Another London Song Part 1
Oh, the wind was coming upLyrics Jim Roberts, 1971. Recorded by Seatrain on the Marblehead Messenger album produced by George Martin—who produced and many say, “created” the Beatles.
and the sun had long gone down
And the leaves were whirling fast
round the streets of old London town
With a scarf around my neck
my sad pockets held my hands
And you were on my mind, my love,
in this far and homelike land
Jimmy was my brother. He passed away far too young. I wrote a book story about him a while back: He Ain’t Heavy.
Here’s the rest of his “London Song” if you want to listen while you read:
See the end of blog for more music.
It is Halloween in London 2019. The holiday was an odd American affectation until recent years. Now it is being embraced by children and young adults alike abroad too. I walked around Kensington for hours yesterday, and many houses had jack o’ lanterns, plastic skeletons, bats and witches and faux spiderwebs decorating their homes. Some shops and pubs have gruesome things in their windows.
I asked a cabbie about this. He was in his 50s or 60s.
“It meant nothing to me growing up. Now my grandkids will go about trick or treating on Halloween. For us, it was Guy Fawkes Day. November 5th.”
Guy Fawkes is in the news often nowadays via his eponymous mask worn by Hong Kong freedom protesters and American anarchists as disguises:
I landed at Heathrow about 6:30 AM Wednesday. I’d chosen a different hotel than my usual Paddington Hilton. It cost too many points this time. I searched and found a Hilton on Kensington High Street for nearly half. Now, how would I get there? In modern times, I’d always taken the Heathrow Express into the city. I guess I assumed taking the Underground would be a complex nightmare. I was so wrong. The hotel is not far from the Earl’s Court station. It is a direct 25-minute ride from Heathrow there via the Piccadilly Line. I should know London transport is usually extremely efficient.
I had no plans. Trips to London tend to evolve via serendipity. I had gotten a ticket—one of the last—to see Ian McKellen’s one man show at the Harold Pinter. Serendipity had failed last spring when I thought I could just snag a ticket for him playing King Lear during my stay. I was told my chances for a returned ticket were nonexistent.
I will attend the Chelsea Rare Book Show Friday, but beside those two events, I will trust to luck and serendipity as usual.
My room wasn’t ready at 8 am, so I gave the concierge my bags and texted a friend:
“What should I do?”
“Take a walking tour?”
This friend had given me a London Literary Walking Tour book prior to my last visit.
I’d thought it was unnecessary.
I don’t need a book to guide me around London.
I was wrong. It helped immensely.
It was great! I’m glad I remembered to drop it into my suitcase this visit. The Olympia Hotel is in west Kensington and close to Chelsea. I studied the guide over coffee, burnt toast and English bacon in the Executive Lounge. I decided to take the Kensington tour. Chelsea I’ll do before the show Friday. Geographically it made sense to start at the end of the book’s guided route. I headed east and cut through the vast Holland Park. All the times I’ve walked through London and here was a sight I’d never seen. It happens every time. London is infinite to me.
Holland Park was bombed heavily in World War 2, and the mansion was never rebuilt. There are many charming buildings and gardens—including a delicious Japanese garden. Back out into the neighborhood, my first stop was the Camden Hill Square neighborhood. There I found Siegfried Sassoon’s house. I recently came across a group of books signed by him and with his bookplate affixed to front pastedown. The guidebook offered an additional surprise about this house.
JM Barrie helped to raise a friend’s sons there. A great deal of the plot for Peter Pan evolved from with in that house. I could just squint a bit and imagine Peter and the children flying out of the tall front windows. It is in many ways a tragic and sad story. But it seems Barrie did a great job helping the widow and her family.
(When I got back to the hotel, I did a little research and discovered the prequel for Peter Pan is about 5 chapters in a book called The Little White Bird by JM Barrie. I’ve had many copies of that book pass through my hands, and just assumed it was another forgotten book by an author whose top books overshadowed all their other writings—much to their chagrin [HG Wells, AA Milne, Arthur Conan Doyle…] Well, that’s embarrassing for a seasoned bookseller. I’ll know better next time a copy of that “Bird” flies in the building.)
