The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (5 page)

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
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Friday, June 25

I got the first week's hotel bill this morning, much steeper than I'd anticipated, what with assorted lunches and dinners and a 12 per cent surcharge added for tips. I just took it up the street to Deutsch's, to Mr. Tammer, their accountant. He's a solemn, bespectacled gentleman who gives you a sudden warm smile when you say hello to him. He's got all my “advance” money in cash in the office safe and he's doling it out to me weekly. He gave me cash to pay the hotel bill and ten pounds, which is my Allowance for the week; when I run short I dip into my brother's hundred. I had ten of the hundred with me for him to change into pounds, and he got out all his charts and machines and figured the latest exchange rate very tensely and meticulously, God forbid he should cheat me out of fifteen cents.

There was a letter for me at Deutsch's which intrigues me, it's from a man I never knew existed. Nobody I corresponded with at Marks & Co. ever mentioned him.

Dear Miss Hanff,

I am the son of the late Ben Marks of Marks & Co. and want you to know how delighted I am that you are here, and how very much my wife and I would like you to dine with us.

I do not know where you are staying so could you please ring me at the above telephone numbers? The
second one is an answering service and any message left there will reach me.

We're both looking forward to meeting you.

Sincerely,

Leo Marks

The secretary who gave me the letter told me he called and asked where he could reach me.

“But we never tell anyone where you're staying,” she said. “We just ask them to get in touch with you through us.”

I took a very dim view of this and went into Carmen's office to straighten it out.

“Carmen, dear,” I said, “I am not the kind of author who wants to be protected from her public. Any fan who phones might want to feed me, and I am totally available as a dinner guest. Just give out my address all over.”

She said there are at least two interviews to come and she'll make them both over lunch. Some interviewer asked me if I planned “to buy silver and cashmere here—or just books?” I said I planned to buy
nothing
over here, everything I see in a shop window has a price tag reading “One Day Less in London.”

Off to Parliament.

Midnight

I'VE BEEN TO THE OLD VIC, shades of my stage-struck youth, walking into that theater was a thrill. Nora and
Sheila and I saw
Mrs. Warren's Profession.
The theater has the atmosphere of the old Met in New York and the Academy of Music in Philadelphia; the audience files in with a kind of festive reverence, like people going to church on Christmas Eve.

Sheila had trouble parking the car, she got to the theater three minutes after the curtain was up and was promptly shunted off downstairs to the lounge to watch the first act on closed-circuit TV, you do not trail down the aisle after Mass has started.

I'll never understand why they did
Mrs. Warren's Profession
in turn-of-the-century costumes. Politicians and businessmen don't own whorehouses any more? Poor girls are not expected to starve virtuously rather than eat unvirtuously any more? Moral pillars of society don't keep mistresses in country cottages any more? Who does such a play as a costume piece belonging to some other era? Bernie Shaw would have a fit.

I asked Nora about Leo Marks, she said she only met him and his wife a few times but “they seemed a nice young couple.” She said he's a writer.

I'm sitting here eating vitamin C, think I'm getting a cold. Tried reading Mary Baker Eddy once, should've stuck with it.

Saturday, June 26

It finally turned sunny and warm, thank God, so I could wear a skirt for PB. (Headline in the newspaper read ENGLAND SWELTERS IN 75-DEGREE HEAT.) Wore my brown linen skirt and the new white blazer, and he beamed and said, “You look charming,” and asked if the brown-and-white scarf came from Harrods. (I borrowed it off the cocktail dress.)

He said as we drove that we wouldn't be able to go through Windsor Castle after all, “the Queen's in residence,” but we would stop at Windsor for sherry with two elderly sisters, he thought I'd find them and their house delightful.

On the way to Windsor there's a Home for Tired Horses. Their owners visit them on Sundays and bring them cream buns.

