Half a million years ago, we walked along the Thames. The land was rich and cool. Little did we know 15,000 generations would follow. Placing stone upon stone, a city was built. Fire, fighting, famine and plague set us back time and again. And here we are today. A sprawling tapestry of buildings, streets, work and people. Millions of roles are played to move this place forward. Day by day. Year by year. Century by century. Eon by eon. Today I walked the streets, their patterns laid out as ancient cart paths with nary a straightaway to be found in the old parts.
They still carry fruit, bread, wine. We live here day by day. Sing a song. Play a role. Kick a ball. Grow, breed, age and die.
“Sing, Muse, sing!”
The pile of stone I have built, mighty for a day, will wear and wane and wash away. I cannot leave a mark longer than a day, year or decade. Perhaps a century, if fate allows. Forgotten words. Forgotten steps. Forgotten man. You loved me here long ago and long ago and long ago. Forgotten now. Forgotten and, to you, a distant memory. Not a trace upon the land. Just some tracings on paper by pen and pencil. The walls I have built to protect me hem me in. Remember, remember, remember.
Forgotten men and women lie here. Lost to fire, famine, flood, plague and time. Lost to invasions and internecine conflict. Lost til we are all called to rise one last time, and all souls walk the paths of London town. *
—Written after a visit to the London Museum.
Well, enough dreamy diddling.
Heathrow was breeze. Passport control consists of scanning your passport at a gate and looking at a screen for your face to be recognized. 10 seconds. The gate opens, and you are through.
I’ve taken the Heathrow Express so many times I know the procedure well. In twenty minutes, I was rolling my bag through the Paddington Train Station. Up a short escalator, and the frenzy of the railway station became the regal calm of a mid-19th century grand railway hotel.
The hotel was so nice and amenable. They let me check in when I arrived just after 7:30 a.m. Breakfast in the lounge overlooking thousands of travelers moving to and fro below. A quick bath in a huge modern tub. I only take baths on trips for some reason. And so many hotels no longer have tubs.
Then out and across the street to the Underground. My Oyster Card still had 12 GBPs on it from 2019, but I topped it up another 20 since there was no one at the kiosk. Then the Circle Line to King’s Cross station. Past the Harry Potter tourist display at Platform 9 3/4 and a couple blocks to the British Library.
There are always new exhibitions there. This time one was Gold in and on books and manuscripts through the ages. And published News—fake and real—over the centuries in all modern as well as traditional mediums.
The permanent exhibit is never exactly permanent. Things are taken away for other exhibitions and different things set in their place. The Beowulf manuscript was gone again, but there was all you could wish for from Austen to Brontes.
Then there is the King’s Library. The glass encased tower of books once belonging to George III.
Then a wonderful walk down to the British Museum.
The streets of London—even those I am familiar with—are always a joy.
The line through security was very long. A guard suggested going to the rear entrance.
I walked through the ages and around the globe, all in one building. I saw the familiar sites—Rosetta Stone, Sutton Hoo, Parthenon Frieze… Then to the Vinolanda tablets, which always strike me as “booklike.”
There was a special exhibition on The World of Stonehenge. I bought a ticket and wandered the galleries another hour til my time came. It was overwhelming. Objects and contexts I had never experienced were laid out in a perfect presentation. Immersion in the artifacts and discoveries of an unknowable time.
From the “Sea-Henge” brought and put on display to the first know depiction of the celestial bodies.
Tools and jewels. Bones and stones.
You should buy the exhibition book. I did.
Then I crossed Great Russell Street to the venerable Jarndyce antiquarian bookshop. I was buzzed in and picked out several fairy books. Nothing expensive but lovely.
I really try not to buy heavy stuff I will have to carry home—but there you are. I carried my books down to Charing Cross. I crossed through Cecil Court. I entered numerous lovely bookshops. I continued down and down. I bought tickets for a Mozart Concert Tuesday evening at St Martins In the Fields.
I’d had about 4 hours sleep and headed back to Paddington for some food and a couple of cask ales in the Dickens Pub before an early-ish bedtime.
