sales of priceless heritage. The Duke of Bedford and his family (via oldest sons) have lived here since Henry murdered the abbot (for treason, as usual) to get church property. The duke was in New Zealand on his stud farm when we visited, but the curator and 2 guides gave our KCWC group loads of information. Since the house was closed to the public that day, we got to meet 8 month-old Alexandria, a little brunette butterball heiress, not yet walking.
Outside wandered large herds of tan white-tailed deer, 10 different types, many with enormous antlers, and at the lake, a life size bronze equine sculpture of Mrs. Moss, a winning racer who bore many other race winners. I asked our guide if there was a lot of gambling involved and she spun around and sputtered, “Of course! We ALL bet!” Nearby on the grounds is a pottery and an antique market, in the old stone stables. Somewhere there is also a Safari park with elephants and other animals, a large restaurant, and a steam railway. All this is to keep the family in the house. The animal herds all would have had to be put down if Foot and Mouth Disease was found in any adjacent farm.
The house interior has Rembrandts, Van Dykes, a bunch of Canalettos, and many furniture, china, and fabric treasures. Gilded woodwork, crystal chandeliers, and ceiling paintings enhance rooms with elaborate carved mantlepieces. There are tapestries made from Raphael’s renaissance cartoons, and numerous sets of china, some especially commissioned for the family. Many gold and silver serving pieces are behind glassed vaults, some made after predecessors were melted to form new masterpieces—or perhaps pay bills. There are many paintings of forebears, and a genuine sense of history and family. The life of a duke can still be a challenge today, often financially. Specialized repair costs on these places are stratospheric.
Nearby back home, the Hilton Paddington has opened, under scaffolding and construction since we arrived in England. Next to the tube stop, it gleams, creamy white, regal above narrow gray streets clogged with busses and traffic. It’s a busy part of town that will become even busier when a couple of giant glass skyscrapers are completed just behind the Paddington train station. (This is also where the Heathrow Express train ends.) This hotel joins its huge sister two blocks away near the Marble Arch, which offers the largest convention facilities in London.
Mike and I strolled in on Sunday noon for a five-dollar cup of espresso, checking out the very clean Art Deco interior. The gleaming chrome on patterned elevator doors, geometric large area rugs, and a giant cityscape mural carried a 30’s look throughout: one might expect a flapper to appear around the corner. There’s a gym not quite finished, but no pool. A player grand piano offered tunes under the swirling brass staircase, with large sofas beneath it. We saw very few people, but that will change. (I thought a few plants might warm up the place.) Once, every railroad station had one of these massive hotels handy for travelers, and this is a makeover of one of them.
I went back to the British Museum for a lecture, but the worse part of the trip is navigating crowded Oxford Street, the most congested street I have ever experienced, both in the street and on the pavement. There are actual episodes of sidewalk rage targeting dallying walkers by those in a hurry. At one point, I got off the bus and spoke to the taxi driver behind the bus, asking if he could get me to the museum within the next 10 minutes. He thought not, so I had time to climb back on the bus before it inched along. When I got off, I had a few blocks to walk, and asked another taxi waiting at the light if he could get me there fast. He advised me that walking was fastest. I enjoyed the lecture, except that I paid £35 for a talk that I could’ve almost given myself. I am thinking about doing just that next year, and have agreed to give painting classes here this summer. Note that Oxford Street and Bayswater Road are a continuation of the same avenue, changing at Marble Arch.
London’s red double decker buses come in two different types. On one, you pay the driver—or flip your bus pass. On the other, you climb onto the rear platform and sit downstairs or climb upstairs (lurch may be the proper verb—some busses are antiques). The conductor will come by to see a pass or sell a ticket, spewing a little white receipt from the machine he wears on a leather strap. Awhile later, he makes the rounds again, remembering who’s ticketed. Many people hop on and off while the bus is still moving slightly. I’ve only seen one person actually hit the pavement, but often gasp as tottery old ladies or women in stiletto heels try curbside acrobatics. And then there’s luggage and overstuffed backpacks.
This month we hosted more friends. On Good Friday, we walked along the south bank of the Thames, starting at Westminster Bridge. It was a sunny warm day, which pulls everyone outdoors, and the bridge was jammed with tourists aiming cameras downriver at sightseeing boats or the Eye, the ferris wheel in front of the massive stone Town Hall. Across the bridge on the other side are Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. We walked among dense crowds, past street musicians, mimes, “statues” that move for donations, a parakeet show, and kiosks selling sizzling Polish sausage, cotton candy (“candy floss”), and candied nuts. We walked past London Festival Hall, theaters, the new Tate, and the Globe, with the Thames flowing on our left. Vinopolis is a wine museum build in old warehouses. Southwark Cathedral, from the 1200’s, has oyster shells in its façade. Around the corner are ruins of Winchester Cathedral, once the wealthiest church in London. Only a rose window frame and some wall remnants remain. Its walls also held The Clink, now a jail museum.
We bought cheeses and olives at famous Borough market, a busy outdoor area soon to be upgraded. Butchers were deboning lamb legs and tying meats, forklifts were moving huge sacks of carrots and potatoes, and olive oil vendors were offering samples and conversation. Across the river was St. Paul’s and The City, and ahead lay our unrealized goal, the Tower Bridge. Next time. We took the tube home in time for dinner at The Grenadier, Wellington’s old officers’ mess, and all walked home under a full moon through Hyde Park.
Mike is now advised that we’re here until 2004, so prospective visitors aiming for this fall can extend your planning. However, we may be forced to move, since our landlord wants to sell or raise the rent. The empty flat next door is for sale—for nearly a million pounds!! No attic, no basement, no side or back door, no A/C, no fireplace, no yard, no roof terrace, no kidding!
The Post Office is laying off 15000 workers and has changed its name to Consignia, after a million-pound consult. The public is disdainful. Mail to some of the outer islands can cost providers over a thousand pounds per letter, and city mail is frequently lost, but we still have two deliveries daily. The BBC has changed its globe trademark for multiethnic symbols: Maori dancers, wheelchair basketballers, break dancers, ballet artists, acrobats. Caucasian Britain long since disappeared from cities, but the countryside still holds few dark faces.
What percent of British people buy tea bags instead of loose tea? 93%. Milton Berle died this month, probably cracking one-liners at the Golden Gates. Denmark and Italy are passing anti-immigration measures, worried about assimilation and terrorism, as are several other European communities. I’m painting an elaborate red brick house with many rooflines. Our oldest son Ted is soon off to Ethiopia for two months for CDC, working with AIDs. And I’m to be in the US in seven states in April, mostly visiting family but also painting with “Seven Across” friends. Happy Spring!
Here’s a seasonal gift from Wordsworth (1770-1850) via me:
I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretch’d in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Next to London Brodge, Borough Market in Southwark sold foods since the 12th century.
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