A certain kind of book these days combines literary history and memoir, and investigates the importance of renowned novels from the past to readers today. Rebecca Mead did this in 2014 with “My Life in Middlemarch,” which intersperses her personal story with biographical details about George Eliot, and provides an enriching look at “Middlemarch.” Mead has read “Middlemarch” countless times over the years, finding treasures anew each time. I’ve read it just twice – and loved reading Mead’s book to help me make even more of it.
Mead, born in England, recently wrote in The New Yorker (“The Return of the Native”) that after decades in this country and becoming a citizen, she would return to the UK – to London. She writes about what America has meant to her since she came here, first as a graduate student, then a journalist, and describes the decision as “wrenching.” Her life reminds me of many English novel heroines, especially the ones who long to write – beginnings in a provincial town, hard-working student, Oxford, The New Yorker – an enviable trajectory fueled by love of books.
I’m a Rebecca Mead fan – always glad to see her byline. This article movingly sums up the last two decades – 9/11, Mead’s adventurous career, marriage and motherhood, the joy of Obama’s election and the despair of the more recent one – and I could feel her apprehensive excitement about the move to London (a friend, when I forwarded the article, said “I wish I also had a British citizenship.”) I’m happy for Mead – she will give her son the experience of a different culture and remove the ocean that’s separated her from her mother for so many years. And I’m eager for her to write about London as a local.
She left me a departing gift – a review of Nell Stevens’s “The Victorian and the Romantic: A Memoir, A Love Story, and Friendship Across Time.” It’s a book I might have missed about Elizabeth Gaskell, the 19th C novelist best known simply as Mrs. Gaskell, a favorite of mine.
Stevens’s book combines a time in her own life with that of a little-known part of Gaskell’s life (an unrequited but intense romance). Mead describes the result best: “…a gentle satire on the ways of academia… coupled with a painfully credible account of late-twenties love, freighted with all its unanswerable questions about the future.”
When I was an English major back in the days of text only (the novel itself contained all that needed knowing), to read about an author’s life was somehow illicit. Virginia Woolf wrote that “The cheapness of writing paper is, of course, the reason why women have succeeded as writers before they have succeeded in other professions,” and now I feel a frisson of excitement at peeking into the lives, houses and companions surrounding those women authors who penned such long-lasting books.
And it’s a great pleasure to have tales of those lives told alongside the contemporary lives of two masterful writers!
After a little more than a two-hour flight from Sevilla to London Gatwick, we exchanged T-shirts for sweaters, sandals for umbrellas, tapas for pub food, and formal gardens in dry terrain for the lush gardens of England.
By this time Sweet Baby expressed definite opinions about tolerated confinement, whether pack or stroller, car seat or high chair. But she is always glad to ride in her pack on her dad, the family gardener, and we planned three garden visits with lawns and space for running.
In the Kent countryside we stayed in tiny Biddenden Village (a pub, a post office, and a smattering of other buildings smack beside a busy road) in a 400-year old Tudor house – low ceilings, creaky floors, steep staircases, and comfortable rooms.
At Great Dixter (made famous by garden writer Christopher Lloyd), in spite of borders of glorious color and meadows of wildflowers, we loved the house best. Built by Lloyd’s father and the architect Edwin Lutyens, it combines two 15th century dwellings to reimagine a medieval manor. A great room with vaulted ceilings and leaded windows downstairs, and a solar upstairs, with worn rugs, bookshelves, and lived-in chairs cozied up to a huge fireplace. A little hungry for home comfort by now, we might have settled in.
The day of our Sissinghurst visit we woke to cold rain, but after Sweet Baby’s morning nap the clouds lifted. Sissinghurst (my favorite garden) is romantic and full of story, and in spite of summer solstice and the full bloom of Vita’s famous roses, weather kept the crowds down. We walked paths through the white garden, the herb garden, the cottage garden, and climbed the tower. For lunch we ate ratatouille made from produce grown in the Sissinghurst vegetable garden.
The threat of Brexit had begun to color things even before we left Spain, and in the UK tension was palpable. In the village, angry Brexiters complained to us about Obama’s statements to remain, and in London the night before the vote, vocal supporters of each side lined tube station entrances. Our old friends were divided, he to stay, she to leave. And the day after the vote, people looked stunned as they carried on.