Windsor is full of casual anachronisms. The sisters live on a seventeenth-century street in one of a row of Queen Anne houses, each with a car parked at the curb and a TV antenna sticking out of the roof. PB parked at the back of the house by the rose garden and we were met there by the dominant sister, who cut a pink rose for me to wear and took us into the house and along a narrow old-fashioned hall to the living room, where the shy sister met us. The shy sister poured sherry and both of them regretfully informed PB that their ghost had gone.

The ghost was living in the house when they bought it twenty years ago and he stayed on. He was very quiet and no trouble most of the time. But he liked the house to be lived in, he liked people about; and every time the sisters packed up for a trip and made arrangements to close the house, the
ghost went berserk with fury. Pictures were knocked off the walls, wine glasses went hurtling off the sideboard and broke, lamps crashed to the floor, pots and pans went clattering and banging round the kitchen all night long. The rampage lasted till the sisters left for their holiday. For twenty years, this happened every time they went up to London during the season or into the country or abroad. This year, for the first time, the sisters made plans to go away, they packed for the trip—and the house remained silent. The pictures and wine glasses and lamps were undisturbed, the kitchen was quiet, the ghost had gone. The sisters were rather sad about it, they'd got fond of him.

One of the sisters took me up to the top-floor bathroom to look out the window. They run up there to see whether the Queen has arrived. From the bathroom window you can see the Windsor Castle flagpole. If the Queen's in residence the flag is flying.

They apologized for not giving us lunch, they were going to watch Philip play polo.

PB and I picnicked on the Windsor lawn. He (or the daily) had packed a basket with three kinds of sandwiches, a thermos of iced tea, peaches and cookies—and after-dinner mints, I love him to death, there's an Edwardian finishing touch to everything he does. Like the china ashtray he keeps on the front ledge of his car, he obviously doesn't care for the tin one that comes built in.

There's a footbridge connecting Windsor and Eton. PB wore his Eton tie, and the gate keeper saw it and said, “You're an Eton man, sir!” and let us into rooms not open to tourists.

If you're born in the U.S. with a yearning love of classical scholarship and no college education, you are awed by a school in which for centuries boys have learned to read and write Greek and Latin fluently by the time they're in their teens. PB took me into the original classroom, five hundred years old, and made me sit at one of the desks. They're dark, heavy oak, thickly covered with boys' initials scratched into the wood with pocket knives. Five hundred years' worth of boys' initials is something to see.

We went into the chapel where the senior boys worship, there's a roll book hanging from the aisle pew of each row so that every boy's presence can be checked off by a monitor. We read the names in one—“Harris Major. Harris Minor. Harris Tertius”—Eton never does in English what it can do in Latin.

Along the hall outside the classrooms the high oak walls have names cut into them as thickly as the initials in the desks. PB told me when a boy graduates he pays a few shillings to the college to have his name carved in the wall. We saw Pitt's name and Shelley's (and PB showed me his own). You could spend a month crawling up and down the walls looking for names.

Heart-rending plaques to Eton's war dead. One family lost eight men in World War I, seven of them in their twenties. The Grenfells (Joyce Grenfell's husband's family) lost grandfather, father and one son—and six men in the Boer War a dozen years earlier.

We went outside and saw the playing fields where all those wars were supposedly won. Boys were playing cricket, a few strolled by swinging tennis rackets. On Saturdays the
boys are allowed to wear ordinary sports clothes but we saw several in the Eton uniform: black tail coat, white shirt, striped trousers. PB says they don't wear the top hat any more except on state occasions. (Those top hats kept the boys out of trouble. If an Eton boy tried to sneak into an off-limits pub or movie, the manager could spot that top hat from anywhere in the house and throw him out.)

The faces of the boys are unbelievably clean and chiseled and beautiful. And the tail coats—which must have looked outlandish in the 1940's and 50's—look marvelously appropriate with the long hair the boys wear now. What with the cameo faces, the long hair brushed to a gleam and perfectly cut tails, they looked like improbable Edwardian princes.

