(This is the final entry in a series that begins with A Night in Steerage.)
The third week of June was a strange time to be in London. Brexit was approaching its vote. A beloved MP, Jo Cox, a strong advocate of immigration, had been assassinated outside her constituency office in Yorkshire. The country was stunned for two days and then went back to political crapola as usual. It was hideously humid and thundery showers were in the forecast. I bought papers, listened to the news, and kept an eye on the weather.
During the night before the Brexit vote, great cracking thunder disturbed my sleep. All night long persistent rain plopped on the porch outside my hotel door. In the morning I learned there had been flash floods all over the south of England and as a result some trains were not running, including the trains from London to Canterbury. What luck that I had made the decision to go yesterday.
The rain let up around 9:00 and looked like it would hold off until late afternoon so I set off for my be-heading at the Tower. I took the 23 bus to Trafalgar and spent some time walking around looking at the lions and the pigeons and the famous buildings. It’s as majestic a place as Piccadilly is seedy.
I walked down Northumberland Ave and found the Clipper River Bus at the Embankment Pier. Once on the boat I struck up a conversation with a man who was on his commute to work. After we passed under Westminster Bridge I looked back and saw Big Ben and the Parliament buildings framed by the bridge. I jumped up to take a photo. Coming back, I gave my companion a sheepish shrug as though to say, “I’m a tourist, after all.”
“It had to be done,” he said cheerfully.
So, apparently, did the Tower “have to be done.” Now that I’ve seen it, I know that I didn’t have to. I’m glad I did but it’s just a check off the list. Too many people, too many supercilious staff persons, too much stimulation. What made it most interesting was the gloomy sky and the threat of rain. The closeness was nearly unbearable. I have never sweat like that in my life!
Traitors Gate is all cemented up but you can see where it was, the entrance for those unfortunates who were not going to be leaving the Tower alive or at all. I looked at it for a long time, standing on the Clipper dock in the shadow of the Tower Bridge.
The ravens. What wonderful birds! They were obviously smart and used to people. One could get within a foot of them and they posed, and then changed poses over and over. With no hint of superciliousness. I started thinking of them as Henry VIII’s ravens.
There are lots of steps at the tower and for the past few days my left knee had been complaining about going down steps so I decided to just cut to the chase. I felt like a ghoul for asking but I approached one of the supercilious.
“Where is the Anne Boleyn . . . um. . . place?”
“The place of execution?” asked a raised eyebrow.
“Yeah, and the–” I swallowed. “Torture chamber?”
With directions I saw what I came to see, sometimes over the ear of the person in front of me and then found myself another Salad Niçoise and got back on the Clipper. I had expected to spend more of the day at the Tower but it was checked off by noon. The rest of the day was to be devoted to used book stores but I knew I didn’t have the room to pack books home unless I checked my luggage, which I didn’t want to do. Another consideration was to stay ahead of the rain. I wanted to be at a bus stop or on a bus when the predicted downpour began.
I ended up getting off the Clipper at Bankside, connecting another dot of the London-in-my-head map. There was The Globe and the Tate Modern. On Tuesday it would have been easy to have walked across the millennium foot bridge—the wobbly bridge they call it—and find a bus on the other side. But then I wouldn’t have met the French couple, found a bus map and had “a lovely tea at The Delaunay.”
Walking across the Thames on the wobbly bridge provides a progressive view of St Paul’s Cathedral. It walked me right up to the reception where I paid $25 to go into the cathedral and watch a lot of people sitting around looking at their cell phones. I’ve said that walking into a cathedral takes my breath away and usually makes me cry. Not so the Italianate St Paul’s. I walked in and thought, “OK , You’re grand. I get it.” The most interesting part of my tour of the cathedral was to note that Thomas Morley, Jeremiah Clarke, and John Stainer were all organists at one time.
I went to a service at St Paul’s in 1977 during my first visit to London. We sang the hymn that repeats “Rejoice, again I say rejoice.” Behind me was a young, clear, effortless soprano voice. I have never forgotten the way her voice sounded like clear, running spring water.