Founded in 1673 as an apothecaries’ garden, the Chelsea Physic garden is a tranquil, walled space overlooked by buildings, full of labeled medicinal plants from around the world. On the same day as the huge and sad memorial for Jo Cox in Trafalgar Square, I walked the paths, pushing a sleeping Sweet Baby in her stroller, thinking about the commonality and continuity of plants, looking for solace in the centuries-old garden.
On our last day – a final walk through London and history. From our place near Covent Garden, west through Trafalgar Square (setting up for the Gay Pride Festival), along the Mall to St. James’s park (many visitors, a polyglot of language), ate waffles sitting on a bench, and watched the crowd gather near Buckingham Palace. Then we circled back past Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, toward Parliament (posters and stickers littered the sidewalk). We turned onto the Victoria Embankment along the Thames, and crossed the Millennium Footbridge (a bride and her wedding party walking in the midst of the crowd). We spent time in the Tate Modern (Sweet Baby running the ramp in the Turbine Hall), then walked on to the Borough Market for lunch.
Sweet Baby took her parents home for the afternoon nap, but the two old, true London lovers finished it out – back across the bridge and up to St. Paul’s, along Fleet Street and the Strand, and through Covent Garden.
Overhead a jet plane flyover trailed tricolored smoke and thunderous noise – and a downpour began, wilting feathers and costumes and melting face paintings on passersby.
That evening, in the midst of post-festival crowds, Sweet Bride miraculously found us a table at a Thai restaurant where we ate and replayed Sweet Baby’s first big trip.
“Wow!” we said.
On Christmas Day public transportation shuts down in London – no tube, no buses. Nearly everything you read about visiting London in December warns about this closure and the difficulty of getting about.
So we had a plan – walk from our flat in Notting Hill to Trafalgar Square, and then to join a Charles Dickens walking tour. Our younger son, the trail boss, figured out the route, covering so much of central London with streets and buildings familiar from history and literature.
We opened stockings and ate a breakfast of scrambled eggs by candlelight (dark lingers late and comes early in winter London). Then we set off, the day chilly but sunny, past the shuttered shops of Notting Hill along busy sidewalks. (Closing the tube means all the below ground life suddenly appears street side.)
In Kensington Gardens fellow walkers, families mostly, chattered in many languages, children rode in buggies or skipped along with the international excitement of children on Christmas Day. People strolled, not the Londoner’s usual purposeful stride, past Diana’s Playground, Kensington Palace, the Round Pond, the Albert Memorial.
After Hyde Park, the trail boss pointed a line through the neighborhoods of Mayfair and Belgravia with deserted streets and no people – residents here might spend their holidays at country estates. An armed guard at the fortress-like American embassy managed a smile in reply to a “Merry Christmas” greeting.
Just before reaching Trafalgar Square, we stopped for a hot drink in an open (and very busy) coffee shop. We weren’t the only people fancying a Victorian Dickens tour on Christmas Day – a crowd filled the square, tourists but locals as well.
A few nights before, we’d been to a performance of “A Christmas Carol,” staged in a small theatre just off Piccadilly. On the tour we learned that the theatre was located close by the notorious and miserable blacking factory where Dickens worked as a child, and that he, too, loved to walk in the countryside and in London.
The walk was cold! Like penguins we huddled around the guide who read bits from Dickens novels, standing on streets where Dickens lived, and outside one of the many pubs named for him.
We had arranged for a car to pick us up, and after a long day in the cold on foot (six miles by the sweet bride’s pedometer), the toasty quick ride back over the route we’d walked gave a taste of a whole other way to be in London.
In the tiny kitchen of our flat, we turned our traditional comfort meal festive – spaghetti, Lady Baby style zucchini, salad – and miniature mince pies from Ottolenghi. We ate by candlelight and the warmth of the little gas fireplace.
Then, feeling like true Brits, we watched the Downton Abbey finale on the telly (never mind we hadn’t seen any previous episodes). A memorable Christmas Day.
And I’m wishing you the same – with all your important elements in place!
Last December, when we went to London with our younger son and his sweet bride, I thought about my favorite parts of the holiday, wondering if we’d find what I treasure – joy and laughter and love for sure, the cheerful ghosts of Christmas past, and some specifics in the present.
We brought family with us – a critical component, and made a bare bones flat in Notting Hill home base. It was the sweet bride’s first trip to London, Harry Potter and Harrods’ led her list, but by the 21st the fact of Christmas became more pressing.