Here’s some background to the tragedy that spawned Peter Pan as we know it:
From there, it was a couple more hours of walking through Kensington following the schematic map, backwards route. I passed the house where GK Chesterton was born. Places where Joyce, Thackeray, Henry James, Robert Browning and TS Eliot lived. I went into St Mary Abbots Church which has the highest spire in London. I wandered around the old churchyard which was built over an ancient church site. Many of the paving stones I trod upon were old tombstones—repurposed, the lettering almost completely worn off. It made me think of all the millions of London’s dead, and the surprises they would face should they ever awaken to a trumpet’s call. Ezra Pound lived in the church’s shadow and complained publicly about the noise of the church bells. It was in the shadow of that spire where Eliot and Pound first met in 1914. They each thought the other was more “American” than themselves. The walking tour pretty much ends (actually begins) at the iconic statue of Peter Pan (image in the book’s front cover above) in Kensington Gardens not far from Princess Diana’s Memorial.
I was exhausted, and my feet hurt. I flagged down a big black Hackney cab which rumbled me down Kensington High Street to the hotel where my room was ready. It thankfully has a tub—though tiny and coffin like. I soaked hot and steamy for quite a while.
I never use the tub at home. It is a travel affectation for me.
I rested on the vast white plane of the king bed’s sheets for an hour or so—to gather myself.
Time to go! While London is infinite, my time here is not. Why did I book so few days?
Perhaps, I thought there wouldn’t be enough to do? I AM foolishly penurious at times and too often a lazy planner…
I rose and donned my brother Jim’s now-aged Orvis blue blazer. I inherited it from him when he died in 2002. I don’t know how old it was then. I started wearing it in honor of him. When I would travel somewhere he’d not been, it was my way of sharing the experience and thanking him for the inspiration to try to do something…different—to create. In my case, it was a book business a bit unlike others before. It has held up well. A few years ago, I found some tiny moth holes in the dark blue wool. I took it to my dry cleaners in Frederick (appropriately named Jimmies.) The co-owner—an Asian woman with broken English looked confused. As if “Why would you put money into this?” But she did a great job.
It was about 3 pm. The show I’d booked tickets for in the US was all the way across town at 7:30. I’d walked so much already, and the hotel was a 15-minute walk to the nearest Underground. I flagged down another big black Hackney cab. Though more modern styles of the vehicle are appearing, most cabs here have the same big clunky boxy look. But they are quite easy to clamber in and out of. You can nearly stand in the back of one.
London black cabs must have a turning circle not greater than 25 ft (8 m.) One reason for this is the configuration of the famed Savoy Hotel: the hotel entrance’s small roundabout meant that vehicles needed the small turning circle in order to navigate it. That requirement became the legally required turning circles for all London cabs, while the custom of a passenger’s sitting on the right, behind the driver, provided a reason for the right-hand traffic in Savoy Court, allowing hotel patrons to board and alight from the driver’s side.
“Sherlock Holmes Pub please. Near Trafalgar Square.”
It was a long trip—the full length of Kensington Gardens and then down towards the Thames. There was lots of traffic to boot.
I try to visit each trip the Sherlock Holmes Pub since I discovered it on a trip when the boys were tiny, and we stayed in a “closet” nearby. A Microtel—aptly named.
Surprisingly, the pub was not very busy. Often it is crowded with locals and tourists spilling out in the street with their pints and smokes.
I ordered a pint of Sherlock Holmes cask ale and contemplated the next few hours before the show. The Pinter Theatre is not far from the pub—close to Piccadilly Circle.
I went up the narrow steps to the dining room. There’s a full size reproduction of Holmes and Watson’s Baker Street flat put up behind glass. The dining room is almost always fully booked. This time it was empty. I was seated in a plush corner beneath all manner of 19th century police and detective memorabilia on the walls behind me. I had a light supper of a Scotch egg (an egg cooked inside a thin “ball” of sausage until soft-boiled), chips (fries) and a Watson Cask ale porter.
