It has taken some time since returning from London yesterday evening to sluice off the dried travel sweat, unpack, delete more than a thousand messages from the work e-mail, and get a little sleep after twenty-four waking hours. But now I am prepared to give an account of our travels to those who have been waiting breathlessly.
Those of you who find other people’s travel accounts excruciatingly boring would do well to skip this post, In a day or so, I will resume posting on language, journalism, politics, haberdashery, and the other topics you find excruciatingly boring. (Yes, I’ve read the comments you posted while I was away, and I’ve taken names for your Permanent Records.)
Rather than dwell on the sausages of the full English breakfast at the President Hotel in Russell Square or other morbid elements of the trip, I offer some highlights.
* A splendid production of The Rivals by Sir Peter Hall at the Haymarket, with Penelope Keith as Mrs. Malaprop and Peter Bowles as Sir Anthony Absolute. Letter-perfect timing and exquisite delivery. It would be hard to imagine Sheridan done better.
* Rory Kinnear’s athletic Hamlet at the Olivier Theatre. The production is in modern dress, with Claudius the model of the bureaucratic dictator, which enables the play to emphasize elements of spying and surveillance as well as the revenge motif. David Calder’s Polonius has nice touches of the sinister beneath the canting.
* An evening of Bach and Vivaldi at St. Martin-in-the-Fields with the Belmont Ensemble. The Four Seasons has been done so often that I no longer listen when some ensemble saws through it on the radio, but Helena Wood delivered a performance on solo violin that combined great passion with absolute precision. St. Martin’s exquisite acoustics were a help, even to us seated behind a pillar.
* Choral evensong at Bath Abbey, with a large choir, half of them boys, doing the Psalm in Anglican chant. Magnificent fan-vaulted ceiling.
* One of Kathleen’s best ideas: high tea at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair: warm brown wainscoting, plaster medallions in the ceiling, a piano player, a quietly attentive staff steadily replenishing the tea, the finger sandwiches, the scones. No better way to sped two hours on a dark gray rainy afternoon.
* Pub lunches at the Swan in Bloomsbury (meat pies) and the Crown in Oxford. Late-night pints and snacks at the Marquis Cornwallis, also in Bloomsbury.
* Another of K.’s best ideas: a walk through the Borough Market in Southwark on one of the days it is open to the public. Food of every imaginable kind, both raw and cooked. And exploring the adjacent Southwark Cathedral, I was able to pay my respects at the tombs of John Gower, the first great poet in English, and Lancelot Andrewes, one of the translators of the Authorized Version of the Bible.
* Walking across the Millennium Bridge, with an incomparable view of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
* Exploration of the Cabinet War Rooms, preserved since 1945. A claustrophobic warren from which the British war effort was coordinated. Little rooms that must have reeked of tobacco smoke as the Nazi bombardment of London roared overhead. Maps, typewriters, log books, all preserved.
* Twenty minutes in Blackwell’s in Oxford, limited by the scheduled departure of our coach. That’s all right; any more would have been dangerous. I did snag a secondhand copy of a selection of Hazlitt’s essays.
Oh there was more: Stonehenge, the British Museum, Christ Church at Oxford, and the Birthplace Museum at Stratford with its inane videos and a walk of fame that puts Leonardo DiCaprio (!) on a footing with Lord Olivier. And a compressed one-day trip on the Eurostar to Paris to lunch with Robert Youngblood and Ursula Liu, who left The Sun for the International Herald Tribune. We had time to see Notre Dame de Paris and a little of the Louvre.*
Didn’t make it to Westminster Abbey, the British Library, the original Tate (though we walked through some of the Tate Modern as museum fatigue began to overtake us). But no regrets. It was grand. The weather was British: chilly, cloudy or rainy, generally depressing. Our stamina was tested; one day K.’s pedometer registered more than 17,000 steps, many of them on stairs in the Underground. We both came down with colds, as did just about everyone else of the College of Notre Dame party. But no regrets. It was grand.
*Let me advise you, if you admire the Mona Lisa, to buy a postcard or poster rather than attempt to see it at the Louvre. You are, first, kept as such a remove by a barrier that the painting might as well be a photograph on newsprint, and you will additionally have to fight your way to the front through a crowd of frenzied tourists taking photographs, usually with prohibited flashes. Among the things I will not miss: the filth of the Paris Metro, souvenir shops of all descriptions, and mobs of tourists snapping photographs of every object in sight.