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Sunday, June 19, 2016

To Be Young Was Very Heaven—Part IV: Weekend out of London

Friday, July 23

It was very nice to get up knowing this was the last time we’d have to sleep on hot-dog-bun mattresses (they seem to fold down the middle) in rooms that are drafty and damp because the windows either won’t close or don’t fit the frames, under a ceiling that has holes in it, up about five flights of the steepest, darkest, narrowest stairs ever built, in the company of rats and mice, waking to the prospect of either a long line at the bathroom or a day spent half-dirty if you make do with a spit bath at the sink. So far I’ve had my bath at night, avoiding the line, but then I’m more tired in the mornings at breakfast. No more breakfasts with that horrible hot chocolate that tastes like cream with muddy flavoring. No more eggs swimming in stewed tomatoes. I eat breakfast only because I am constantly hungry.

Our van had not arrived. We had to take the tube to Alperton to pick it up. The drive to Oxford was fun. When Sari and I weren’t singing and teaching everybody else all our favorite songs, we were listening to Roseanne interviewing Sean to the point of embarrassment. When we were tired of that, we were writing or napping or enjoying the very green farms and fields of sheep. The countryside is hilly, very green, and with little wood and no wire in the fences. Fields are divided by hedgerows or by stacked stone fences, very picturesque.

Oxford vista
Magdalene College
In Oxford, Roseanne and Sari wanted to meet my aunt, so I took them with me. All I had to do was to say my aunt’s name, and doors opened as if I had said a magic word. We got to see things the general public doesn’t usually see as we were led to where we could wait for her to come out. When she came, I recognized her instantly, as there is a very strong family resemblance between her and my father, and she declared she’d know me anywhere as she says I am the spitting image of my dad. She met me with a kiss and swooped me off to her car as soon as she met my friends and pointed them in the direction of C.S. Lewis’s walk and Tolkein’s house.

We stopped at a delicatessen to get “the best French bread outside France,” pâté, mushroom and cream cheese salad, olives, cheeses, fruit tarts in real French pastry, and other “perfectly sinful” things as she said, for lunch. I was her excuse, she told me. But she doesn’t have to watch her weight as I do. She was surprised that I do have to struggle with it. The only way I can keep my weight down is to stick to two small meals a day, three if I make them very small, and keep running every day. I’m hoping that if I stay thin long enough, my metabolism will stabilize so that I don’t have to work so hard at it.

We talked books quite a lot. She was excited that I was starting to read the Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries and suggested which one to read next. She has all of them, as well as all of Agatha Christie’s books. We talked books until my uncle came for lunch, although the subject rambled around classical and blues music, architecture, painting, old houses, gardens, what everybody in the family is doing now, how my folks really ought to come here and visit, and how she always worshipped her big brother (my dad). Then she asked if I liked living in Utah.

“No, not really,” I answered.

“Why not?” she asked. “You’re a Mormon aren’t you?”

“Yes, but it’s so different from where I was raised. It seems as if where there is a high concentration of Mormons, they tend to shut out outsiders and to be cliqueish. It’s a form of narrow-mindedness that I’ll never get used to.”

She told me an all-too-familiar-sounding story about some friends who moved to Salt Lake City for the husband’s job, but they had to move away because they were so ignored and ostracized by their neighbors, so much that they couldn’t take it anymore.

I replied that one could hold onto and believe in the truth of a theology without thinking one’s own culture or lifestyle is the only acceptable one, and without being intolerant of the choices other people make. She said she was glad to hear my views on the subject and wanted to know if there were others who shared a similar outlook—and of course I assured her that there were. Most of my friends, for example!

The house on the Cherwell
At length we were back to murder mysteries, and my uncle came in. He is one of the nicest people I have ever met. He is completely at ease in himself and puts you at ease at once. He asked me about my work at the newspaper, and I repeated for him the information I’d told my aunt about my schooling and my goals. He answered all my questions about his own work and about the university system and how they had ended up here so many years ago.

We went for a walk, taking pictures along the river and touring the Magdalene College buildings on our way to the bus station. We looked at the punts on the river, recalling the punting scenes in Gaudy Night and then peeking into the college chapel. It was empty, so we went in and explored it. Back in the courtyard we examined the gargoyles, spending so much time looking at them while my aunt did her best to persuade me to apply to come here to study that we were very nearly too late for me to get my bus to Stratford.

