The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (3 page)

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
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Friday, June 18

The alarm clock went off at eight and I got out of bed and went to the window to see if it was still raining. I pulled back the drapes—and as long as I live I'll never forget the moment. From across the street a neat row of narrow brick houses with white front steps sat looking up at me. They're perfectly standard eighteen- or nineteenth-century houses, but looking at them I knew I was in London. I got lightheaded. I was wild to get out on that street. I grabbed my clothes and tore into the bathroom and fought a losing battle with the damnedest shower you ever saw.

The shower stall is a four-foot cubicle and it has only one spigot, nonadjustable, trained on the back corner. You turn the spigot on and the water's cold. You keep turning, and by the time the water's hot enough for a shower you've got the spigot turned to full blast. Then you climb in, crouch in the back corner and drown. Dropped the soap once and there went fifteen dollars' worth of hairdresser down the drain, my shower cap was lifted clear off my head by the torrent. Turned the spigot off and stepped thankfully out—into four feet of water. It took me fifteen minutes to mop the floor using a bathmat and two bath towels, sop-it-up, wring-it-out, sop-wring, sop-wring. Glad I shut the bathroom door or the suitcase would have been washed away.

After breakfast, I went out in the rain to look at those houses. The hotel is on the corner of Great Russell and Bloomsbury Streets. It fronts on Great Russell, which is a commercial street; the houses I saw from my window are on Bloomsbury.

I walked slowly along the street, staring across it at the houses. I came to the corner, to a dark little park called Bedford Square. On three sides of it, more rows of neat, narrow brick houses, these much more beautiful and beautifully cared for. I sat on a park bench and stared at the houses. I was shaking. And I'd never in my life been so happy.

All my life I've wanted to see London. I used to go to English movies just to look at streets with houses like those. Staring at the screen in a dark theatre, I wanted to walk down those streets so badly it gnawed at me like hunger. Sometimes, at home in the evening, reading a casual description of London by Hazlitt or Leigh Hunt, I'd put the book down suddenly, engulfed by a wave of longing that was like homesickness. I wanted to see London the way old people want to see home before they die. I used to tell myself this was natural in a writer and booklover born to the language of Shakespeare. But sitting on a bench in Bedford Square it wasn't Shakespeare I was thinking of; it was Mary Bailey.

I come of very mixed ancestry, which includes an English Quaker family named Bailey. A daughter of that family, Mary Bailey, born in Philadelphia in 1807, was the only ancestor I had any interest in when I was a little girl. She left a sampler behind and I used to stare at that sampler, willing it to tell me what she was like. I don't know why I wanted to know.

Sitting in Bedford Square I reminded myself that Mary Bailey was born in Philadelphia, died in Virginia and never saw London. But the name persisted in my head. Maybe she was a namesake. Maybe it was her grandmother or
great-grandmother who had wanted to go home again. All I knew, sitting there, was that some long-dead Mary Bailey or other had finally found a descendent to go home for her.

I came back here and fixed myself up so I'd make a good impression on Deutsch's. Brushed my navy suit jacket (which they will flatly refuse to believe back home) and spent half an hour tying my new red-white-and-blue scarf in an ascot so I'd look British. Then I went down to the lobby and sat bolt upright in a chair by the door, afraid to move for fear of mussing myself, till a young secretary blew in to escort me three doors up Great Russell Street to Deutsch's.

I met Carmen—very brisk and efficient and dramatic-looking—and got interviewed by a bouncy young reporter from the
Evening Standard
named Valerie Jenkins. After the interview the three of us and a photographer piled into a cab, and Carmen said to the driver:

“Eighty-four Charing Cross Road.”

I felt uneasy, knowing I was on my way to that address. I'd bought books from 84 Charing Cross Road for twenty years. I'd made friends there whom I never met. Most of the books I bought from Marks & Co. were probably available in New York. For years, friends had advised me to “try O'Malley's,” “try Dauber & Pine.” I'd never done it. I'd wanted a link with London and I'd managed it.

Charing Cross Road is a narrow, honky-tonk street, choked with traffic, lined with second-hand bookshops. The open stalls in front were piled with old books and magazines, here and there a peaceful soul was browsing in the misty rain.

