Oratory Epiphany

Tomb Effigy

Thursday, June 9, just after midnight on the mountain.

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream

I came home early Wednesday night, and after a few chores I could not ignore, I went to bed. No dinner. I just lay down (for a bit), and then it was midnight. I am in between just now. London time and Maryland time. Should I fall asleep again? Or stay up and write? There’s an early deadline this week, and anyway, this story is more than full. I thought it would be a much happier story. But old friends and old duties and “forced labor” have turned my “catch-up week” after being away into a dreary drudge of moving backward or, at best, treading water. I won’t get into that, but… people can be strange. Not me, of course. It couldn’t possibly be me. Could it?

But I won’t let it drag me down. Old friends and new, gossip, drudgery and hard construction labor I shouldn’t be doing work at this point in my career. I guess it goes with the territory. I signed on for this trip. Gotta take the lows with the highs.

Last Friday, London

The blog was posted Friday morning from London. I sent it off before people were waking in the States.

Then I took off for Kew Gardens. It is a fairly long subway ride, a bit of a learning curve as far as the Underground routes.

I spent hours walking through the vast landscaped park. Trees, meadows, ponds, gardens, glass houses. I wanted to stop and write some verses, but neither the right spot nor inspiration came.

I walked and looked up into woodland canopies.

Kew Canopy

I walked and looked out over waters with swans sailing over them. I walked and crossed fields of mown grass with views designed to draw the eye this way and that.

I walked and walked and walked.

It was a planless day—my penultimate, I thought.

When I got aboard the train for the trip to return to town, I looked at the list of stops ahead. There were many. I decided upon St James Park. It abuts Buckingham Palace. I could be whisked there underground and climb to the surface in the midst of the Jubilee. And I did!

It is a lovely park in the center of the city. Today it was filled with revelers. Many were moving, looking for places where they might get a better view of the palace or the wide boulevards leading to it.

A big late night thunderstorm just rolled up the mountain. Rain is pouring on the roof. Thunder booms occasionally. Torrents of rain are flowing over every surface outside.

I unplugged the laptop and the phone. I don’t want a power surge to fry my lifelines. That may have been what hit my laptop right before my trip. The storm didn’t last long. It is 5 a.m.

There were people everywhere. Sitting on chairs or blankets. Leaning on security rails, watching the very wide empty boulevard that leads to the palace. People threading through pathways going this way or that. I wandered through the park with its gardens and water and birdlife. I went to the road. The railings were lined with security personnel.

Cheering began far off to my right and rolled closer to me. Someone was coming. By the time I got my phone out and camera on, Charles and Camilla had already sped by in the ancient Rolls or Bentley. It had a high roof with lots of glass so the passengers can be seen.

Charles and Camilla

Then I headed away from the palace and crossed the road at the first point security permitted. I was able to get a picture of the palace in the distance with its festive blue lights flashing.


From there, I headed into the city, choosing parts I hadn’t visited yet.

Jermyn Street—more an alley behind tall buildings—has always been a street of tailors and haberdashers. I recall being so bold as to get my older son—he was a young teen then—fitted for a suit in one. He still relishes sartorial splendor. Maybe I should get a suit made. I don’t know where I’d wear it. I’d like to go to operas and shows again. But going alone AND all dressed up would be an exercise. I wonder if I can fit into my tux again?

Sadly, much of Jermyn Street was boarded up. Closed shops for lease. Not many people bought work or dress clothes for the last couple of years, I suppose. COVID.

I finally wended my way to the Sherlock Holmes. After an eponymous cask ale, I took the Bakerloo train from The Embankment to Paddington. I fell into bed and reviewed last week’s story and responded to questions from my editor. I opened a bottle of champagne I’d picked up from the Sainsbury—one of many shops that service the hordes that pass through the train station. Champagne is inexpensive here. Less than $20. I read some.

Hotel Champagne

And then dozed. The finished blog came through. I posted it on the ABAA website, which always gets a Friday preview. I headed out on foot planning for a proper dinner of pub grub at one of the locals, but they were no longer serving food after 8.