At Stratford I ran from the station to the theatre and asked at the door if there were a ticket waiting for me. There was, but since King Lear had started five minutes before I got there, I had to stand in the back until the interval—two hours. But it seemed to go in a flash, so absorbing was the play, so well acted and produced. I had arrived at the point when King Lear vainly demands his youngest daughter, Cordelia, proclaim her love for him, and then disposes of her to the King of France when Burgundy refuses to take her without a dowry.

My friends were all so afraid I’d missed everything up to the interval that I had to keep repeating my story of how my bus was caught in a traffic jam just outside of Oxford and delayed, but not very long. Our seats were in the stalls, practically onstage at the sides, and it was like being a part of the play for the second half.

This was how King Lear was meant to be acted. Edgar’s character was strong, not weak, and Edmund’s villainy was obvious, not unclear as in the production we saw last winter. Lear was simply amazing, acted by Michael Gambon. Cordelia was intense yet vulnerable, firm and yet loving too, acted by Alice Krige. Sara Kestleman and Jenny Agutter were the evil sisters Goneril and Regan.

Stratford B&B
Our bed and breakfast house felt like luxury. Clean rooms and comfortable beds. Windows that close. Solid ceilings. Good wallpaper. A shower! Two bathrooms! Sari and I shared with Roseanne. I went to sleep quickly and slept soundly at last.

Saturday, July 24

The three of us woke early, but I lay in bed just as long as I could, enjoying the luxury. Then I jumped up and packed up all my things, as we are moving to the B&B next door. We stowed our luggage in the Rich’s room for the day. Breakfast was wonderful, with all sorts of choices about what to eat.

At Mary Arden's farm
We spent the morning visiting Shakespeare historical places—Anne Hathaway’s cottage and Mary Arden’s farm. Then we were free to find lunch. Sari and I sought out a fish and chips shop and took our newspaper-wrapped lunches to a stone bench on a little side street to sit and eat. Diane joined us, regaling us with yet another tale of the mysterious husband. At least she remembered she had told us the prison story, and she embellished it somewhat, to our amusement.

When we finished, we found a grocery store and bought citrus fruit juice to cut the greasy aftertaste of the fish and chips. On the way back to the theatre, I got sidetracked into a woolen shop that was having a sale on sweaters, where I bought a navy blue pullover which is called a “jumper” here, for £5. It is pure Shetland wool, the label says.

I was sitting on a stone retaining wall around one of the flower beds in front of the Royal Shakespeare theatre when I spotted some Mormon missionaries down the street a ways. They’re perfectly unmistakable even if there are plenty of other men in suits. Nobody else has that American-Utah Mormon expression of open innocence. We decided to take their picture, so we ran after them.

Sinead Cusack and Derek Jacobi
They were happy to meet us, asking us if we were Mormons and when we were going to convert the ones of our group who weren’t (which type of question we always find awkward and just a tad offensive), what we were doing here, how we liked England, what we had seen, where else we are going, and would we wave at them from our stage-side seats? They were going to be way, way up in the balcony as today was their free day. They had the 16-year-old daughter of the mission president with them. She was clearly having the time of her life, and since she was a cute girl, we imagined the missionaries were only too happy to have her along too. She said that if they weren’t nice to her, she would tell tales to her dad about them. We could see she was clearly teasing and that she was a nice sort of person and fun. We did take their pictures.

The matinee of Much Ado About Nothing was great. I agree with all the critics who are saying this is the best thing the Royal Shakespeare Company is doing. They put their all into it, and when you have Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack doing their best, you have everything. The show was simply enchanting. My sides hurt from laughing.

By contrast, Macbeth in the evening was not to my liking. The cast acted the play superbly and there were a few interesting things that clarified points, but there were a number of odd things that put me off on the whole. The chief thing was that the soliloquies were spoken with the rest of the cast frozen but all looking toward the character speaking his thoughts. It seemed as if everybody understood Macbeth’s secret motives all along.

After the play we were led to our new B&B, even better than last night’s. Our host told us to watch for ghosts and was delighted to assure us the place was haunted. The beds were better if possible. Sari and I shared a room ourselves and were thrilled to have our own shower and tub, lots of hangers in the wardrobe, and no prospects of muddy hot chocolate for breakfast.

Sunday, July 25

Roseanne got up and went to Mass. I had planned to go with her, but I had a sore throat from the day before and she and Sari decided I should sleep in again. I’m glad they didn’t wake me! I felt a lot better when I did wake.

Breakfast was great, our host charming, the day sunny, even “hot” at 72º F. according to English standards, and the flowers out front begged us all to get our cameras.

