Starting my third year in central London, I still feel like Alice whirling through the rabbit hole: things are curiouser and curiouser. Forsythia and cherry trees are starting to bloom; tree branches in the parks overhang circular carpets of white snowdrops or and purple and yellow crocus beds. Early daffodils brighten window boxes; it’s been a mild winter. There are few birds—only the ubiquitous pigeons. The scaffolding surrounding next door is gone, but the Polish workers continue to pound and drill inside, from eight each morning. Burglars in a truck stole their tools over the holidays, but in our quiet mews there were always trucks at that door, so no one noticed. Normally daytime parking in our red brick mews earns a quick ticket; drivers must search for a Pay and Display spot in the street, outside the mews; there is no parking in it except for Sunday afternoon. Folks on our other side seem suddenly to have moved back to Ireland, perhaps owing money, since several of their callers seemed quite annoyed and ask us questions about them.
Home buyers here often buy leasehold property, as opposed to freehold. The leases may run for 99 years, or there may be only a few years left on the least, at which time the land reverts to the original owner or his heirs. A lease renewal may cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. Our side of the mews is listed, which means we are less free to make alterations to the exterior because of historic significance of the buildings, which in 1850 were used for carriages and horses, not people.
Rudy Guiliani was in town for his knighthood and met with police to discuss London’s big crime jump, maybe a result of police being pulled off their beats to do post 9/11 security work. The US Embassy is still surrounded by heavy cement barriers. I forgot to go to the ambassador’s to meet Rudy! He’d asked to meet some volunteers who helped at the Embassy, but I was off getting my shots (“jabs” here) for our trip to Egypt.
Mike went to bed, but I read until 2 AM so I could watch the start of the Olympics. I wept at the Trade Center flag and some of the spectacle, enjoyed the colorful ceremonies, and winced at the BBC pronunciation of Navajo. (International news here is thoroughly covered, but US sports are the area we probably can keep up with least.) At 4:30 I went to bed. The next morning I learned that Princess Margaret had died, at 71.
The Queen barely stopped her appointments, stepped up for the golden jubilee. Queen Mum, 101, slowly recovering from a December cold, determinedly attended the funeral. Margaret lived on the cusp, one foot in past royal rigidity and one in more relaxed times. In her youth, her sunny attitudes supposedly enlivened every event. Rather than be stripped of royal status, she sacrificed marriage to Capt. Townsend, a divorced war hero. She scourged Fergie for behavior unbecoming royals, but the party princess survived some scandal herself. Musical talent in piano and voice, love of art, a poor education and strong religious belief formed her, and despite obstacles, she raised well-adjusted children. Smoking heavily, like her adored father, cost part of a lung. She’s the first cremated royal since Victoria’s bohemian artist daughter Louise, and lies by her father in Windsor chapel, about an hour from London. Two ex-husbands and a lover joined the mourners. Flags were at half mast, but there were no banks of flowers as for Diana. This death was not unexpected.
Prince Charles spent two nights in a northern B&B to show the world that after Foot and Mouth, the countryside’s open. D’ya fancy a B&B’s full English? Tuck in to eggs, bacon, broiled tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, beans, toast, coffee or tea, butter and marmalade, sometimes black (blood) pudding. England’s caught up with America in overweight folk; more die here however, because proportionally only a quarter of bypasses and angioplasties are performed as in the US, and by fewer doctors. German doctors and nurses brought here managed to cut long hospital waitlists, and patients are also being flown abroad, but Britain spends proportionally less on medical care than France or Germany. Some countries charge a bit for medical visits, but here a doctor will even come to your home, and all care is free. Over 60? Free prescriptions.
Did you watch any Olympic curling? England’s fascination is like that with snooker (“snook’ah”), which escapes me. People discuss, frown, whisper, discuss more, then lie down with a broomstick to push a stone-and-handle down a lane. Two sweepers frantically slide just ahead, brooms flailing as if life and limb depend on their industry. Britain’s men lost all their games, but the women struck gold. The London Times reports that players must work out and carbo load: fast sweeping is grueling. Sweepers recover heart rates and take a turn to lie and slide while announcers speculate and whisper: borrrrring! British snowboarders and skiers usually ended up around 37th since Scotland’s the closest snow.
