Slim reflections on a pilgrimage to London and Stratford-Upon-Avon, circa 2006
“No bird so wild but has its quiet nest” — P. B. Shelley
by Gregg Glory
Freshly returned from London, and I feel clotted with the creme de la creme of the experiences, sights, and histories there. I look forward to giving fictitious, but accurate, reports of my sojourn very soon. But for now, I’ll simply leave you with a quote from the BBC News caster, who turned to her colleague during the A.M. news and said “It’s official Paul, this has been the wettest May ever.”
These notes occurred in a hurry, but will be re-written in tranquility. I’m home with a negligible tally of booty, and two moleskin notebooks rather stuffed with nonsense. This is what I have to shift about and share with you. You are welcome to peruse and enjoy, just as I have felt welcomed and allowed in London, with never a shyness put in the way of my curious eyes.
What my memories are, I must decide. I have in hand an itinerary outlined by Carlo and myself on the train back from Stratford, but the subjective substance of my days away must be sorted, aborted, or saved, by myself alone. A tour guide who had lived away from England swore she had missed the rain as she dodged drops trickling into the red bus. And I don’t think I’ll have as harsh a response to the rain when it comes my way again; when the sky broods, so shall I. Some portion of my substance has always been submersible, and now my spirit has a pair of paddles as well it seems.
Accompanying photos can be found in my London Trip, 2006 photo gallery.
Baa Baa British Airways
My lungs are tight, tight–tough rubber inflated by an insistent kid; and then they loosen and ease into breathing as we dare the upward darks toward God. Goodbye Newark, goodbye New Jersey! Soon enough I am asleep, aware only of the brim of my hat pulled down over my nose–and tickling faintly as a remembered telegram a decade after the crisis that tapped it into existence has faded into fact. The cabin lights have been snuffed to dull orange orbs. Carlo is snoring voraciously next to me like a Gorgon–after she’s been decapitated.
My nodding head floats along a moonbeam. I see into myself as a goldfish looking into its own wraparound bowl. I discern, in my cooped-up container, that I have a left-handed soul, a south-paw personality. My circles of self-knowing all enlarge from a left-hand swirl in the snug bowl. They say your life-expectancy is shortened five years just be being a lefty. What does that translate into if its not just your hand, but you heart and your head as well? My creativity’s a crisscross of ifs. A plague of maybes announced in a crash of radio static. May Day! May Day! May Be!
It was this traffic snarl of farts and feathery zephyrs that I took to England. England, rich ditch and silt start of all the poets and all the poems written in the only language that has levered love out of my tacky heart. From what eddies had I issued? Into what ocean must I debouche? Was there here, in the valley of the Thames, some smoking gun to blast me back to my origin? Or, better yet, some still-wet quill I could claim as father for all my faults, my foibles, my want-wit waywardings? I aimed to live alertly as I looked around London.
At 10,000 feet there are only clouds. Clouds and the crumbled cornices of cloud-palaces. One juts out with the Queen’s profile as on a swollen coin; we dive in toward her cloud-crown. 5,000 feet and still no clearing–all is weighted with vapors. 1,000 feet, 900, 500, now, at last, a glimmer of green and a swirl of lights comes up out of the bowl of the dawn. Its 7 AM, the sunny-side-up of twilight. Heathrow grows into throbbing focus, like a lost fossil of a brontosaur washed from the moss. A pulse of the river has flooded out a skull, the airport stands out against the misty green, all hard substance exposed by a vibrant and active flow of life coursing in its jets.
The ceiling was high, and people from all over the globe were in line, giving a cluttered Calcutta impression to the place. A Sikh in a turban and blue customs-officer coat led a fast-track of handicapped passengers (which included mommies hobbled by infants) to a separate desk surrounded by lounge chairs. I stood in a twisty line of aliens on the other side of the expando-rope. At first I composed part of the tuckered tail, but eventually I became a vertebrae in the snake’s nape, and then finally I stood eye-to-eye with my first British official. I presented my passport and my paperwork, which I had filled in on the plane as we circled and lurked around Heathrow’s spaghetti-pile of grey runways. A cursory glance, a quick question.
“Business or pleasure?”
“Anything to declare?”
“Only my ignorance.”
Mind the Gap
Anyone who has seen old episodes of “Dr. Who” in which the Daleks play a role will feel an eerie familiarity in the bustle of London’s Underground Tube. The Daleks, remorseless robots that looked more or less like armor-plated garbage cans with ray-cannons for noses, would intone as they went about the galaxy vaporizing any and all who opposed them: “EX – TERM – INATE!!” Similarly, a pleasant young Englishman’s voice repeats at each tube stop “Mind. The. Gap.”
This Orwellian cha-cha becomes as comforting as it can be chilling. I consider it an experiment in mass meditation. The mantra encompasses both being and nothingness. “Mind,” the source of all our deepest terrors and treats, our safe place as well as the zone of unknown dreams. It is to the mind that we look for solutions and our nightly dissolution of consciousness as well. It is the center of Zen’s non-target. “The,” a place-holder that clears the ears for the final reverberating word. “Gap,” the void where all our striving must ultimately end, and where it all takes place to begin with, according to the Bhudda, the Dalai Lama meditational cassette packet I’ve got at home, and even some of T. S. Eliot’s poetry. “Da Da Da,” the voice might as well say. But then syntax reasserts itself, as the monkey mind strives to make subjective sense of the nonsense syllables.
“Mind the gap.” The mind is a gap, a space between the thing-in-itself and us, an interlocutor, a saint saying things to us about the non-god of objects out there in the ding-an-sich, and pleading to the ever-on-going Tube our case and our causes. Or is it that we should exercise mindfulness about the gap? Make our minds at one with the void? This seems to be reflected in the attentive silence that engulfs the tube passengers, save for a loud American here and there, or some yob with his tootsies up on the seats across from him.
