If you didn’t get a chance to read last week’s Another London Song Part 1…
November 2—Saturday morning, Heathrow
It will be a long day of transport. If I can focus, I will be able to catch up on a lot of work. I’ll be stuck in a seat for many hours. If all goes well, I’ll land at Dulles at 4:15 pm. That will be 8 1/2 hours in the air. Or is it 9 1/2? The time changes on both sides of the pond have me confused.
Plus, there’s all the time getting to the airport, going through lines and customs and walking however many miles it is to the gate. Then when I get to the US, I’ll go through customs, get my luggage, get to the parking garage and drive back to Maryland.
Why go through all that?
It was a fitful night’s sleep. Maybe the “Meal of the Dead” that I had at Ella Canta kept me up. Maybe I was still wired from my long day’s walk and the efforts to capture as much of London as I could.
Why the manic pace at work, travel, writing and life? The horizon is not far off. Something inside me switched on some years ago to gather as much as I can, as many memories and experiences as I can, as many books as I can. There will be time for rest when I’m forced to slow down, when I can no long walk quickly, or at all. There will be infinite rest when the “Big Sleep” comes. Until then, I will keep moving.
I’m not sure how much I slept, but when I saw it was 7 am—my target time to arise—I went to bathe.
No hot water!! Really?? In a Hilton? Maybe it’ll warm up in a while. I will change my morning routine.
Downstairs to one last free breakfast of burned toast, well-done English bacon and black coffee—another very dark meal, indeed.
Back up to my room. Cold water still. I splashed and shivered and shook and rubbed myself dry very firmly with the towel. I looked about the room separating what to leave, what to put in the carry on and what to bury in the rolling bag.
I checked out. They apologized for the cold shower.
It was a long damp cool bump down the sidewalks of Warwick to Earl’s Court Underground station.
A sign was blocking the steps I’d ascended and descended each time I used this station. “No District Line Trains Today”? What about the Piccadilly Line? There were no signs. The stairway was gated.
My careful and conservative plans were being stymied.
I walked round and round the station until I found an elevator “To Piccadilly.”
Whew. That would have been a major reinvention of the day. I had allowed plenty of time but maybe not enough if I had to find another station and figure out a different route to get to Heathrow. When I got to the Piccadilly Westbound platform, there was a train waiting with its doors agape. I clambered aboard dragging my suitcase across “The Gap.” The train took off. I looked at the list of stops. This line forks a few stops on. One fork to Heathrow. The other to terra incognito.
Another risk of going awry.
I’m loathe to ask questions of strangers, but this was dire enough.
“Does this train go to Heathrow?”
“No. You’ll need to get off at Acton and wait for the Heathrow train,” the elderly gentleman spoke with a bit of cockney and then reburied his nose in the newspaper.
I hopped off at Acton and hopped on the next train clearly marked Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 & 5.
Crap! What terminal am I to go to? 5, I think?
I think… But what if it is 4?
Why didn’t I check this morning? I blamed the cold-water shock to the system.
It certainly was not my fault.
I broke down and asked a couple across from me who from their conversation were clearly American.
“Are you flying to the states? Which terminal?”
“No. Canada. Terminal 2.”
A young woman further down volunteered: “Flights to the states are Terminal 3.”
I hopped off at Terminal 3, and there was a helpful guide on the wall listing all the airlines.
“…all other British Air flights Terminal 5.”
I was flying BA to the states, and that made all the difference.
I waited 8 minutes and hopped aboard my third train of the simple straight shot Piccadilly line train trip.
Why didn’t I plan better?
Can one be a semi-Luddite? I suppose so. It’s not like being semi-pregnant. I can do some tech things. Maybe I’m a high functioning, elementary level Luddite.
Check-in is now completely automated here. I didn’t speak to any human to get my boarding pass, have a luggage tag printed out, or attach it to the handle of my checked bag before putting it on a conveyer. I did all that myself then watched my big suitcase disappear into the dark bowels of Heathrow. Security was much the same. A couple humans pointed which way to go and when to step through the metal detector. I like the lack of interaction with airport personnel. I’m sure they like not having to ask or answer questions as well.
Now I’m in my seat. 78 F. My “status” got me priority boarding. Likely, my failure to plan got me a dreadful seat way in the back in the center of the cattle car.
