* More stories from the great author, scholar and feminist Barbara Mertz (a.k.a. Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels) and a little bit of the first day in London threaded through.
I’m writing this from London. I just landed at 6:30 AM Thursday. The Paddington Express whisked me from Heathrow to Paddington Station. My room at the grand Victorian hotel—Hilton London Paddington—is not quite ready this early, so I’m in the lounge overlooking the comings and goings in the train station below.
Soon I’ll go out and hit the streets with a guidebook given to me by a friend. Imagine the temerity of someone giving ME a book! (Actually, it looks quite useful.)
We’ll see if I can find anything here I haven’t seen before. I’m sure I will. London, for me, is infinite.
I’ve already got a front row center ticket (second tier) this evening at the Globe. Henry IV Part 2 is on, so I’ll enjoy the bluster and tragedy of Falstaff.
So my first day, at least, will be quite bookish.
Last week’s book story about my friend Barbara brought back so many memories I felt I should put more on the record while they were fresh. So this week’s story will have lots of Barbara and perhaps a bit of London in it.
This week began with “Barbara.” Monday night I was invited out to Lothlorien by Ray, Jay and Carolyn who now own it. They were dear friends of Barbara, and they’ve made a mission to breathe new life into the estate while maintaining the “feel” of what it was while “Galadriel” lived there. They’ve invested a great deal of the time, money and expertise improving the ancient home’s mechanical and architectural infrastructure. But their passion is in the gardens. After decades of spending half the year in Luxor as top Egyptologists and archaeologists and half the year in a high-rise apartment in Chicago, they are finally able to work the land. And what a palette of land has been set before them. The waterfall flows clear and sings again. The pond below it is clean and dozens of tiny brown and gold fish dart about it. Maybe they are descendants of fish I brought here many years ago. The upper pond will have lotus and papyrus again. Bullfrogs and leopard frogs sing their own songs. Tadpoles wiggle their tales and wait for metamorphosis. All the beds and themed gardens have been cleaned up. Surviving perennials have been fed and trimmed. Voids have been filled with new plantings. Barbara’s last projects—the rose knot garden and the grape arbor have been pushed to completion. Poor Discobolus—the marble statue which Barbara imported from Italy is still missing appendages. But they’ve boxed him in for winters to prevent further damage. He stands atop his pedestal in the marble lined temple pond while the array of stone columns rises behind him.
Images of Barbara’s award winning temple will have to come in a future story. It is still “winterized.”
But it is in the pasture where the most changes have occurred. In all the years I visited Lothlorien, the pasture beyond the “deer fence” lay fallow. An ancient derelict car left by her son rusted in the high grass. A tree grew up through its engine and hood. The boy, when young, thought the vehicle a classic and planned to return and restore it. The best laid plans…
The car is long gone. Now organic farm plots are plowed and planted. Most exciting they have planted a vineyard! Dozens of rows of numerous varieties wine grapes rise from the soil. The first bottles are not many years away.
I’ve sensed Barbara on the property numerous times. A couple times I have felt I caught sight of her from the corner of my eye. More about that later.
It was a lovely evening, and the conversation returned to our friend and her influence on our lives many times.
So many memories of stories were triggered by the last book story—Deaf Cat and Buried Bottles as well as the idyllic evening at Lothlorien that I knew I needed to write more about Barbara.
Part of Monday’s garden tour led up past Barbara’s pet cemetery. It is a contemplative dark woodland space. Tall thick white pines provide much of the shade and the mood. The ground is covered in woodland plants which thrive in the shade. One can almost feel there is a portal to the underworld somewhere in those shadows.
Scores of cats and a few dogs and perhaps other pets are buried here. Anubis has stood guard here for as long as I can remember. As the Egyptian god of the afterlife, his presence is both comforting and cautionary. The white gravel path that arcs along is a perfect spot to stop and think of one’s own long lost pet friends.
Two pyramids accent the spot as well.
It is always green and dark back there. Even in winter the pines provide color and shadow. Though it is a place of great solace and comfort, I wouldn’t want to spend the night in there.