Friends – a warming Christmas element – were in short supply. We did eat dinner one night with our English friends at their cheery house (ironically, they left the next day for the States to spend their holiday). They gave us a small, bright red poinsettia for the flat’s fireplace mantel.
London provided wintry weather aplenty – rain and wind or clear, cold days – appropriate for the woolen hats and scarves we bought as small gifts to stuff stockings from home, and hung by the fireplace with care.
Solstice night we joined a walking tour to view Christmas lights – Covent Garden and Oxford Street a-twinkle, and giant white snowflakes glittering between the buildings in the tiny lane leading to St. Martin’s Square. Shoppers gathered in front of store windows with Victorian Christmas scenes – the kind that only huge and old-fashioned department stores can offer.
My family later reported spotting that Christmas tradition, “Love Actually,” playing on a big screen in the outdoor part of a pub. I missed it while talking to a fellow walker or I would have returned!
We played Christmas music on a tiny speaker for the iPhones, and heard the live BBC broadcast of the Festival of Carols. (I associate that with early morning on Christmas Eve in Anchorage). And by Christmas Eve, awash with the memories that color the holidays, I wanted to gather food for a feast – even if small.
Dramatic Christmas trees decorate public London – each year the City of Oslo presents the people of London with a huge tree that dominates Trafalgar Square (given in gratitude since 1947, for assistance during World War II), a red velvet tree designed by artists for the Victoria and Albert Museum filled the foyer there, and in Covent Garden’s Piazza giant red balls and white lights covered an enormous tree that stood in a whiskey barrel of startling size.
The bay windows of London townhouses seem designed for Christmas trees, and in our neighborhood one stood out. I opened the gate, snuck inside the tiny front yard, and took a photo. A book tree! Books artfully piled and strung with white lights, broad at the bottom and tapering to a skinny top where an artist’s wooden figure stood with arm raised in good cheer.
We had noticed trees for sale in lots tucked into spaces beside churches and in the entrance areas of big stores. I longed for one in spite of impracticality.
Finally the sweet bride and I cobbled together a tiny tree – evergreen boughs fresh with fragrance from a florist shop tied together with red ribbon, decked with a miniature string of colored lights, and topped by a star cut from shiny paper.
The basics of Christmas magic in place – off to bed!
Two missions shaped our time in London, the first, to support Mrs. Hughes in her exciting endeavor (a five-day course at The Interior Design School), and then to see this favorite city through Lady Baby’s eyes.
Each morning we set out with destination in mind: the London Zoo, the Museum of Childhood (dolls to play with and dress-up clothes), the Princess Diana Memorial Playground (a truly memorable, neverland wonderland of a play space), or a visit to a less familiar part of London and the brand-new House of Illustration with an exhibition about the illustrator Quentin Blake (where the favorite thing was a wheelchair ramp and set of stairs that provided 20 minutes of real aerobic joy with races up steps and down ramp).
I realize I have used the word favorite several times. As does Lady Baby. She shows you two things, like Baby Boy and Pink Baby, and asks which is your favorite? So I’ve been thinking about our London days in terms of favorites – I’m guessing some of these for her:
Paddingtons – both the station where we arrived from the countryside (announcements on the train brought glee, “She’s saying Paddington!”), and a new, small bear (named Baby Paddington, “because his mama lives at KayTee’s house”).
Vehicles to identify – black London Taxis, red double-decker buses, red mail trucks – and the very favorite – speedy motorcycles passing close by on narrow streets. “That’s a noisy motorcycle!”
Watching people while riding the tube with an endless variety of faces. Learning the litany of tube stops on the Central line: Notting Hill Gate, Holland Park, White City (meaning we were near home).
Pushing the button to signal our bus stop.
Our Bracewell Road flat – “our London house,” a comfortable, multi-leveled North Kensington home with a “playroom” (also known as dining room and living room).
Farm animals and play mat we brought from home that provided much quiet playtime and story telling for Lady Baby and Poppa.
The loaner pink baby doll stroller, and pushing it full of babies in the house or to a playground in a nearby park named Wormwood Scrubs.
The pirate ship and sand and watercourse at Princess Diana’s playground, where Lady Baby followed (and maybe coveted) an empty, blue baby doll buggy pushed through the water stream by a French toddler boy.
Egg salad sandwiches and crisps to share at Pret-a-Manger (the fresh food stops making London quick and easy eating such a pleasure).
Carrot cake as a lunch first course. Combined with big mouthfuls of scrambled egg.