“Sorry. The kitchens closed.”

I had a Peroni. All the cask ales were tapped out?!

Then I walked down Praed to Edgware. I passed the building where “Sir Alexander Fleming Discovered Penicillin in the Second Story Room Above this Plaque.” I turned onto Edgware Road. It is a major thoroughfare I have walked down many times. Over the years, it has evolved to almost completely Middle Eastern restaurants and shops and shisha bars. About every other storefront had seated men smoking water pipes on the sidewalks. Then I cut right into the residential sections. So many of the tall thin Edwardian row houses have been converted into independent hotels. Each has a name to try to make it sound grander than it is. One had its prices posted on a window. It started at 19 pounds for a single.

Heathrow, Sunday evening.

My flight was delayed two hours. The hotel was generous and gave me a 3 p.m. checkout.

So, I ended up with an extra full day.

‘What hadn’t I done?’ I thought at breakfast.

A lot of things were closed for the last day of the Jubilee—including some Underground stations.

I decided to go to King’s Cross from Paddington and walked north to the canals. It has been a while since I’ve seen them.

There was even a book barge, although it wasn’t open.

Bookshops are like vermin. They have a habit of popping up in the strangest places.

From there, I headed into town. The ultimate goal was the Wallace Collection. Another favorite I haven’t been to in… too long.

It was very cool and damp. I should have worn a jacket, but I kept moving.

I passed a few bookshops. Closed. But it was still early.

There is something magic or haunted about a closed bookshop. I’ve always felt that when the lights are down, the books are in charge. When I would go into one of my stores late at night, I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but I felt eyes were on me from everywhere.

Closed Bookshop

And it is a well-known fact that books can move themselves around at night. I have found mis-shelved books that I was certain were properly placed the day before. Perhaps they go calling on friends or acquaintances. Or maybe they are just searching for a spot that is a better “fit”—deciding to resettle there. Oh, and don’t get me started on the books I used to find on the floor when I’d open in the morning. Though I have exaggerated those occurrences in the weird bookshop I write about in the Round and Round stories, I have found books that shouldn’t—couldn’t have just toppled off a shelf. They had to have been pushed. Or perhaps they jumped. Maybe just showing off—trying to get attention. Sometimes I would take it as an omen. “Why this book? Why this day?”

Though I never open any of the retail stores any more—my work has evolved to a far different role than retail bookseller. But I’m sure the books still have their little games and sport when the lights are down and there are no humans in the building. Just books and the spirits of… the spirits who occupy every old bookshop. Come peek in the window if you’re passing by late some night.

And if you’re ever invited to visit a closed bookshop at night, by all means go… MAGIC!

Maybe we should start offering haunted bookshop tours…

I wonder what we could charge?

I also passed the iconic Pollock’s toy store. I don’t believe I had ever passed by it before. I peered into its darkened interior. Far creepier! Dolls and puppets and things you wouldn’t want to come to life if you were alone with them.

Pollock's Toy Store

It was 2 or more miles from the canal until I found the nearly hidden square where the Wallace Collection mansion was secreted. It was a great walk.

It was another mansion art gallery. One of the early stories I wrote here was about a son selling off his mother’s various collections. She had plates, glassware, books, a big Alice in Wonderland collection… stuff. All of it was meticulously organized and cataloged. She was a judge… and a hoarder. He said she would tell him, “The difference between a collector and a hoarder is the size of their bank account.”

So many great museums and institutions are legacies of wealthy hoarders… ummm collectors… who found a way to endow a space so their collection needn’t be broken up for eternity. Frick, Morgan, Mellon, Carnegie, the Queen’s Collection (which I visited an exhibition of when I was in Scotland in April)… The Wallace has wall after wall after wall of paintings. There are rooms filled with glass cases of medieval weaponry. There are even a couple of stuffed horses with hollow knights in full armor atop them. It was an immersive experience.

