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“Oh, the wind was coming up
and the sun had long died down
And the leaves were whirling fast
round the streets of old London town
With no scarf around my neck
my sad pockets held my hands
And you were on my mind, my love,
in this far and homelike land”
— Lyrics Jim Roberts. Recorded by Seatrain on the Marblehead Messenger album produced by George Martin—who produced and many say, “created” the Beatles.
Actually not. No one was on my mind anymore. The old demon’s power had snapped, and my mind was fresh and clear. Crazy business—the head and heart. Here today. Gone tomorrow.
But my brother’s song did play over and over in my mind throughout the trip. It is a beautiful melody and lyrics. (Except that one line. What were you thinking, bro? Weird.) George Martin ruined the track by over producing it. My brother agreed with me when I ventured that opinion in subsequent years. In 1971 I was just a kid on a summer visit with my Rock-and-Roll brother in Marblehead Massachusetts while the album was being recorded. His girlfriend, Chrissie, had just appeared in Playboy with her sister as a “Girl of California.” I wasn’t impressed. Beautiful but not my type. With George Martin running the show, the group would be the “next Beatles.”
Now I was walking the autumn streets of London town nearly a half century later.
I had left Dulles Airport in Virginia on Halloween at 730 pm. The nonstop flight’s duration was 7 hours and 10 minutes. Crossing the North Atlantic, the air outside is -52 degrees C. The airplane’s wall and the window I looked out of were the only things keeping me from instant death. Because we were flying backward through 5 time zones when we landed, it was 640 am November 1st. So, my internal clock told me it felt like 230 am. I’d gotten very little sleep on the flight. I’d written some in my journal. I watched most of 2001 and part of Contact. My neck was stiff, and I was a little dazed when I got to customs and had my passport stamped.
Airports are now miles of aisles and escalators and elevators and metal moving walkways. Most co-hikers are rolling suitcases in front of or behind themselves—just as I was. I followed the sign and logo for the Heathrow Express through buildings across a road up, down, underground. It took quite a while. My first day in London began with a long cool airport walk. I bought a “return” or roundtrip ticket from a woman in uniform holding a little electronic device that could take money from my credit card across the ocean I’d just crossed. I boarded the train, and in 15 minutes I was walking along Track 12 in the heart of Paddington Station toward the venerable Paddington Hilton hotel that rises above the myriad shops, vendors and food and drink providers.
It was about 730 am. London time.
“Will they let me have a room this early? I’d like to freshen up and change clothes.”
As I approached the end (or was it the beginning) of the many rows of train tracks, I heard live music. A band was playing a sort of somber song. Horns and woodwinds and a drum. I crossed into the open space—the expansive foyer through which almost all the millions of humans that use this place each year must pass. People flow out of doors and Underground passageways crisscrossing the building to catch their trains home or to work or to Oxford or to Penzance… Or to leave the building from the train they’d just arrived on. There are many colored lines upon the floor that people can follow to get them to the right train platform.
I was drawn to the music. Soon I saw it was a military band in formal uniforms. They had tall bearskin hats with a bright red splash feather plume on the right side. They wore long woolen overcoats that were dark blue gray down to mid calf. Black pants and black shiny shoes extended below that. Their faces were nearly covered. The fur nearly covered their eyes. It did cover their ears and a bit of their cheeks. Golden chinstraps covered their faces even more. They wore white gloves—most with fingers removed so they could play their instruments. I approached and stood amongst a small crown watching. The tune eventually made sense to me. It was a James Bond motif. A quiet moody one which usually means that danger and action are not too far away.
Off to the side was a small group of soldiers in varied uniforms. A couple were older and wore retiree-type garb. The rest were active duty, male and female, from several branches of service. They were offering soft lapel pins for sale or donation. The pins were red flowers with big black hearts. Poppies.
I suppose I’d better go back to the beginning of this trip, but first let’s start at the end.
There will be no book story this week?!