I’d rather have a window seat. I’ll have to remember to try next time. As it is, I’ll be in a seat for many hours. But it doesn’t really matter which seat. I’ll be in my own space, and I hope to write and write. Unless some enormous person sits next to me and spills into my private space.
Friday, the previous day
It is November!
I had plans. The forecast was light rain during the day. I put aside my brother’s Orvis blazer and slipped into my raincoat. I put an umbrella and the Literary Walking Tour book into the Tesco bag I’d paid 10p for the night before. I’d stopped at the enormous grocery and more store for snacks. It was on the way from the Earl’s Court station to my hotel.
It had been late when I found an open entrance. Most others had been closed. The light inside the large grocery had been odd. All the late night customers and staff had that deathly pallor on their visages. I’m sure I had a pale hollow-eyed look as well. I had wandered about looking for something interesting, something I couldn’t find at home. I made two bad life decisions there. Pink Gin and Chicken and Thyme-flavored Crisps (potato chips.)
Mars Bars had been on sale, and I had bought 4 four packs. These are British version of Milky Way. They used to be much better. Gone is the thick slightly hard chocolate covering. Still, they are good. They will evoke a sweet England memory each time I open one for weeks to come.
[November 7th. We are vastly expanding the candy and snack selection at the stores. I found a company that can supply us with Mars Bars!!!! Coming soon. I hope!]
I’d tried the Chicken Thyme potato chips in the hotel room that night. Odd. Interesting. But I’ll not seek out more.
Friday morning… After breakfast and finishing the London Song story and sending it via email across the Atlantic to be edited, I stepped out into the late morning drizzle and headed south out of Kensington toward Chelsea. I had a vague idea of where I’d start my walking tour. I was about twenty minutes out when I decided to check the map. I patted all my pockets. It was in my blazer back in the hotel. The Literary book only has a vague schematic drawing of the area where I would walk. Great. I wasn’t lost, but I didn’t know where I was either. Eventually I’d encounter the Thames. Then I’d know where I was.
‘I can do this,’ I thought.
‘Why don’t I just pay and get data reception over here. Semi-Ludditition,’ I thought as well. ‘All that power in the device in my pocket, and money is all that is keeping it from doing its job.’
Serendipity struck, and I soon bumped into Brompton Cemetery.
[Back on the plane home… What luck! “Boarding completed” and the seat next to me is vacant. I can slip out to an aisle seat. The woman next me is pleased as well.
“Oh nice. I can put my hat on your seat.” She has a large wide-brimmed hat which I will sit next to for next hours.]
I was vaguely familiar with the cemetery though I’d never entered it. I knew it was vast. I’d bumped into its perimeter walls on various perambulations.
This time I crossed through the old archway into the vast graveyard. Tombstones packed tight, tilting or fallen, broken or vine covered—as far as the eye could see.
Oddly, there was a brightly lit and modern information room near the entrance. I stepped in. Could I be oh so tacky and ask: “Is anyone famous buried here?”
No. But the young woman offered a guide listing the top 50 dead people here for a pound. I bought it and stepped back out into dreariness. I scanned the list. Nobody very literary or artistic—except George Borrow. I know who George Borrow was—do you? Brian Glover was the most recognizable (and recent) permanent resident here. 1997. Almost all other burials were well over a century ago. The rest of the 49 or 48 were people who had done things of note for their times but were mostly not on my historical radar at all.
Oh, but the vast stone and dull grassy acres were deliciously macabre. I could imagine Edward Gorey or Charles Addams characters strolling or trolling about each narrow uneven lane.
The graves were so tightly packed in the many rows. Barely a finger’s breadth between the tombstones.
Last night had been Halloween. A busy night here I would imagine. But now there was no sign of unrest. But there were fat very tame squirrels which ran up to me every 50 feet or so—I guess each had its own bit of turf. They would look up at me expectantly, often rising upon their haunches.
Throughout the walk, I didn’t see anyone feeding them. I passed a handful of dog walkers and stroller pushers—there weren’t many living humans though. I wonder how the squirrels get so fat and tame? It was nearly noon. Maybe it was a slow day for rodents.