Barking approaches, or is it Angel by Old Street, or Cockfosters at last? The places begin to exchange their addresses as in a Matrix climax, or the last pass of some country jig. The portal doors part, producing a new proscenium for the next act. “Mind. The. Gap.” repeats fearlessly, simply, identically as at the last act. The traveler enters the play, and takes his escalator into the otherwhere’s breath-heavy ether.
Shakespeare’s roly-poly death effigy kept peeping in on us throughout the journey. The one where his mustache is a pair of carrots and his beard is a bit of decorative frosting. The old god looks as if he’s been converted into a bathtub float and over-inflated. This we kept seeing everywhere, in odd nooks between spine-busted books, flatly staring from an explanatory plaque next to some rough-bushed painting, in lurid 3-D leering down from some queer angle at Sir John Soane’s House, or in the too-trim perfection of some modern duplication of the figure set up as an explanation-in-the-round at the reconstituted Globe. I more than half expected to look over my shoulder and see him there above us, like a float in the Macy’s Day parade. All of these Shakespeares were dead, dead and portly as a stuffed shirt or a body nearing rigor mortis, a lame mannequin for a barber’s chair for shaving practice, or some other homely use.
But, when the time came to look up at the actual dingus, we shoved (or, rather, were shoved) off the spot without a glance at the puffy fellow, or a look at the intoning stone over his mortal remains that warns neither man nor nature to “move my bones.” High Eucharist was just beginning at Holy Trinity in Stratford-Upon-Avon, the service of life after this life, the Christian rigmarole being a death to Death itself. And so, without further ado, without a glance at the rock object itself, we departed. On to our own unrecited lines not yet said, our own deeds still in their seed-time.
Outside of the good grey church in the good grey day, Carlo pointed out the probable spot where scholars conjecture that Shakespeare’s bone do actually lay–four feet from the wall beyond the altar. It’s a green sink-pit, like the rest of England, a lush mush of life and wetness. And that too told me something of the fat everlastingness of the pudgy Shakespeare, of his words alluring or alarming on the braying stage, of this meshed-with-death existence that we giggle and piss our way through like cosmonauts circling the one thing we do know, and yet never know enough, our life-drunk Globe.
Retrospective London Itinerary 2006
Dates Covered (Wed, May 17th through Mon, May 29)
6 PM Newark. Carlo gets us bumped to the front of the section where we can
stretch our legs by using a smattering of Polish on the British Airways clerk at the check-in counter. I find out my bag is too heavy for carry on an international flight.
In flight, try the lasagna dinner. Very good. Carlo uses his Italian to help the flight attendant communicate with an older Italian woman sitting behind us.
7:30 AM Arrive in London Heathrow.
Check in at the Wellington Hotel.
9:30 AM Catch hop-on hop-off double-decker tour bus. Tour tickets good for 24 hours. Tour city for 3 hours, getting our bearings. Terrific tour guide full of little stories. Sort of a blonde silly Sally type of woman in her mid 40s.
Hopped off at Piccadilly Circus, walked down Haymarket, popped into “Fancy That of London,” which sells tourist baubles. Chuckling at cut-out postcard heads of the royal princes, I resolves to send out postcards while away. Down a side-street to Tom Cribb’s Pub on the recommendation of our guide as a local spot for locals. Part of the Dick Whittington Ale Trail. Food quite good, had a bit of steak and chips. Choked while chatting and gulping food. Disoriented by jet lag and ale, puked up on the pub floor to the utter nonchalance of all around, got an instant splitting headache.
3 PM Nap and aspirin at the Wellington Hotel. Feel entirely recovered. Carlo explains my reaction as related to the sun-difference and internal “time warp” that occurs. Seems to be correct.
6 PM Go to Victoria Palace Theater at the end of the street, get a couple of tickets for that night, way up in the stratospheric seats. Dine at the Stage Door pub one entry over, where Carlo dines on lasagna and answers a questionnaire about English Pubs which a retired actor asks him to fill-in.
7:30 PM See Billy Elliot from the nose-bleed seats near a pillar with our legs squished to one side, and enjoy our first intermission ice creams. The musical is smashing, the pathos-filled tale of a miner’s son who wants to become a ballet dancer while his dad is on strike during the Thatcher regime.
12 PM Asleep at the Wellington.
8 AM Breakfast at The Wellington, which had been converted from an old dorm belonging to the College of London, and was re-opened in 1983 by the grace the Duke of Wellington, as the brass plaque in the hallway noted. OJ, piles of toast, and a slice of ham and cheese that were so thin it appeared that they had been, as Carlo put it, “painted” on the plate.
9 AM Caught first bus tour again before our tickets timed out at 10:30 AM. We want to switch over to the “blue” tour line which covers a different part of the city than the “red” tour we rode on yesterday. We see many neighborhoods and sights, including the great city dragon guarding the financial district, which is on a large stone pedestal.
12 PM Stop at the Stock Pot, on the same street as Tom Cribb, a cheap eatery run by an Italian family. Excellent grub, and Carlo continues his lasagna tasting tour of London.
Move on to the Globe Theater tour in the afternoon. They have a first folio on site, and some interesting portraits of Shakespeare. There are dioramas of London and the Globe area in Shakespeare’s day. It reminded me of a US park. Many testimonies praising Sam Wanamaker, an American actor who pushed for the reconstruction of The Globe on the South Bank of the Thames. We get to see Titus Andronicus in rehearsal, and get psyched about seeing Coriolanus that evening.
Walk down the “Queen Victoria Walkway” to The Anchor pub, which Shakespeare frequented, have some pints and eat bits of fresh meat at The Carvery upstairs. We see drunken business men who have wandered dockside from Vinopolis laugh as one of their free “Vinopolis” T-Shirts floats into the Thames, having been taken up by a strong wind. Also, a beer glass gets thrown over and smashes. We talk to a foreign languages teacher and then move on to the evening’s theater.
7:30 PM Coriolanus at The Globe. The main part played with great dignity and conviction. Sat on the back bench and met a fellow from, you guessed it, Long Branch, NJ. Hope to take in a showing of Hamlet in New York City this summer with him.
