As October is upon us, it’s high time I closed out the saga that has been “my summer vacation” with its final installment: a week in London, where, despite the heat, we saw, heard, and tasted a host of quintessentially British delights.
The immigration officer asked us what we planned to do: “Go to the Proms!” said I. “Have a curry on East Ham High Street!” said the Edu-Mate. My sally got no attention, but to the Edu-Mate’s the officer replied, with a wry smile, “I love that East Ham is a destination!”
And indeed we did go to The Taste of India on East Ham High Street, as we always do on our visits, though this year we haven’t a single photograph to show for it, more’s the pity. (Wait! This just in: the Edu-Mate has located some photographs of East Ham High Street.)
Many posts ago, David Nice wrote about the lovely Chelsea Physic Garden (probably more than once, but here’s the one I particularly remember). It seemed only fitting that we should meet him there “in person” for the first time. We arrived by tube, and he, suitably attired for the hot weather, arrived by bicycle, complete with satchel in hand.
The garden, aspects of which David pointed out here and there, is undergoing a transition, and it’s not yet clear how it will all turn out. Such a lovely oasis it is, in the midst of this busy city, and what a shame if the powers that be do decide to take up precious space with a visitor’s center. There is no need.
The garden should be a place to wander, to take in plants and flowers, eat something delicious at the Tangerine Dream Café (as we did), and, for heaven’s sake, don’t leave the wedding tent up so much, encroaching as it does on the bit of open lawn that creates a perfect vantage point for viewing. David knew best how to navigate (coming up to us, palm opened with a treat of mulberries), and watching dragonflies hover and flit in the bit of pond.
The surrounding area reminded me, after becoming architecturally aware in Finland, how very much London has to offer on that score. It’s been years since I’ve walked along the Chelsea Embankment. Why had I never noticed the Old Swan House, with those magnificent doors?
We were pleased, too, courtesy of David’s Diplo-Mate, to visit Europe House (a brilliant repurposing of the old Tory HQ) and see the view from its roof, as well as the exhibit then on display at its 12 Star Gallery.
As it happened, David had an extra ticket to a new play-within-a-play version of The Importance of Being Earnest, with Siân Phillips (she, whom we first met as the marvelously despicable Empress Livia in I, Claudius) as Lady Bracknell. So, that evening, I had my first chance, now walking in London on my own, to get entirely turned around while looking for the theater. (In this instance, at least, I had plenty of time.) Among the other delights of this production of Earnest, who but the English would conjure up farce out of cucumber sandwiches (or the lack thereof)? David’s review may be found here.
Another day, at Somerset House, an exhibit of Beryl Bainbridge’s paintings was on offer, and we thought, why not? We knew her as a fine novelist, but didn’t know she also wielded a brush. Among other things, Bainbridge was obsessed with painting images of Napoleon—though not paintings I suspect he would have endorsed as sufficiently grand. My favorite among her paintings was that of Samuel Johnson and Hodge the Cat.
The same day, our friends Jackie & Gill had arranged for us to go to a simulcast of David Hare’s Skylight. I didn’t at first understand. Why a simulcast, when the play was on live in London? But then, I didn’t know the simulcast was at a trendy theater in Spitalfields. Dinner beforehand, on Brick Lane of Monica Ali fame, was conveyor-belt Indian. Every window had a sign indicating its restaurant had been voted best by x or y or z, and plenty of hawkers were on the streets beckoning all passers-by to come and eat. Definitely NOT a destination in the manner of East Ham.
No more, in Spitalfields, the silk-weavers, open markets, and waves of immigrants; but rather brimming with the gritty edge of fashion, which sadly, as we all know, will become staid and overpriced (if it’s not already). But for now, we gladly made our way through the labyrinthine theater to take comfortable seats from which to watch Bill Nighy, Carey Mulligan, and a fine young actor, Matthew Beard, up on the screen, and after, outside, in the early evening, young women in wigs of magenta and blue tinsel arrayed along the railings, drink or fag in hand, or both.
Another day, we went to Bletchley Park, “Home of the Codebreakers” during World War II. Out of a set of featureless brick, steel, and concrete huts, that world is brought to life in (mostly) evocative and intelligent ways. Here and there, we spotted an older woman sitting on the grass, reading and waiting, we suspected, for her more enthralled partner to get his or her fill. But even for the non-code-spotter enthusiasts among us, there was plenty to see and do and think about, not least of which was to be reminded of the importance of Alan Turing and the despicable treatment he received after the war.
And yes, I did go to The Proms, the first night, no less, thanks again to David Nice. We met up with him for cake and home-made muhammara; then, he on his bike and we by tube, we arranged to meet at the Royal Albert Hall. The Edu-Mate knew the route, and David noted we could also follow the throng of folk headed the same way. Except by the time we got out of the tube, there was no throng . . .
I jogged ahead, not knowing where I was going, turning every now and then so the Edu-Mate, there only to guide me, then intending to head home, could point the way. Finally, out of nowhere, it seemed, the great round hall loomed up, and the question was, where was the front, and where the back. At each entrance, I asked, and was pointed to the next, until I’d run almost the whole circumference of the place. I wasn’t the last inside, but almost: I arrived at my seat, dripping with sweat, just as Sir Andrew Davis raised his baton.
But there I was, at the First Night of the Proms, and what could be more fitting than Elgar, with the combined forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus, the BBC National Chorus of Wales, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, four fine soloists, and hundreds of people standing in the five-pound seats? And there was David, listening with singular focus; though he was charged with reviewing the concert, he made not a single note. His memory for music boggles my mind. (David’s review is here.) Elgar’s The Kingdom isn’t the most powerful of his works, and the acoustic in the hall meant the soloists’ voices didn’t reliably carry to where we sat, but the solo instrumental passages floated out effortlessly, and the choirs, most remarkably at pianissimo, bloomed into the hall.
After, with storm clouds threatening a dazzling sunset, David and I walked over to where Royal Albert himself sat on his pedestal, surrounded by the continents, redolent of an Empire lost, or so it seemed to me.
Elgar’s The Kingdom