At the southern end, I came to a chapel and curving covered marble walkways with arches holding everything up. There, a number of ravens hopped and flew atop the stones and statues.
Off to the side, I saw a stadium.
‘Stamford Bridge?’ I thought. ‘What luck!’
I’m a huge Chelsea FC (Premier League Soccer) fan. Mostly because my younger son got me on board years ago. Soccer was a big part of their youth and my parenthood. I coached for many years. Then I spent years following both boys’ teams around the Mid Atlantic for school and club teams. Those were great times. I still watch soccer—er, football—almost every weekend I work in the book warehouse.
I headed toward that southwest corner of the death yard planning on exiting there. But it was a dead end…dead end—he he. There were no gates in that corner.
But there were fresh graves. Just a handful that were tended with planted flowers and herbs. One caught my eye. It was a child’s grave. There was no stone at its head. Just a moldering teddy bear.
A handful of freshish plots amongst thousands of old dry mossy lichen splattered stones. How are these dozen or so colorful plots extant here? Are they recycled plots?
I made my way along the south wall to what must be an exit in the eastern corner. More squirrels jumped out behind me and trailed for a bit. More ravens flashed black into the sky.
I passed a clutch of tombstones with bright yellow caution tape wrapped round them. The warning was because they were falling in and the living must not step there lest they fall in and join the long, long dead down below.
I looked down into the small black voids between the stones that could surely open to a pit of the dead should repairs and fillings not be made. I noted the small trees about the stone yard here and there.
Mortality smacked me in the face. I thought:
‘Someday this flesh I wear so intimately shall be punctured by rootlets. This skin so tender and subject to heat and cold and pain and pleasure will become as cold as soil six feet under. I will become fodder for flora and fauna in that dark.’
I shuddered and wished to be away from these cautionary acres.
I found the southeast steel gate opened. A few hounds and their masters romped in. A couple pups and their partners passed them in joy exiting.
The living were oblivious to the legions of dead all around them. Bright eyed, brightly clothed, up right and warm inside their skins.
Except me. Broody moody me.
I crossed that threshold out into the street where living cars and trucks and bicycles commerced.
I took a deep breath; the warning heeded—I moved on.
Keep moving. Keep moving. Do something. The time will come when you cannot walk, when you cannot move.
The vast stadium complex was only a few hundred yards away. I wandered in, and the high stone walls were lined with images of heroes in blue and white. Some I knew and had seen play and win and gather laurels. Others had played out before my time. Their triumphs known only to soccer scholars. Heroes whose followers were also gone and are now only images along this wall of honor.
“Chelsea! Chelsea! Chelsea!” each on a different note (5-1-5?) is how one of their regular cheers goes.
I have so enjoyed watching their championships and cheering their seasons. I’ve suffered along during down years and managerial and player trials and tribulations.
I still can and still do.
I’ve actually attended 5 or 6 games…ummm…matches at “The Bridge.”
I went inside to the two-story Chelsea Gear store with goods devoted to one thing only. The blue and white of Chelsea. I found a long scarf. Part of it read: “Chelsea vs Ajax 5/11/2019.” 4 days hence. It was nearly 6 feet long. I bought two to mark the time, the visit, this day. One for me and one for my son across the ocean. I’d carry them the rest of the day. And when I’m home, one will wrap round the neck of a bust atop a bookcase in my home for the rest of my life.
Though I had no map, I knew the Thames would soon stop my progress. If I followed that border, I would get to the ancient Chelsea Town Hall where the book show was. I’d been there before. I knew it was some distance along the King’s Way, and if I took that road, eventually I would get there.
It was much further than I thought, having no map to measure. I would have flagged a cab had I known. But then there it was. Book banners on lampposts outside.
Inside, the old space was packed. Mostly mature men in wool and tweed. Bumping shoulders.
“Pardon me.” “Sorry.” “Excuse me.”
But more women each year. And more younger buyers and sellers of mostly very old books.
It was warm and claustrophobic. I don’t enjoy being bumped by strangers. I look about before turning or backing or reaching. Others don’t. I don’t stand in mid aisle where others need to pass. Others do. Chatting oblivious to the traffic their banter blocks.
