Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty

June 10, 2007

It’s a line from an old English Army song, O Best Beloveds, but given what a splendid fortnight Mom and I had, and given how, apart from being with Steve and the dogs, kind of blech my days home have been, it does pithily sum up my state of mind. It was a lovely trip, made all the more so thanks to stunning generosity on the part of good friends; Nancy and Richard who lent us their house so we had an easy place to stay, Paula and Mark who gave us companionship and practical advice near round the clock, their daughters Maddie and Lily who found Mom a most excellent Gran and made her feel like a rock star, and Fiona and John who gave us an incredible vacation-within-a-vacation in their home in Shropshire. I won’t bore you with an entire travelogue, but here are some highlights:

Some of the Best of What We Saw In No Particular Order

1) Millais’ “Ophelia” at the Tate Britain and the exhibit “State Britain.” The former is a painting I’ve loved for many years, of Ophelia sinking slowly in a stream. I’ve never seen it in person before, and it turns out that no reproduction I’ve seen has done the original justice, which glowed with jewel colors and details hitherto unseen. The other exhibit was a reproduction of a peace activist’s protest, removed from its original locale outside of Parliament because it was considered an “eyesore,” under the guise of a new law forbidding protests within a certain radius of the Parliament buildings, a line that cut through the Tate, which laid this exhibit boldly right across it. One can argue about its success, but it still is what art should do; make us rethink the ordinary (garbage or outsider art?), challenge social ideals, stand up for freedom of expression. In sharp contrast to the knock out beauty of Ophelia, this had its own power and beauty.

2) The remains of an old Christopher Wren church, down in the City, reduced to one and a half walls thanks to Blitz bombs and turned, in the late 80’s, into a public garden, with arches of roses replacing stone arches and hedgerows replacing pews. A clever and lovely piece of public art that salvaged a wreck.

3) A choral group performing Mozart’s Requiem in St. Paul’s Church, aka the Actor’s Church. By the end, Paula and I were wiping away tears.

4) A production of the Drowsy Chaperone. Somehow, I missed this show in LA, and on a whim took Mom, and got Paula and Maddy to join us. We grinned and grinned and laughed and I even cried a little at the end, because for all its successful parody and deconstruction of 20’s musicals, there is something bittersweet running along underneath the fun. Paula sang the theme song as we walked to the bus and “here,” I said to Maddy “Hold my bag.” “You aren’t going to tap dance…”she responded as she took said bag, resigned, because that’s just what Paula and I did.

5) Westminster Abbey where I talked yet another curate into letting us up into Edward the Confessor’s tomb area so I could show Mom my favorite little secret, a wee statue hidden away in a crevice, though she’s clearly no longer a secret, since I now have learned she’s the Duchess of Lancaster.

6) The British Library’s exhibit called Sacred, a collection of texts and other items relating to the three Abrahamic religions, demonstrating their similarities and contrasts, and finding the spaces where they intersect. Draped with billowing sheet white cloth, ambiguous music playing, illuminated Bibles, Qu’rans and Tanakhs glowing, moving, hushed.

7) A newly verified portrait of Lady Jane Grey at the National Portrait Gallery. It was thrilling to see her up close. Poor thing.

8) A walk on Hampstead Heath. We had no idea that the Heath was as overgrown wild as it is–we figured it was a big grassy park–and I worried about Mom clambering through brush and bramble as I tried to find a real path, but she loved it.

9) Of course, the “wilds” of London are nothing compared to the beauty of Shropshire. Fiona and John live smack in the middle of Houseman country and it’s classic England, all green rolling hills and fields and streams with old looking bridges crossing them, and hedgerows criss-crossing it all, making that classic patchwork quilt pattern. Next door was a small dairy with a few dozen big eyed cows who mooed sweetly in the morning. With John, I crossed styles, and tramped through fields and down some forest paths, wellie-clad just like an English stereotype, and saw other things I had only read about in books and so never had an image to put to the name (gorse! buttercups! stinging nettle, which really does!), rabbits darted in front of us, pheasants wandered through their picture perfect English garden and more.