12 PM Sleep.
Up and to Leichister Square. Got half price tickets for “Royal Hunt of the Sun” by Peter Schaeffer, playing at the National Theater at the TKTS booth.
Go past the Drury Lane Theater on our way to Covent garden, and stop in to see the bust of Shakespeare in the lobby. No ghosts make themselves known, and we leave knowing that we won’t come back to see “The Producers,” which is playing there.
Trafalgar Square on foot, seen but not strolled because of rainy weather. We duck into the National Portrait Gallery and see the long pale faces of the past. There is a sternness and a “fuck you” quality to the determined, active folks depicted in the paintings that reminds me of Wall Street, and of the British business men I’ve seen walking in straight lines all about the busy city. Even the women in this portrait gallery remind me of men, decked out in be-gemmed powersuits and swinging scepters. The lighting is poor, and the pictures are glare-ruined unless you get just the right angle.
We go next door and have lunch at St Martin-in-the-Fields in the crypt downstairs. At a lot of British public buildings, the life and thrub of the place all goes on in the basement. And so here, as I dines on fruit and bread over the large tombstone of a Mr. and Mrs. Brown. The florescent lighting and polite service only made it that much more eerie–a sort of bustling waiting room for the resurrection.
Down to Covent Garden, the great covered walkway, canvas stalls and street performers. A unicyclist whizzing about, a clown de-inverting from a headstand as we made our way to the main “pit” areas.
Double rows of shops left and right, like an outdoor mall. Drawn by the pure voice of an opera singer practicing in the open air, we made our way to the farther pit, Carlo narrating the specialness of the place for him. Sun peeps out. Carlo videos the singer a bit, and she salutes him.
Go down and meet a nice couple from York who are big fans of Long Branch’s own “Boccagaloupe.” The husband has a whole set of photos from their Yorktown (?) tour up on the web site. We promise to give our greetings to them when we return to America.
I get a pair of cufflinks with the mask of Comedy and Tragedy to memorialize the vacation filled with theater. Carlo shows me the “Theater Toy Shop,” dedicated to toys having to do with the theater. Giant Punch and Judys, collapsible stages, costume catalogs, and other interesting bits.
Walked on to The National, enjoying the Bankside area, having crossed the Millennium Bridge, I believe to get there. Carlo has a bite of drearily proletarian pizza in the cafeteria, and we go in to see “The Royal Hunt of the Sun.” Notes about the performance to follow; some powerful dramatic techniques used in the staging of the piece, including vast silks to represent floods of blood, and acres of golden nylon to represent rays of sunshine.
Walk a different route toward Victoria Station to see Westminster Cathedral, a stylized construct of different brick layers. The bells have been waking us each day at The Wellington, and we are interested to go in and see the various side chapels. This is my first serious English Cathedral.
Immediately, although the construction is early 20th century, I feel catapulted back to ancient Byzantium. The vault is full of dusty light, and the things of God lie about as if under a filter of glamour, their iridescent detail is so compact and replete. I simply can’t see everything that is showing itself to me. I’m struck by the statues and tombs of former cardinals who ran the diocese. Above one tomb, the cardinal’s red hat hangs like a Burmese umbrella, it is so large.
Prayers and candles for my naughty dead, who left the room without my say-so. We leave in a quiet mood back into a freshening fritter of rain.
We take the tube down to Blackfriars Bridge, and cross over to lunch at the Cheshire Cheese. It was at the Cheshire Cheese that Yeats met with The Rhymers Club at the turn of the last century, and I am anxious to see the place, which has been in operation since the 1600s. The place kills, and we see a full portrait of Dr. Johnson over the fireplace, and Charles Dickens’ and Dr. Johnson’s favorite chairs memorialized in the next room by screwed-in brass plaques.
Just up the street is Dr. Johnson’s house. Without his dictionary and all the subsequent ones, this memoir would never have been penned. We pass a statuette of a cat sitting next to an empty oyster shell. This is Hodge, Dr Johnson’s cat who he loved to feed oysters from the table. The cat is staring at Dr Johnson’s house, as if awaiting the great man of letters himself.
Dr. Johnson’s house is a treat. Plain wood, several stories tall, it was used in WWII as a fireman’s bunkhouse. One of the few buildings in the area to survive the Blitz, as the monolithic condo-cubes surrounding it attest. Upstairs there is some period costuming to try on, which does well in the mirror, tri-corner hat and all. Several good portraits of Johnson in the home, plus squibs and the dictionary. I look up Poetaster and Lexicographer. I retail the experience to my friend Jon Williams later in the evening after he brings up the trouble of not knowing if you are a poet or a poetaster. Carlo quips that I play the Boswell on our London tour, and he Dr. Johnson because the suit fits him.
Back to the Cheshire Cheese for innumerable good beers, all unknown to me. Carlo and I talk to our table neighbors, and I get some of the pub gossip: bartender Y slept with serving girl X by mistake (she came on to him), but they’re still friends. A retired couple comes in and shares many experiences of English life with me, only deigning to do some good-natured Bush-bashing at the end of our lovely time together.
We take the tube drunkenly out to Richmond, where Jon Williams and Sally Watson live with their little glowing Flo. Jon picks us up in a roaring, gorgeous yellow car, and we zip back to their pad, where Paris friends are visiting and the party is already well-on. I really believe I’m in England when I see them. And Jon seems just such a bloke among his mates, it cracks me up.
Jon talks about motoring to his brother’s house tomorrow at noon and the staging of a scene from my Sex Pistols play at The Labour Club in Northampton. Everything is breezy and sounds even less planned than I thought it could be. But it will take all of tomorrow, and at least most of Monday day–till 4PM or so, it sounds like. That’s a large chunk of such few precious days to spend just to let my ego holler. I think perhaps I’ll go and let Carlo off the hook for it.
Go down to the local shop on a beer-run without my coat, which had been deviously hung up in a closet behind the crowded couch.
Take the 11PM train back to Victoria, and bedazzled bed.