I still had plenty of time, so I wandered through the nearby National Gallery. I communed with Vermeer and Bruegel and Botticelli… The vast building is like an indoor park of art. Then out to Charing Cross and up to Cecil Court. Diagon Alley in Harry Potter was modeled after this little alley. Today and for many years, it has been lined with tiny rare bookshops and art galleries. Two adjacent shops oddly specialize mostly in books and other media about Alice in Wonderland. Further up, I wandered through the sprawling Chinatown; its streets demarcated by thousands of strings of red paper like lanterns strung above.
Then it was time to find the theater. It often is not an easy task finding streets here. I had a map in hand but had not marked Panton St. I finally surrendered and inquired in a huge Twinings tea shoppe. The tall fit security guard in a suit that James Bond could have worn pointed out a side window.
“Right ’round that corner, sir.”
I got my ticket from Will Call and found my seat. I’d lucked into the front row of the first balcony—the Dress Circle. I was permitted to have my gin and tonic at my seat.
The show commenced from a darkened stage. Gandalf’s voice boomed out dialog and exposition from the Balrog scene from the Lord of the rings movie.
“YOU. SHALL. NOT. PASS!!!”
The lights camera up, and 80-year-old Ian McKellen cavorted, reminisced, interacted with the audience, performed some pantomime, told his life story, related anecdotes of famous and not so famous players. He frequently removed props from a large actors travel “chest.” It had decals from the many theaters where the show had already played. The climax occurred when he pulled out 37 books. One of each of Shakespeare’s plays. He stacked them on the trunk in groups—Histories, Comedies, Tragedies, the “problem plays”… He asked audience members to call out the name of a play. He retrieved the book and waxed poetic about his good or bad roles he had played and with whom. From some, he would extemporaneously recite lines.
“Ah…a problem play,” and then recited:
“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!”
Major tingles crept up my spine, then neck and raised the hairs above that.
He continued on.
Throughout the show, he had retrieved books that somehow related to whatever he was sharing.
By the show’s end, there was a very, very tall stack on the end table next to chair (which he had hardly used.)
Books marked events in his life—from childhood to the nearly 7th Age he nears now. Just as many physical books mark parts of my life.
80 years old, and he filled four hours with drama and literature and art and passion; non-stop motion and excitement.
At the end, he dashed off the stage and ran to the theater entrance where he held a bucket for departing audience members to drop extra donations for the theater charities he was doing this all for.
“I hope you will all make silent donations.” (i.e. cash not coins)
80 is the new 40?
I was amazed. Enthralled. Inspired.
I made my way back to Piccadilly and caught the train. All the way back, I thought of lost friends and family and the millions of ghosts of London who no longer have anything to fear.
Back at the hotel, I watched a bit of the World Series in the bar until it was too much to remain conscious any longer.
I slept in a little bit. My feet were sore.
I looked online and the Washington Nationals had won the World Series. I’ve attended a lot of their games, but I would be a bandwagoner to claim I was a fan. I liked the old Senators.
Still, I’m happy for this insanely partisan city to have something most can agree upon. Politics is insanity. Hatfields and McCoys. Hate for no reason but a D or an R after a name. Equally corrupt evil jaded are so many of them.
I took a cab to the British Library. McKellen had confused me. He stated the speech in manuscript from the play Sir Thomas More was in Shakespeare’s HAND, and there was a copy of it in the Library. I’d always thought there were only a handful of his signatures extant. And that those are the only known examples of his handwriting. He also claimed to be the last person to ever debut a Shakespeare role. He first performed the role at the play’s premiere in the 1960s.
I looked it up online and, indeed, the BL seems to claim it is the Bard’s writing.
The Folger is a bit more circumspect:
On the basis of poetic style, many scholars believe that a three page revision to the play is in Shakespeare’s handwriting. However, we don’t really know what Shakespeare’s handwriting looks like. Six signatures of Shakespeare, found on four legal documents, are the only handwriting that we know for certain are his. This is too small a sample size to make any sort of reliable comparison.
I am, still in a little shock that I’d missed something of such magnitude—if indeed I have.
It was not on exhibition in the Library. Nor was anything else of interest to me that I hadn’t already seen numerous times.
