Tiptoe......................peeking through the gate

London, Day Two


     Well, to my surprise, many of you actually read through my rambling chronicle of our first day in London and want more. Last weekend, I think I had my seventh and eighth requests for more of the story, so here goes with day two… remember that you asked for it!

    To begin, let’s return to the tony Portman Square just outside our hotel, fenced in and locked to keep out the likes of Ross and me.  Where I left off we were walking hand in hand around the fenced enclosure on a balmy July evening. The setting reminded Ross of a childhood poem by Hilaire Belloc, that went like this:

Proceeded, in the place of same,  

To substitute Miss Charming's name:

Who now resides in Portman Square

and is accepted everywhere.

    This poem was actually a commentary on overactive boys and shrewd nurses. Miss Charming, it seems, was a middle class English nurse who hailed from the lowly Dorchester and cared for a wealthy London gentleman in his final illness. Just before his death, the dying man’s grandson and heir chucked a rock through the air and accidentally hit the man on the head. At this point, the irritated man called for a pen, which Miss Charming fetched with unseemly haste. On the spot, the old man changed his will and left his entire estate to his nurse….who from then on resided in Portman Square and was “accepted everywhere.”

    The English do love class, especially figuring out each other's.  Americans completely befuddle them. (I once read an article about the British love for excluding. It said that as soon as you put two Englishmen together in a room they will immediately begin conniving about how to exclude a third.)

     I became aware of their class system when I worked in London in the 70's. A hardworking fellow in our office was dutiful but so left brained it made him dull. He asked me to dinner one night, and I accepted, mostly to be nice. The only thing I remember from the evening was his lengthy description of why certain chemicals are added to ice cream. The test of a good ice cream, he maintained, was whether it would keep its shape when melted. (Susan, our Whole Foods-loving daughter,  would have something unpleasant to say about that!)

    The next week, my boss learned that I had gone to dinner with Trevor and expressed  surprise, because Trevor, he said, was Upper Class. (Who knew?) Apparently Trevor never would have considered asking anyone else in the office to dinner.  Said the boss, “We English just don’t know what to do with you Americans. Can’t figure you out, class-wise.”  Three cheers for America!!!

     But back to our vacation.  On Wednesday morning I poked around on the computer and learned that Ross does not have a lucky face. In fact, this is a scam pulled by Indonesians in major European cities. After imparting the good news about your lucky face and guaranteeing three happinesses that day, they ask you a number of personal questions. By some sleight of hand, after they ask you the answers, they make it appear that they wrote the answers before you gave them. Then they expect money!

     It didn’t matter that we didn’t get that far, because we had more than three happinesses lying ahead of us Wednesday morning. Through the rain and around the corner our day began at a pub called Wetherspoons, which served a full English breakfast for about six dollars. That meant bread toasted and cooled (the English don’t eat hot toast), marmalade, eggs, baked beans, and choice of sausage, bacon or grilled tomato and mushroom. I opted for the vegetables and we sat at a corner table by a tall window and watched the downpour as we ate.

    After breakfast we caught the tube over to Westminster Abbey for Holy Communion, which is routinely unforgettable. A look up, down, or sideways does not disappoint. Every golden square inch contributes to its soaring, lacy grandeur. In the heart of the Abbey lies the private enclosure where kings and queens are crowned. All around lie the greats of English history—royals, divines, poets, scientists, writers, musicians.

     After communion, we took in the special photo exhibit in honor of the Queen’s Jubilee year. Lifesize black-and-white portraits showed the transitions in Elizabeth’s life--from serious little girl at a state funeral dressed in full skirts and black Mary Janes; to serene wife in tailored 1940s dresses; to earnest and stately young queen in robes and tiaras; to mother, grandmother, and  beloved matriarch to her nation and even to the world. Her official portrait was all over London. Startling and strange: the Queen is dressed all in white— satiny gown and furs and dazzling crown, but she is asleep on her throne (the poor woman nodded off during the photo shoot).

    Of all the photos snapped, the committee chose that one for her Jubilee portrait and asked for her approval. She granted it, saying, “After all, I am human, too.” I went from loathing the photo to liking it. The more I saw it, the more it seemed a graphic reminder to a less disciplined generation that the greatest generation has almost passed from the scene. Time to pick up the torch and carry it.

    We returned to our room through the London mist where a platter of cheese and fruit waited for us, along with a bottle of wine—a gift from the hotel (five star hotels are a different world). That became dinner. No complaints. We sliced and spread blue cheese, a big chunk of cheddar, and a wedge of brie while nibbling on grapes and pears as classical UK radio provided chamber music in the background. We were still shifting into London time and needed a nap before our splurge for the trip—a stage redo of Top Hat, the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers 1935 film classic.

    Top Hat at the Aldwych Theatre shimmered with sparkly costumes and songs, plenty of tap dancin’ fun and a feel-good plot. In the end, after a series of twists and turns and mistaken identities rendered in energetic song, the right girl got the right guy. (Surprise!) The actors were all British trying to sound American, and they mostly succeeded.

     To some aspiring young adults in London, New York is the place to be. We talked to an usher at the Aldwych Theatre who hopes to act on Broadway. He is biding his time in London, wishing and waiting for a green card to go to New York. We met a waitress the day before at Selfridge's, an aspiring journalist, who is doing the same. Happily, these people also think Americans are nice.

      Back to the hotel for a little more cheese and fruit before turning in for the night. Another happy day.