My nine days in England were time-warped. First of all, there’s the time shift, which made me more acutely conscious of non-essential detail, and exhausted by dealing with a host of tiny, unimportant factors such as are involved in remembering that English light switches are upside down. Not a life-threatening situation, such as is involved in stepping off the curb into traffic travelling too fast, too close, and on the wrong side of the road, but enough to ensure that it’s necessary to take breaks in between doing the things you planned to do. Fortunately, there are pubs with “Real Ale” in them.
I lived in London for a year in 1958, when I was 16. It was a grey city inhabited by grey people who had just escaped food rationing that had lasted for nearly a decade after the end of the war. There were still great gaping holes where houses had stood for decades, sometimes centuries. Across the street from where I lived on the fifth floor of 33 Baker Street was a gap about six Georgian houses wide and as many deep. I could see wallpaper peeling from an inside wall exposed when what was left of the houses had been turned into rubble. The zig zag outline of where stair treads met the wall led down to remnants of burned panelling and on into the broken brick and stone that filled where the basement had been.
I could climb out of a hatch at the top of the stairs onto the roof and look at a London in which only churches and cathedrals and monuments were taller than the five stories on which I stood beside chimney pots that dribbled soft-coal smoke into the sooty air. It was the set from the Mary Poppins film, minus Dick Van Dyke’s misguided attempt at Cockney.
I googled it before I left Canada, or rather, I googled what had taken over the splendid line of stone-faced houses, each with its perfectly proportioned windows looking over the iron railings to the street where Homes and Watson had their famous abode. In place of this intersection between reality and fiction, a faceless edifice sprawls in anonymous 1980s red brick.
This time, thanks to Katherine’s accumulated points, we stayed at a Hilton on Trafalgar Square, across Cockspur Street from Canada House, with an unobstructed view of Nelson on his column from the upscale rooftop bar, and on to the red circle of the London Eye. Below in the square U2 were setting up for a concert, so I wasn’t able to introduce Katherine to the pigeons that sit on Landseer’s Lions or hear the splash of the fountains.
London is so full of people! If all of them left, there would be beds and houses enough for every Canadian to move in. Oddly, to me as we walked to the National Portrait Gallery, it felt like Toronto, perhaps around Spedina — except for the architecture. The grey English people I remember have been replaced by every shape, shade and physiognamy of folk from around the world — and that’s not just the tourists. In five days of breakfasts, lunches, teas, dinners and (frequent) drinks we were served by young people who, guessing by their accurate but accented words, had started their lives in Spain, Scotland, Poland, Ireland, Lithuania, Ukraine and points east. The accents of London were still audible around us, but the voices often came from non-white people, Londoners born and bred.
We time-travelled to the court of Henry VIII, which occupies two rooms of the National Portrait Gallery, putting faces to the descriptions Hilary Mantel puts into Thomas Cromwell’s mouth in his role as the narrator of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies.” A room full of eminent people, few of whom died naturally.
We re-set our temporal clocks and walked down into Churchill’s War Rooms, frozen in time right down to the (documented) sugar lumps on the desk of the officer at the east end of the table with four colours of telephone, Army, Navy, Air Force and Home Guard. Eerie, particularly when the audio guide at my ear mentioned 1941 — the year I was born.
We visited the Wallace Collection, which like the Frick in New York, is the legacy of a man with a great deal of money and unusually good taste. Franz Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier lives there.
So does Jean Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing. This charming little painting is of a coquettishly smiling much-crinolined girl in a be-ribboned swing being admired by a delighted young well-dressed man who, whisper it softly, is exactly positioned for an up-skirt view. More Boucher/Fragonard pink-and-plushy near nudes surround the room, all tastefully fig-leafed with gossamer and sanctioned because they represent nymphs, shepherds, gods and goddesses.
We travelled down the river to the famous observatory where I just had to stand astride zero degrees longitude. Greenwhich is green, with lawns running from the observatory, on down to the museum, although not the last few pub-and-shop standard London hundred yards to where the famous Cutty Sark rests in her dry dock, surrounded by glass seas to her waterline. If you walk under the glass, her copper-plated, oak on iron frame hull shows how and why she was so fast.
On my own next day, I went to the Kensington Museum of Natural History, where the Brachiosaurus altithorax I knew from days of yore has been replaced by a great blue whale. Irony, perhaps? Up the stairs I went to pay my respects to Charles Darwin.
I then took an escalator into the heart of the planet to deepen my understanding of tectonic plates, volcanoes, minerals and precious stones. I found myself a head, shoulders and down to my elbows taller than just about everyone there: several classes-full of uniformed, unnaturally well behaved little English-of-all-shapes-and-colours children on a school trip. I had not known much about the world’s three or four super-volcanoes, one of which will happen some day soon when several square miles of Yellowstone Park ascend skyward in a big bang like that of Krakatoa, which gave the world three years of really cold winters. Yellowstone will be much, much bigger. So, if the rising seas don’t drown us, and we haven’t poisoned ourselves with plastics and heavy metals, and the greenhouse gasses haven’t choked us as the planet cooks up beyond the insanely optimistic two degrees of our un-met temperature-reduction goals, then wham, bang, thank you Gaia, ma’am, we’ll be cooled off by up to a decade of nuclear winters. I doubt I’ll see it. Lucky me.