Sick as a dog from the coatless outing. I can’t do much of anything, and forego breakfast. Around noon, I call Jon and Sally and let them know that the play must be cancelled. Carlo thinks it may just be nerves and “drama” on my part; but, really, this time, it’s the bod.
Hating to waste the day, I make me and Carlo do something. We go to Tussaud’s in the afternoon, my pockets wadded with tissues. I love the wax figure of the young and old Madam Tussaud herself, graven from life in wax as soft as Icarus’ wings.
Carlo put his puss next to Madonna’s, and got it snapped. We took the ride through the history of London, which was much like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in Disneyland, except for the town burning down, Jack the Ripper, and the beheading of monarchs. On the way out through the Tussaud Shop, I got a 3-D portrait of myself done by laser in a block of clear plastic. It’s a good likeness, and sits like a small, facially-enhanced light-bulb on a shelf in my living room.
Ran away from the stylish “Metro” cafe, with bad smells, poor food, and worse service, to the more serviceable, pubbish “Globe,” not too far from the Sherlock Holmes statue on Baker Street. Carlo and I both have Fish and Chips with peas. Carlo had the “mushy peas,” served in a small round dish and the consistency of toothpaste.
Just went back to The Wellington, where I continued very sick and disappointed. Ordered Pizza Hut, of all things, and watched some spectacularly bad British TV–a crazy Soprano’s type soap opera called “Blackpool.” That’s the same area in Dickens’ “Hard Times” novel where the heroic worker drowns in a well.
I drift off into snotty oblivion.
Up and at ’em at 8AM. Breakfast in the basement, with the greenery around the building squeezing in through the open grate as high as our heads.
First things first, off to the British Museum. The edifice as long and grand as a sea-monster, tricked out with glittery bits on some of the facade’s figures. Brassy points on the spears, shining helmets here and there. The long order of the building seeming to go on too long indeed, breaking the oneness of it by sheer length. As uniform in intent as a football field, but too grand in scale. There’s too much old news within!
Up the steps, we see that there’s a special exhibit of Michelangelo’s Drawings–mostly sketches for the Sistine ceiling. Fab! We get tickets as we go in, and then walk straight to the Elgin marbles, whose well-preserved metopes depicting an epic series of brawls between Centaurs and Lapiths still astonish: both for their humanity and their violence. I’m more sick and silent than Keats, who managed to warble when he first saw the Elgin marbles:
My spirit is too weak; mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
The drama of the Selene Horse’s head is the first thing that gets me sketching. I quickly realize that I’m too numb to number all these glories with my lame hand, but I do jot down a few to find depictions of again later.
We next wander into the great tessellated glass courtyard which surrounds the old reading room. In this room you must think of Marx, and Ezra Pound, and a hundred other reading-frenzied fellows of the past, sinking as sincerely as you into the belly button of these old leather chairs under a dome as happy and fat as a wedding cake.
We go off to spot some of Leonardo’s drawings for Carlo’s research for his play about the relationship between Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci called Chiaroscuro which he has been scraping at lo these many years.
We see the Rosetta stone at the southern entrance to the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, and get some glittery postcards of the same rock. There’s a great computer explanation of the glyphs and Greek nearby, explaining and translating line-by-line. To see the thing itself is to feel what a role pure luck plays in our understanding of ourselves. This whole old civilization might have been no more than a guess to us forever.
After this exertion, we stop at a pub across the street for some lunch, perhaps the Museum Club? They are running out of all their beer taps just as we are getting done with our meal. So, off we head to. . . .
The British Library. Here is a Gutenberg Bible, and King James Bible, many hand-illustrated medieval Bibles. The Magna Carta itself. A first folio of Shakespeare’s. Hand-written lyrics by the Beatles. Pages of Mozart’s inventions. Handel. Beethoven. Some of Shelley’s manuscripts bound into a book owned by Mary Shelley, the back flap of which contains fragments recovered from his funeral pyre. There, in a small oval, lie, direct to my eye, some stirred bones and ashes of one of my real heroes, P. B. Shelley. I see Mary looking over the volume very clearly, growing old, her mind as fine-honed as when she was still kissing him. I will admit to a tear.
That night, as a break from serious theater-going, and because I am still very ill, coughing myself blue and blowing mungy glops of snot into the frail remembrance of a tissue, we get a London Time Out magazine and look up a comedy night. It’s a small place off of Leicester Square called “The Round Table,” and features a double-bill of local nobodies who’ll be hauling ass to the Edinburgh Comedy festival later in the year, and are breaking down their acts by playing at least one gig a night all over the country.
The host is Jay Sodagar (jaysodagar.com), an Indian Englishman, who has reams of material on racism and politics–very touchy stuff, and a bit brave for a nice-guy comic to try and present. He should have a harder edge and not really apologize we tell him later–fuck us if we can’t take a joke. If you’re going to be harsh and over-the-top, go all the way.
The first comedienne up, however, is a Josie Long. She takes a long wind-up, discussing how she’s not a comedienne, she doesn’t have a routine, doesn’t know any jokes or funny bits, etc. all the while dragging out more and more props for her routine. She’s an absurdist. If she can loosen up your gears, she’s golden, and anything said will have a tinge of tickle about it. I have a real enjoyment of this kind of thing, and start to smile and snort right away. By the end of the evening, she’s graced me with three teach-to-student stickers (one of her many props): “Good Boy,” with a curly-headed kid’s face on it, “Well done–you worked out the answers,” with a child clasping his hands together over a desktop among a field of approving stars, and “I helped,” which pictures a smug cat sitting in its stripes.
After her set, Carlo gives her some sound performance advice and earns a sticker himself. She tells me that I’m “lege,” which I hear as “letch,” but is instead short for “legendary.” We take the tube back to the Wellington, and I return to the fable of sleep.
Tower of London.
The Crown jewels. — projection of the crowning ceremony above the snake line into the jewel-viewing rooms.
Somerset House — Gilbert Collection, golden vessels and oldest hammered gold pitcher, Courtauld Institute of Art and the Fine Rooms. Courtyard with great dancing fountain.