Tuesday, I was off and about early.
I started at the Embankment and walked along the Thames. My feet were light and so were my spirits. Big Ben had been scaffolded my last few visits, but he was unwrapped now and glittered gloriously.
Then to Westminster Abbey which is so rich in adornment I never fail to see many new things and names.
So much of English history is honored there and a great deal interred.
Then further down along the river to the Tate. There I visited old friends. The Pre-Raphaelites especially. They had an exhibition—and an entire gallery—devoted to fairy paintings. What is it with fairies in my life lately?
Then I found my only COVID casualty thus far.
“Where is the little Blake room?”
“It closed during the pandemic and hasn’t been reopened yet…”
I’d estimate only 1% of the population was still masked, though there were still signs and warnings about masking and social distancing everywhere.
There was frequent rain all day. I was glad I’d checked and carried my raincoat. But still, parts of me were damp.
From there, back to the Charing Cross and adjoining areas. I passed through the National Gallery being sure to visit Botticelli, Leonardo, the two Vermeers and other favorites. The Portrait Gallery was closed (not COVID.) A sign on the wrapped building read something like, “After 134 years, you’d need a little face work done too.”
Back to the hotel for a bit of a rest and a change into nice clothes.
I returned to Charing Cross. I wanted my traditional cocktail at the American Bar in the Savoy.
“Are you a guest?”
“There is a wait. 20 to 40 minutes.”
I only had 45 til Mozart.
I asked in the Grille, but the hostess said they only had table service.
“Have you tried the American Bar?”
“They said there is a wait.”
She sized me up. I was wearing my brother’s Orvis blue blazer and tight-fitting cream-colored cords.
“Not for YOU! Let me go check. Wait right here.”
No luck, but it was her mission to get me a cocktail. We walked here and there through the Savoy.
“We will go to the River. There is usually a spot there.”
She spoke to the hostess there, who led me into the River Restaurant (by Gordon Ramsay) toward the back of the Savoy lobby. It overlooks the Thames.
Service was slow, but finally a maitre d’ came over and took my order.
“Gin Gibson up very dry.”
More waiting. Concert time was approaching.
“I’m sorry, sir. I had to specially source the cocktail onions from the American Bar.”
LOL. I’d never seen a cocktail onion as big as an egg.
I’m sure it would be wonderful, but I would need a knife and fork to eat it!
The concert was perfect. I had a front-row seat looking down on the stage. Growing up, I’d always heard “The Academy of St Martin in the Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner” each week on the radio. I dreamed of actually going there. And now I have—many times.
Wednesday, I took the Bakerloo to Waterloo.
I wanted to explore that area south of the river. I have never had much reason to. My only goal from Waterloo Station was the Globe Theatre at two for Much Ado About Nothing. I found the Old Vic, which I had never seen before, and walked the neighborhoods until I got to the river and crossed over.
I passed Black Friars—not open yet—and headed for St Paul’s. It didn’t open til 11:30. There all kinds trucks and film crews bustling about and didn’t strike me that this was for the Jubilee til much later.
During COVID, I’d read in some guide that Milton was buried in some church… Cripplegate? I played on my phone a bit.
It was only a quarter mile away. The phone guided me. A sign outside the church read, “Book Sale.”
Inside, I found my hero John Milton—a great author and one who risked everything in the cause of free speech against the powers. Then I found him again. And again.
And then John Speed of atlas fame.
And Martin Frobisher, the Armada Admiral and explorer. But I couldn’t find his tomb. I went to volunteer who was running the books sale—about a dozen long tables with books in flats spine up.
“I don’t know! You’d think I would. Let’s check the guidebook. Here. It says he is by the chancery.”
We walked over and studied the floor. There it was! A modern marble paver (the place had been bomb-damaged in WW2) with almost invisible lettering incised.