Chips and fish fingers at our local pub in the evening.
An eleven o’clock in the morning performance with music (for three to five-year olds) of Judith Kerr’s book, “The Tiger Who Came to Tea,” at a real Covent Garden theatre. Lady Baby joined in the audience call: “It’s a tiger!” and stood up to stretch her “tiger paws” when the time came mid-performance.
All the stunning dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum where Lady Baby’s delight and awe proved she is indeed the daughter of Mr. Carson (a longtime dinosaur connoisseur). Excitement built as we rounded a corner to encounter the enormous moving, roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex. Lady Baby: “That’s a big dinosaur!”
Gearing up with child-size purple headphones and Mr. Carson’s iPhone to listen to the “Tiger” soundtrack while we made long tube rides or walks to the bus and tube stops.
But the greatest delight in all of London Lady Baby found in Trafalgar Square, a high-five from a life-size Mickey Mouse whom she’d never encountered before.
And my favorite memory? Perhaps “The Tiger Who Came to Tea” – such a dear book, brought magically to life. Maybe that memory will last for Lady Baby as well, and we can “stretch our tiger paws,” and speak of London days.
London offers such a concentration of museums, brimming with objects “collected” from all over the world. And all the museums in London are free – sometimes special exhibitions have entry fees, but day in, day out, you can travel the globe with an Oyster Pass (the amazingly convenient plastic card you swipe on a pad at Underground or on a bus to ride).
Much as I love revisiting favorites in London, we discovered someplace new to us but very old, on our Greenwich day. After visiting the Royal Maritime Museum, we climbed a hill rising from green parkland to the Royal Observatory. It’s a beautiful spot, capped by Flamsteed House where a reddish-orange ball on a mast still rises and falls to mark 1 p.m. – as it has every day since 1833, so mariners on ships in the nearby Thames could set their clocks. Modern timekeeping methods make the orange ball obsolete, it rises and falls now for tradition.
The museum inside Flamsteed House is much about time, longitude, and the competition to solve the navigational problem plaguing mariners of old – without accurate charts, ships foundered and many seamen lost their lives, countries lost their ships.
Our younger son and his sweet bride studied an enormous globe, finding Thailand (such a long way and across the International Date Line), and trying to really understand geography and time. Latitude is easier to get, as it was in the past, but figuring longitude, the invisible lines running up and down on our globe is trickier – and vital.
In her book, “Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time” Dava Sobel says: “The zero-degree parallel of latitude is fixed by the laws of nature, while the zero-degree meridian of longitude shifts like the sands of time. This difference makes finding latitude child’s play, and turns the determination of longitude, especially at sea, into an adult dilemma – one that stumped the wisest minds of the world for the better part of human history.”
To know longitude at sea, one must know the time aboard ship, and the time at a known longitude. Sobel writes: “Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places at once – a longitude prerequisite so easily accessible today from any pair of cheap wristwatches – was utterly unattainable up to and including the era of pendulum clocks.”
Sobel’s fascinating book traces the competition and surprisingly underhanded maneuvers involved in finding a method to determine time at sea. She writes about early attempts at solutions, involving the stars, the moon, even the yelps of wounded dogs.
At the museum we saw the work of the creative scientist John Harrison, a “mechanical genius,” who, after devoting his life to the quest, invented “portable precision timekeeping devices” – clocks unaffected by the a ship’s rocking motion. Sobel tells the story of the stubborn, almost malevolent, scientific elite who distrusted his invention – men who refused to accept a new way.
The Observatory is also the site of the Prime Meridian, longitude’s starting point, and the line from which we measure Coordinated Universal Time – sometimes called Greenwich time.
As the wordsmith predicted, it would have been a tourist thrill to stand on the Prime Meridian itself, but we just hovered in the vicinity watching a long line of tourists waiting for their moment to straddle east and west.
Visiting Greenwich provided a day out of time to consider the time before people weren’t so cavalier about being at the same moment, if not the hour, as the rest of the world.
I love England (you might have noticed) – the buildings and vistas, the old days and nowadays, the British sense of humor and the British sense of design, the way they use the words of our (sort of) shared common language with so much variety of accent, speed, and colorful expression. (And they write so well.)
Having devoured Downton Abbey in an undisciplined, delighted week (on DVD, a premium from the PBS station here), we then spent a dismal and dark time in crime drama land. I hadn’t realized how such watching affects my everyday outlook until watching “About Time” the other night.
