The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (12 page)

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
8.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Saturday, July 17

Note in the mail from Rutland Gate, he's back.

See you here, Monday, 19th, at 11
for sherry with Charles II and lunch with Charles Dickens.

In haste—


I thought I'd better bone up on Dickens first, so after breakfast I walked out to the Dickens House in Doughty Street. It's only a few blocks beyond Russell Square, I just never had enough interest in Dickens to go there before—which you don't tell to ANYbody over here, it is flat heresy not to like Dickens. I mean Dickens is the national household god.

Except for PB, not one single Londoner has ever mentioned Shakespeare's pub to me. Nobody mentions the Pepys landmarks, nobody mentions Wimpole Street—and nobody knows what you're talking about when you ask about the house where Shaw courted his “green-eyed millionairess.” But every living soul tells you where Mr. Pickwick dined and where the Old Curiosity Shop is and Do see the house on Doughty Street where
Oliver Twist
was written and This is Camden Town, where Bob Cratchit lived and The-porter-will-show-you-where-Dickens-wrote-

Doughty Street is another of those streets lined with the gentle, narrow brick houses that still shake me. The
Dickens House is furnished much as it was when he lived in it, and the room at the back of the house where he worked has a complete set of Dickens first editions. Walls of every room are crammed with cases of Dickens memorabilia—letters, drawings, cartoons, theatre programs with his name in the cast list. (Never knew he was such a rabid amateur actor.) All the tourists going through the house, mostly from “the U.K.,” knew every character and every incident depicted in every drawing and cartoon. Just incredible.

I had lunch at Tanjar's, the curry place on Charlotte Street, and then walked down to Covent Garden to see Ellen Terry's ashes. The church is called St. Paul's Covent Garden but when you get to the Market there's no church in sight. Wandered around, peering at my map and then at Covent Garden Market. A young man with a brown beard came breezing along, went past me, wheeled, came back and inquired:

“Lost, luv?”

I told him I was looking for the Actors' Church and he said: “Are you an actress?”

I said No, but I'd been a frustrated playwright in my youth and I loved the Shaw-Terry correspondence and wanted to see Ellen's ashes.

“Isn't that dear of you,” he said. “Nobody ever comes looking for our church but people in the profession.”

He's an actor. Out of work. He said Just keep going round the Market till you come to an alleyway, cross it and turn the corner and you'll see the church.

I thanked him and wished him luck and he said, “Luck to you, too, luv!” and went breezing on his way—and looking after him I purely hated myself because I hadn't
bothered to ask his name. People oughtn't to breeze into your life and out again in ten seconds, without leaving even a name behind. As Mr. Dickens once pointed out, we're all on our way to the grave together.

I picked my way through the rotting fruits and vegetables lying on the pavement in front of the Market, walked to the corner and came to the alley, a kind of open square used for parking produce trucks and littered with garbage. I crossed the alley and turned the corner and there it was—a small church in a green churchyard, with a garden beyond.

The church was empty. For which I was grateful. I am emotional, and if you're emotional you never know what may suddenly move you to tears. I thought Ellen's ashes might.

There was a pile of mimeographed sheets on a table, and a sign invites the visitor to take one and sit down and read it so you'll know “something about where you are.” The church was built by Inigo Jones back in the 1630's. William S. Gilbert was baptized there, Wycherley is buried there, Davy Garrick worshipped there—and Professor Enry Iggins first saw Eliza Dolittle selling her flaaars under the church portico in the rain.

I went along the right-hand wall reading plaques to the memory of long-dead actors and composers. Almost at the end of the wall, near the altar, in a niche behind iron grillwork in a silver urn polished to a pristine gleam, Ellen Terry's ashes. Surprised to find myself smiling at the urn; it's a luminous, cheerful sight.

I crossed the nave and came back up along the left-hand wall and read more plaques clear to the door. Just
inside the door as I was leaving I came upon the most recent plaque:

. 1967

and was suddenly moved to tears.

Sunday, July 18


Ena picked me up in a clattery station wagon and drove me to Russell Square and parked at the entrance. The station wagon has sliding doors which I naturally tried to open outward, nearly broke the door and my arm both. Ena was convulsed, and said: “You're exactly like Leo!” It seems he never gets the hang of anything mechanical either.