My back up laptop computer died Thursday morning. I’d written a few pages Wednesday and continued in bed very early Thursday until I heard Alan James Robinson rattling around in the spare bedroom downstairs. Wednesday, he’d brought a mock up of a portfolio containing the 24 letterpress images we had created for our “If there were no books…” projects.
I had run out of excitement for the thing after the last of the 12 main and 12 related auxiliary images had been completed.
It took much longer and cost much more than I’d expected. But Alan wanted to cap off the production and put everything together in a bundle. The auxiliary images existed only in the original pen and inks he had executed. There had not been letterpress images reproduced for them as we had for the main 12. We had used all 24 as fronts and backs for Wonder Book t-shirts. These had been pretty popular. Many styles are sold out.
Alan had asked to come visit to deliver the last of the original artwork, pitch the portfolio and stay over before returning to rural Massachusetts the next morning. He had also dropped off another commission in Chevy Chase.
My new Super MacBook Pro laptop computer had died abruptly the previous Monday evening. I’d forgotten the charger in my luggage at home. I was finishing a bit of correspondence urging calm in the Banned Booksellers’ strike against ABE Books—the enormous online search engine for hundreds of millions of used and collectible books. I contended that a planned face-to-face meeting in two days with the ABE corporate leaders and the leaders of ILAB* might solve the issue. Four member countries of ILAB* (Hungary, Czech Republic, Russia and South Korea) were facing suspension from ABE because a new credit card processor they were forced to move to could not do business in those countries. Emails and passions were flying. Hundreds of Antiquarian booksellers worldwide were temporarily removing their stock from ABE (called “putting your books on ‘vacation'”) in protest. The charge icon for my laptop battery was dropping fast. 5%, 3%, 2%, 1%…the screen blinked off.
* ILAB = International League of Antiquarian Booksellers
“Ok. Time to quit. I’ll plug it in at home.”
I then left work Monday evening and went to pick up Merry & Pippin—my two Jack Russell companions—from the babysitter. I was still on London time, and 9 pm felt like 1 or 2 am. I was exhausted from the four days of constant London walking, the return trip and the long catch-up day at work. I plugged the computer in to charge over night and went to bed. When I awoke Tuesday morning, there was still no charge.
To make a long story short, it was dead. I took in to town to be repaired. It was only a month or so old. I still had my old laptop (which had been giving me problems “Your capacity is full…”) and my iPhone, so I was able to bump along with those Tuesday and Wednesday.
The ABE confusion was solved at the meeting early Wednesday morning and there was, perhaps, peace in the valley once again.
I bid Alan farewell Thursday morning and went to work. I continued tapping away on this week’s blog when screens starting popping up on my old laptop. “…cannot be saved…full…”
I’d click “Cancel” and the popup screen would disappear for a couple seconds and then return. I tried deleting massive amounts of files. That only made things worse. It was locked up. For some reason, I had the foresight to take a picture of the text I’d written so far for this week using my iPhone. That was fortunate for that page soon went away as well and likely will never be seen again.
Thursday was a beautiful mild autumn day. Bright, crisp but not cold. I’d agreed to return to the scene of last week’s blog—the little country cabin and 5000 sq ft workshop in Virginia. The online and tag sales were over. My friend said I could return and take whatever I wanted for any token offer. Clif and I hopped into a van and headed south. I had my current journal with me. Could I handwrite this week’s blog? The van bumped and swayed. Emails were flooding onto my iPhone. I get lots of spam. LOTS. Hundreds a day. There oughta be a law. My laptop has an app called Spam Sieve which is 99.9% effective in sending most unwanted emails to a spam file. There I can glance at them before deleting them en masse. On my phone, emails fly by and if I don’t act on the important ones quickly, they are soon gone—way down below the others that pile on top of them.
Worried, I called the repair place—Mac Business Solutions. They had told me Tuesday evening they had found the issue and had ordered the part needed. It should be in very soon. They had also found a way to charge it.