We walked to Hall’s Croft, which was the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, but the home was closed, not to open until sometime in the afternoon. We all stopped in front of the closed gates, stopping all other foot and motor traffic when we decided to crowd together for a group picture with the camera timers whirring away on the stone wall across the street. Crazy tourists. We then visited New Place, the site of the home William Shakespeare lived in until his death. We also visited the Birthplace.

Coventry Cathedral
We left Stratford in the rented coach, going to Coventry to see the Cathedral. The ancient one is no more than a bombed out shell, destroyed by German bombs in World War II. The new cathedral, built next to the shell, is dedicated to peace and supported and half run by a German youth organization as a sort of mission of war reparations. This church seems alive, more so than many other Anglican churches. There is plenty of activity going on everywhere, and there is a wonderful spirit about the place.

I took Diane with me to tour around, seeking interesting angles and compositions for photographs. Naturally we ended up in the churchyard doing silly things like pretending to sleep on centuries-old slabs. We were late getting back to the coach because we misunderstood the meeting time as fifteen minutes later than it was supposed to be. But they waited for us.

Kenilworth Castle
Our next stop was Kenilworth Castle, a lovely and fascinating ruin of red stones and bricks high on a hill, totally surrounded by green countryside. The wind up there blasted among the walls and broken battlements, whistled over the hilltops and kept the brilliant sunshine from being too hot. We imagined shooting arrows out of the slits in the walls, and I climbed up to a window where Sari had me let down my hair to strike a Rapunzel pose. We looked in the dungeons for signs of bones (hardly likely) and along dirt floors for any wooden stakes indicating the resting place of a vampire we could bring back by pulling the stake up. Yes, our imaginations went rather wild here.

Naturally, the idea was too good to let go, so I began writing a story about the night that some adventurous and foolhardy members of our group spent in the ruins of the castle, terrified and terrorized by vampires. It would have all the elements of the “fright for fun” genre, the Gothic Novel. In fact, I plopped right down on the grass of the courtyard and wrote the first two pages while waiting for the rest of the group to finish their tour.

Most of the way back to London we played “Name that Quote,” including source, author, and speaker/character. Books, plays, and poetry were all fair game. The person who guessed right gave the next quote. We stayed interested all the way back.

At the recent tournament in Cirencester between the Christians
and the lions, a lone Christian winner was left . . .
But we didn’t go straight back. We stopped briefly in Cirencester to see the old Roman amphitheatre. Before we found it, we lost Sari and Roseanne, so they missed the incomparable thrill of seeing a large, green-grass bowl in the earth, into which Claudia ran as the Christian, inviting me to be the lion. Accordingly, I yelled, “Let me play the lion, too!” and chased after her. Sean echoed me and we were the savage beasts, but in this case the Christians won, chasing us out of the bowl amid much laughter from the spectators, the rest of our group—there were no others at the site with us to inhibit our silly spectacle.

We ventured into the town in search of dinner and found Sari and Roseanne on our way. The little restaurant we chose probably spent the next ten years talking about the day those American students came. The food was superb. I had a slice of roast pork with three kinds of vegetables done just right, followed by a piece of spicy apple pie with real whipped cream, not sweet. Nothing could be better.

On to London, where none of us wanted to go. At least we would not be back at Niki House, we comforted each other. But to our surprise, Sandringham Hotel compared not so favorably. On the surface it might have looked better, but it was filthy dirty, dirtier than Niki House ever was. The carpets were threadbare, the stairs just as far up though not as steep, the beds were just springs made up without mattresses. Roseanne, Nancy, Sari and I shared a room. Nancy had done some traveling before and sought to comfort us by saying she had stayed in worse places. There were obscenities scrawled on the walls by the beds. When skinny little Sari got into the top bunk bed, it sagged all the way down almost into Roseanne’s face on the bottom bunk! Nancy and I nearly fell out of our beds laughing when Roseanne turned her head and got her hair caught in the springs.

We all heroically agreed that Suffering Was Good for the Soul and went to sleep on that thought.

To Be Continued . . .
Next Installment: Part V: Pilgrimages
Cherwell River scene
Cherwell River
Oxford garden
Anne Hathaway's house, postcard 1
Anne Hathaway's house, postcard 2
Anne Hathaway's house, my view
Shakespeare brass rubbing
At Mary Arden's farm--they use these forms for drying
Sites we visited
Coventry Cathedral view
Coventry Cathedral
Coventry churchyard, sans ghost
Coventry churchyard, with ghost
Lady Godiva
Coventry Cathedral interior
Coventry Cathedral view
Coventry Cathedral nave
Kenilworth countryside
Ruins around the castle
Kenilworth gardens

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