I got out and she climbed out after me, all five feet of her, lugging a six-foot easel, a four-foot box of paints, a palette, some magazines and a radio the size of a portable TV set. I wasn't allowed to help: the Subject is not permitted to fetch-and-carry.

We set up deck chairs—lounge chair for me, straight-backed one for her—and I was surprised and relieved to learn that when you Sit you don't have to sit still and hold a pose. Ena told me I could lie back, sit up, stretch, move, smoke, anything as long as I kept facing her. She then went into great detail about how to operate the radio; it turned out she'd brought the radio and magazine for me, to keep me from getting bored. It struck me funny.

“I don't get bored in Russell Square and I don't get bored with you,” I told her. “Can't we talk while you work?”

“Oh, I'd love that,” she said. “None of my subjects ever talks to me. They sit in silence hour after hour.”

“With me,” I said, “that is not likely to be your problem.”

My friend the ticket taker came over to stand behind her and watch her paint. So did two English ladies, an
Indian student and a middle-aged Jamaican with a walking stick.

“How's she doing?” I asked them, only wanting to be sociable. But being spoken to directly seemed to embarrass them and they mumbled, “Very good,” and, “Very nice,” and melted away. Ena thanked me, she said the gallery made her nervous. So from now on my function is to shoo away what New Yorkers call the Sidewalk Superintendents. In London you shoo them away by talking to them. In New York talking to them would just get you their life stories.

It's fascinating to watch a portrait painter work. There Ena sat, her red-and-white gingham dress flouncing around her, looking completely relaxed, talking, laughing, asking questions as she painted—and all the time, her eyes were darting with incredible speed up to my face, down to the easel, up to the face, down to the easel, up-down up-down up-down, in a motion as quick and sharp and rhythmic as a metronome at high speed. Hour after hour she talked and laughed and painted, and the quick up-and-down darting of the eyes never stopped for an instant. I tried it myself for about twenty seconds and my eye muscles were sore.

She painted till one and then drove me down to Kensington for lunch. We didn't try to talk on the way; the station-wagon clatter was as deafening as a New York subway. English cars are blissfully quiet going by you in the street but very noisy to ride in. American cars exactly the opposite.

She took me to a little Italian place for lunch, down near where she and Leo live, called Panzer's Pasta and Pizza, it's their favorite neighborhood hangout. I had the best
martini I've had in London and a chicken-with-garlic-butter they can serve me in heaven.

Ena was shocked that I hadn't been to a single gallery and firmly dragged me to the National Portrait Gallery after lunch—where I amazed myself by going clean out of my mind meeting old friends face-to-face. Charles II looks exactly the dirty-old-man he was, Mary of Scotland looks exactly the witch-on-a-broomstick she was, Elizabeth looks marvelous, the painter caught everything—the bright, sharp eyes and strong nose, the translucent skin and delicate hands, the glittering, cold isolation. Wish I knew why portraits of Mary and Elizabeth always look real and alive, and portraits of Shakespeare, painted in the same era and the same fashion, always look stylized and remote.

I stared at every face so long we never got out of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We're going back next week for the eighteenth and nineteenth, I am now passionately determined to see everybody.

The Colonel phoned, he's driving me into the country for dinner on Wednesday.

Monday, July 19

Got to Rutland Gate at eleven. That's a lie. I'm always so afraid I won't get there
I always take a cab, I always get there twenty minutes early and walk around the neighborhood till it's late enough to ring his bell. I enjoy it, it's an interesting neighborhood.

He took me to the Old Wine Shades in Martin Lane, Cannon Street, for sherry-at-eleven. It's the only pub in London that survived the Great Fire of 1666. It was built before 1663 and doesn't seem to have changed since. There are ancient wine kegs over the bar, the wooden tables and benches are age-stained, even the menu sounded archaic, I could imagine Sam Pepys ordering the Veal and Sweetmeat Pie.

He took me to the Bank of England, where the doormen and floorwalkers are dressed in red waistcoats and breeches, and bow as they bid you good morning. (Aside from them, it's just one more folksy cobra.)

We had lunch at the George & Vulture where, it quotes on the menu, “Mr. Pickwick invited about five-and-forty people to dine with him the very first time they came to London.” The restaurant is the headquarters of the Pickwick Club. Dickens cartoons on the walls; steaks and chops done over an open fire in a great stone fireplace.