“Hi, I’m just checking, do you think it might be fixed today? If not, can I come get it and use it til the part comes in?”
“Actually, the part is due in this morning, and we hope to have it repaired. We will call you if it gets done.”
We got to the tilted mailbox where we were to turn in. Huge paving machines were blocking it. I hopped out while Clif went on so as not to block the road. I spoke with the cluster of four Hispanic guys in bright yellow vests and white hard hats.
“Maybe half an hour.”
I looked around.
“I think the van can get over this curb and drive up the sidewalk to the gravel drive.”
I crossed the 6 lanes of highway. 2 old lanes. 4 brand new. The one I needed to cross to get over the curb was so fresh it was still steaming. There were a couple cop cars with lights flashing to warn motorists and protect the workers.
“Let me drive in case this is illegal. You can guide me in,” I told Clif.
It worked and soon we were bumping down the gravel drive through the woods which would soon be knocked down for new McMansions each with 6-10 space garages for car aficionados.
We got to the big outbuilding and backed to the gaping garage door. My friend was there waiting for us.
I didn’t mention that the night before I took Alan to the Lazy Fish sushi place downtown. It was Happy Hour and sake was half price… Then we went to the Weinberg Theater and joined a very mixed crowd of about 350 for a Stephen Marley (Bob’s son) reggae concert. We stayed up late afterwards talking and drinking wine. That morning I’d felt a little “off” physically in addition to my “technical problems.” When I stepped into the building and the mothball fumes hit me…
“Ay, yi, yi…”
They’d sold a lot of the records—the good ones. Only a few thousand classical LPs were left. The books we’d left appeared untouched. I wandered through—looking—I “knew” there was still stuff there although dozens of buyers had passed through after our visit. But did I feel like rooting through piles of papers and filing cabinets and …?
No. I felt like crap. No computer. No blog after 70 straight Fridays. Plus my own “organic” issues.
“Clif, don’t bring anymore boxes in. I don’t think we’re going to take anything.”
But still I wandered around the place poking at this and that.
I found some packets wrapped in brown Kraft paper in a corner and tore one open. Original artwork and mockups for a 1960s Florida tourist brochure. A few other packets held similar. There was a pile of paper stuff about 4 feet high that I was sure held “something”—good things. I just COULD NOT bring myself to root into it. I wandered to the bank of old gray, tan and olive drab steel file cabinets along the other wall. I’d looked in them the first trip. Some drawers were full of mouse nests and chewed folders. Others were unscathed. A couple drawers were full of folders that held a couple hundred old photo equipment catalogs and owner instructions.
“Clif, would you just drop all these files into boxes?”
I pulled open some more drawers and found more ephemeral treasures.
Hey, any house call where you can leave with five Gutenbergs is not too bad.
I went back in the house and looked around. A lot of the stuff that had been there was gone. I had not seen any books in there that excited me. A little bookcase of cookbooks just outside the kitchen had been sprawled onto the floor. I saw an old binding and picked it up.
How had I missed this 19th century book on French cuisine?
I poked around some more and then went out to the work building again.
“There has to be something here.”
I pulled open a drawer in a wooden dresser, and it was full of “new” escargot serving shells and plates in their original boxes. There were also two stacks of unused scallop serving shells. I tossed them into a box. Why? I dunno. I love escargot. Although, thinking about it in the fumes and with my own issues made me even queasier.
I am SUCH a junker sometimes.
“We gotta go, or I’ll just keep picking stuff up.”
Clif and Steve both laughed. They know me.
We had about 10 boxes of stuff and some other odds and ends. Steve gave Clif a pitchfork and a miniature cast-iron iron as gifts.
We headed out through the woods. A woman in an SUV was coming in—I assumed she was another picker. We pulled over to let her pass. She motioned for Clif to roll down his window.
“How do I sell you books? I live next door and my driveway is blocked by pavers.”
I hopped out and gave her a card.
Soon we were back in Frederick.