And then we travelled to the gold-stone colleges of Oxford, happily not particularly heavily inhabited by tourists and thus up-beat with students on bicycles and on foot hurrying into their privileged lives studded with lectures, essays, moments of elation and subsequent heartbreak before final exams, graduation and one of the more assured transitions into cushy careers. In a small, truly ancient pub next to the Bodlian we downed Real Ale and ate mushroom stroganoff, flanked by a pair of grad students plotting their way to professorial favour. For the first time in our trip, the publican was indigenous to the point (pint?) of type casting. On the wall were photos of Morse, that is, the actor who played him during interminable television seasons of murder and mayhem.
By afternoon we found our way along ever-diminishing roads through countryside in which we would not have been surprised to see Frodo Baggins emerging between hedges below the finger-post of one of the many footpaths that lead to places such as Shipton under Wychwood or the Four Shire Stone. The satnav in our rented Golf took us to Aston Subedge, not far from Chipping Camden. A lane between fields led to our B&B.
Welcomed by our host at the door of what was to be our living room for two days, we drank tea before a fire of oak-wood. Up the creaking stairs, held up by great beams of oak recycled from ships of the line, war surplus after the Battle of Trafalgar, was our bedroom and palatial en-suite with shower, claw-foot tub, double sink, handsome throne and even bidet. In the quiet evening — and by Ottawa standards more than an hour early — we heard owls, presumably carrying messages to and from Hogwarts.
For two days we visited a kaleidoscope of gold-stone villages and towns with fictional-sounding names. We took coffee in Bourton on the Water, which has a high street and fast-running stream that is beyond picturesque.
Along the narrow road to Kingham, charmingly lifted out of a story-book we found a church, accessible through a lych gate into its churchyard, overlooking a village green with a cricket pitch and soccer field. A huge tree along the path to the 600-year-old church sported a Narnia-style lantern, anachronistically equipped with an ecologically correct bulb.
In the adjoining village hall, a friendly soul gave us directions to The Wild Rabbit, a “really posh” restaurant where for a goodly sum of money we were served excellent food and drink.
The name Burford stuck in both our minds for reasons we could not fathom, so we went there. The high street runs down a steep hill, the buildings getting older and older and more and more picturesque until they surround a truly fascinating church built in 1175, and re-modelled four times until 1475, when they decided that was enough. Approached through its cottages for clergy and the like, the spire rises above the unchanged centre of the town, tended by the people who worshipped, buried their dead, bequeathed almshouses, and did the occasional murder. The church is still discharging its functions in this more secular age.
Here in 1649, Oliver Cromwell’s army corralled around 350 mutineers from his New Model Army in the church, and shot three of them. This was unusually lenient for the time, during which England was experimenting with what might be called a republic. Had the mutiny of those known as Levellers not been quashed, others might have joined their quite legitimate protest and, had their status been acknowledged, it’s conceivable (though not likely) that the English constitution might have more resembled the American with respect to the “of the people” idea that took England another few hundred years to approximate.
Woodstock (the original one) is the village next which Blenheim Palace stands in all its opulence within the expansive grounds sculpted from nature by Capability Brown, showing what he could do granted virtually unlimited funds.
The palace is the size of a shopping mall, and just as commercial, processing the day we were there at least three coaches and 1,500 private cars full to a total of more than 5,000 people at an average of £40 pounds each, which not counting what they ate at several cafes or bought at the gift shop, adds up to a total of at least £20,000. Even after paying the army of gardeners, ticket-takers, cleaners, guides, and so forth, there has been enough to do some serious modifications (the gift shop), upgrades (washrooms), restorations (just about everywhere) and still have enough to mount light shows, (dubious) art exhibits, craft fairs and the maintenance of several rooms containing Churchill memorabilia. In the end, this over-the-top celebration of the victor of Blenheim seems wretchedly excessive, even if a great number of English people cheerfully part with their cash to see its grandeur. But then, the English like admiring the history of those who have been and still are the ruling classes.
I read the newspapers each day, and asked myself how it was and is that the older generations and working people of England are leaving Europe and taking with them the declared hopes of younger people plus Scotland, Wales and Ireland, whether they want it or not. The lying cynicism of both sides in the campaign is exceeded only by the dismal incompetence that has followed. There seems to have been no respect for thoughtful debate and due process. It’a 21st Century populism as in “the people have spoken” — sure they have, in a referendum coopered together by Cameron who then scarpered leaving it up to May to blunder ahead with what amongst other things will change the constitution by stealth and undermine the primacy of parliament that took centuries to evolve. Everyone is ignoring an inescapable future in some pious hope that a new renaissance and an economic boom rivalling the industrial revolution are just around the corner when the shackles of the free market fall from the hands of true Britons everywhere.
Right. Just how is that going to happen? Finance? Not likely. Nothing is more mobile than money, and it’s already leaking out of London. In AI and digital? Certainly not the way the UK dominated the world in the era of steam power (the dark satanic mills, remember?) or before that in wool (let’s hear it for the Highland Clearances!). How about the happy days of sugar, coffee, tea and the slave trade? Someone always pays, and it’s going to be the folks at the bottom who were sadly instrumental in pulling the heap down on their own heads.
If you live in a 300 year old house that you’ve bought and refurbished with every modern convenience using the money you made trading in the City of London’s financially overheated market, then when you look out your leaded window beyond the iron gate at the end of your walkway at the inexpressibly beautiful countryside where your daughter’s horse is cropping the lush green grass, on over the soft hills into the blue distance where perfect little villages nestle in the valleys, and you sip your Earl Grey and eat marmalade and toast made from artisanal bread served beside free-range eggs and bacon from heritage pigs, then surely it’s easy for you to do the mental equivalent of pulling the duvet over your head and going back to an English sleep in which nothing can possibly go wrong.
As a happy visitor, I enjoyed every minute of that privileged lifestyle.