Around the corner from the George & Vulture is “the Church of St. Michael Cornhill with St. Peter Le Poer and St. Benet Fink.” I'm putting St. Benet Fink on my Favorite Saints list right under the two New Orleans saints.

Back around 1801, when the U.S. bought Louisiana, American firms moved in on the Catholic icon business and
began sending crates of church statuary down to New Orleans. The crates were labeled FRAGILE and EXPEDITE. New Orleaners were French, they couldn't read English and they didn't know what the two words meant. They decided the words must be the names of two new saints whose icons were inside the crates. Next thing anybody knew, the most popular saints in New Orleans were St. Fragile and St. Expedite.

St. Fragile lost ground after a while but the last I heard you could still pick up a New Orleans newspaper any day and read in the Personals Column:

Thanks to St. Expedite for special favor granted.

According to the icons, he's an ancient Roman, he wears a toga. Wish I knew as much about St. Benet Fink, PB didn't know who he was.

We walked Lombard Street, PB said the London banking business was founded by Jews from Lombardy in the 1400's. Each money lender hung out an emblem to identity his establishment, and from then on Lombard Street banks all hung out emblems on brass plates. The emblems still swing in the breeze: the Bank of Scotland's emblem is a Cat-and-a-Fiddle, another bank has a Grasshopper, a third has a Rampant Horse. PB didn't know where the symbols came from or what they originally meant, they're hundreds of years old. (So along comes the U.S. and opens a bank on Lombard Street and sees all these cats-and-fiddles and grasshoppers and rampant horses and says, “Lissen,
oughta hang out something!” and promptly
hangs out an American Eagle, we have no national imagination.)

PB is driving Jean, Ted and me into the country to a stately home on Saturday. He upset me by taking me into a jeweler's to approve a lapel pin he's having made for me. It's gold with the red-and-white crest of the City of London.

Will see him Saturday for the last time, they'll have the pin ready then

Tuesday, July 20

I got to Russell Square before Ena, and my friend the ticket taker, after setting up a chair for me, folded his arms behind him, leaned down and inquired conspiratorially:

“Are we anybody we should know?”

Assured him we weren't anybody, and he shook his head reproachfully.

“Painters,” he said, “do not paint portraits of Just Anyone.”

I told him I was a writer but not famous or important, and he took out a little black book and carefully wrote down my name and Ena's, just as Ena came wobbling round the birdbath with easel, paint box, palette and the mammoth radio she still lugs in case I get bored—though all I ever do with it is make rude remarks about the BBC's taste in music. There's only one classical-music station and whoever runs it is a chamber-music nut, that's all they ever play.

Ena told me I've changed her entire attitude toward portrait painting.

“I never painted anyone out-of-doors before,” she said. “The atmosphere and feeling are quite different. From now on I shall have to decide with each subject whether he or she's an outdoors or an indoors subject. You were quite right: you're an outdoors subject.”

“We're not out here because I'm an outdoors subject,” I said. “We're out here because I'm a selfish subject.”

I think she'd love to paint all day long, but no matter what I say, she insists on quitting at one because I have so little time left to see anything.

As we packed up and headed for the station wagon, she looked around Russell Square and said pensively:

“You were right about this place. There's a special quality to it.”

It startled me. I'd never said that. Till she said it, I'm not sure I even knew it.

We had lunch at Panzer's and then went back to the National Portrait Gallery, I saw Jane Austen and Leigh Hunt and Willie Hazlitt and the eerie Brontë portrait—the faces of the three sisters and in the middle a gray wash where Bramwell's face once was.

The story is that Bramwell painted himself and his sisters, and then wiped out his own image in a fit of self-hate. And of course you can't concentrate on the sisters' faces, the portrait is dominated by that gray wash in the middle. You can't help wondering whether Bramwell knew it would be.

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
8.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

A Drake at the Door by Derek Tangye
Love Required by Melanie Codina
Silent Kingdom by Rachel L. Schade
Steamed (Steamed #1) by Nella Tyler
The Adam Enigma by Meyer, Ronald C.; Reeder, Mark;
Because You Loved Me by M. William Phelps
Dead Man’s Fancy by Keith McCafferty
Where Do I Go? by Neta Jackson