Walking on the Heath our first morning, after an all-night flight and dawn arrival, with buds oddly ready to burst on winter trees, and London’s famous skyline hazy on the horizon, towers and domes. There were wonderful English dogs—retrievers, terriers, and spaniels— relishing even more than us the vast open stretches, and one splendid Black Lab puppy, joy in every movement, nosing out the world.
We went through chilly Kenwood House, and saw a Vermeer and a Rembrandt, Turners, Constables, and Gainsboroughs. Views of the distant arched bridge with a float of swans through the tall sky-filled windows (beyond the long green slope where the scene in Notting Hill of filming Henry James was filmed) reminded me of our visit in Mallorca that last September to the house of the Archduke.
Lunch in the carriagehouse (having regretfully decided against a table outside in the courtyard) was delicious and quintessentially English: celeriac & pear soup, crusty country bread with Double Gloucester cheese, an apple, and a nut and honey tart. Fragrant coffee, most unEnglish, was the final perfect thing.
Coming up out of the underground and finding it—surprised to learn the institution famous for music is really a church, from the 18th century. (And understanding finally that “St. Bede’s in the Weeds,” which friends went to in Santa Fe and where I remember sitting one summer evening of childhood eating watermelon on the back steps, had to be a joke on that; the world more comprehensive than I’d known.)
Going back the next night to a concert there, of favorite Pachebel and Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart, sitting right up almost among the musicians. Supper beforehand was in the café in the crypt with pewter candleabras on occasional tables dripping white wax. Lovely greens (and purples, something like cress) with fresh figs; a roasted pepper filled with tomato puree; Spanish white wine.
An outing to the fine Roman museum at St. Albans (which I had by some mysterious chance though it had to do with Roman roads under one’s garden and proximity to London mentioned in my novel). Delighted to read the Roman recipe for stuffed dormice, and finding in the shop a replica of the early Britons’ moon-gazing hare*. Leaving for another time, some spring or summer morning when the air is mild, the one or two kilometer walk through fields to the remains of the ancient theatre.
*The myth of the hare-in-the-moon is almost universal and goes back to ancient times. The hare is always an attribute of lunar deities and can symbolize fertility. The hare was important to the early Britons. Boadicea would relase a hare at the beginning of each new campaign against the Romans. In nature today hares can be seen, as indeed they would have been by the ancients, silhouetted against the evening skyline in this very “moon-gazing” pose.
Walking along the river Avon just before dusk to find Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried. Fragrant woodsmoke coming from a green longboat moored on the near bank, before the weir. Coming back by Sheep Street.
The cold returning over the weekend—frosty crocuses (like Ashland at the end of October, I think, when Heidi and I went up for the Shakespeare) and a thin skin of ice on the boat basin, where the locks begin, the last morning. Sunday.
Visiting lovely Abingdon, outside Oxford, to visit a friend. Eating trout with pinenuts and herbs at his favorite pub; walking to see the remains of the Abbey down a mews or alleyway, the quiet houseboats on the Thames, the garden of the religious retreat center on the riverbank where he would like to live, more simply, though he has found a wonderful flat in a 16th century building above a bakery—two floors joined by steep crooked stairs, and windows looking down onto the market square. He bakes chapati every day, and tells us about having walked three days to Avebury in the summer, to the standing stones. It is a life to admire and envy.
Finding the Abbey finally, tucked between the grander Houses of Parliament, though there are strangely no signs for it and no indication on the maps. Finding Henry V there, also unheralded, among the queens and poets. (Or part of Henry V, rather, since they say his entrails were left in France, and the church where they were subsequently destroyed.) The chill winter cloister where one summer I took Sharon’s picture framed in one of the stone arches.
Seeing the Parthenon friezes, which I’ve heard about so many times in archaeology classes; and the Rosetta Stone.
Touring the long dream that is the finally reconstructed Globe Theatre; the foundations of the Rose they’ve found somewhere nearby on the south bank.
Being amazed at the portrait of John Donne in the National Portrait Gallery, having thought him sour and wizened and finding him dishily Byronic instead; and finally seeing “in the flesh” the famous portrait of Richard III, which shows him clearly not the monster (“mesmerizingly horrible”) of Shakespeare’s play.
Buying cheeses and Cornish pasties at Marylebone Station—farmhouse smoked cheddar, Ribblesdale cowsmilk cheese.
Seen from the train: a distant figure with a bag of breakfast rolls or milk or such walking alongside a canal to a tall house, alone and sharp in the landscape, like something out of a Dutch painting.
And the purple horse, two times, on the way there and back, familiar the second. Purple from a blanket; unexpectedly but perfectly purple as Gaugin or Bonnard would have seen it.
The heavy fall of snow during the night before we are to leave for Venice (remembering from James Joyce “snow is general over Ireland”).
A swam of red lanterns for Chinese New Year in Trafalgar Square.
On one particularly dark day back in the Bush Era, when it was clear that things were only going to get worse, our writing group was greatly heartened by this story about poet James Merrill and a transformative green scooter.
James Merrill wrote in his memoir, A Different Person (1993), about visiting a doctor about his depression, saying that he didn't know how to live or how to love, he just knew how to write a poem. The doctor, he said, "listened closely, then acted with undreamed-of kindness and dispatch. 'Come with me,' he said, in a flash ushering me out of his downtown office and onto the back seat of a smart little pale-green motorscooter. I put my arms, as instructed, about his stout, gray-suited person, and off we went in sunlight, through traffic, under trees, past architecture, over the muddy river to lunch." (The Writer’s Almanac, 3/3/3)
Our hope is that this collection of writing will give readers the same je ne sais quois that brief but immense lunchtime voyage gave us—encouragement for going on; inspiration to do something simply good for ourselves each ordinary day; a smile; a moment of respite or recognition; time out from global numbing; a pause for weirdness, wonder, and delight. We want to share what gives us pleasure or some keener satisfaction putting down as well as picking up.
So hop on the green scooter with us. Read and be well.