About a year after her passing, I got an email from Stefanie who was still watching after the estate and the several surviving cats. Part of one of the river birches next to the pond had blown over. She thought I’d want to know. I asked permission to come clean it up and harvest the dead wood.
It was a very bright blue day when I came out in my old Ford F 150. No one else was there. I took a deep breath and remembered how much the conversations under those trees had meant to me.
I primed and choked the saw. I pulled the cord and the orange Husqvarna roared to life. I put the sound dampening headphones on and stepped to the fallen trunk and branches. Cutting wood is very relaxing for me. Almost Zen-like. I certainly pay close attention to the work at hand, but my mind can also wander onto a different plane. The river birches had brown paper-like bark peeling off the trunk and larger branches.
I cut the wood into manageable lengths and carried them to the truck. When I was done and the saw and headphones were put away, I stood and surveyed the lonely property. I looked across the circular driveway at the house some 30 yards away. That entrance is the solarium—a large room whose sides and roof are almost all glass.
A human figure behind the glass was facing me for just a moment before it turned and disappeared into the shadows further in.
Not entirely gone yet. Checking on her cats and perhaps watching this workman cleaning up the dead wood.
Here’s a “poem” I sent to mutual friends a couple years later about using the wood I gathered there.
If you’re daunted reading other people’s poetry, just read it as prose. Barbara wouldn’t consider it poetry anyway since it doesn’t rhyme and there’s no metrical pattern (scansion.)
Burning Barbara’s Wood
For years we sat below your river birches
next to the pond, below the waterfall.
Spring let warming light through bare
—then budding branches.
The summer brought a green canopy
while water sounds cooled the air.
For fall the tree goldened.
Thousands of leaves glowed like yellow coins.
And then they would fall and float among us
and atop the pond’s calm surface
All winter we’d sit and talk
and look across the lawns and gardens.
From your room of glass we could see the trees,
beautiful in that dead season,
Their bark peeling and curling
like brown, tan, beige and gray papers.
Countless tiny twigs were like pen and inks
scratched and silhouetted against the slate gray skies.
Time passed; the trunks and branches grew bigger and thicker.
And each season, each year, each conversation began anew.
We all became older.
And then you left.
You’d been gone a year when our friend,
who watched over you and watches your things still, called:
“I thought you’d want to know
a river birch blew down.”
Memories rose and flooded behind my eyes.
She knew I’d want to know.
“I’d like to clear the wood,” I asked.
(I don’t need wood or work. I live in a forest)
It is Valentine’s Day a few years on
One AM and six degrees on my mountain.
Earlier I’d carried in a few river birch logs.
I keep that wood separate in the shed—
apart from the cords of oak and maple and ash I’ve cut.
I use it sparingly, on special occasions
Time and heat and energy consumes us all.
Some day I will bring in the last logs.
They will warm and comfort me
and remind me finally tangibly of so many seasons.
All the words we spoke
soared then disappeared like smoke.
But thoughts are heard fresh, alive
and warm til memory dies.
Well, enough of that sappy stuff.
I’m back at the Paddington. I walked for hours. I need to rest a bit so I won’t doze at Shakespeare this evening.
I tested the book my friend gave me, and it worked! I took the Underground to Tottenham Square station where the “Bloomsbury 1” walking tour begins. I got up to the street and…it was raining ?!?
I chanced upon a shop—a classic perfectly preserved Victorian storefront—of a style that only London can claim. All it sells are umbrellas and walking sticks. That’s all it has sold since 1830.
Back onto the street, I was now armed with an (expensive) pocket umbrella. Just what I need. Another umbrella.
I decided to visit the British Museum first in hopes that the rain would abate while I wandered through the exhibits.
An Edvard Munch special exhibit!? I was all over that. And it was wonderful…
From there I wandered through the Egyptian halls as Barbara was on my mind, and I’d pretty much committed to visit Ray and Jay in Luxor next winter Monday at dinner.
Though I’ve been through the British Museum many times, it is always different. If you want to know what Gandal the White looked like—well, he looked like this:
Except he was all white with blue eyes and no piercings.