When I was finished, I stepped out and down the steps. Something held me up. Part of it was thought that I should have used the bathroom. But that made me think—”Why did I skip the Disney special exhibition?” Part of it was politics. The company has for decades shifted from magical creations to preaching and propaganda. I recall being horrified when I took my little kids to the newest release—Pocahontas. The opening scenes were all about how horrible and evil and corrupt ALL the European settlers were. My ancestors were settlers. Poor Welsh farmers and miners fleeing religious and political persecution. Not unlike people from all over the world trying to get into the US today. Anyway, I refer you to museums and institutions that are legacies of moguls like Leland Stanford who may not have treated people well as a railroad builder—but in the context of their times, they can’t be judged by today’s standards. The Stanford legacy is one of the best universities in the world, with a huge stunningly beautiful campus and their own art galleries, including a large collection of Rodin—indoors and out.

The Disney exhibition… it was down in the basement—where the bathrooms are. I reluctantly paid the $20 to get in. It was a jewel. The theme was the influence of French art, style, culture… on Walt when he visited the country in the early 30s after his first tastes of success with Mickey Mouse.

And the artists, women and men, he inspired to create magical worlds, from Cinderella to Beauty and the Beast.

Another part of the exhibition was how the women and men who created these things could anthropomorphize? French clocks, sofas, candelabras… into “living” characters.

There on the wall was Fragonard’s The Swing. I looked closer. It was the original.

“What’s that all about?”

“Ahhh, magic.”

From there, I walked down to Bond Street, which is kind of like 5th Avenue in New York. I took a quick walk through Selfridges—another vast many-leveled department store. It was full of boutiques—stores within the store—of haute couture—Prada, Tiffany’s… It was a kind of a living museum. Much of that stuff will someday be “collectible” “antiques.”

From there, down Carnaby Street, which was the heart of 1960s Mod style (Twiggy) and is still lined with fashionable shops.

Down toward St James Park and Buckingham Palace. It was the last day of the Jubilee. The crowds were enormous. More streets were blocked off. There was a festive air. I stood and watched a long line of people emerge from a building on the Birdcage Walk. They were upper crust, special ticket holders, being led to special seating. All were dressed in finery.

I didn’t go into the throng but, rather, skirted it.

Then over to Trafalgar Square. I had to find a back way to the Sherlock Holmes Pub for one last cask ale.

Then to Bakerloo from the Embankment to Paddington.

I packed. Double-checked my passport, negative COVID test print out—all the essentials I would need to get home. I rolled my suitcase down and into the train station and followed the line of “Heathrow Express” stickers affixed to the floor. In twenty minutes, I was at the airport. Everything went smoothly. No one asked to see my test or vax card. I had a couple hours to spare, so I decided to splurge at the Fortnum and Massey “bar.” I’ve done this a few other times and have been disappointed when time constraints prevented it.

Before you scream wretched excess, all that plus a martini cost under $100, including VAT and service charges.

And I really hadn’t gone out to dinner but once for whatever reasons—mostly because there was free food and drink in the hotel happy hour. My dinner out was pub grub—steak and ale pie. The Brits love their “pies” which are usually a kind of stew enclosed in a pastry crust.

From there, I took the long walk to the gate. When I got there, I looked at my step count for Sunday. 27,008. I did a mental for the week in London. 160,000 plus.

Oh! I skipped Saturday!

It was a glorious day, but also one filled with contemplation, streams of consciousness and an epiphany. Some of that too personal tediousness is appended at the bottom of this story. Likely TMI.

I headed south and was soon in the Kensington Park gardens. I walked along The Long Water and the Serpentine. It is rife with birdlife, most of which are comfortable with humans passing close by. Dozens of swans, graylag geese, Eurasian coots and… Some were nesting. Some had little babies swimming about.

Then down into the Knightsbridge and Mayfair areas. Oh, the money and style there!

I went into Harrods and wandered through the food halls where the selections are endless. Really! They won’t display just a few smoked salmon selections but, rather, a couple dozen. They don’t just have a champagne shelf. They have a champagne “Hall.” I wonder what the 1962 Moet sells for?