Written and directed by Richard Curtis (who also made “Love Actually”), there is much familiar dithering of male and female leads, the charming and ever wonderful Bill Nighy, beautiful Cornwall scenery with stunning cliff top house, a so cheerful soundtrack. And London – lots and lots of London – a Tube station on the Bakerloo line surely painted anew to be such beautiful shades of green, the girl and boy pass through the station as the buskars play and sing “How Long will I love you.” Time passes and their relationship grows.
It’s a comedy, and it’s sad. The men in the hero’s family can time travel (suspend disbelief here), providing opportunity and complications – plot twists aplenty – romantic love, family love, fathers and sons. A functional, happy and loving, but not boring family.
It’s about how an ordinary life is happy or not – about not wasting the days we have, and posits that it’s not the big things or achievements mattering in the end, but the little everyday happenings we can really influence. Whether we smile or not, take joy or not, whether we value as the hero says at the end about his life, “my ordinary, extraordinary life.”
Happy Heart Day tomorrow – an ordinary, extraordinary day!
The great strength of our London flat was location. From a bus stop at the top of our street, we could ride for five minutes, hop off at Notting Hill Gate Tube station, and be transported to royal London, business London, theatre London.
And just a short walk from our flat, making it easy to bring home boxes of delicious food, we found the famous chef Yotem Ottolenghi’s Notting Hill establishment, on Ledbury Aveue. It’s a tiny skinny place with just one big communal table at the back for eating there, but in the front space, which can’t be more than 10 feet across, huge platters of salads and meats are on offer each day. In a display window on the street, delicious desserts vie for attention.
Thanks to Ottolenghi’s cookbooks, you can do it all at home with your own fresh, seasonal ingredients. I have his book “Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi,” and, most cherished in a recipe book, it’s full of inspiration. (The links here are from his Guardian newspaper recipe column.) Ottolenghi’s meal-making salads combine unexpected ingredients and dressings. The wordsmith recently made “Sweet Winter Slaw”( http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/jan/12/recipe.foodanddrink) using green cabbage and substituting kale for savoy cabbage – so good!
I read his recipe “Roasted parsnips and Sweet Potatoes with Caper Vinaigrette” (http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2008/jan/19/weekend7.weekend4) before tackling the motley, approaching antique, vegetables I found in my fridge when we got home. An investigation of the crisper drawer revealed parsnips, turnips, some of which turned out to be very large radishes, and some mature beets. I also had a big sweet potato, several shallots, a garlic bulb, sprigs of rosemary from the garden and thyme from a pot on the porch. Ottolenghi magic transformed this bunch into an amazing winter meal!
His hints about the order and time for roasting make this work. To begin he mixes olive oil, parsnips, red onions in a bowl (I used the shallots and the other vegetables I had). He roasts these (at 350°) for about 20 minutes. Then adds the sweet potato, chopped into wedges to the mixture, and stirs to coat.
After another 40 or 50 minutes, he adds halved cherry tomatoes. (I didn’t have those.)
I had to make substitutions in the dressing – I didn’t have the called for lemon, so squeezed a little tangerine juice into two tablespoons of olive oil, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, capers, and salt. Ottolenghi also calls for roasted sesame seeds.
Lately watching “Downton Abbey,” I think how we certainly don’t dress for dinner. But we should dress the vegetables, giving then a new life out of the drawer, a dressier life. Delicious.
When we visited London three years ago with my young friend and her mother (a trip we still speak of often), we joined a Harry Potter walking tour and saw places where the movie was filmed and sites “that probably inspired J.K. Rowling.”
But Warner Brothers’ Studio Tour “The Making of Harry Potter” wasn’t yet open. My young friend would have loved it – not just because she grew up reading Harry Potter, but because it is all about the work of clever and creative people.
Reaching the studio requires a long ride from London on a bus dressed up to suggest the night bus. I felt a little sheepish climbing aboard – wishing we had in tow all sorts of fans: my young friend and her mother, my niece’s best friend, Mrs. Hughes who loved those books, and my painter friend’s grandson for starters.
But the sweet bride was there, and very excited, having read all the books in Thai, in Thailand. (Thinking about that makes me pause in awe of J.K. Rowling – of how she created a whole imaginary world to enchant countless children all over the real world.)