From there I headed to the early British Isles section. For the last few years I’ve been drawn to the Vindolanda tablets. These are like proto books to my eye. 2000-year-old “books.” Maybe that’s where the Tree Song story is going.
Time to go back outside. I visited Jarndyce Booksellers directly across the street. Every book there was perfect and beautiful.
Did I mention I’m on another book quest?
I am. For a friend. I am not quite sure what I am looking for this time. Perhaps the book “will find me.”
A cup of coffee to reset my sleepy head, and then I found the where the book tour starts. The first stop was tiny Bedford Square which was once the center of British Publishing. Hodder & Stoughton, Jonathan Cape, Chatto and Windus… all had offices there before the crash of independent publishing occurred in the 1990s. Anthony Hope (The Prisoner of Zenda) lived there as well. Just around the corner was the headquarters for Faber and Faber. TS Eliot had offices there from 1925 to 1965. His slightly crazy estranged first wife used to make aberrant unannounced visits. He would sneak out the back while staff delayed her in front. It was there he proposed to his second wife. His secretary. She was 30. He was 68. But apparently it went well.
The path led past the house where the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed. Virginia Woolf’s home. The Bloomsbury flats, Dickens, Yeats…
And a bunch of used bookshops. (Nope. Nothing exciting.)
It was about two hours of happy trail-following meandering.
Before I head to cocktail hour, some pub grub and the Globe tonight here’s another Barbara story:
I think it was about 2009 when her serious health troubles were heating up that I thought I should make sure I had a first edition of every one of her books. She’d given me a signed copy of each new one as they were published.
In 2004 she handed me a copy of Guardian of the Horizon. The 16th installment of the Amelia Peabody series.
“Look inside,” she told me.
It was inscribed as they always were. This had a PS: “See the dedication page.”
I was speechless.
Over the next year or so, I had Madeline (our head book researcher) do searches to find fine copies of her early books. I had Ammie, Come Home (Barbara Michaels 1968) and The Jackal’s Head (Elizabeth Peters 1968) but many that came after I had never seen.
Slowly they came in. Barbara was flattered with my quest. Whenever I’d bring one out for her to sign, she would reminisce about it. She would often say things like:
“That one was is pretty good. The villain is modeled after my ex-husband—the creep!”
And they were all VERY good. If you get a chance, read some. Many are still in print. All were in paperback at one time or another so you can find them inexpensively. Maybe even on WonderBook.com. But spring for a hardcover in dust jacket if you can. To hold a book that looks exactly as the author saw it on the first day it was published is a true connection to a time and place. It puts the literary work into a physical context. Warning: physical books can result in time travel.
It is Friday morning. 3:33 AM Maryland time. 8:33 London time. If this book story goes out, I believe it will be their 99th consecutive Friday. (Some weeks have had multiple stories, so we are well over 100 tales.)
Last night I saw Henry IV Part 2 at the Globe. It was ok. When I saw Hamlet there last summer, the pervasive gender bending and cross-dressing was innovative and challenging. Last year Hamlet and Laertes were young women. Ophelia was a tall thin young man…etc…it was all very intriguing and interesting… Last night it was just amateurish and tedious. Falstaff was a thin woman in “fat pants” who kept breaking the fourth wall by reading aloud the closed captioning behind the stage as well as mugging it up with the sparse audience members and fellow players. The gimmick of a young man playing an aging woman, for example, was tedious to my mind…and confusing. Which young woman was the king? The spare costuming didn’t help me with character identification either. The Histories are hard enough to follow, dammit.
I was hoping to be transported to early 17th century Shakespeare’s London theater. I mean, that’s why I was there—to experience the “Globe.” If I want to watch experimental theater for experimental theater’s sake, I can find infinite choices a lot closer to home. And it isn’t as if Shakespeare didn’t capture every quirk, frailty, twist and turn of the human comedy. It’s just he didn’t smack you in the face with it. Well, it is what is. At least I was able to have a gin and tonic in my seat.
I walked back across the Millennium Bridge. The setting sun painted St Paul’s and the Tower Bridge in glorious colors.