I looked into booths where I could actually get to the shelves to see the spines. I passed from room to room. I passed famous booksellers with pedigrees going back 250 years. There were wondrous books here, but the booths were too small for the glass cases that could hold extreme rarities. This isn’t that kind of show. The very well-heeled dealers are set up here mostly to buy during set up, I think. But they also hope to gather new collectors; book people with whom they may develop a relationship for decades. Until, one day, the collection they built must be broken and spread amongst the descendants of the ancient Maggs, Sotherans, Quaritch’s…—be they blood descendants or the next generation to bear those standards.
I was tempted here and there. But nothing spoke to me or the scene was too busy and warm and bumpy to bear closer scrutiny or questions.
I then passed a booth whose proprietor had my surname. There was enough space to get my nose close to his handful of bookcases. Propped on an easel atop one case was a Wonder Book. It was beautiful and the cats upon its cover called to me.
I handed the book to the seated Roberts.
“How much is this? I’m an ILAB member*”
It wasn’t too many pounds, and he offered a small discount.
“Can I pay by card?”
“Hold it for me, please.”
I bent and inspected more shelves. He had a gorgeous half dozen of Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books. These were far more expensive. But they were each perfect in their century plus publisher’s cloth and ornate gilding. One had an envelope made out in Lang’s hand tipped in. It was addressed to the famous collector this lot had belonged to many decades ago. It was a first edition of The Yellow Fairy Book. I chose that one to take with me as well. I would have to carry it the rest of the day. I would have to carry it across the ocean as well.
Maybe I’ll start collecting the Lang colors:
- The Blue Fairy Book
- The Red Fairy Book
- The Blue Poetry Book
- The Green Fairy Book
- The True Story Book
- The Yellow Fairy Book
- The Red True Story Book
- The Animal Story Book
- The Pink Fairy Book
- The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments
- The Red Book of Animal Stories
- The Grey Fairy Book
- The Violet Fairy Book
- The Book of Romance
- The Crimson Fairy Book
- The Brown Fairy Book
- The Red Romance Book
- The Orange Fairy Book
- The Olive Fairy Book
- The Red Book of Heroes
- The Lilac Fairy Book
Today these two books were enough.
I gave him my card, and he took his American cousin’s money and wrapped the books and bagged and sealed them and shook my hand. I could leave now. I’d found one book to give away and one to keep.
I stopped in the “Gentlemen’s Cloakroom” for relief. Bizarrely the air was far fresher and cooler in there than the hall.
There was Wifi in the building, and I was able to place myself geographically. I matched my location with the simple bare-bones schematic map in the book.
If I took the correct turn once outside the building and made my down the King’s Way and if I found the street named in the book and if I could follow the instructions in the text, I could find…
The House of Pooh.
Christopher Robin used that door. Pooh bumped down the steps inside those walls.
I don’t recall my parents having Pooh about the house. My brother Jimmy gave me a copy when I was quite old. Perhaps I was ten or eleven. His inscription went on something like:
“This was a book I loved as a young child and ignored as a boy and love as a man.”
I’d thought it a silly gift at the time. Now I treasure the memory.
Last year during the Boston ABAA Book Fair, there was a large exhibition at the gallery. It was full of manuscripts and drawings and even a faux bridge where one could digitally play Pooh Sticks. I’d introduced my boys to Pooh Sticks on a real bridge over a real stream when they were quite small. But standing on the sidewalk before that house was a far more real connection.
I was now able to follow the rest of the Chelsea route. I passed homes and watering holes of…
- Charles Kingsley
- Jane Wilde “Speranza” (Oscar’s Mother and a poet and collector of Irish folk tales)
- Bob Marley
- Robert Falcon Scott
- Thomas Carlyle
- Dylan Thomas
- Charles Kingsley
- Agatha Christie
- John Singer Sargent
- James McNeill Whistler
- Jane Welsh Carlyle
- Charles Dickens
- John Ruskin
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
- William Morris
- Carlyle Mansions Residents
- TS Eliot
- Ian Fleming
- Henry James
- Somerset Maugham
- Thomas More—the Old Chelsea Church
I stopped and had a pint of Brakspear Cask Ale pulled for me at the historic and literary Cross Keys Tavern.
At 3.4% I could have had several. But that would have created other issues. It’s no fun searching urgently for a “Gents” in a strange land.