The actual sound stage, a warehouse-like complex where the movies were filmed, now welcomes masses of visitors. The ticket line snakes below larger-than-lifesized photos of Harry, Hermione, Ron, and the others at various ages.
The cavernous space contains the enchanting sets, complex and detailed in person – Hogwort’s Apothecary Department, Hagrid’s Hut, and Daigon Alley (where you could walk). In the Gryffindor Common Room, comfy red couches and plenty of cushions, a beautiful room-sized rug, good lighting, and an enormous fireplace with inglenook seemed a great place to be with your friends, and worlds apart from the sad, bleak set depicting Harry’s bed under the stairs at the Dursley house – electrical junction box and bare, dangling light bulb. (Our younger son commented that it resembled the small bedroom in our flat.)
We were there in December, and snow fell as we circled around the enormous model used for filming Hogwarts Castle. In the Great Hall we walked among decorated tables piled high with dishes for a Christmas feast. In the boy’s dormitory, a red garland wound around Ron’s bed with its coverlet of colorful knitted squares and worn velvet curtains.
Descriptions of how moviemakers achieved effects accompanied each set – books and furniture distressed to look worn (fat London phone books became ancient volumes, apothecary potion bottles labeled by hand), intricate costumes designed and made – we learned how artists and crafts people used models and mocks ups in their creative process. The scale model of The Owlery intrigued me, a little line drawing depicting each individual owl.
But the best part might be the stories and videos about the animal actors and their trainers. “Four talented Red Persian cats – Crackerjack, Oliver, Bo Bo, and Prince” – played Hermione’s mangy cat Crookshanks. The Animal Department attached little fur mats with hair clips to make them appear more unkempt. (Lord Wolsey might have played Crookshanks – without effort he inhabits the part.)
Near the Dursley house on an outdoor street set, we sampled “butter beer” beside the real night bus. I bought a Gryffindor House scarf for my painter friend’s grandson for his seventh birthday (and was rewarded later by a video of him, wearing Potter glasses and gown, twirling with wand in hand as though to take off).
Having walked and gawked till exhausted, we each fell asleep on our night bus going back to London.
All that creativity – Rowling’s words, the actors, the behind the scenes people – magic.
And sometimes it’s tea that counts! London days always began with early morning tea, waiting for daylight and the young people to wake. And tea through out the day sustained me – a “cuppa” welcomed in any number of settings.
On Christmas Eve afternoon a quiet tea at a deserted neighborhood bakery, watching last minute shoppers hustle by outside and the bakery door repeatedly open to customers destined to be disappointed by the nearly empty shelves, tea with the sweet bride while seated on tall stools at a little place on Portobello Road (while the others descended to a basement café serving full English breakfasts), and cups of tea perched at the edge of a table in another crowded place, enjoying a series of conversations with shoppers who were into the city for the day.
Nowadays there are countless Pret-a-Manager restaurants in London – popular and ubiquitous and so useful to tourists. Their size and style varies with the neighborhood, but they offer fresh ready-made sandwiches to grab – when tables are full or time’s too short to sit – food fuel critical for our constant walking.
I took to having the same sandwich – egg salad and cress – whether standing under the shadow of Big Ben outside a hole-in-the wall place across from the Houses of Parliament, or at museum cafes.
Hot tea made that sandwich work in the winter, I clutched a paper cup, while the tea steamed and warmed my hands. Twice we carried cups when we joined walking tours (tours in winter provide heat, people clustered together like penguins, trapping a little warm air).
My favorite tea was at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich – a wordsmith-recommended destination – and a place we all enjoyed. To get there, you ride the Docklands Light Rail out of London proper, and because the rail is elevated, pass rapidly over and through abandoned wharf areas now repopulated with the tall steel and glass office buildings of modern prosperity. It looks a cleaned up “Blade Runner” vista.
But Greenwich itself is old England – with village-size buildings and the beautiful structures of the old Naval College now housing the Maritime Museum. We found a huge “Turner and the Sea” exhibition, and ships and sagas galore with tales of exploration, trade, piracy, and famous mariners.
In the café, they serve tea properly – a pretty china cup with plenty of hot water in an accompanying pot – just right for an egg and cress sandwich.
At one of the London Undergound stations, maybe Knightsbridge, across the tracks from the platform, a huge sign advertized the famous bookshop Foyles. That poster stuck out in the midst of countless images of handsome men and glamorous women sporting very white teeth, coiffed hair, and heaving bosoms promoting whiskey or airlines or movies.
