Friday, September 2, 2011

A Little Bit of This and That

Friday, September 2, 2011

When its not jetlag, it is the tolling bells of St. Paul's Cathedral right outside my window that wake me up at the crack of dawn. Not that I'm complaining. I actually quite love the sound of those bells and the centuries of history they evoke as soon as I open my eyes. It's hard to stop myself from drawing back the curtains on my heavy sash windows to feast my eyes on the dome of Old Bailey and the gilded blind-folded Goddess with her sword in my one and scales of justice in the other that tops the edifice. Ah, I think, this is London! And I sigh with pleasure all over again. It is nice to be passionate about something in life and for me London is an enduring passion.

Mass at St. Paul's:
And when I awake so early, I think a great way to start the day is with Mass at the Cathedral especially when it lies only a few steps away and Cynthia and Michael, my friends, are attending. So into one of the side chapels we trooped to listen to a small, intimate mass and to receive Communion before the celebration of the Eucharist ended. Then, before we knew it, we were trooping out again into another golden morning. Yes, the sun was out and the city was flooded not just with light but with warmth as well--warmth that continued to grow as the day progressed and then became rather oppressive in the afternoon.

Brunch in Whitechapel:
But there wasn't time to be wasted. I had a date in Whitechapel with Jack, one of my favorite young people in London. Jack is the intelligent, creative, sensitive, affectionate, adventurous son of my friends Loulou and Paul. He and I have always hit it off well and during my life in London, he was quite frequently my theater companion. Jack was keen to show off his 'place' in the East End and had invited me to partake of breakfast with him.

At about 9. 15, I got off the bus at Whitechapel Tube Station, crossed the street into the lane that houses the London Royal Hospital and found Turner Street tucked in the back. I used the heavy old knocker on the door and then, there was Jack, opening the door for me and leading me into the 1814 Georgian house. And how charming was the home! How adorable! Light streams in through the windows, all the fireplaces are working ones, nooks and niches hide tiny bathrooms, there is a steep flight of wooden stairs that leads into an attic bedroom and in the basement, exposed brick walls contrast with the spiffiness of stainless steel appliances. Outside, in the tiny garden, are herbs and perennial flowering bushes (the handiwork of his gardener mother) in beds that lead to a double-storied shed which Jack, ever the creative spirit, intends to convert into a studio someday. And somehow I know he will!

Breakfast turned out to be a feast for the eyes and the palate: Fruit and Nut Granola with Yogurt and Fresh Berries, a selection of croissants with butter, fig preserves and the most delicious honey from the wilds of the Scottish Highlands (for Jack spent a part of the summer on the Isle of Collonsay refurbishing an old family homestead with his girl-friend Jennifer--I told you he is both adventurous and creative). We munched, we sipped really good coffee, we chatted about everything under the sun including the novel Jack is currently writing. He showed me pictures of the Old Man, a finger of rock that juts out into the sky on a tiny island off the coast of Scotland which he climbed to the summit with his friend Henry. In-between, I got the Grand Tour of the house and an insight into his many pastimes and pursuits. Jack has recently started distilling fragrances from the herbs he grows in his garden and has started producing perfumes. He has promised to concoct a scent exclusively for me and to present it to me for Christmas. I cannot wait! Meanwhile, he promised to email me an account of his walkathon from London to his family home in Suffolk past some of the Home Counties' unknown old churches, flat pasture land and fields. Is it any wonder that I am enchanted by his company?

Alas, too soon it was time for me to leave him with all the luck in the world for his Masters degree in Asian Studies that he is completing from London University's School of Oriental and African Studies after which he hopes to find "a proper job". Meanwhile, I warmly wished him all the luck in the world and whispered a prayer that he might stay as sweet as he is and that all his dreams will come true.