I bought the guidebook and headed back toward the river. I’d always skipped the Museum of London, thinking it would be small and tedious. How wrong I was. It wound through all the millennia and centuries. Plenty of book stuff too. Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde…
I only had an hour left to get to the Globe for the 2 p.m. matinee. I crossed the Millennium Foot Bridge. A young couple asked me to take their picture with the Tower Bridge in the background. They thanked me profusely until we were all shocked when a jogger nearly knocked the phone out of my hand into the river!
I passed the Globe—there was still time. I walked to Southwark Cathedral where writers John Gower and Lancelot Andrewes are buried. There’s a famous effigy of Shakespeare there as well.
“Entry is free, but it is 5 pounds if you wish to take pictures.”
I rushed through, thinking I’d return for pictures after the play. The church had all kinds of technical stuff going on. Why? The next day it dawned on me—the Jubilee.
I hurried back to the Globe, but there was still time, so I had a Saxon Cask Ale in the famous Swan attached to the theater. The view from my table was of St Paul’s through old wavy glazed windows.
The play was great fun. The costumes were from the 1940s. The setting an Italian countryside villa in wartime. But the lines and characters were traditional, and I appreciated that. My last few visits the director had gone way, way out of the way to be edgy and “modern.”
When I got back to Southwark, the same woman told me they were closing early today and seemed surprised I didn’t want to go in for 15 minutes.
It is June 2. The last friendly month til fall. In my bed, it is 2 a.m. at home. 7 a.m. here. A bright blue sky is outside the hotel window here.
The Queen’s Jubilee began in earnest today. A “bank holiday” today and tomorrow. Thus a four-day weekend.
Elizabeth is perhaps the most constant figure left in my life. Crowned before I was born, she has always been there. This marks her 70th year on the throne. A Platinum Jubilee. She doesn’t get around much anymore, so I think her most public involvement may be waving to the crowds from the balcony at Buckingham Palace.
She has done a marvelous job, I believe. It has been a tight line, a narrow path, that she has had to walk. Being a queen in the second half of the 20th century and the first quarter of the 21st must have been difficult. One mustn’t appear too intrusive to the public. Visible but not controversial. Able to remain above the frays—including those of relatives and friends whose sinking could have possibly dragged her under with them—had she not known exactly how to retain her bearing and distance.
I plan to go to Hampstead Heath today. I haven’t been up there since the kids were little.
Keats has been a theme in recent years. My last great trip before COVID was to Rome. There I visited his last home next to the Spanish Stairs. He died there at 25. Tuberculosis. “Consumption.” I also sought out his grave in the Protestant (or English) cemetery.
Then there was the surprise discovery of a first edition of Endymion in the Wonder Book warehouse a couple of months ago. It was on a cart laden with random old books. Disbelief when I read the spine label and drew it out. I took it directly to Annika for research.
“Is this what I think it is?”
It was a bit of a trek, but I had checked off so many London sites since I arrived about 6 a.m. Monday.
17.608 steps Monday. (I was tired.) 26,198 Tuesday. 23,262 Wednesday. (I took an early evening to bed.)
Hampstead was a highlight.
I stood in Keats’ yard, hoping the place would open. It IS a bank holiday… and there was no indication either way on the website.
The gardens were fading with the end of spring.
There was a Melancholy Garden. Bury me here.
The house opened, and I was the only one in.
My last visit—so long ago—my impression was it was just an artifact then.
It was alive now.
I chatted with the docent—the only one there. I talked to her about Rome and the English Cemetery.
“Oh, the cats! It is… moving,” she spoke with love and devotion to the writer.
“The Rome of Keats is heartrending.”
I told her about the discovery of the first edition of Endymion at the Wonder Book warehouse a couple of months ago. She didn’t believe me. I didn’t blame her. She thought I was just a guy. A Keats acolyte here to pay my 8 pounds and tick a literary site off my bucket list.
“No, the real thing. It is quite valuable. To think it could have easily been lost.”
I wandered through the small rooms of the big Regency home.
He was here. Here. Here. Here. He wrote and sat upon chairs just like these.
In his bedroom, my throat checked. A little gasp.
I walked through several times.
I wished to support this magical place and bought a limited edition photo with dried flowers attached.