The Foyles ad (or advert as the Brits would say) was about gift buying – more text than image – two fat paragraphs and the image of a row of books against a green background.
You could read some of the titles: Donna Tartt’s new book “The Goldfinch,” a Bill Bryson book “One Summer,” a book with a title, “Demon Dentist,” I didn’t want to consider too carefully. Something by Neil Gaiman, “The Circle” by Dave Eggers, and “Sounds Like London,” which I am curious about. Appropriately, the front cover of the last book reads: “The Novel Cure.”
The poster pushes books, of course, but the fat paragraphs discuss the giving of socks as a gift, and offers “interesting things you ought to know about socks.” (Somebody clever at Foyles – or its ad agency – had a really good time.)
“No sock groups meet on a Tuesday night over wine and nibbles,” “A sock has never been turned into an Oscar-winning film.” “The greatest minds in history have not expressed the contents of their heads and souls in a sock, nor do you recognize your own life in a sock.” “You don’t place socks on your coffee table to impress your guests.” There are many more. “You do not think about a sock long after, perhaps even years after, you’ve put it down.”
All these familiar and well-known phrases turned on their heads (or heels). Just under the row of books, it takes you a minute to catch on, is the cliché most associated with gift giving.
At first glance it says: “It’s the thought that counts.” But it doesn’t say that, it’s talking about why we cherish books beyond all the sock-suggested reasons. A red strike-through eliminates the “the,” so it reads: “It’s thought that counts.”
It used to be that food was not a reason to go to England. That’s so different now in London. We had an easy time of that dangerous-to-travelers early evening period, when hunger sets in along with restaurant uncertainty. By happenstance, we twice ate at restaurants belonging to the chef Jamie Oliver.
Near the flat we rented in Notting Hill, Oliver’s Recipease is a cook’s store and a restaurant where chefs teach partygoer groups how to make a dish. We sat at a big wooden table, watched the chef and his students, and ate the best guacamole ever, along with other delicious things.
But my favorite Oliver night came in Covent Garden. We approached Oliver’s Italian restaurant to find a huge line at 5 p.m. We stood in it – more out of indecision and fatigue than anything – and were rewarded as people as people quickly disappeared into a surprisingly commodious, bustling place smelling like garlic and fresh bread.
The special board listed spaghetti alla puttanesca and it was terrific. A Jamie Oliver recipe for Gennaro’s spaghetti alla puttanesca is (here), and I was surprised to read that it contained anchovies!
I came home reminded of that favorite and so easy dish, and will make it this weekend for company. I’ll leave the anchovies out, so it won’t be the same, but capers and olives seem the trademark ingredients. I’ll sauté onions in olive oil, add garlic, red chilies or our Rome spices, and canned tomatoes. Then toss in olives, capers, and cherry tomatoes.
It will be fun to spoon it over strozzapreti, serve it with crusty bread and wine, and talk to friends about trips. For sure we’ll have London weather – wet and very dark – but the memories will be bright!
Our younger son and his sweet bride most often come north to us for the Christmas holiday. But this last Christmas we met in London!
In the clear days of January, when we are all looking ahead, it hasn’t seemed right to write about the holiday past, but I know London thoughts that cycle in my head will find their way into posts. (With pleasure I will save the Christmas bits for the blog next December, and just say that from a “Love Actually” beginning at Heathrow Arrivals Hall to a Charles Dickens walk on Christmas Day, it was so much fun to be in London for the holiday!)
Anglophile I am – and my fondness just grows. Mrs. Hughes summed up part of why in a text message from home: “all those literary references and everyone dressed like a page from a Boden catalogue!” Especially in the winter!
People appeared in countless variations of the same winter theme: black wool coats or black down coats, short black boots or tall black boots, scarves of festive red or – the scarf of the moment – a trendy hound’s-tooth check. Stylish young men and women with briefcases, scarves wrapped about their necks, and open overcoats flying behind. Hats or hoods, mittens or gloves, grannies and toddlers – all bundled for London days. Riding down to the Tube, the escalator opposite was a fashion parade.
Inclement weather prompted all that layered dressing – cold clear days with sunshine of sorts, or wet, blustery days with wool gone damp and umbrellas turned inside out. Just enough adversity to make coming in from the cold and wet a huge pleasure. Nights were early dark – by 4 p.m. the lights of the city began to glitter in the wet.
And by that time of day we were looking for food!