Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Royal Visit (to Clarence House) and a Musical at the West End ('The Go-Between')

Wednesday, August 3, 2016
A Royal Visit to Clarence House and a Musical at the West End.

     It seems I am slowly defeating jetlag--I awoke at 7.30 this morning after a very restful night. Not early enough to go to 8.00 am Mass, but hopefully, my wake-up time will stabilize soon. I used the time to catch up on email and chalk out my day. Having worked really hard in the library yesterday, I felt entitled to a bit of play today--and with the sun peeping through my blinds, it was the perfect day to get out and about.

Buying a Day Ticket for The Go-Between:
    Brekkie done (muesli with yogurt and coffee--I could eat this for every meal, every day of my life!), I showered double quick and was out the door at 10. 15 am. I was at the Apollo Theater by 10. 45 in time to pick up the last single seat available for the matinee show at 2.30.  The ticket cost me 25 pounds for what would otherwise have been a 75 pounds buy--so a real bargain. My seat was in the third row--so I was certain I would catch every word and every expression. Armed with my booty, I hopped into the Tube again and took the Piccadilly and then the Bakerloo lines to St. James' Park to cover the next item on my agenda--and it was going to be a royal visit!

Visiting Clarence House:
     My friend Ian (a faithful reader of this blog) always wonders why it is that I have visited London a gazillion times and still find new things to do on very visit. Well, I think it has to do with the fact that I visit the city at varying times during the year (when the seasonal calendar of Things To Do changes) and because the city is always showing itself off in new guises to entice visitors. When I heard that Clarence House is only open to the public during the month of August, it was a no-brainer. I had to get there before it was no longer possible.
     It was a brisk and gorgeous trek to the House past Birdcage Walk, St. James' Park and The Mall on a truly glorious day. The park was filled with wild life--pigeons, squirrels, dogs (being walked by their owners) and bunches of tourists twittering incessantly with excitement at being in one of the world's most exciting cities. I shared their joy fully as I hurried along past flower beds bursting with color and plane and chestnut trees that spread their branches hospitably.
     At the Visitors Entrance on The Mall, I was directed to the Ticket booth. In the distance, I could hear the booming of drums--clearly the Changing of the Guard was on at nearby Buck House (aka Buckingham Palace), London's Number One Tourist Attraction. But I was not to be distracted from my mission. After obtaining a ticket for the 12. 15 tour, I was left to my own resources for 25 minutes.