I walked the length of Fleet Street. I stopped at Dr Johnson’s home and Ye Old Cheshire Cheese Pub (1667) for a pint of cask ale bitter with the ghosts of Dickens, Johnson… On down the Strand. I was just too tired to stop at the American Bar in the Savoy for a Martini. Maybe tonight…
How many miles did I walk yesterday? I dunno. To me walking in London is kind of weightless.
I’ll finish this 99th week with a couple more short Barbara stories.
Barbara was a woman of many, many passions. Besides writing about 70 books (including three histories—two of which are highly respected books on Ancient Egypt which have been in print for over 50 years), she was an ardent groundbreaking feminist. She had an encyclopedic memory of hundreds (thousands?) of books and authors. She loved antique clothing, jewelry, chocolate, gin, music, Pennsylvania Dutch food, all food, cigarettes, hats, practical jokes…
Plants. I’ve mentioned some of her many, many outdoor gardens. Her heirloom rose gardens were among the earliest I’d heard of before that genre became popular. Each plant was named. A garden map recorded where each cultivar was planted. She wanted to grow everything from cacti to rhubarb. On occasion, we would visit the vast and quirky choices at Ashcombe near Harrisburg PA. She would treat me to a Pennsylvania Dutch lunch there washed down with beer (Birch Beer) and finished with Shoo Fly Pie. She and her long-time assistant (well, Kristen’s role went WAY beyond assistant—editor, researcher, gardener…) would head back to Lothlorien with hundreds of dollars worth of all manner of plants.
One evening I was invited over to watch the predicted blossoming of a Night Blooming Cereus. I arrived, and we turned our chairs to face a very large plant hanging from the ceiling high in the corner of the vast solarium. In the near dark, we sipped gin and chatted staring at the large bulbous flowers bud above us. Sure enough, the thing began to open before our eyes. In about an hour, a huge ghostly pale cactus flower opened. It was a little spooky.
“There are ghost busters coming over this week. Want to join us? It should be a hoot!”
Well, duh, YEAH!
I arrived, and the house was already bustling with people. About a half dozen were “ghost researchers.” They were settling up cameras and recording devices throughout the sprawling stone home. There was certainly a lot of history of spirits there. Not long after she moved there in the 1970s, she discovered a toppled tombstone near her driveway. It was for a Phoebe Jones—age 19—whose family had occupied the house in the early 19th century. No one could find where the actual grave was. Barbara erected the ancient tombstone in a quiet spot behind one of her gardens. She built a small roof over it to preserve the carving. Ghosts and spirits appear in her writing often—especially in the Michaels’ books. The scene in at least several of them is very evocative of Lothlorien. In addition to the ghost busters and a handful of friends, Barbara had invited some aged folk who had once been children in that house. Their memories went back 70-80 years. One had a brother who was killed in Korea. His casket once sat on the dining room table for a wake.
The ghost busters interviewed many of those present. Tim was Kristen’s very sober and straightforward husband. He did a great deal of work around the house and gardens. The three of them fed creatively off each other for many innovations at Lothlorien. Kristen and Tim retired to a horse farm in Vermont around 2011. Tragically Tim died a year and a half later. My dad once told me:
“Life isn’t fair.”
I was young and idealistic and didn’t understand why it couldn’t be. Well, there you are…
He matter-of-factly related a story of a night when he was house sitting there alone with his farm dog—an Australian sheep dog. It was “blue,” believe it or not. They were on a couch watching TV when a baby starting crying at the front door. They cautiously went down and found the big wooden front door a few inches ajar. He opened the door and peered outside into the dark. Nothing. Back upstairs. In a while the wailing began again…again…
The aged folk who had grown up there related stories of things falling, breaking, moving, doors opening…
No one asked me, and I didn’t offer the times that I walked through chill spots or caught things moving in mirrors or window reflections.
The ghost busters’ results were “inconclusive,” but I think they did find a lot of “action” in the creepy damp stone basement.
There are plenty of other Barbara stories to come I hope.
I’d better get this sent across the ocean for editing and uploading.
I’m here to look for books! Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair opens in a couple hours in Battersea Park. I don’t think I’ve ever been there before…
Maybe next week’s story will be about a found book and other London things.