One of the day’s more tedious features was that in the morning, while still on the Clipper, my handbag strap gave way right off the bag. I had brought my raincoat in a garish orange plastic bag because I had forgotten its very tasteful carrier in Wendy’s car. Now I had to cram my handbag in there as well. It got heavier and heavier what with water bottles and the small items I picked up at gift shops along the way. My back and neck didn’t like the weight so I had to lodge it against my hip like a baby and walk around London that way.
I found a bus going to Trafalgar where I had tea at St Martin’s in the Field and tried to decide what to do next. A whole afternoon in London for the picking. I was worried about how much was left on my Oyster card. I was completely in the dark about how much the bus had been costing. The boat had taken off £13 and I knew I was down to £5. A group of Transport men on a break were cheerfully elucidating. The bus was costing me £1.40 a ride.
“Well,” I said. “With £5 I could ride all over London.”
“Cheers!” they said, laughing.
I decided I would go to the Dickens Museum. I had been there in 1977; it was time to re-visit again, especially since last summer I had read all 14 novels. I walked up Charing Cross Road and found all the used book shops. It nearly killed me to walk by them. Inside were hundreds of old interesting smelling books with inscriptions like “Simon de Monfort, Cambridge, 1956” printed inside the cover in an exotic British font.
I got on a 38 with a bus driver who said, “Show me your map and I’ll tell you the closest stop.”
Bless him! People were so good to me. I know I must have brought something to it, though, something along the line of finding the England I was looking for. When I asked for help or directions and got not only the information I required but that lovely accent falling all over me like a fine spray on a hot day, I was so sincerely delighted and grateful that I pressed my hand on arms and said “Thank you so much.”
I loved the museum just as I expected to except that it was so close and muggy, I could hardly bear myself. I keep bringing up the humidity because there is a connection to and an epilogue with something I mentioned in an earlier post: The Astral Cream. I had bought a big jar of it, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to take it home with me so I was using it freely. In fact I was coating myself with it. It’s a rich, thick hand cream but I was using it morning and evening like body lotion. I could feel it practically hanging onto my body as I walked all over London in the humid air.
At one point I thought, “Gee I wonder if all this perspiration should be mixing with the Astral cream.” I got my answer my first day back in Seattle and found welts on my arms and a galaxy of red dots on my legs. Prickly heat rash. Nice. But I will say this: it wasn’t as bad as the sciatica I brought home last time I went to England.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Back at the Dickens Museum, I alternately longed for the rain and was concerned about where I would be when it finally came. It came as I walked up Grays Inn Road toward Euston and St Pancras where I had been the day before. Another city connection fell into place. The rain was light at first and so cooling that I enjoyed it falling on me. Just as I got to a bus stop, I turned around to see a 205 approach at the same time the skies opened up. From the top of the bus I looked through the spattered windows at two motorcyclists with helmets that said “Fuck the rain” on the back. In the end I only needed that frigging raincoat for a block and a half to the hotel.
As I approached the hotel a van drove by with a horn atop like the political campaigners in the old movies. It was blaring Vera Lynn singing “There’ll always be an England.”
“Oh, the Brexit vote,” I thought as I stared after it. “Today is the day.”
When I awoke the next morning, I reached for the remote and turned on the television. “Leave” was splashed across the screen and the newscasters were looking a bit uncertain, I thought. I heard the phrase “an historic occasion” more than once. I was shocked.
I hadn’t paid a great deal of attention to Brexit during my three weeks in England, busy as I was with village fetes and all. I did notice that out in the country I saw a lot of “Leave” signs but once in London they were mostly “Remain.” The few people I talked with—like the man on the Clipper river bus—told me they would be glad when Friday came and they could stop hearing about Brexit. He must have assumed that the “Remain” vote would win out and nothing much would change. As things stand now, we are all going to be hearing about Brexit for a long time to come. I understand that as soon as the results came out a new group began forming that called itself “Regrets-it.” That is pretty much all I have to say about Brexit.
I was making my own Brexit that very day and felt empathy for the “Regrets-its.” I didn’t want to leave. The last thing I did was go for a walk in Kensington Gardens along The Long Water that turns into the Serpentine once the gardens become Hyde Park. I listened to the bird song and watched the swans, so lovely on the water and so undignified grooming themselves while sitting in their own poo.
I pushed my suitcase to Paddington, walking slowly like a dog with its tail between its legs. I was sure I’d be back. There will always be an England and I expect I will always find the England I am looking for.