It was getting dark. I flagged down a cab.
“Harrods it is.”
He dropped me at the Hans Court entrance. It was Friday evening. It was only just November. The place was packed. Was it Christmas already? I was bumped and nudged and made constant efforts to dodge strangers’ physicality…
I was there to fulfill another tradition. A chocolaty drink at the Godiva milk bar. I looked at the directory, and it was not to be found. I tried to remember which floor it was on. I knew it was on the perimeter because I could look out the windows from it. I found it among boarded up hallways. Vast Harrods is under constant renovation and franchise changing. It was now a “Harrods Ice Cream Bar.” I had a white chocolate shake which was hugely disappointing.
I made my way down to the Food Halls and headed for the loose tea counter. There’s a wall of huge tins each with a name and a geographical place printed upon it. I don’t know much about tea beyond Earl Grey and its ilk, so I picked the most exotic name I could make out.
It is Black Tea so I know it won’t be dreadful. I bought 100 grams—however many ounces that is. I was pre-Med in college and used to be able convert all manner of measurements. It cost 20 pounds. THAT I can convert.
I left Harrods with a green handle bag of tea, my clear plastic bag of books from the show and my Tesco bag with the guidebook, umbrella and scarves. Brompton Road was as crowded as 5th Avenue in December. I made my way out of Knightsbridge. I was hungry and contemplated what places I knew and if I thought I’d be able to get in to on a Friday evening and how hard it would be to walk or use the Underground to get there.
Just ahead I saw Lord Wellington’s Mansion at Hyde Park Corner—Apsley House. I’d planned to go there this trip, but that hadn’t worked out. Something else I’d not yet done in London. I’d only passed in a cab on my way toward Charing Cross. Maybe next time in London I’ll check out the grand and prominent mansion of the savior of England.
Somehow it clicked that I had noticed a bizarre looking Mexican restaurant called Ella Canta from the cab on Park Lane just across the busy street. I made my way there. Park Lane…one would only go there if one was staying at the higher end hotels like the Dorchester or if one wanted to visit the car dealerships for an Aston Martin or electric BMW.
The doorman opened the door, and I approached the hostess counter. The young women had half their faces painted like Day off the Dead skulls. One of them seated me, and I noted, indeed, all the staff had the left side of their faces painted ghoulishly.
It was not for Halloween. This restaurant was celebrating another holiday for death. The Day of the Dead.
Black, black, black…is the color of my true love’s hair…
It was a bizarre meal but delicious and far different than I’d ever had before.
- Gallina de Guinea en adobo de cenizas, lentejas y huevo (Guinea fowl with ash adobo, lentils, egg)
- All Soul’s Day Cocktail (fresh, tangy, magical)
- The Lady in Black Cocktail (picante, citrusy, fierce)
I walked out into the night and followed Park Lane north to the Marble Arch where I descended into the underworld past homeless sleeping or crouching or begging on the sidewalk in the shadows of incredible opulence.
I still had no map but studying the schematic of the rail lines, I found which would get me close enough to Holland Park where I could walk to the hotel if I made the correct left and right decisions.
I did. I had a draft “Camden Hell” beer in the hotel bar. And then a second which I took to my room.
I chatted with friends across the ocean via electronic media. It was hours earlier there.
“Hell” must have contained Lethe’s potions for soon I was tossing and turning fitfully between sleep and consciousness, between the real world and whatever realm the bizarre dreams and visions I had the rest of that night take place.
It was a disturbing night.
It is late Saturday afternoon. November 2. I’m 40,000 feet over Canada. If all goes well, we will land in an hour or so. I’ll go through the lines of customs—not fully automated yet. I have a TSA number. I applied for Global Entry in June, but my approval is still pending. The site warns the waiting time is 3-5 months. The 5-month anniversary is not far off.
I’ve written this story and maybe another chapter in Round and round (#15.)
I watched the documentary about Leonard Cohen and Marianne. I’ve always liked a lot of his poetic songs. I had no idea what a train wreck much of his life was—self-inflicted. I’m so glad I dodged some of those temptations.
I had a wonderful trip to London. When I first landed, I wondered why I had come. Now I wonder why I spent so few days there.
I shall return.
Soon I will be back home—the land of the living.