St Paul’s Church(?) or not till coming Sunday….
Walk along the Thames. Street performers, some dressed as silver statues.
Bought two books(?) from hawkers along the Strand.
Ate at The Anchor again–heartily. Shivering with end of sickness and feeling cold.
Ascend to The Eye, snapshots of Parliament, Big Ben, Globe around the bend.
“The Globe”–Titus Andronicus. Stagehand came on during intermission to mop-up the blood! Picture taken of us by group behind us.
Carlo got sick, probably from close contact with myself. He stays in, goes to Marks and Spencer for some fresh clothes, new sneakers, a hat, undies.
I take the day, really feeling better, to ascend St. Paul’s scary eyrie. At the Whispering Gallery, I hear the eerie voices of what you can’t help but think are the nearby dead, realizing that the voices are only the prospective dead of the other travelers, tourists, and pilgrims sharing life in mid-air along the gallery rail.
Up from the sunny crypt, where a remembrance of William Blake awaits the visitor, and the bones of a little Wren are fallen, I go on, penitential step by penitential step, to the top, and then the tippy-top. Among the graffitoes of high-altitude love and “Kilroy was here,” I spot a touching addition to the ancient and fancy memorials in the basement. Someone had penned, with indelible ink, a remembrance of others who were loved in life and much missed in death.
Lisa (Liam?) Euam
Beth Richmond (Rodricks?)
So the names read, punctuated by a dot of anecdotal gum at the end of the honor roll.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is a church of Christ Victorious, where no shadow malingers to draw the philosopher’s syllogism of Godly faith to an alternate conclusion. From the top, I snap a photo of the Millennium Bridge, which lays like a sword connecting the banks of the Thames. From the South Bank, and especially at night, St. Paul’s is a constant reference point, a pilot light to God. And the walk along the thread-slender Millennium Bridge only solidifies the view, offering the walker a long unobstructed view of the massive dome while the void gapes beneath and the Thames goes angrily or placidly along while the wind whines. It is a conceit, this bridge pointing toward God, right out of John Bunyan’s Pilgrims’ Progress.
At the top, I met a very nice lass from Finland, traveling alone, who had me snap her photo for her to show friends back home. She provided the same service for me, and I thought of the redoubtable Mary Wagner, who traveled to Finland long ago, but brings the adventure up often in her conversation. Mary’s told me that the Finnish are thin-skinned about their reputation in the world, so I take this opportunity to mention Mary’s glossy love for the young woman’s native land. She breaks into a fierce smile, and brags a bit about how far Finland had gone in the World Cup soccer finals. She’s happy to hear Mary’s praise in this incongruous place. Then she tells me she must “get up her courage” to descend the stairs. “I am very afraid of heights.” And yet, here she is, all alone in a foreign land, scaling to the very rafters of purgatory. God save the Finns.
From St. Paul’s Cathedral, I worm my way back down, to the ground, through a shop, to the street, to the tube. I’m heading for Hampstead Heath and Keats’ Grove, the very yard where that nightingale first sang.
Ask directions, long walk through suburbia.
Arrive too early, unless I am a school group. Plead and am denied.
Bookshop in town, bruschetta at “The Bull,” a raw new Italian place where no English is spoken. I explain that I am there to see Keats’ House, the “scrivini.” My pronunciation of “poeta” didn’t pass muster. A glass of bull’s blood wine. Another.
Keats’ bedroom–a feeling of profound simplicity. Still point.
Lock of hair, aspects of Fanny’s story, pick up a button at the desk.
Rain and the painters outside, patiently smoking a fag until it blows over. All will be fine if the wind don’t huff in the wrong direction.
Hard rain keeps me from the walk along Parliament Hill to Highgate and Coleridge’s old home with the medicinal Gilberts, which has only a plaque and no entry. Forgot about Dan Weeks’ mention of a nearby pub Coleridge had haunted. I would have shoved on for that.
Back to The Wellington; Carlo still low-down, is staying in with KFC for his TLC. I go off to The Roxy, gleaned from Time Out London as a dance club.
Great time at The Roxy, fill in notes and write some postcards while the DJ spins a punky mix. Quite a chat with the manager of the joint, who’s from “up north.” Ask him his favorite thing about London, and he says, “The women.” Reminds me of Mike back home who, when I asked him what I should look up in London, replied “The Queen’s skirt?”
Get home, and Carlo has gone out. I sleep, dead tired from all the walking and cheery beers at The Roxy. Carlo has to knock twice, after not successfully getting the management to help, before I wake up enough to let him in. I can’t believe I even locked the door, let alone slept through a knock (very unusual for me). Carlo had dragged his ass to the local gay bar, The Stag, which flies a fanciful rainbow flag over its portal. Truth in advertising here in London-town.
Carlo must be feeling better. Tomorrow we head to Jon Williams’ house, and then Stratford early on Friday.
8AM Breakfast in the basement, a good start for the long, hungry day. Pack our bags next two hours.
10AM Check out of the Wellington. They called the room to kick us out. Carlo was a bit tardy because of all his materials for going on to Elba and Florence for another two months and his still being pretty damn sick. We have the desk hold our bags while we tour the town. We will return for them before the tube out to Jon Williams’.
Tube out to Sir John Soane’s House. Central Line out to Holborn. Amazing crazy perspectives, a real collector’s treasure across from the park.
Lunch at “The Ship,” chipper and fun with a great view of the crowded alleyway–continual foot traffic pouring through the narrow intersection. The whole pub could have been very easily missed. Very different from the roadside billboards and neon highway signs that every business in the US has–frontage, as its called. Here they have a gilded “inwardness” in their advertising. Then again, this pub has been here since 1667–four-hundred forty years of word-of-mouth.
3-4PM Back to Wellington for the bags, train out to Richmond. We arrive early and decide to have a few at O’Neill’s next to the station. No half-and-halfs here, even though it is an Irish pub. Carlo and I have a broad-ranging discussion on all things theater, and rant and rate the productions we have seen. We are getting geared up for Stratford-Upon-Avon, and I for one am having some theater-withdrawal issues.