With a local art group, I happily showed paintings in Leighton House, a museum home of the 19th century’s best-known painter and president of the Royal Academy, now inside a huge dark sculptured tomb in St. Paul’s. Frederick, Lord Leighton (1830-1896) built a Holland Park red brick house with a glass dome; his cavernous studio had huge north windows. Exotic midnight blue tile covers the two-story Arab Hall, with a square pool and splashing fountain in its center. It looks like it should be in Arabian Nights, with dark carved and pierced woodwork. The Lord Mayor of Kensington-Chelsea, in tails, opened our champagne reception. Around his neck hung his badge of office, his golden chain collar. The collar of interlocked S’s is seen on several ancient portraits, like Henry VIII’s, and has marked dignitaries here for centuries. On some chains hang orders, such as the Golden Fleece’s lamb. It looks as fine on a woolen suit as on ermine of the past.
Another Lord Mayor with his golden collar, the Rt. Worshipful The Lord Mayor of Westminster, with his lady Mayoress, spoke at our neighborhood association’s dinner. I survived trekking in icy rain to the black tie affair at a hotel about 10 minutes away. Mike initially accepted, but went off to Germany, so I was seated with a table of interesting young couples. Men here seem trained to accommodate single women, and seating arrangements never ever place spouses together, so an evening I hadn’t particularly anticipated turned out quite lively; I even got to keep our floral centerpiece. Our Hyde Park Estate Association patron, the Lord Bishop of London, the Rt. Rev’d. and Rt. Honorable Richard Chartres, DD FSA, also spoke. I copied those titles from the program: dunno ‘bout them letters! No gold collar for him—just a white linen Roman collar. Toasts were witty and brief after we drank to the Queen; facility with language is one of the most enjoyable parts of living here.
A properly educated person is expected to stand when the occasion calls, and briefly deliver remarks to a group making everyone look good, thanking hosts, and citing the meaning of the affair with wit and erudition. Perhaps it’s the crowds I’m with but there are few ums and ers, and many a “well done “ closes an event’s end. I saw several new friends at a coffee the next morning: it’s nice to visit neighbors and see how they live, whether in old buildings with old furnishings or old buildings with slap up latest modern decorator touches in furniture, lighting, and window treatments.
Another night, as Inge’s guests, we attended the Tacitus Lecture, presented by the Worshipful Order of World Traders in the ancient stone Guildhall, of which I’ve written. Above us hung flags of each guild, starting from the 13thcentury, and shields from each guild hung from the carved ceiling in bright rows. There are 103: vintners, fletchers, butchers, mercers, all carrying on business today. Our upholstered red leather dining chairs had the portcullis in stamped gold on the backs. That square iron grille used in medieval castles was the sign of the first Tudor king, Henry VI.
Our speaker, Lord Owen, linked economy, policy, and politics. He was the EU negotiator for peace in Yugoslavia, is Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, director of several companies, an investor in Russia, author, MP, neurologist, baron—you get the idea. His concern is England’s ability to make its own defense policy if it’s completely tied to the European union, particularly in these times of international terrorism. He compared European unity with the unity he sees in America. England is the junior partner, without being “America’s poodle,” but must be free to disagree with its allies and make its own judgments. We sat among masters of other guilds, who wore beautiful metal badges of office hung on blue or red ribbons around their necks over business suits. Afterward the reception allowed nearly 800 attendees to mix in another grand hall. The crowd, representing modern British business, was mostly white, male, and affable. One of the hors d’oeuvres was small fat Cumberland sausages. Many areas boast distinctive sausage specialties, and I wish I could tell them all apart.
We rented a car at the last minute for President’s Day weekend. The Isle of Wight is a ferry ride across the Solent from Southampton, on the south, two hours away. The isle, less than a hundred fifty area miles, has huge white chalk cliffs and sandy beaches, and beautiful hilly topography. Its relaxed pace of farming and villages is transformed every summer for Cowes yachting races in August: hundreds of sails fill every bay and harbor.