I stepped over to King’s Cross Station and passed the luggage trolley embedded in the wall at Platform 9 3/4. From there, I took the Underground to Pimlico and walked the few blocks to the Tate Britain.
This museum has always been my favorite. Perhaps because I was such a romantic when I first visited as a teen. The Pre-Raphaelites ooze romance.
It turns out there was an immense William Blake exhibition on. I was grateful at the ticket counter when the young woman asked:
“For immediate entrance?”
Room after room after room. I thought I “knew” Blake. Nope. So many manuscripts and drawings and engravings.
A quote painted on the wall near the entrance reads:
“Painting is drawing on canvas. Engraving is drawing on copper and nothing Else. Drawing is execution and nothing Else and he who draws best must be the best artist.”
The immersion was dizzying. I was all at sea in those rooms, and when I finally left, I felt I’d nearly drowned and had just come up for air.
One image stuck more than the hundreds of other books and drawings and paintings. It was one, not from Paradise Lost, of Lucifer—the most beautiful of the angels before his fall.
After his fall, his wings are changed from dove like to bat’s wings by Blake and Doré. Oddly, this is a theme in the current Round and Round story about an anonymous bookseller and the adventures in his queer bookshop.
This might help with that story’s next chapters.
I rushed through the rest of the Tate with oohs and ahhhs.
I hopped in a cab and asked to be taken to “Horse Guards.” We passed the massive Brexit protests outside Parliament.
“Leave Means Leave!”
From Horse Guards, I wended my way back to the National Gallery. I used the length of the building as a kind of passage way to get to get to the Portrait Gallery on its other side.
I was here for this:
I still love the Pre-Raphaelites. They make me feel 19 again. And in love. And immortal. And fearless of the sun’s heat and winter’s bite.
I passed through the galleries of stunning women artists and subjects and thought of one woman.
Back out into the darkening day.
Would I have energy for a show tonight? I wandered around. There are so many theaters. I walked into the Coliseum—home of the English National Opera.
“Do you have tickets for tonight?”
“Orpheus and Eurydice.”
“How much is your best seat?”
“Come back in two hours, and they are a half price.”
I wandered back out to kill two hours. The Strand is not far. I can accomplish another tradition.
The American Bar at the Savoy.
It was after 4. Close enough for a cocktail whilst on vacation.
There was a seat at the bar. The mixologists are uniformly amazing in demeanor and service and warmth and conversation. I looked at the choice of gin across from me.
“What is that bottle with the cat on it?”
“It is a German gin.”
He set the bottle before me: Schrodinger’s Katzen.
How could I be sure it was “gin” in the bottle?
He made me a perfect Gin Gibson.
Then a second.
I splurged and ordered a small caviar. I didn’t feel guilty. Breakfast was free. I’d had no lunch. This would be my dinner.
The tin with the shell spoon inside was surrounded by chives, dill, sour cream, chopped egg whites, chopped egg yolk and chopped onion. It was served with a plate of little pancakes. Blinys?
So, I spent an hour at this, one of the world’s top peaks.
I still had another hour to kill, so I wandered up to Chinatown. I entered a restaurant with no English name and had tea and an appetizer. The fortune from my cookie was odd.
I turned it over.
Oh, that vision thing…
The opera was fun. I heard a very deep voice as someone sat in front of me.
This guy was here too. He raised opera glasses to eyes throughout the show.
Was he scouting an actor? A dancer? We were only 5 rows out.
I took the Underground across the city to Earl’s Court. I walked the last half-mile to the hotel and soon crashed.
It is November.
I’ve written most of this morning away and will soon head out.
My plan is to first follow the Chelsea trail and look for more blue dots upon buildings that mark who, what and when. One goal is the house where Pooh was written.
After that, Chelsea Rare Book Show.
Will I find the book I’ve been tasked to return with?
I know I’ll stop at Harrods for a Godiva Chocolixer. Another tradition to tick off.
I don’t know if I’ll return in time to add to or edit this story. I hope my editor can fix it up for publication from across the Atlantic.
If this be all, then it is…
…to be continued.
*If you want to get a feel for what a Seatrain concert was like here’s one from 1971 at the Fillmore East. The boys were hugely popular at the time—especially in concert.