I know this bottle of whisky is offered at 75,000 GBP.

Macallan Whisky

I decided I would return for my frozen treat at the Godiva restaurant and headed out.

I crossed Great Ormond and found my way into the Brompton Oratory, although at first it didn’t appear open. I guess an oratory is somewhere between a large church and a cathedral. For more that went on there, see below.

Then to the V&Athe Victoria and Albert Museum—with its endless halls and galleries where you can wander through time and all the world.

I started with the medieval areas. There were so many wonderful things.

Books. And people with books.

An enormous tapestry with its complex symbolism explained.

I passed a bust which caught my eye. Did “my” muse pose for this?

Then I noticed there was a Beatrix Potter exhibition.

“The soonest I can get you a ticket is two.” I accepted that.

I walked back down to Harrods, taking back streets and alleys. Afghanistan still has a fancy embassy here?

I wandered the floors of Harrods through toys and silver and artwork and books!

Mostly though, I was looking for the Godiva Cafe to treat myself to their luscious frozen concoction. It was not there anymore. COVID?

Back to the V&A for Beatrix Potter. It was great fun. Peter Rabbit was the first book I ever “read.” My parents had recited it so many times I had it memorized and could “read” it and tell them when to turn the pages.

Back up through the parks. I passed Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

Then things got a little weird. I started checking to be sure I didn’t need any document to get home. I searched online and got mixed results. I searched my check-in page for British Air. I texted friends traveling in Portugal and Spain. I finally called down to the front desk.

“Yes. You need a negative COVID test.”


My travel agent had said I needed nothing.

The hotel said there was a testing service in the train station, but I had to make an appointment online. That was an exercise for numerous reasons. But I finally got an appointment about 6.

My evening plans were ruined.

Wasted hours.

The tester barely touched my nose. “Results in 40 minutes. 50 pounds please.”

It was negative. I emailed the results to the desk to be printed and went out to a nearby pub. I had my first dinner in London on the last night. Steak and ale pie with chips and a cask ale. The dinner out I mentioned earlier.

Steak and Ale Pie

I was somewhat assuaged.

The Jubilee was on TV.

Jubilee TV Coverage

I found a link of Paddington Bear having tea with the Queen.

All’s well that ends, I suppose.

Sunday night flight.

I got a window seat when I checked in during the COVID test fiasco on Saturday night. It was about 8 p.m. when we took off. The sun was just going down. The sun kept going down as we traveled for the 6-hour flight. I would look out periodically at the vast blanket of cotton ball clouds over the Atlantic. We landed before 10, and in Virginia, the sun had just gone down. There was still light on the horizon.

I breezed through passport control. No forms any more. You put your passport into a machine and use the machine to take a picture of yourself. There was no line for the border guard. All she asked was, “Anything to declare?”


“Welcome back.”


Lots to catch up on. Lots of carts.

The head contractor called.

“Remember the roofing we were trying to get? They need to deliver it Friday. It is 12 tractor-trailer loads. You said you have a space for it in the dockyard, right?”

“Yes, but we need to move a lot of stuff.”

He came out an hour later, and we scoped out the dockyard. It is about 3/4 of an acre and all fenced in. We thought the stuff would need to be protected, so no lawn mower or truck could damage the stuff. The perfect place was filled with junk. When we moved into the warehouse in 2013-14, the Post Office had left all kinds of equipment there—loose and built in. There was also a lot of shelving that didn’t survive being taken down and moved. A LOT. We should just sell it as scrap.

So we pivoted from book work to scrap metal moving.

It wasn’t pretty.

It is Wednesday. Travis and I are heading back I 270 from Gaithersburg. Sales have been down the last few months at all of the stores, and I’m trying to figure out why. If there is a “why”?

In Gaithersburg, the problem is not enough fresh stock on the shelves. There is plenty of room in most categories.

A month ago, the place was overstuffed. They stopped pricing because there was no place to put stuff. We came down from the warehouse and culled to make space.

I’m guessing they got into the habit of not pricing things… thus the problem.