We got out at 84. Deutsch's had stuffed the empty window with copies of the book. Beyond the window the
shop interior looked black and empty. Carmen went next door to Poole's and got the key and let us in to what had once been Marks & Co.

The two large rooms had been stripped bare. Even the heavy oak shelves had been ripped off the walls and were lying on the floor, dusty and abandoned. I went upstairs to another floor of empty, haunted rooms. The window letters which had spelled Marks & Co. had been ripped off the window, a few of them were lying on the window sill, their white paint chipped and peeling.

I started back downstairs, my mind on the man, now dead, with whom I'd corresponded for so many years. Halfway down I put my hand on the oak railing and said to him silently:

“How about this, Frankie? I finally made it.”

We went outside—and I stood there and let them take my picture as meekly as if I did it all the time. That's how anxious I am to make a good impression and not give anybody any trouble.

When I came back to the hotel there was a letter at the desk. From Pat Buckley, the Old Etonian Jean Ely wrote to about me.

No salutation, just:

Jean Ely writes that you are here on your first visit. Can you have a bite of supper here on Sunday at 7:30?—and we will drive around and see a bit of old London.

Call me Saturday or Sunday before 9:30
A.M.

In haste—
P.B.

Saturday, June 19

Totally demoralized.

Just came up from breakfast and phoned Pat Buckley.

“Oh, yes,” he said in a very U accent, “Hallo.”

I told him I'd love to come to supper tomorrow night and asked if there were other people coming.

“I'm not giving a supper party for you!” he said impatiently. “Jean wrote me you wanted to see London!”

I stammered that I was glad we'd be alone, I'd only asked so I'd know how to dress; if we were alone I could wear a pantsuit.

“Oh, Lord, must you?” he said. “I loathe women in trousers. I suppose it's old-fashioned of me but I do think you all look appalling in them. Oh well, I suppose if you must, you must.”

It's fifty degrees here and raining, I'm not climbing into a summer skirt for him.

Nora just phoned, she'll pick me up at two this afternoon for the interview.

“You're right behind the British Museum, Helen,” she said. “Go sit in the Reading Room, it's very restful.”

Told her I see enough museums in New York, and God knows I sit in enough Reading Rooms.

Will now slog out in the wet and tour Bloomsbury.

Midnight

Nora and I were interviewed at Broadcasting House, it's the only big modern building I've seen here and I hope I don't
see another one; it's a monstrosity—a huge semicircular block of granite, it looks obese. They don't understand skyscrapers here. In New York they don't understand anything else.

The interviewer was choice. First she told the radio audience that though Nora and I had corresponded over a twenty-year period we'd never met. Then she turned to us and asked us what we thought of each other: now that we'd met, were we disappointed? If we'd never corresponded and had just met, would we like each other?

“Now what kind of question was that to ask me?” Nora demanded when we came out. “How-would-I-like-you-if-we'd-just-been-introduced. How do I know whether I'd have liked you or not? I've known you for twenty years, Helen!”

She drove me out Portland Place and through the Regent's Park section, which I loved passionately on sight. We passed Wimpole Street and Harley Street—and there I was in a
car
, I felt as if I were locked in a metal container and couldn't get out, but it was raining. I'm going back there on foot the first dry day.

There's a Crescent of Nash houses—I'm not too clear about when Nash lived but he built tall white opulent houses reeking of Beau Brummell and Lady Teazle—and when the rain stopped for a little we got out of the car and sat on a park bench so I could stare at the Crescent. We chose which houses we'll buy if we're born rich next time.

Nora told me she came to London as a poor servant girl from Ireland before the war. She worked in one of the houses of the gentry as a kitchen maid, cutting paper-thin bread for the cucumber sandwiches.

She drove me home to Highgate for dinner. She and Sheila bought a house out there after Frank died and the younger daughter married. We drove past Hampstead Heath on the way, and Nora stopped the car at the cemetery where Karl Marx is buried. The gates were locked but I peered over the wall at him.