6:30 PM Call Jon, who zips by and whisks us to his abode. Jon explains that he’s “Not a host. You’ll have to fend for yourself.” Sally serves up some pork-on-a-plate, which is magically delicious, and in the course of a short interview with Carlo finds out more about his personal circumstances than I have gleaned in 10 years of talking with the guy. He works at Brookdale Community College, lives with mother and brother, etc. Amazing stuff, I guess. I preferred our dialectic aesthetics in the pub. Carlo has some witty ripostes to Jon’s wobbly sorties.
8PM Sally hauls Carlo off to the local working-man’s tranny pub after putting Flo to bed. Jon and I stay up listening to his poetry and then half of some dead American comic who’s name evades my mind (Hind?). The poetry isn’t coming, Jon claims, because he is “happy,” and there’s no need for the elusive therapy that only unreasoning rhyme can provide. I’ve heard this story before, from others less forlorn, and have my reservations about such claims. A dubity remains.
11PM I collapse on the floor, sleeping while the TV blares kick-starts of laughter. Soon enough, Jon transfers me to the top-bunk in Flo’s room, since “Carlo would hardly manage it, would he?” I sleep with my head on a fluffly stuffed duck, and my feet hanging over a whirlpool of pinkish little girl’s things. Flo fleets on in dreamland like a trooper, with nary an eyelash flutter.
1-2AM Sally returns before Carlo, having left him in the hands of chatty Andy. Carlo is let in later by Jon. Seems it is Carlo’s fate to be left knocking at the gate. Coincidentally enough, Carlo had told me that he thought he could do a smash-up Macbeth, and would assign himself the minor role of the porter while directing.
5 AM I am up, shaking my head. I descend the bunk bed in stocking feet for the living room to check on Carlo’s status and gather my belongings. Flo is sleeping like an angel on a cloud, all curls and whispery breath. I figure I’ll wake Carlo around 6 AM, and we’ll make the 8:54 out to Stratford-Upon-Avon. I watch Carlo snore like a formation of Boeing 747s for forty minutes, and then give him a poke. His eyes are the Red Sea; he levitates into a sitting position. He makes some witty denial of consciousness, and I adjust my expectations to catching the 10:54. I sit awake in a chair fit for the set of The Brady Bunch for another hour.
Sally makes her way down, yanked along by a lively and lovely Flo. “Good Morning, would you like some tea?” she says. “Yes, indeed,” I concur redundantly. Sally, Flo, and I go into the narrow kitchen, strung at one end with a breezy detail of Xmas lights that looks on to a lush lot of backyard greenery. Sally busies herself with the tea, and some toast for Flo. “We Brits like our tea, don’t we Flo?” “Yaa!” says Flo, dangling her padded feet off the end of the kitchen counter.
“Carlo and I had quite a time last night.” Sally fills me in on how Carlo took the gay bar by storm. I get a more nuanced portrait of the evening later on from Carlo. It always makes me smile to consider Carlo in a social circumstance–his wit rolodex pulls out a winner almost every time. One of the best revelations on this trip, in addition to the metric tonnes of culture I have been exposed to, has been gaining a deeper appreciation of Carlo’s artist’s attitude toward life. Always a poise beyond the pose, a snap of wit that reconfigures the flop of circumstance. The fellow really is a sort of well-padded Napoleon. No wonder he’s on his way to Elba after London!
As Sally pops the toast, and I sip my tea under the straggly twinkle of the Xmas lights, she gives some motherly instruction to young Flo.
“Flo, would you like butter or honey on your toast?”
“Or Marmite!” I interject, remembering Sally and Jon’s tricking me into eating a piece of toast with a big glob of Marmite on it in San Diego. Stuff tastes like axle grease soaked for a year in salt porridge.
“Hun-neee!” answers Flo.
“Honey it is. Where does honey come from, Flo?”
“Pigs?” Sally is smiling. “Are you sure? Mightn’t it be from….”
Before Sally can say “bees,” I fill in with a fanciful tale about the “bumble-pigs” that visit the flowers, sucking up nectar with their snouts, and making honey back at the hive. Sally seems to enjoy the story, but Flo comes in at last and corrects me: “It’s not pigs, it’s bees.” Seems that Flo was just busting Sally’s chops–a time-honored family tradition everywhere.
10:54 AM Carlo and I eventually make the 10:54 from Marleybone Station back in the hub of London. But not without Jon declaring my concern about being on time or a little early to be “anal.” I guess he’s surly when early. The Marleybone Station itself is very nice, with a vaulted glass ceiling, and a large departures and arrivals board blinking in front of where Carlo and I have alighted. On the train, Carlo’s throat gets much worse as increasing levels of green go bounding by outside the compartment window. A young American student is taking the train out to Stratford for the day to poke around.
1 PM Arrive in Stratford and check-in at The Sequoia Hotel. The eponymous sequoia behind the building is a towering quiet presence, and reminds me again of San Diego. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the tree is visiting England just as Carlo and I are visiting. It sways with a sort of buoyant, vowel-rounded American accent. Carlo takes a bath and a nap. I stroll around Stratford, almost all the way down to Holy Trinity. I come back to the garden behind our hotel and begin taking some serious travel-notes. The garden itself is a terrific wild-things hodge-podge leading on to the white gate through the hedge. I half-expect a giant bunny winding a pocket-watch to bounce by.
Stop by Cox’s Yard, meet two yobs who make a brilliant jest about what a good writer “William Shatner” is.
6-7:30 PM Carlo and I dine at an old pub (which one?) and go on to see “Romeo and Juliet” at the RSC Theater across the way. Our seats are up in the balcony, royal red plush seats, but narrow for all that. The staging is spare and modernist, with a post-modern “framing device” that a Greek village is putting on “Romeo and Juliet” to help two warring factions in the village keep the peace. Renewing a pledge of non-violence by a ritualistic repetition of this play as a cautionary tale (which is how the play, in didactic terms, presents itself).