A Guided Tour of Clarence House:
     Fifteen minutes before my tour, I joined a group of folks assembled at the entrance. The atmosphere was very relaxed and very low-key. There were almost entirely British female tourists in these groups--I was the only foreigner in my group and there were 2 other men joining us. Everywhere I go, I am struck by the number of British tourists I see. It is as if the British have suddenly discovered that they have a world-class tourist attraction in their own backyards and need no longer get to Corfu or Croatia.
     The quick introduction was made by our guide, an Indian (or what the British call a 'British-Asian'). She was smart and articulate and very competent and from the get-go, the tour was informative, interesting and entertaining. A quick history of the house was recounted and here is what I remember: The architect was John Nash (the same chap who designed and built Regent's Circus and the Brighton Pavilion and most of the city of Bath). It was meant to be a residence for William IV (then Duke of Clarence--hence its name)  who found Buckingham Palace much too imposing for his taste. Subsequent monarchs have added to the house until Edward VII joined it to the brick Tudor facade of St. James' Palace which is next door.
      It was used at the primary residence of Queen Elizabeth (nee Bowes-Lyon), the Queen Mother, from the time of the death of her husband and the accession of her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II to the throne to the time of her death. By the time she passed away, long after reaching a century, she had spent over 40 years of her life in this home.  Thus, although it is the primary residence today of Charles, Prince of Wales and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and has been his home since they were wed, the spirit and the presence of the Queen Mother pervades every room as well as the garden.
     We walked through the lovely garden where two infant trees were pointed out to us: both magnolias, one planted by the Dalai Lama and the other by Daw Aung Sang Su Ki of Burma. We stopped at the lovely Elizabethan Knot Garden planted by Charles in honor of his Grandmother (whom he adored). It is filled with roses and lavender and has a small bust of her.
     Once we went past the entrance, we followed the exact same route used by all visitors to the house. We were first led into a parlor which is also known as the Lancashire Room. This contains a lovely Italian marble carved mantelpiece from Sienna that was purchased with money raised to provide a wedding gift for the present queen and her husband Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Prior to her coronation, while her father, King George VI, was still living, then Princess Elizabeth used this room as a family room for herself, her husband and her two first born children--Charles and Anne. The tour continued through the living room (which has two built-in cases filled with the Chelsea china that the Queen Mother collected filled with botanicals), past the library and into the dining room.  Every one of these rooms had been decorated by the Queen Mother with items from her past, her family history and her taste.  It seems that Prince Charles has been loathe to move anything around. It is nice to see modern-day pictures of the current Queen taken with members of her family seated on the furniture that is in the rooms today--such as the lovely acquamarine Chippendale Set in the living room where she posed with her son, her grandson William and her great grand son George. Lovely!
     We moved on to the Library which also served as a tea room and where the Queen Mother often took tea with horse lovers like herself such as the author Dick Francis and the playwright Noel Coward. And then we arrived at the Dining Room which is set with a beautiful Minton china service and has a striking portrait on the wall of the Queen Mother by her favorite portraitist Augustus John who, after winning the commission, became so nerve-wracked that he could not look at the face of his subject! A rather tricky situation to be in if your portrait is being painted! The poor Queen Mother took his reticence in her stride but the work remained unfinished and rolled up for 40 years until someone unearthed it and presented it to her. She remembered the artist's shyness and decided to put it up anyway, although unfinished. Hence, she has one ear-ring longer than the other and the roses she carries in her lap lack stems! Still, it is a very pretty portrait and I am glad they have it up. Apparently Augustus John was deeply gratified to hear that his controversial portrait will forever grace the walls of Clarence House.
     We moved across the Entrance Hall to the other side of the house through a passage that was filled with portraits of horses and trophies won by the Queen Mother's many studs. Like her daughter, she too was passionate about horses and horse-racing and was a keen rider herself.
       The tour finished in the Morning Room which is the one that is most closely associated with Charles and Camilla and which they use as a family room themselves. It has an Oriental theme that derives from the presence of a vast tapestry on one wall that depicts the Siege of Mohammed Ali in loving detail. This Victorian work also lay rolled up and forgotten for more than a century when it was found and placed on the wall as Charles has a particular fondness for it. This room is striking for the family pictures on the piano (that was played by Elton John among other musicians) and which is covered with carefully selected family portraits representing both Charles and Camilla's children and grandchildren. There is a particularly lovely one of Charles with his grandson George--having tea with him in the garden. It is a completely natural picture that captures a very tender moment of the bridging of generations. There is also an escritoire in Chinoiserie red lacquer that was a present to Charles from his grandmother. He adores it and has given it pride of place in the room. The room overlooks the Knot Garden and the bust outside--so once again the very special affinity between Charles and his grandmother is made very clear.
      It was a good time to browse through the Gift Shop--a very small and modest affair but it had some unique items not to be found in the other palace gift shops (such as reproduction china of the Chelsea pattern that the late Queen Mother collected, available in place settings and on aprons and the ubiquitous tea towels).
     I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Clarence House. It is the home in which the young princes William and Harry spent many of their childhood years and it is the home from which William left for Westminster Abbey on the day of his wedding (the gates through which he left were also pointed out to us). It is a very personal home and is carries reminiscences of many of its residents through the decades. There is much evidence of the destruction carried out in London during the blitz--Clarence House was also affected and some parts of it rebuilt. Upstairs, of course, are the more personal parts of the home--the bedrooms and bathrooms. But we were only permitted entry to the ground floor. Since the home's residents are usually in Balmoral Castle in Scotland during the month of August, it is a good time to open out this home to the public. At the rate of 20 visitors going in every 15 minutes and paying 10 pounds each, the total made each hour is 800 pounds. Multiply that number by 30 for every day in August and you will see that no small sum is raised by the act of opening the doors of the house to the public to traipse in for 45 minutes and be dazzled by the weight of British history and the weight of the awesome bric-a-brac contained inside.
     Would I recommend a visit? You bet your last bob, I would!