On the way, I sent an email with some pictures to a young woman in Virginia who is apprenticing the collectible book trade.
“You should go. I know there’s some good stuff left there…”
I hoped she and her friend, who has just taken over a DC bookstore, could find the treasures I’d given up digging for.
The good news is my laptop did get fixed about 4 pm. I went home and made Penne in Marinara and watched a little of The Fellowship of the Ring on Blu-Ray before going to bed very early. I still hadn’t gotten over London time and/or my evening with Alan.
I awoke about 4 am and began this book story again propped up with pillows in bed, Merry and Pippin pressed up against me.
Now back to London.
I will compress and truncate the London adventures due to time constraints and having blathered on about my technical and personal problems.
I was given a temporary room.
“Your upgraded room will be ready in a few hours, and you can switch then.”
I freshened up and headed out about 8 am. I was in London! No time for a nap!
I crossed Praed Street and descended into the ancient Paddington Underground station. I had my Oyster Card and was soon on the Circle Line heading east—to the British Library. I got off at the Kings Cross/St Pancras Stations stop. At Kings Cross they’ve got a luggage trolley appearing to go through a solid brick wall at “Track 9 3/4.” Kids (mostly) line up—often in Harry Potter garb—and get their picture taken appearing to be on their way for a new semester at Hogwarts.
There were soldiers of various branches of the military offering poppies at the entrances and exits.
I walked to St Pancras next door, and there were more soldiers and sailors. I wandered through the towering train station.
I stopped and said hello to British poet John Betjeman and then made my way to the British Library a couple blocks away. It was just opening, and there was a long line stretching from the front door. Everyone entering needed to have their bags inspected.
I usually visit the Library whenever I’m there. This time, due to a fortunate email from Fine Books and Collections Magazine*, I’d been warned there was a “once in a generation” exhibit of early British books and manuscripts just opening.
* It is a great publication. Every bookseller should subscribe.
I can’t tell you how astounding the next four hours were. Well, I could, but it would take…hours.
I will tease you with these sights I saw (all original ): Domesday Books/Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Beowulf Manuscript, Lindisfarne Gospels, Durham Gospels, King Alfred’s Jewel, Paris Psalter, Book of Durrow, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History…and many, many more stunning beauties.
The Codex Amiatinus, a giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716, returned to England for the first time in 1300 years. I didn’t know there were no photos permitted until after I got this picture.
You can go online and explore more here—or better yet—get to London and see the beginning of the “book” in the British Isles in about 200 exhibits—mostly one of a kind books and manuscripts. You will also see the beginnings of English as we know it.
I headed back to the hotel. There were men and women service people at the entrances and exits of each Underground station offering poppies. My room was ready, and I moved by bags. I washed up quickly and then headed out. I took a taxi to the Tate Britain art museum. (It was about 30 bucks! I should have taken the Underground.) They had the “most comprehensive exhibit on Edward Burne-Jones in over 40 years.” I love the Pre Raphaelites, and the hours I spent there were delicious.
Then I stepped out into the aging afternoon and walked along the Thames until I got to Parliament. On the sidewalk outside of Big Ben, soldiers and sailors were offering poppies.
I walked to Charing Cross and had a Sherlock Holmes cask ale at the eponymous pub. Then I headed up past the bookshops on Charing Cross. Did I have enough energy for a show tonight? Why not?
I’m in London!
A sidewalk placard advertised King Lear that night. I was sure I could get a last minute nosebleed ticket for that. Nope! Sold out! Ian McKellen is playing Lear. How cool would that have been? I’ll never know. I opted for a chamber music concert at the Church of St Martin in the Fields instead. I had an hour to kill, so I wandered up near Covent Garden and had a pub grub supper of Lamb and Leek pie. I splurged and had a dessert of sticky toffee pudding with a little cup of custard beside it.
The concert was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I had a front-row seat in the balcony right above the players. The strings and harpsichord music floated up and immersed me.
That was Thursday.