Outside, I sat in the garden and used the pencil I bought to scratch out some words.
In Keats’ Yard
I sit below his bedroom window
where first he tasted blood
“That drop of blood is my death warrant
I must die.”
Spring birdsongs—chirrups and whistles—
eternal sounds—coos the mourning dove.
A bee alights upon blossom
which bends and sways beneath that burden.
Time and distance; desire and books
have brought me here.
Few journeys have been its equal.
Breathe and pray I’ll not taste my doom soon
Breathe and pray I will write til that final day.
How many emotional moments in so few hours?
I am lucky to be alive. And cognizant.
Around the world, there are precious few who understand there is another level of life above food, air, water, money… I know it is there, but I’m not among those who can grasp it.
I am not at that level, though I do aspire.
I know what I don’t know. I think.
There is such a thing as love.
“Truth is beauty. Beauty truth. That is all…”
Well, to have loved and lost is better than never to have loved at all.
Has some muse guided me here? Rescued from a mistake?
My legs, eyes, hands, mind all work—I think—for better or worse. Better than most. But far below the first tier.
All I can do is try and keep trying.
Ignore the noise.
What is the mission? After “book rescue” what?
From Keats’, I ascended to Hampstead Heath. Forest and meadow, dozens of intersecting paths. Lots of dog walkers, picnickers and sunbathers.
I searched for Parliament Hill where one can see all of London in the distance.
Where was Kenwood House? I would dearly like to visit. I know what is inside. Part of the treasure quest of my youth. The phone didn’t understand the intersecting dirt trails. Nor did I. The way seemed up, up until it didn’t. But then, through the trees, a green glow. An enormous lawn. Water to one side. A “sham” bridge crossing it.
There was the creamy edifice!
I walked more and more, ascending the pasture where people prostrated themselves beneath the sun.
I pulled open the front door, and a docent greeted me, “Would you like to hear a talk in the library? It has just begun.”
Naturally, I had made my way through field and forest just for this moment.
He led me there and left me with a group. The speaker was explaining light and faux windows and mirrors bouncing light to and fro. The ornate ceiling had many shades of pink and blue and many Italian paintings, including the four seasons. The room was lozenge shaped and modeled on a Roman bath. The books were at either end. Semicircular the two ends of the lozenge. These were replacement books. The collection of really rare ones was moved to a castle when the man was raised to earl. Still, they looked lovely.
“It is all about the architect’s geometry.”
A bust of blank-eyed marble Homer rested atop a pillar next to the fireplace. His image was repeated in the grand portrait of the sponsor above the hearth. (I had seen two blind busts in 24 hours.) I was led back to where the tour began. Room to room to room—most of the rooms were galleries. I entered one and scanned the walls.
For the second time that day, my eyes took my breath away.
“AH!” the oxygen was drawn from my lungs.
I can tell it was her, though severely obliquely angled from where I stood.
Aglow the painting’s subject alive for eternity.
Vermeer. Vermeer, who has spoken to me more than any artist my entire adult life. Vermeer. My long ago quest to see each one. I saw the stolen one at the Gardner in Boston as a student not long before the robbery. Gone forever now? I saw them all long ago. The quest completed, but still I would climb as needed to see any of them again.
My heart raced. My breath caught. I knew she was there but did not expect to see her.
Out of the stately house and back into the heath. Down and round to the charming town of Hampstead. No crass improvement was impugned upon this place. Its perfection preserved is its value. Its raison d’être. The attraction and reason it is a destination to be sought and paid for. Down in the Underground, I took the Northern Line south toward the city.
I decided I did want a taste of the Jubilee, although I am not one for crowds. The Northern Line passes through Charing Cross. I exited there and made my way up to the street. They were filled. Closed off by the police. Many people were carrying small Union Jacks on sticks in each hand. It was a festive crowd. I made my way through people to Trafalgar Square. From there, the view down Whitehall toward the newly refurbished and gilded Big Ben was a sold mass of humanity.
I would go no further but rather went to the nearby Sherlock Holmes Pub and toasted her Highness with a Jubilee Cask Ale.