10) Including a trip to Wales to see Powis Castle, a looming structure of red brick that stands in front of one of the two best gardens in Britain. Giant ancient yew trees, terraces, ponds, paths and posies, it was all there and even more.

11) Shopping with Paula. You should see the pretty dress and shoes I got. “I think you should wear it the next time you see Dr. W,” Paula said, “and explain that you need to get a lot of use out of it.”

12) Kensington Palace, which proved incredibly interesting thanks to the passionate and friendly guides stationed about. And the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens, and seeing the grave of the Lost Boys, all buried with their parents in St. John’s Hampstead right next to, Paula observed, Joan and Jackie Collins’ mother. Death is such a funny equalizer.

13) Wandering the charming town of Ludlow (“And go, and luck go with you/While Ludlow tower shall stand” to get back to our Houseman,), where the local symbol is a snail because that’s how life should be lived, slowly, so you can enjoy it, the castle where Arthur, Prince of Wales died and the church where his heart was buried (prompting a discussion how many years of history and religious strife might have been avoided if the kid had just wrapped up warmly) and the nice man who let us peer inside his home from 1600’s.

14) The Keats house, where he wrote “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” among others, including relics such as Fanny’s engagement ring, which she wore until she died, and the Freud house, which included The Couch. Both tickled us tremendously.

The Best of What We Ate In No Particular Order

1) The bacon bap at the organic meat stand at Brompton market. A fluffy bun stuffed with British bacon–I’m a convert!–and topped with grilled onions. I thought that was the sine non qua of pig, but then Fiona made me a bacon bap stuffed with three kinds of bacon (smoked, smoked bacon and home cured) and now I’m torn. And THEN Fiona took us to their local farmer’s market where a man was carved from a well roasted pig, a thing of beauty, and at our request he smeared a fluffy bun with finely ground stuffing, and laid slice after slice of the pork, and then topped it off with homemade warm applesauce and then he wondered what was up with the American who was dancing and giggling over a mere sandwich, while Fiona, seeing mine was not going to be shared any time soon, sighed and got one for John, lest he be sad later.

2) Speaking of pork, I refuse to choose between Fiona’s fennel-coated, slow roasted for 24 hours pulled pork and Paula’s roast. I won’t do it. Don’t ask me.

3) Clotted cream! Mom has always liked scones, but when they appeared at tea I directed her towards the cream and jam, and she said ‘I don’t need those,” and I said “Oh, try it anyway,” and she did, and then she said, somewhat later and from the bottom of a well-cleaned cream pot, “You’ve ruined me.” She never turned down clotted cream again. We loved all our teas, but the best was in Ludlow in a classic old fashioned tea room, complete with ladies in black dresses with aprons, and big enormous portions of everything.

4) Believe it or not, a cheese and onion pasty bought as a snack at the Westminster Abbey cafe. Flakey, cheesy goodness.

5) Cadbury trifle. Why, oh why, are we so deprived here in the US? Why must Nestle’s and Hersey’s have the monopoly on prefab snack foods?

6) Learning about the local Shropshire commitment to the slow food movement (and slow everything movement), which, thanks to our good timing, we ate, even at the cafe at Powis Castle, incredibly well, as so many locals are small farmers, and so there is fresh cheese, fish, lamb, veg and fruit in never-disappointing combinations. Also Fiona’s homemade steak and kidney pie, and Paula’s prime rib, and Maddie’s chocolate rum cake. Also some duck blueberry sausage from a French vendor in Cambridge.

7) Indian food the likes of which I had never eaten before and can not now adequately describe. According to Paula, it’s because this was northern Indian and I’m used to Southern Indian, but I couldn’t tell you if that’s true. All I know is that there was the beet and spinach and yogurt thing and the eggplant and yogurt thing and the other thing.

I’m sure there’s lots more I forgot. But the point is a lovely time was had, and I feel incredibly lucky, at the risk of sounding sentimental, of having this time with my Mom, and of having this time before All This had to start, and having this time in general.

Speaking of Keats, at one point along the way, when discussing my course of folly–I mean, study, Paula asked “What do you believe, Mary?” “Covering my bases,” I said, promptly. But there is also a little more, and for this I’m going to borrow from everyone’s favorite consumption patient.

I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination,