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Friday, June 17, 2016

To Be Young Was Very Heaven—Part II Education Underway

July 19th

Late last night 26 German students arrived, and this morning they decided they wanted a traditional English breakfast, making our own breakfast an hour late. Then I had to get money changed and was late doing that. We met at Paddington station to catch the tube, but I forgot my camera and ran back to get it. The group was not in a happy frame of mind about the delays.

We first visited the Monument to the Great Fire of 1666. The Monument blames the Catholics for the fire, but Alexander Pope wrote that the obelisk was a “rape on the city skyline.” Now skyscrapers tower about it, totally hiding it. Nobody blames the Catholics anymore, and it’s the commercialism/industrialism that is the 20th century’s rape. Wouldn’t Pope approve of me?

Crossing Tower Bridge, we went up to the Tower of London. Here we could touch ancient stones and feel the past through the knowledge that Sir Walter Raleigh, Princess Elizabeth, Sir Thomas More, and King Charles I walked here over three centuries ago, and the things they saw while here—stone walls and floors, heavy wood beams and doors, earth and sky in patches—have not changed except that all but the sky are worn down.

The crown jewels are here! Sean, Sari, and I rushed to see them before we were to meet all the others. Crown jewels ought not to be rushed. They demand attention to detail. Besides, they are so beautiful that you want to stop just to catch your breath. Is there anything so pretty as huge precious stones of all kinds, brilliantly cut, splendidly mounted, and shown off in shimmering display against dark velvet? While I was wrapped in such romantic musings, I realized Sari and Sean were speculating on the price of the priceless.

All that is left of the Roman wall inside the Tower is part of a corner piece, about two stories high, made of bricks and stones and mortar that I thought looked surprisingly modern. It looked as though it had had help in being preserved. We were vaguely disappointed. We wanted the pure unadulterated Wall, ancient and crumbling. Well. Tourist shrines must be preserved, we supposed.

We met the others outside the bookshop by the Tower gates. My pictures were of our group charging down streets from place to place, always in a great hurry lest we not get to see something. We never walked. We sped along as though the Furies were pursuing us.

Londoners don’t seem to walk across streets anyway, they all run. Apparently the drivers, especially of taxis and coaches, consider pedestrians fair game, speeding up when they see a crosswalk full. So we trotted along, those of us in the back trying to keep the fast-moving group in sight. It was at least a mile to the Olde Cheshire Cheese Inn where we were to meet Prof. Rich. We passed the lovely St. Paul’s Cathedral on the way, and since all the group stopped to take pictures, we were able to catch up with them there.

The Cheshire Cheese Inn was Samuel Johnson’s favorite pub, where in the 18th century he used to hold court and give opinions that ruled literary London.
Samuel Johnson

I had roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and green peas, all superb. A man in the pub started talking to me, asking where I was from, what I’d seen yet, and giving me directions how to get to Samuel Johnson’s last house (where he died), even taking out a map to show the route. He offered to buy me and Roseanne beer, but we explained we are teetotalers. He accepted that and wished us a happy trip.

At Dr. Johnson's desk
Half the people we meet are friendly and helpful towards foreigners, and half seem to think we’re impossibly untamed savages.

After lunch we walked over a couple of streets, around a corner, and through a tiny square to reach Samuel Johnson’s house. Five stories high, it was full of gorgeous wood furniture and historically interesting paintings as well as of books. There was a first edition of his Dictionary (the first volume) and memorabilia belonging once to his friend David Garrick. Prof. Rich had already given us a lecture all about the Dictionary and about Dr. Johnson’s influence, so we were quite interested to see the remnants in this house showing how he had put the great Dictionary together. It was quite an undertaking!

We were free to go wherever we liked after this, so most of us went back to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Roseanne and I walked quickly up to the front of the cathedral to start our explorations, but the priests began to close it for a service, so we had to move to the back, and our friends didn’t get to see the front at all. Roseanne, the only one of us who is a Catholic, but rather a naïve one, asked one of the priests if they had any relics blessed by the Pope. He thought she was joking.

The vaulted ceilings in real life are more impressive than any picture seems to give an idea of. One can only partially appreciate the impact of space, size, and decoration from the photographs; to understand this building one must go stand in it and look and look. A dim perception of diminishing self-size came to me first, and then awe at this monument to the grandeur of the Creator through this, which in all its size and beauty, never pretends to be anything but imitation of the true beauty and the true grandeur of all creation. I wanted to sit, indulging in Platonic philosophizing, but there wasn’t time.

It gave me the shivers to learn the history of a beautiful photograph of the dome appearing in a cloudy, smoky sky: “As though by a miracle, St Paul’s escaped serious damage on the terrifying night of 29 December, 1940, when a large part of the City of London perished in a fire-bomb raid.” Prof. Rich said that this cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Parliament buildings, and Buckingham Palace were sites the Germans especially tried to destroy, but all unsuccessfully. When the people saw St. Paul’s dome still standing, it was to them as if God were telling them He was on their side.

Since it was late in the afternoon, we decided to go down to Covent Garden for the rest of the day, as we were going to the opera there in the evening anyway. Sven and the Whites went with the Dansies, the Riches took off on their own somewhere, so the rest of us stuck together. That is, we tried.

We had just got down to Covent Garden when we found police blocking a street, lined all the way up and down. Roseanne picked out the cutest policeman to question and told us all that Prince Charles was coming along to tour the renovations to the Opera House. Oh good! We lined up curbside behind the barricades, sending Nora and Sean off to find the ticket counter so that they could get Nora a last-minute ticket to La Bohème.