“Let’s price 25 or 30 boxes today. We will send a lot of stuff down that you need tomorrow. The o nly way to keep customers interested is to keep fresh stock going on to the shelves.”

I’m going to cut this week’s story off today.

June has been great so far. Of course, most of that has been in London. But the positivity of May didn’t seem to disappear with the changing of the month. I’m mining clothes out of the closet I have not worn since BC. Before COVID. My dry cleaner should be happy. I’m wearing cotton shirts that need to be ironed. They are a sweet Asian couple. When I went a couple of weeks ago, she said, “Where have you been? It’s been a long time.”

I felt bad having them store my shirts for so long. I asked her to keep the change. She said, “Come back soon for these. We are closing sometime.”

Oh, no! They were so good. I think it is COVID. No one has dressed up for so long, and a lot of people are still working from home in sweats and t-shirts.

Below is my streams-of-consciousness from Saturday. Happy reading!

Saturday Addendum: Oratory Epiphany and London Song

This is also Fantasy. Some of these things never happened.

Oh, the wind was coming up
And 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 home-like land.

Jim Roberts “London Song”

I was in Marblehead, Massachusetts when this song was recorded.

George Martin—who many say was The Fifth Beatle—and created their sound—was the producer. My brother’s group was going to be the next Beatles.

I was a 16-year-old kid tagging along unseen, likely unwanted, by my big brother Jim.

How I got him and my parents to agree to my spending a month in New England with my “rock and roll” brother I don’t know.

Well, at least I’m here to record it.

Jim and Chrissy were living in a red and black clapboard saltbox. She was beautiful. When my brother let me fly with him to New York City to go with him to his agent’s office, he handed me the newest issue of Playboy.

“Check page…”

It was Chrissy! She was one of the “Girls of California.”


Her hair was like a hurricane. Her eyes like forest pools. Her words were few and fine and fair. I fell just like a fool!

Jim Roberts “Gramercy”

“And you were on my mind, my love…”

Now London to me is the paths we trod.

Lost. Lost. That was indeed my fault.

Soon the sun was coming up
and I was singing drinking drunk and lonesome songs
in the back of a London taxi cab…
And I would not go lie alone in an empty London bed.

Another 20,000 step day. I wandered the endless galleries of the V&A.

Each step recalls the steps we took.

This place is still in the context of you, us, these six plus years later.

Funny. A lifetime distilled into those months.

I was given new eyes. I have them still.

But you don’t. You’ve gone dark.

The worlds we have missed in the years since.

Well, I am trying to make it up on my own.

And, damn! I am seeing a lot of stuff!

Thanks for the eyes.

Wish you were here.

Her hair was like a hurricane. Her eyes like forest pools.

Have you ever known anyone whose eyes change color? Well, they did. Many, many times.

Blue, turquoise, amber, gold, hazel, green…

Some times from one glance to another. You can’t make that up.

Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there.

Joan Baez

And just when I think I am over it, the scab peels off.


My first visit was when I was 18. I met Louella from Tennessee in the Paris train station. We traveled from there through England and Wales. We went to Hay-on-Wye in Wales and discovered the bookshops. No funny business. Too bad. Maybe I’d have a dozen southern kids.

It turned out ok though. Maybe I’d have become a bus driver looking forward to a distant pension. Just about now…

Nothing wrong with that. But I like where fate and my only talent took me.


Another dip into the infinite this past week.

All the trips to London, and they all are defined by that one week. And the year it fell in the middle of.


I wandered through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.

All the swans and geese and ducks.

Then into Harrods. So many storefronts in the area are dark. “On Offer.” COVID, I presume.

“I’ll come back later and get Godiva as I always do.”

Up Brompton Road I crossed to the Oratory.

We went there. You didn’t get it. You do now, you say. You thought Aleister Crowley and goat’s head stuff was cool then. I was horrified. I should have been more patient. Well, I was.

The Brompton Oratory. I crossed from the dark to the light. The dark of the bright but soulless day outside into the soft light within the soaring dark spaces of the huge church’s interior. The change struck me, took my breath away.