Their house is high in the hills of North London on an attractive suburban street that blazes with roses, every house has a rose garden in full bloom. The roses here are as wildly colored as a New England autumn: not just red, pink and yellow, but lavender roses, blue roses, purple and orange roses. Every color has a separate fragrance, I went berserk smelling my way around Nora's garden.

We had strawberries and thick English cream for dessert, and when Nora came to her last berry she looked up at Sheila, stricken, and said:

“It came out ‘never' again, Sheila!”

She eats berries to the old children's rhyme to find out when she's going to marry again: “This year, next year, sometime, never.” When it comes out “never,” Sheila has to comfort her. Sheila's much more like Nora's mother than her stepdaughter.

Nora cut a fresh armload of roses for me, and Sheila drove me home. She teaches in a suburban school. There are two men who take her out; I think both of them bore her, she still hasn't met one she wants to marry.

Big excitement in the lobby when I came in because of the
Evening Standard
interview; one of the desk clerks had saved a copy for me.

Excerpt:

She steps into London, frightfully trim in a chic navy trouser-suit from Saks and a foulard tied French-style.

Kill yourself tying an ascot and it comes out French-style. Story of my life.

You can't imagine how funny it strikes me when somebody calls me chic. I'm wearing the same kind of clothes I've worn all my life and for years I was looked on as a bohemian mess. My sister-in-law Alice, for instance, used to wear herself out every year trying to find a shoulder bag to give me for Christmas because I wouldn't carry a handbag and nobody else wore shoulder bags so no manufacturers made them. (Handbags make you choose between your wallet, your glasses and your cigarettes. Choose two of the three and maybe you can get the bag closed.) I also wouldn't wear high heels because I like to walk, and you can't walk if your feet hurt. And I lived in jeans and slacks because skirts are drafty in winter and hamper you when you walk, and besides, if you're wearing pants nobody knows there's a run in one stocking.

So for years I was this sartorial horror who ran around in low heels, pants and shoulder bags. I still run around that way—and after a lifetime of being totally out of it, I'm so With it my pantsuit gets a rave review in the
Evening Standard
.

Sunday, June 20

Sallied forth with my map after breakfast and saw the sights of Bloomsbury. Got lost several times; it seems a street can be on the Left on your map without necessarily being Left of where you're standing. Various gents came out from under umbrellas to point me where I wanted to go.

It cleared after lunch and I'm now in a neighborhood park, lying in a deck chair soaking up the fog. There are three handkerchief-sized parks very close to the hotel. This one's just beyond the British Museum. Sign on the gate says:

RUSSELL SQUARE

PLEASE DON'T LEAVE LITTER

PERSONS WITH DOGS ARE REQUIRED TO KEEP THEM UNDER PROPER CONTROL.

There's a rose garden in the middle of the square encircling a very practical birdbath: a marble slab with a thin jet of water in the center. A bird can stand around and drink or wash his feathers without drowning. Wish whoever designed it would go to work on the English shower problem.

An elderly gentleman in uniform just came up, bowed and said:

“Fourpence, please.”

For the use of the deck chair.

He was apologetic about the weather, he and I are the only ones out here. I said the rain was good for the roses, and he told me the gardeners in London's squares compete every year for the honor of growing the best roses.

“I do think this year our chap has a chance,” he said. Told him I would definitely root for the Russell Square gardener.

Have to go put on the navy suit for Pat Buckley. Or I may just be mean and stay in my second-best coffee-brown on account of the weather.

Midnight

I've been sitting on the edge of the bed for an hour in a complete daze. I told him if I die tonight I'll die happy, it's all here, everything's here.

Pat Buckley lives in Rutland Gate, it's down in Knightsbridge or Kensington below the left-hand edge of my Visitors' Map, I took a cab. Rutland Gate is a small compound of white stone houses round a green square. Everything in London is round a green square, they're like small oases everywhere.

He has a ground-floor flat. I rang the bell and he opened the door and said:

“Hallo, you found it all right.”

He's slight—thin build, thin face, indeterminate age—and he has one of those light, almost brittle, English voices, pleasant but neutral. He took my jacket and ushered
me into an Oscar Wilde drawing room. There's a full-length portrait of his mother in her court-presentation gown on one wall. On another wall, a glass cabinet houses his collection of gentleman's calling-card cases—small square cases, gold, silver, onyx inlaid with pearl, ivory worked with gold filligree, no two alike. The collection is his hobby and it's dazzling.