The pub and area outside it were so crowded I had to cross the street and sit upon a window ledge and sip the golden stuff and watch all the different peoples pass by.
It is Friday morning. I have no plans. Perhaps out to Kew Gardens? Whatever I do, this week’s story should be sent across the ocean this morning.
How did it begin?
Last weekend. Getaway weekend.
Friday night, I noticed my laptop wasn’t charging at home. I figured there was a problem with the cord or something. Apple seems to make crappy chargers. Saturday, I got into work early. I tried a couple of chargers there. I tried multiple outlets as well. The little lightning bold icon that appears when the laptop is charging would not appear. Panic set in. I reached out to Clark, the tech wizard who is responsible for so much of Wonder Book’s growth. I was sure I would need a new laptop. I’d had a laptop get pulled off a book cart a couple of years ago. The cord got snagged on something and “smaaaack!”
Clark was able to switch over all the data then, though for many days afterward there were glitches—mostly password issues and things that required renewal to the new laptop’ s identity.
Regardless, it would be a mess even if a new laptop was acquired.
He came in the afternoon with a new laptop and a new charger. By some magic, he got the thing working with the new cord and some internal adjustments.
After a full day of carts and other cleanup stuff, I had to go up to the old Pennsylvania house with chain saws, weed wackers and other implements of destruction. The once stately gardens were overgrown and some of the trees I planted there in the 90s needed attention. Familial duty.
Clark texted late afternoon, “It is charging now.”
Sunday, I got up early and packed for London. I searched my closet and found things I hadn’t worn since March 2020. I’ve a way to go to get into everything, but it is such a pleasure to have cast aside my COVID Couture of hoodies and battered jeans purchased in 2020.
I checked the weather there. I looked at my list for everything that would be needed. I turned the water and water heater off. I don’t know why. It wouldn’t freeze in May. When I got to work, I didn’t have the keycard to open the doors. I’d left the little thing on the kitchen counter. It was the only thing I’d forgotten. Travis and Dylan and Ridgley were there. I banged on a dock door and was let in. I had 2 backup cards in my office. I put one in my pocket and went out to my car to bring some stuff in. It didn’t work. Some things are just so automatic—they always work—like the charger on the laptop. I had to walk all the way around the building to be let in again. I went through the same thing with the second backup.
The day became a farce. I was so preoccupied with urgent getaway tasks that I locked myself out again and again. I never thought to simply prop a door open.
I left for Dulles at 2 for 6 p.m. flight. From there, everything went smoothly. The British Air flight was half full, and I was given a window seat and a row to myself toward the back. I settled in and watched the sun set for a long time as we headed north toward the Maritimes.
* [original format of the opening paragraphs]
Half a million years ago
we walked along the Thames.
The land was rich and cool.
Little did we know
15,000 generations would follow.
Placing stone upon stone
a city was built.
Fire, fighting, famine and plague
set us back time and again.
And here we are today. A sprawling tapestry
of buildings, streets, work and people.
Millions of roles are played
to move this place forward.
Day by day.
Year by year.
Century by century.
Eon by eon.
Today I walked the streets
their patterns laid out
as ancient cart paths
with nary a straightaway
to be found in the old parts.
Horse cart trails.
They still carry fruit, bread, wine.
We live here day by day.
Sing a song.
Play a role.
Kick a ball.
Grow, breed, age and die.
“Sing Muse sing!”
The pile of stone I have built,
mighty for a day,
will wear and wane and wash away.
I cannot leave a mark longer than a day,
year or decade.
Perhaps a century if fate allows.
Forgotten words. Forgotten steps.
You loved me here long ago
and long ago
and long ago.
Forgotten and, to you, a distant memory.
Not a trace upon the land.
Just some tracings
on paper by pen and pencil.
The walls I have built protect me
and hem me in.
Remember, remember, remember.
Forgotten men and women lie here.
Lost to fire, famine, flood, plague and time;
lost to invasions and internecine conflicts;
lost til we are all called to rise
one last time
and souls walk the paths of London town. *