A few dozen kids and infants and parents were there for baptisms in a southeast chapel.

A line of older folks. 20 or so. Stood waiting to confess in the center western chapel. Canes, shopping bags, bent, tired…

I sat in the pew in the middle somewhere and waited.

A ray of light pierced the air.


I walked to the southwest chapel and bought a candle. 45 p. I put pound coin in and actually thought of taking two!



I lit it and kneeled on the hard wood but felt no pain.

I moved closer to the central altar and kneeled again.

“Our Father…”—silently.

I wandered around the soaring beauty and peace and solitude. Statues and paintings watching my moves from their dark alcoves.

I got up and moved to the south east side. I kneeled in another side chapel. The painting above the altar was a woman. Not Mary, I think. I didn’t note which saint it was.

I kneeled on the marble by the rail. I said a Hail Mary. And another. Those words alien and difficult to a Protestant kid.

Alone in the vast space with dozens of people in other spaces in the void I was given an oratory epiphany, which poured into and out of me.

Tears filled the clenched praying hands pressed over my eyes.

“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him…”

Tears. Unknown by any but me. A lonely figure kneeling in the vast space.

I surrender.

All past is prologue.

And then I rose.

Changed but to all other eyes the same.

I rose and walked out of the oratory leaving but a wet rail above the hard wood I had kneeled upon.

Not a bad couple hours all in all.

I still miss you as I would the breath I take and the blood that pulses in my veins.

But, no.

You built me.

Broke me.

And now I have cobbled myself together and thrown it all into whatever tomorrow is.

The last years have been incredibly productive in every way.

A phoenix rising from the ashes as it were.

I blame you.

I credit you.

You had, have no clue.

And my plans to build a soaring tower or sprawling cathedral are just a pipedream.

Wonder Book Scrapyard

12 Comments on Article

  1. Michael Dirda commented on

    To paraphrase E.B. White’s Charlotte, that’s “Some Column,” Chuck. I grow alternately envious and tired reading about your wanderings and adventures. –md

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Michael!
      I hope you dont add “bored” to envious and tired!
      Things will settle down as far as travel for a while.
      I never know what each day will bring in the Book Circus
      I appreciate you commenting very much.

  2. Tawn O’Connor commented on

    Wonder Book Rte. 40 true story:
    One day I was working in the Mystery aisle when a book fell off the shelf a few feet away. No reason, it just flew off the shelf and hit the floor. So I picked it up.
    The author: Laura Lippmann.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on


  3. Susan Bruner commented on

    Dear Chuck, you own no apologies or excuses to anyone for any expenditure you make after all that you have and do sacrifice for the love of books. You will never reap the financial but books deserve a chance to survive so those that come behind us can find them and love them as some of us do.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That is kind Susan.
      I just dont want to appear to be bragging or being excessive.
      Sometimes it is fun to splurge – especially after the last couple years.
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  4. Jack Walsh commented on

    What a wonderful description of visiting London sights. Have you ever considered becoming a travel writer for a newspaper or magazine?
    On a visit to the V&A, I found the office of the Pittsburg business man that Frank Lloyd Wright designed. It was located above the cafeteria for some reason. Did you see it on your visit?

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you for reading and commenting Jack!
      I hope I can travel more again soon.
      Yes, I saw the “exhibits” in the cafe area but didnt realize what they were. The V&A is so vast!
      Thanks again!

  5. charles peltz commented on

    I like the quality of your photographic images; what model and make iPhone are you using?

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting.
      It is an iPhone9. Just standard issue I think.
      I tale a lot of pictures so there are plenty to choose from.

  6. Gregory commented on

    It is perhaps just as well that you did not end up writing a poem at Kew Gardens, because you could not top Alexander Pope’s deathless words on the collar of the Prince of Wales’s dog:

    “I am his Highness’s Dog at Kew.
    Pray tell me Sir, whose Dog are you?”

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That got me to laugh!
      Pope deserves more recognition.

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