Lunch in St. James' Park:
     It was a day made for loitering--and what better place than a park? Grabbing one of the striped green and white deck chairs and facing Big Ben that peeped shyly at me between two trees, I pulled out my cheese and pickle sandwich and began munching my home made lunch. It was so delicious in the perfect air of a London summer's day. In the ponds, mallard life stirred. On the lawns, children cartwheeled, tourists posed for pictures, dogs scampered behind their masters and mistresses. It was an ideal afternoon to people-watch and I did just that before it was time to move on for my 2. 30 matinee show. Taking the Tube and reversing my journey, I arrived at Piccadilly Square with 30 minutes to spare before the curtain went up.
     Remembering that Nespresso had a show room on Regent's Street with a very generous Tasting Area, I went in there hoping to have enough time for a decaff coffee. And how good was my Lungo Decaffinato! Fortified with my treat, I hurried down Shaftesbury Avenue to the Apollo and eagerly took my sear.

A Musical Treat at the West End--The Go-Between:
     One of my great passions is the theater and London allows me to indulge it to the fullest.  Not only are there a glut of quality offerings, but the talent is outstanding, the theaters themselves have spectacular interiors and the tickets are so much cheaper than those on Broadway. This afternoon I would be seeing the one and only Michael Crawford in the flesh. I could not wait. Ever since I had heard his recordings of the soundtrack of Andrew Lloyd-Weber's Phantom of the Opera, I have been hooked. But even prior to that, while still living in India, I had watched him play the fool (and I mean literally) in a TV program called Some Mother Do Have 'em. Google it to watch clips of this stomach-achingly funny sitcom that always reminds me of my mother as we used to sit and watch it together and roll with laughter back in the 1970s. Anyway, Michael Crawford is multi-talented--he has acting chops and an incredible voice.
     In The Go-Between, he is an old man, Leon Causton, who looks back on a summer he spent with the aristocratic Maudsleys in the early Edwardian period, on their country estate. Acting as the Go-Between, the postman, who carried surreptitious notes between the young lady of the house, Marion, and the grounds-keeper Ted, when he was but 13 years old, he unwittingly facilitated a relationship that was forbidden by the rigid class barriers of the time. Told as a flashback, the audience is treated to the dual presence of Leo on the stage--as a pre-teenager and as an old man (played by Crawford). Wonderful acting by both Leos made for a compelling production. The atonal music was the least enjoyable part of the musical in my opinion (helped along by a single pianist who was rather good). The lady seated besides me (who was also alone) told me that it is also a good film and that it was based on the first book her husband ever presented her. I loved it and I would recommend it heartily to anyone who is a fan of Crawford and a fan of the West End musical.

A Stroll Along Piccadilly:
     It was still very bright when I emerged from the theater at 5. 30 pm and while I was still full of beans, I decided to stroll along one of my favorite streets in London--Piccadilly. Once there, I wandered into Waterstone's, the great big book shop that I love, mainly to use the wifi and get my messages. Once that was done, I wandered further afield to Fortnum and Mason which is always a treat for the eye as much as it for the tongue. Nothing was on sale--so I did not buy, but I did enjoy a nibble or two of some of their samplers. It is only when I am in places like this--some of my favorite venues in London--that I feel fully as if I am in the city of my fondest desires.

Dinner At Home:
     It was only 8.00 pm when I got home on the bus and the Tube from Piccadilly Circus--well in time to make a few calls to relatives and friends in Kent and London. I rustled up dinner from the goodies in my fridge--my sausages and cauliflower mash with lettuce and avocado salad--and while I munched, I watched Beck, a Swedish detective show, on BBC's I-player.  Then it was time to do a bit of blogging and reading and call it a night.
    I had such a fabulous day. Truly each day brings me a bit of a surprise in terms of how it will turn out. I absolutely revel in the joy of letting the day do with me what it will and going with the flow.
How grateful I am for this opportunity!
    Until tomorrow, cheerio!                      

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