Friday I awoke pretty early and tapped out last week’s blog and sent it across the ocean to be edited and posted. One of the main reasons I’d come here was to attend the Chelsea Antiquarian Book Fair. It didn’t open for a few hours, so I took the District Line from Paddington to South Kensington. Outside the station there were soldiers and sailors…
I walked up to the Victoria and Albert Museum and spent a couple hours meandering there before heading south to Chelsea.
The book fair was held in the old Chelsea Town Hall. I got there just as it opened and joined a line of mostly older men in tweed jackets and corduroy pants. There were 80 or 90 booths packed into the old wooden hall and adjoining rooms. Most of the vendors were older men in tweed jackets and corduroy pants. It was painfully crowded—which is a GOOD thing for the booksellers. I looked and looked. There was only one American bookseller exhibiting, and he was busy the times I passed by. I left empty-handed, but, as always, I’d learned a thing or two or a hundred from expert specialists exhibiting their beautiful rarities.
Back out into the sun I went to the nearby Saatchi Art Gallery. For some reason I’d never gone. There was some intriguing stuff there. Then on through Sloane Square toward Belgravia. A church caught my eye on Sloane Street. There’s no down side to entering big old churches. There’s always something beautiful to see in them. There was a sign outside that read in part:
“Holy Trinity. Sloane Square…Poet Laureate John Betjeman called this the ‘Cathedral of the Arts and Crafts Movement.'” And that was indeed what it was, containing treasures by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones as well as many others….”
What Luck! Serendipity. Just keep walking. And keep your eyes open. It was a wondrous space.
Then out and on to my next target. Harrod’s. I used to buy some exotic things there, but in the last couple years I haven’t wanted to buy much—clothes, stuff, more wine and liquor for the cellar…nothing intrigues me but books. Still, I like to walk through the Food Courts and see the Middle Eastern billionaires rubbing shoulders with Asian and American and European tourists. I did get to the Godiva boutique “Chocolate Bar” and ordered a favorite—a Choco Lixer. The waitress asked if I wanted water. “Yes.” She brought a little bottle and poured it before I could speak. 6 bucks for a glass of water. Well, it’s Harrods.
It was now getting toward evening. I headed back to Charing Cross. I passed through Cecil Court. I raised a middle finger at a bookstore there I hate. But I browsed the windows of the all the other antiquarian shops there—all of which are wondrous. I wanted to get a drink at the iconic The American Bar in the Savoy Hotel, but it was packed with a pre-theater crowd. I tried the Sherlock Holmes again, but the crowd was spilled out and filling the sidewalk. I didn’t want to wade through that, so I crossed the street to Kerridge’s. There was one lonely stool at the bar in the glittering restaurant. I had a Martini, Welsh Rarebit, Clarified Zombie and Scotch Eggs.
When I got back to Paddington Station about 8pm, there was a band playing on the concourse. They were older men—pensioners—seated. They were playing a waltz I did not recognize. Nearby male and female soldiers and sailors were offering poppies.
When I awoke Saturday, I had it in my mind to attend a soccer game. I love English Premier League Football. Indeed, most of my weekends in the book warehouse are spent with the Saturday and Sunday games playing on my laptop. I’d made an account with the West Ham United website some years ago. It took awhile to reactivate it and get my password back so I could look for a single ticket. But with some perseverance, I got to the stadium map, and there was a single little blue dot indicating a seat was available in the front row near midfield. It wasn’t very expensive, so I pounced on it. The confirmation email said I’d been successful and my ticket was being MAILED to Frederick Maryland?! Within a few minutes a subsequent email dropped in, and I was able to have the concierge print my ticket.
I had a few hours, so I went to the British Museum getting off at the Tottinham Court Station via the Bakerloo and Central Lines. There I wandered through the wonders of Egypt and Greece and ancient England. The display of Vindolanda discoveries of the then earliest written documents found in England caught my eye. Ur-books. Very thin wooden boards which had been coated in beeswax upon which words could be scratched with a stylus. These were from the 1st century AD. Some similar boards had since been discovered in London during the demolition of a building. These were even earlier Roman Britain artifacts beating the Vindolanda written words by about 50 years.