We found a B&B through the town information center, and paid extra for a sea view, but when we peered out our bay window the next morning, fog obscured all but the closest fir trees, and didn’t lift ‘til afternoon. We set off for Osborne, Queen Victoria’s summer and Christmas holiday retreat, stuffed with mementos and papers. It’s golden stone, with a six story Romanesque campanile, since Prince Albert was reminded of Naples; he assisted the architects. His paintings and photographs show he enjoyed creativity, and many in the family were artists too. (Louise’s sculpture of her mother adorns Kensington Palace.) The high friezes and ceilings are elaborately painted and gilded, above marble pillars, mosaics and tile floors; yet, the guide repeatedly used the term “simple” to describe this getaway from London’s formality. Before this, the family had used George IV’s Brighton Pavilion, with no sea view, ill suited to a family who already had 5 children and would have 4 more before Albert’s death of typhoid at 42, just before Christmas. His youngest child was four. Albert’s German background is one of the reasons we decorate Christmas trees.
Osborne became an officers’ convalescent home and a royal Naval College. King Edward VII opened his family’s public rooms to visitors, and 50 years after Victoria’s death the bedrooms; in 1989 the nursery on the top floor finally opened. The house holds hundreds of paintings, some hung gallery style, one above the other, in heavy gold frames. Many are sentimental, with images of family. Vast gardens and terraces with statuary and fountains offer paths for walks. On Victoria’s daily pony rides, no household staff were to be seen; protocol required a quick dive into the bushes with the hoe or pruning shears!
The most fantastic room was added after Victoria became Empress of India. The huge 1890 Durbar Wing exemplified power and wealth of the empire, extending over the globe. It could accommodate banquets, and every busy inch is decorated in elaborate carved plaster. A large plaster Indian elephant relief is framed over the mantel. Victoria never saw her subjects in Africa or India, so there are many portraits, of both the powerful and the pedestrian, once brought to her as examples in days before cameras. Some foreign subjects lived in the palace for years, including a prominent male Indian secretary. We never saw the table deckers’ room, the servery or kitchen, but the dining room table was set for dinner. Wooden frames ensured staff that each setting was geometrically correctly spaced. Gifts from subjects—boxes, vases, furniture—of precious foreign materials and handiwork were everywhere. Outdoors was a Swiss chalet for children’s play and tea. Breakfast and lunch were early, dinner after 9, so tea might keep a body going.
After 1861, Victoria slept with Albert’s dressing gown each night for the rest of her life, placed his small portrait next to her bed on a wooden stand, and carried a painting of his face in death. She had water drawn for Albert each morning and insisted nothing be moved in the house through 40 years of widowhood. Her youngest daughter enraged her by falling in love, thereby endangering her position-in-waiting as permanent lifetime caretaker. They didn’t speak for six months before a grudging consent to marriage. Beatrice became governess of the island, widowed young (like her mother) when her husband made “one last campaign.” She cared for her mother at Osborne until Victoria died in 1901, reigning from 1837. Beatrice died in 1944.
We also visited Carisbrooke Castle, from 1100, where Charles I was imprisoned in 1647 prior to his London trial and execution. Its huge stone keep is high on a hill, with views of the island. Donkeys once pulled water from the well by walking within a giant wood wheel, before gears were invented; they replaced humans. Today they work only a few minutes at a time, we were assured, and only pull up empty buckets! People here love animals: witness the incessant fox-hunting debates. We stopped at beaches, churches and Quarr Abbey, a big Benedictine priory. We missed the Roman ruins but crammed lots into two days! I don’t think we saw a single large car. Gas/petrol is about $5 a gallon and roads narrow; small cars may be Europe’s best reason for birth control. It was from this peaceful island retreat that we purposefully traveled to the delicious chaos of Cairo’s 17 million souls! Mike was called upon to settle some impasses on military technological aid. See later chapters.
Our beloved brick mews in winter, but flower filled in summer. We were no. 5 on the left.
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