A Muddle with Buses:
Jack escorted me back on the bus heading towards St. Paul's where Cynthia was supposed to meet me at the bus-stop so that we could proceed with our plans for the rest of the day. But as I alighted from my bus, I watched as Cynthia boarded one behind me! Just as I tried to flag her bus down, it moved away. There was nothing else to do but board the one right after it (which turned out to be a vintage Routemaster). I climbed to the top deck hoping to catch up with her at the bus stop at Trafalgar Square. But, a few yards ahead, I saw that she had alighted from her bus and was walking back! There was nothing to do for it but race downstairs, get off my bus and race behind her along Fleet Street! Well, long story short, we caught up and then boarded a bus together and rode towards Buckingham Palace which we intended to tour together. All was well that ended well!

We got off at Trafalgar, walked at leisurely pace down Mall Pall, passed Clarence House and caught the last bits of the pomp and ceremony of the Changing of the Guards before we arrived at Buckingham Palace. Sunshine poured down warmly over the city and people had peeled off their jackets. I was much too warm in my own layers.

Disappointment at the Palace:
Alas, we had arrived too late in the day. It was almost noon and all the tickets to tour the palace had been issued for the day. Although Llew and I have toured Bucks Palace, fifteen years ago, when it had first opened up to the public, I was keen to see the Sara Burton-designed wedding dress for Kate, Duchess of Cambridge and, apparently, a layer of her wedding cake, both of which are on display this year. But it was not to be, I suppose, and walking towards Grosvenor Place, we caught a bus to Hyde Park to arrive at our next destination.

A Garden in the Serpentine Gallery:
The famous Serpentine Gallery was our next port of call. My NYU colleague Ifeona with whom I'd had breakfast two days ago, had urged me to try to make it to the Hortus Conclusus, a dream garden completely enclosed by the gallery walls but open to the sky--the concept of artist Peter Zumthor who has created a living piece of art in collaboration with landscape artist and designer Piet Oudulf. The perennial garden, a long narrow strip of flower bed, provided a calming oasis in which to rest our feet after our long stroll across Hyde Park and the Albert Memorial to the venue. We took a few pictures and then set out again--Cynthia for home and me to the next item on my agenda.

A Bus Ride to Tottenham Court Road:
Tottenham Court Road that was so much in the news in connection with the looting riots looks none the worse for its recent notoriety. In fact, life is back to such normality that it is hard to believe anything so lethal happened only a few weeks earlier. As always, I enjoyed watching London lurch and falter below me as I surveyed the city and its people from my perch on the upper deck's picture windows (quite my favorite place in the world from which to people-watch). At Goodge Street in Bloomsbury, I connected with my friend Rosemary who nipped out of work to spend a hour with me over a cappuccino. It was much too hot and I opted for a long cool lemonade instead and while we sat and shot the breeze, she left me with a vintage silver-plated teapot, circus 1920s from Harrods--the perfect little London souvenir. I have visions of sipping my daily afternoon cuppa from it and thinking of my lovely English friend.

Off to Meet Former Colleagues at NYU:
Since Bedford Square was only a hop away, it was a no-brainer to look up my lovely English colleagues there and to survey our expanded new premises in the Georgian block of buildings that surround the private gardens. To my delight, several were around--Yvonne, Ruth, David, Robert, James--and were delighted to see me. Many bear hugs later, they gave me a tour of the new buildings and floors, showed me their new offices, chatted with me about new developments, plans and projects. I was pleased to meet Matt, a professor and London theater-critic, with whom I had attended opening night performances for the press and who had been such good company to me while I had lived in London. Memories of an amazing professional year came flooding back to me as I wandered through the premises and soaked in the nostalgia of those days. Although change is guaranteed to alter the layout of our London campus, I know there will always be a special welcome for me every time I pass through the city; and for that I am very grateful.