Tree Song. My fantasy of finding the first ever bound book in Europe. Maybe this is a lead?
Back out into the sun, I made my way to the Holborn Station and took the Central Line ALL the way out to East London. Stratford Station which is near the site of many of the London 2012 Summer Olympic venues. The soccer game was held at the London Stadium which had been built for the Olympics. I walked to the enormous stadium flowing with the crowds.
Soldiers and sailors…poppies.
West Ham United is almost a religion for many of its Cockney East End followers. They haven’t had much success since their glory days decades ago. I found my seat and absorbed the pre-game activities. A formal military band marched in and played. Then about twenty paratroopers in combat gear marched in carrying about 60 feet of red rolled cloth on their shoulders. They moved to the center of the soccer pitch and began unrolling an enormous poppy.
On the big screen dominating the north end of the stadium a child’s face appeared.
“In Flanders Field…”
It then hit me.
It is 2018.
One hundred years ago…
The eleventh hour…
Of the eleventh day…
Of the eleventh month…
The end of the mostly pointless carnage of World War One.
A different child’s face appeared and recited the second line…and so on.
In Flanders Fields the Poppies Grow
Between the crosses, row upon row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below
The ceremony ended with Binyon’s poem being recited.
I felt I’d been physically struck by the weight of the moment.
I left early in the second half. It was getting cold. I was now in a very confused mood. My lighthearted frolic became a serious remembrance of horrors this city had faced so often—and survived.
I caught the train back toward central London.
What to do?
I looked at the upcoming stations.
“St Paul’s Catherdral.”
I got off there. Darkness was falling. The great dome was illuminated. I stepped inside and wandered about the massive space. An usher in formal tails handed me something. The “Sung Eucharist” would begin in 20 minutes. He looked as much like a funeral director as anything else. But he was genial and warm.
“Would you like to stay for the service?”
“ALL of it?”
“I think so.”
Afterward I headed down Fleet Street. I stopped at Ye Old Cheshire and had a cask ale with the ghosts of Dickens and Dr Johnson. Then I went out and across the street to the Tipperary Pub.
“The site is on a monastery dating back to the 13th century…the monks brewed ale…the building is stone and is one of the few to survive the Great Fire of 1666…after the end of hostilities the journalists returned to Fleet Street in 1918 and renamed the Pub ‘Tipperary.’ This is the oldest Irish Pub in London…”
I had a Lamb Shank and Guinness draft.
I remembered as a kid the grainy images of World War I on the TV. The strangely high-pitched voices of soldiers singing:
It’s a long way to Tipperary,
It’s a long way to go.
It’s a long way to Tipperary,
To the sweetest girl I know!
Farewell, Leicester Square!
It’s a long, long way to Tipperary,
But my heart’s right there.
I walked and walked. I did get into The American Bar where just about every actor, singer, writer … in the last 90 years or so has also been. The Master Bartender made me a magnificent Gin Gibson using a heavy knife to chop and shape a large chunk of ice in the palm of his hand. You can get a “Vintage Martini” using old liquors for a couple hundred dollars. Then I chose one of their signature cocktails from the 30 or so page “book.” It was “White Nights.”
Sunday. My flight wasn’t until 430 pm. I requested a late checkout. I walked south from Paddington and wandered through Kensington Gardens. I passed the statue of Peter Pen. How apt.
“I never grew up, Wendy.”
I wandered through the halls of the Natural History and Science Museums before heading back. I passed the swans in the Serpentine and marveled at all the trees and fall colors.
The flight home was brutal.
You know the rest of the week.
I’m writing this Friday morning. Eastern Time. November 9.
Sunday will be the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. I will try to figure what time I’ll need to go online and watch ceremonies “Over There.”
What time this Sunday will be their 11th hour in London?
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
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