The acting itself is spot-on for the most part. Juliet is superbly wonderful, full of youth and openness. The Nurse steals every scene she’s in. Romeo is honest and intent, better in love than when “in love with love.” Capulet is crashing great, and Tybalt is all edge and no depth–an extremely effective bit of black magic. The only off-note is Mecrucio! Hard to believe, but his flights of imagination come off cold, under-cooked somehow. He’s not particularly sympathetic and is more clown than wit one way, and more hammer than rapier the other.
12 PM Sleep in the frilly sheets.
8AM Breakfast in the well-lighted dining area. Table service for the selections. Carlo is happy to be getting a “real” English breakfast. Pouring rain all day long.
9:30 AM First Stratford touring bus. Takes us out to Anne Hathaway’s cottage, Mary’s parent’s place (?), and all around town. On the second time around we get off at Nash’s New Place to see a fancy house of Shakespeare’s time, and then again at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, and last at the Anne Hathaway’s Cottage–an amazing treat!
1:30 PM We make the curtain rising on Julius Caesar just in the very nick of time. Terrific opening stuff with drums and colors–a parade in the everglades. Bang on performances by all.
3:30 PM Carlo gets some McDonald’s, goes back to take a nap. Rain continues steady. We agree to meet at The Black Swan and then cross the street together to the “Swan Theater,” built in Victorian times, to see “Much Ado About Nothing.”
I drink and eat at The Black Swan, which WWII servicemen stationed in Stratford had called The Dirty Duck, and which now has a drunken duck on one side of the sign, and an elegant charcoal swan on the other. Carlo doesn’t show, and I’m mis-informed about the time by an Eastern European worker who perhaps didn’t know how to read a clock. I rush out late and jump across the street. Luckily, I had handed Carlo his own ticket earlier.
7:30 PM “Much Ado About Nothing.” I’m ten minutes late, sneak in through a quiet curtain, and am shown my “standing rail.” A mother and her grown daughter are sharing the rail, which has a step-up platform. I pass Carlo in the dark on the way to my railing. This turns out to be one of the best performances of all, with many of the actors from that afternoon’s Julius Caesar and last night’s Romeo and Juliet in the cast. The comic effects never fall flat or fail–not even once. There is zero loss of meaning. The cast and director have strategized this piece into a comic opera buffe ballet.
12 PM. Sleep.
Last day in Stratford. Weather clearing today.
8 AM Real English Breakfast with a double helping of bacon instead of bacon and sausage, scrambled eggs, OJ, tea, and lots of toast. We gather up our stuff, check out, and leave our bags at the front office as we prepare for a final look around, and a visit to Holy Trinity, where Shakespeare is buried.
9 AM Long sunny stroll to Holy Trinity, reviewing the sights along the way, which include the prominent vestiges of “canal culture” in Stratford. Sometime in the early 1800s, the canal locks came through and Stratford became one of the largest central points on the canal lines through the middle of the country. Many distribution “yards” were set up, and now only “Cox’s Yard,” converted to a tourist pub-stop, survives as a reminder. Stratfordians, having catered to visitors since the 1700s intent on seeing Shakespeare’s birthplace, knew how to hold onto the vestiges of the early 1800s canal boom. A Disneyfied waterpark sports old barges converted to ice cream stands and mini-restaurants; some are even B&Bs, where you can snooze on the placid flatness of the old canal. There are a few private barges mixed in where retirees have perennial access to the safe beauties of a cute tourist town. I’d love to see the barges in winter when the pond is frozen over.
We cross over a surviving lock on our walk to church, and take advantage of the good light to take some snaps of the Shakespeare monument in the park. Carlo poses convincingly with his doubled-double Falstaff in merry manner, and broods with a playwright’s forlorn longing at the eyes-aghast statue of Hamlet. I find the bronzen figures a mite overdone, with their gazes big as thumb-holes in the shaped clay of their characters. Only the Shakespeare, seated and staring at the top of the stack retains a static human dimension and mysteriousness; he is plain, compact, and inward. Like most of the English I’ve passed between on my visit to this land, he’s said nothing but what he has meant to say. The rest is conjecture.
10 AM We enter the grounds of Holy Trinity, having gone along the Avon slowly as mendicant monks dawdling toward the corrective lash. The church bells sound the town to order and call the faithful to prayer. There is a long, large graveyard that we pass through to get to the low doorway of the church, a small hole, but not yet the eye of a needle for we overfed moderns. Well-dressed citizens of Stratford roll along the pathway with us, before us, and after us–we are but two in the trembling flow. We duck in, and Carlo begins negotiations to get us the last fifty feet to the wall-monument and the tombstone set in the floor. Carlo lets it be known that we are on a “pilgrimage of sorts,” but resists the offer to let us sit at the front on the side as the High Eucharist is performed in a few minutes. The door warder recommends our case to the warden, who turns us over to the priest as worshippers repeat polite “excuse mes” past the bumptious Americans.
Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,
to digg the dust encloased heare,
Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And curst be he yt moves my bones.
I recall the words on the tombstone as we wait. I think Carlo is hoping for a profane miracle which it seems will not come to pass. He lets them know that we have a train to catch back to London. Even here in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Christ can out-arm-wrestle the Bard. The Holy Ghost is more to the point than the Ghost of hamlet’s father, etc. The priest protests that the time is too near, and the tombstone too close to the altar to have us wade by and exit just now. I see some dim spot of color mid-height on the wall down by the altar, and know it must be that roly-poly depiction of Shakespeare we have already seen some half-dozen times in our travels. Carlo turns to me and asks, with anxious mien, what I would like to do. “Let’s just leave,” I say, with a “Thank you very much” to the priest and warders, and smilingly retreat from hallowed halls to hallowed ground.
12 PM Train back to Marleybone Station, London. The plan is to hook up with Jon Williams this evening for a tour of “authentic” surviving punk clubs. Monday is Whitsun Bank Holiday in the UK, and Memorial Day in the US. Looking forward to experiencing this strata of contemporary London from a “native who knows.” The green landscape unrolls in reverse, getting brighter as we roll. This may be the best day we have experienced weather-wise.