A Tour of St. Pancras Old Churchyard:
Then, at Jack's behest, I set out on my next solo adventure. He had urged me, during breakfast, to take a bus ride towards King's Cross to the churchyard of Old St. Pancras Church where gravestones proclaiming the last resting place of prominent Londoners are in evidence in the bustling heart of the city. So back on a bus I went towards King's Cross and the International Terminal for the Chunnel trains to the Continent and with some difficulty, I found the church, on a short hill, with its ornate gates and steps leading up to the main entrance. Peace and quiet prevailed over the premises until I opened the door and entered to find a film crew hard at work at the altar. Lovely funerary monuments and memorial dot the walls of the church which is striking in a rather unfussy sort of way.

Outside, my tour of the churchyard led me to the family burial vault of Sir John Soane, one of my favorite London architects and owner of one of the city's most fascinating museums, the Soane House at Holborn. Being very familiar with Soane's work (he designed the Bank of England, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the stable blocks at Chelsea Royal Hospital and a church on Marylebon Road among other striking works), I was curious to see his own design for his family burial vault. And how simple and unostentatious it was! Yes, Neo-Classical design was plainly in evidence but with a distinctive Soane twist--a curved roof that his disciple George Gilbert Scott borrowed when designing the red telephone booths that have become iconic.

Other interesting gravestones in the cemetery belonged to William Godwin and his first wife, Mary Wollstonecraft (who was one of England earliest and best-known feminists and author of Vindication of the Rights of Women). Her daughter, who married the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, went on to become a renowned novelist herself and author of Frankenstein. Lovely Victorian memorials lay sprinkled around the churchyard evoking a time when life in London was calmer and quieter and although red buses trundled alongside, it was hard to believe I was in the 21st century.

The Hardy Tree:
Jack had told me to make sure I did not miss The Hardy Tree named after one of my favorite novelists, Thomas Hardy. Long before he became the celebrated author of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, Far from the Madding Crowd, etc. Hardy was a mason and an apprentice architect. When the East Midlands Railway line was expected to pass through Old St. Pancras Church (that dates from the mid-1700s), the architectural firm for which Hardy worked was assigned the task of digging up the graves, exhuming the bodies and repositioning the gravestones elsewhere. The enviable task was delegated to Hardy who assembled the old gravestones in a circle, planted an ash tree sapling in their midst and left. Today, over a century later, the roots of the ash tree have pushed the gravestones upwards and have spread themselves among the stones that form a frilly 'skirt' all around. It is a very curious sight indeed and one worthy of a dozen photographs.

Off to Run Errands:
Leaving the old world precincts of the churchyard behind, I hopped on to a bus again and joined the throngs outside King's Cross as I headed to Holborn to buy a supply of some of my favorite pens from Rymans located in my former building. Then, I hopped on to another bus and finally headed home. Surprisingly, despite a day spent almost entirely on my feet, I wasn't the least bit tired. Instead, I showered and readied myself for my next appointment, dinner with my former neighbors Tim and Barbara. They had suggested Madison, the new rooftop restaurant on London's newest mall, One New Change.

Off for Dinner to Madison:
Tim and Barbara arrived at Amen Corner at 7. 30 pm (Barbara looking very fetching indeed in the pink kurta from India that I had presented her) and off we walked, just a few meters to One New Change. Londoners who work hard all week long seem to wait for Friday evening when they play equally hard. The restaurant was crowded, buzzing and very noisy indeed. We had 8. 00 pm reservations and knew as soon as we entered that it would severely discourage conversation. Still, we found our table, placed our order and settled down to enjoy a bottle of chilled Chablis, an excellent starter called Potted Parfait--a creamy concoction of foie gras and chicken liver served with Melba toast and redcurrant jelly and, in my case, a nice hunk of sea bass. None of us wanted pudding or coffee, so after a companionable evening spent overlooking the rooftops of London (my hosts had generously offered me a seat with a view that extended as far out as the blue-lit London Eye) and the dome of St. Paul's that seemed so close you could touch it, we made our way back home on what was an exceptionally warm English evening--clearly Summer's Last Hurrah.

It had been another lovely day for me in London punctuated by so many of the things I enjoy best in life--art, gardens, churchyards, history--but above all, the company of dearly-loved and well-cherished friends.

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