Next to leave were Claudia and Diane, deciding there must be a better site further up the street for viewing the Prince’s arrival. The rest of us stood near the corner of the street under the canopy of a fruit and vegetable shop. People passing kept asking us what was going on, and upon hearing our answers, they filled in the empty spaces along the curb and crowded the pavement.

Roseanne kept me and Sari laughing at her obsession with taking pictures of all the policemen, especially of one who was especially cute. I took his picture too. Sari made up a scenario of Roseanne at home showing off her picture album:

“Here is where we were waiting for Prince Charles to come along this street.”
“Well, where is he? All I see are cops!”
“Oh! Well, you know! Local color!”

Yes, he was cute, and he knew we were watching him and taking his picture. In fact, we were so distracted that when the Prince drove past in his little blue Ford, we didn’t take any pictures. We were too surprised!

“Oh! There he is! Look! Look!”

Too late to take a picture, you dopes, he’s going in. Where? The Opera House, of course!

We pushed down the street to see if we could get a better view. We could, of the policeman! Roseanne moved to the curb while Sari and I stood on the bank steps watching the bobby pose for her camera. He tried looking nonchalantly unaware, but we KNEW he knew.

After the crowd had dispersed Sari and Gina went off to find Sean and Nora. Roseanne and I stayed where the view was most entertaining. We giggled and probably had everyone around us thinking American girls can never be discreet.

A very distinguished looking gentleman standing nearby was making an effort not to smile. You could see it in his dimples. I didn’t have the nerve, so I suggested to Roseanne that she go ask him if British policemen are really called bobbies. She has nerve for anything.

The distinguished looking gentleman smiled—the scenery improved—and said yes, they were. I said we hadn’t known whether we could believe Hollywood, to which he replied that in this case we could. Roseanne asked all sorts of questions then—about how they became bobbies, what salary they make (how impertinent we are!), and so on. He, very willing to talk with us, explained the differences between the grades of police and how you could tell Inspectors by their checkered caps, how bobbies never (or hardly ever) carry guns on the beat, and lots more.

I think he liked us! At any rate, he smiled a lot at us, so he must have been amused at least. He said he was the driver for a Lord Hattersly—or something like that. He is the one who told us what Prince Charles was doing here.

We said goodbye to him and found Sari in the market area. Roseanne shopped while Sari and I exchanged the latest gossip about the members of our group. One in particular has been giving us fits of stifled laughter over the things she says. This morning when I was so late, she complained to the rest of the group, “Do we have wait for her?”—as if they could just abandon me in London without my knowing yet how to get around. This afternoon, Sari told me, she had complained about Sari and Sean directing the rest of us as to which tube to take, saying right in front of them, “Any blockhead could tell us which line to take and we’d go.” This after Sari and Sean had been studying the tube maps and had them all figured out, while she had not even looked at her map.

Claudia returned with lunch for all of us and said that Gina and Diane would be along soon. Sean came along with the news that Prince Charles was about to come out of the opera house and that they had curbside seats directly across from the door, and Nora was saving them for us.

“But tickets to the opera?!”
“Oh. Yes, we got those too.”

We waited for Gina and Diane to reappear, watching a string trio playing “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” for the crowd. We dropped pence into their open instrument cases. Sari found Gina. As we crossed the square, we paused beside a group of punkers so Roseanne could take a picture of us, but really of the punkers with their dramatic orange spiked hair and interesting clothes. We had already found that punkers do not like tourists taking their pictures.

The places Nora and Sean had were perfect for the Prince’s exit. Also, Roseanne’s bobby was near us. A young man from Cambridge struck up a conversation with us about what we were doing here in England. We enlightened him. We’re here to goof off in the name of scholarly pursuits! To have fun under the guise of academic endeavor!

Prince Charles appeared at the door! Sean took nine pictures. I took three. Clearly, the Prince heard my measured, dulcet tones and turned to wave right at me. Other people say I shrieked, but that’s pure exaggeration and envy talking. A confirmed anti-Royalist, I still couldn’t return to the States and say I had seen Prince Charles three times with no photographic evidence.

On to the Opera!

We were gauche enough that though we hadn’t had time to go back to the hotel and change to nicer clothes, we tried to enter the opera house through the front lobby entrance. Some of us were in jeans, some in tee shirts, and me in my skirt and sandals and dirty feet—all so disreputable looking as we were, we discovered ourselves mingling with the Rich and Noble and So Forth in their designer clothes, pointedly ignoring the savages in their midst and yet giving the distinct message that Unpleasantness had intruded on their sanctum.

We discovered soon enough that our entrance was around the corner in the alley at the side of the opera house. We were in the right place, but still the people were dressed better than we were, and I was embarrassed, knowing that back home if we had had tickets to the opera, all of us would have spent time to dress up for it. Nothing for it but to make the best of it. Sari did better than I did, having the self-confidence to behave with aplomb.

We found our seats in the upper levels of the House. Sinking down, I decided to be glued there until it was time to leave.

Thank heaven when the opera began, I forgot all outside things. It was so enthralling that I actually forgot I was sitting in a theatre watching a staged production. Somehow I felt transported to the actual scene as some sort of omniscient observer. Colin Davis conducted the Royal Opera Orchestra, and the lead was Jose Carreras, who was simply divine. I could hardly get over how good it was. At the end he was simply pelted with roses and given bouquet after bouquet; the singer who was Mimi received two bouquets. The Opera House roared with approval and ovations for them.

On the way out I was mortified to hear my friends loudly comparing this production, the best of international opera, with our local student production. I wondered why they couldn’t confine themselves to analytical raptures over this production, instead of dragging in something so much inferior, but apparently to them not so very inferior . . . I rushed to the tube, wanting to be anonymous, wanting to blend in.

To Be Continued.
Next Installment:
Part III: Fragments

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