2 PM Check in to The Wellington, give Jon a ring. Carlo and I walk toward the Cheshire Cheese for a final London meal; it is officially our favorite place. We are walking from Vincent Square, all the way down to Fleet Street since the weather is fine, and we’ll hit a few over-looked sights along the way.
The first is Buckingham Palace, which I keep calling Buckington for some reason. I give Jon a call from near the gates, and Carlo tries and connect with his mom back in the states. Carlo’s worried, me much less so. There’s a ring of snapping flags around a generous rotunda outside the gilded gates of the palace, which itself looks to be about two city blocks in size. The flags are hung in an ingenious way like draperies, and do not flap about so much and droop decorously. The colors are the blue background, white Vs, and big red X of the British flag. We spot some palace guards marching to their post within the gated courtyard. In the middle in the Queen Victoria Memorial, with a golden Victory at the top, her wings in full-flight.
Through the Mall, St. James’ Park to the right, St. James’ Palace to the left, down toward Admiralty Arch. And the pillar to the Duke of York, who “when he was up, he was up, and when he was down, he was down.” Now he is forever up, grandly looking over the marvelous mall and the cool expanse of the park–which was mobbed after weeks of horrendous rain. On to Trafalgar Square, where we met our old friends again, Admiral Nelson, the barefoot and pregnant Alison Lapper, champion of human rights, George IV, Henry Havelock, and Sir James Napier. Some good views of St Martin-in-the-Fields before strolling on toward The City area, where the Royal Courts of Justice shone strongly in the afternoon light. The black clock stuck out from the side of building seems, as odd as it is, to go well with the many-faced complex. The Royal Courts seem to be busy, even when closed, simply by the intricacy of the facade and the adjoining buildings. Here’s the Old Bailey, famed in terror and story.
We pass Twinnings tea store, the narrowest shop in London, with a pair of painted Chinamen leaning against a tiny Greek triangle arch at the top. It is closed, as is everything this late Sunday afternoon. I know some tea enthusiasts who will be pleased to see the icon back home. Just down the Strand, which will turn into Fleet St, is one of my favorite City Dragons, high on a two-storey pedestal and isolated on a traffic island. Its ears seem pinned back like an angry cat’s, and its paw up like a kitty rampant. The beast is in black iron, and seems prepared to strike former colonists for lack of other meat. There’s a pair of crosses on the wings, and it hold a shield up with one clawed arm. On the street’s another pair of red telephone booths. Carlo calls his mom, and I Jon, both to no effect.
We reach the Cheshire Cheese, which is closed. “Shut,” as the fellow says who is locking up. “Open Tuesday,” he explains because of Monday’s bank holiday. Carlo and I finally break down and take the tube back up to SoHo. As Carlo explains, gay club culture never takes a holiday–or, more properly, never ceases from taking a holiday. This is great, I wanted to get to the bohemian side of London, and look forward to the change.
Out at Tottenham Court Road station, and up the gritty nickering steps and out. The place was busy! Lots of talking as cafes had people pushed out onto the sidewalks in hunky bunches. After a few turns down the street, we come to official SoHo, and right away there’s a change of feel to the place. It’s like being back in New York City. A bit more nitty, a bit more gritty. The cafes and pubs seem really worn at the edges, even if they are not 400 years old. But first things first; we’re fairly aching for calories after all the walking. We meander in to “The Dog and the Duck,” which has a sign all green and golden. This was George Orwell’s favorite slurp-spot, we find out. We also find out that SoHo was once the King’s hunting preserve (hence the dog and the duck), where the old hunting cry was heard: “sooo-hooo!”
We began our obligatory tour of the SoHo sex shops, famous throughout the world for their staunch raunch. The couple we fingered our way through, palpating the merchandise, as it were, seemed about the same as such shops in the US, just a tad cleaner, better lit, and more freshly stocked. Maybe its all the rain, maybe it’s the rate of sale of items. I didn’t get to know any Brits well enough to find out for myself. (Sigh.) Down an alley or two, which honeycomb the notable area, and there were a series of Eastern European girls who made catcalls at us, trying to drum up some trade for their rip-off joints. They were attractive and stackable, but Carlo had the best line “Even if you had a more attractive brother, I’d have to say no. And I’m sure, if you had a brother, he’d be attractive.” Carlo had read in Frommer’s that these places were sort of sexual shanghai shops, where you walked in for 5 pounds, but couldn’t get out without the total pilfering of your purse. And all you got for it was that you creamed in your jeans. Not a notable bargain, however whipped-up my quickened prick kicked.
Carlo and I stopped by the venerable Admiral Duncan, bombed for being a gay club in 1998. We had a drink in solidarity with the huffing oppressed, and then parted company. Carlo wanted to prowl the wanton town, and I wanted to find a place with some good punk vibes. The place I found was “The Intrepid Fox,” which totally reminded me of the defunct punk Melody back in New Brunswick, NJ. They had a glued-on gallery of they patron from Halloweens past up over the bar, which was tended by a vest-no-shirt dude in a snakeskin cowboy hat.
9PM-12AM Had 4 Stella Artois at the bar, my first time drinking the same drink since I got to England. These really got me hammered somehow. I wandered home blunderingly disoriented (florescent fragments of tube stops come to mind), but made it to the haven of The Wellington all the same. Soaked my head in the sink and plowed myself under the sheets. Carlo came in even later.
5:30 AM Ransack Carlo’s “pharmacy” bag for aspirin and blink out again.
8 AM At breakfast, Carlo fills me in on his adventures, getting chatted up by a tranny at “The Stag,” which was just a block from our hotel, and had a rainbow pointedly painted over its horny portal. We post our last postcards as I then go on to Heathrow, throwing “daddy a hug.” The train out is packed like a peanut jar. Everyone is using the bank holiday to escape London, eiher to the country or just back to their home countries.
Victoria to Green Park to Hatton Cross to Bus Service to Terminal 4.