He brought me sherry, and when I told him I found Eton very glamorous he brought me his Eton class book and showed me photos of his rooms there.

We had supper in the dining room at a polished mahogany table set with heavy English silver. He has a “daily” who leaves a cold supper for him and his guests and makes the coffee and sets the table before she leaves. The place setting was the same as at home—fork at the left, knife and spoon at the right—but lying horizontally above the dinner plate were an oyster fork and a soup spoon. I let him go first so I could see what you did with them.

We had chicken salad followed by strawberries and cream—and that's what you use them for: you spear a strawberry with the oyster fork, scoop cream up on the soup spoon, transfer the berry to the spoon and slurp.

After supper we climbed into his car. He didn't ask what I wanted to see, he just drove me to the corner where the Globe Theatre stood. Nothing is there now, the lot is empty. I made him stop the car and I got out and stood on that empty lot and I thought the top of my head would come off.

He got out of the car then, and we prowled the dark alleys nearby—Shakespeare's alleys, still there. And Dickens'
alleys: he pointed to an Artful Dodger peering furtively out the window of an ancient pile of stone.

He took me to a pub called The George, and as he opened the door for me he said in that light, neutral voice:

“Shakespeare used to come here.”

I mean I went through a door Shakespeare once went through, and into a pub he knew. We sat at a table against the back wall and I leaned my head back, against a wall Shakespeare's head once touched, and it was indescribable.

The pub was crowded. People were standing at the bar and all the tables were full. I was suddenly irritated at all those obtuse citizens eating and drinking without any apparent sense of where they were, and I said snappishly:

“I could imagine Shakespeare walking in now, if it weren't for the people.”

And the minute I said it I knew I was wrong. He said it before I could:

“Oh no. The people are just the same.”

And of course they were. Look again, and there was a blond, bearded Justice Shallow talking to the bartender. Further along the bar, Bottom the Weaver was telling his ponderous troubles to a sharp-faced Bardolph. And at a table right next to us, in a flowered dress and pot-bellied white hat, Mistress Quickly was laughing fit to kill.

He dragged me out of there and drove me to see St. Paul's by floodlight. I wanted at least to walk up the steps and touch the doors of John Donne's cathedral but it will be there tomorrow, there's time, there's time.

He drove me to the Tower of London, more huge and terrifying than I'd imagined, like a sprawling medieval Alcatraz. We got there just at ten, so I could watch the
guards lock the Tower gates. For all their flashy black-and-scarlet uniforms, they are grim and frightening as they lock the gates to that dread prison with darkness closing in. You think of the young Elizabeth sitting somewhere behind the stone walls wanting to write and ask Bloody Mary to have her beheaded with a sword instead of an ax.

When the gates were locked, the guards marched back toward the huge iron Tower door. It rose to let them pass through, lowered and clanged shut behind them, and the light voice beside me said:

“They haven't missed a night in seven hundred years.”

The mind boggles. Even going back only three hundred years, you think of London during the Great Fire, the Great Plague, the Cromwell revolution, the Napoleonic wars, the First World War, the Second World War—

“They locked the Tower with all this ceremony,” I asked him, “every night, even during the Blitz?”

“Oh yes,” he said.

Put THAT on Hitler's tombstone, tell THAT to that great American patriot, Wernher von Braun, whose buzz bombs destroyed every fourth house in London.

When he drove me home and I tried to thank him, he said:

“Oh, thank
you!
Most Americans won't take this tour. They'll drive around with me for a quarter of a hour and then they want to know where the Dorchester Bar is.”

He said most Americans he knows never see London.

“They take a taxi from the Hilton to Harrods, from Harrods to the theatre, from the theatre to the Dorchester Bar.”

He said he knows four American businessmen who've
been in London for a week without ever leaving the Hilton.

“They stay shut up in their rooms all day with the telephone and a bottle of Scotch, you wonder why they ever left the States.”

He gave me a list of sights to see but didn't suggest showing them to me himself.

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