We drove back to London at four; PB wanted to take me through Marlborough House and it closes at five. We drove to Marlborough House but couldn't go through it, the guard explained the house is closed for cleaning. The Royal Chapel is open, and PB told me to go to services there one Sunday. He said it's never crowded or touristy since few people know it's open to the public. Queen Mary was married there, so I'm going, out of affection for her and Pope-Hennessy.

Later

Laura Davidson just phoned from Oxford. She wrote me a fan letter telling me her husband, a Swarthmore professor, was working at Balliol for a year and that they and their fifteen-year-old son were fans of the book and wanted me to come to Oxford. I wrote back and told her when I was coming to London and she actually rescheduled a Paris vacation just so she'd be in Oxford when I came. When I picked up the phone just now and said hello, she said:

“Hi, it's Laura Davidson, how are you, when are you coming to Oxford? My son is dying of suspense.”

We settled on next Friday. She said there are trains almost every hour, call and let her know which one I'm on and she'll meet it. She'll carry the book so I'll know her.

I'm paranoid enough about traveling when I'm home and healthy, and the prospect of strange railroad stations and train trips over here kind of wears me out. But Oxford I have to see. There's one suite of freshman's rooms at Trinity College which John Donne, John Henry Newman and Arthur Quiller-Couch all lived in, in various long-gone eras. Whatever I know about writing English those three men taught me, and before I die I want to stand in their freshman's rooms and call their names blessed.

Q (Quiller-Couch) was all by himself my college education. I went down to the public library one day when I was seventeen looking for books on the art of writing, and found five books of lectures which Q had delivered to his students of writing at Cambridge.

“Just what I need!” I congratulated myself. I hurried
home with the first volume and started reading and got to page 3 and hit a snag:

Q was lecturing to young men educated at Eton and Harrow. He therefore assumed that his students—including me—had read
Paradise Lost
as a matter of course and would understand his analysis of the “Invocation to Light” in Book 9. So I said, “Wait here,” and went down to the library and got
Paradise Lost
and took it home and started reading it and got to page 3, when I hit a snag:

Milton assumed I'd read the Christian version of Isaiah and the New Testament and had learned all about Lucifer and the War in Heaven, and since I'd been reared in Judaism I hadn't. So I said, “Wait here,” and borrowed a Christian Bible and read about Lucifer and so forth, and then went back to Milton and read
Paradise Lost
, and then finally got back to Q, page 3. On page 4 or 5, I discovered that the point of the sentence at the top of the page was in Latin and the long quotation at the bottom of the page was in Greek. So I advertised in the
Saturday Review
for somebody to teach me Latin and Greek, and went back to Q meanwhile, and discovered he assumed I not only knew all the plays of Shakespeare, and Boswell's
Johnson
, but also the Second book of Esdras, which is not in the Old Testament and not in the New Testament, it's in the Apocrypha, which is a set of books nobody had ever thought to tell me existed.

So what with one thing and another and an average of three “Wait here's” a week, it took me eleven years to get through Q's five books of lectures.

Q also introduced me to John Henry Newman, who taught at Oriel, Oxford, and when I finish with Trinity I'm
going over to Oriel and sit in John Henry's chapel and tell him I still don't know what he was talking about most of the time but I've got whole pages of the
Apologia
by heart, and I own a first edition of
The Idea of a University.

Sunday, June 27

PB is right, the Royal Chapel at Marlborough is not at all touristy and few people know it's open to the public. If it is.

I dressed very carefully and went down there this morning. Only a handful of people attended the service. All of them obviously worship there every Sunday, all of them obviously know each other and all of them spent most of the service trying to figure out who I was. From the whispers and sidelong glances you could reconstruct the dialogue:

“My dear, don't look now . . .”

“. . . back there on the end pew, a few rows behind . . .”

Bzz-bzz-bzz.

One angular, elderly lady got out her spectacles just to have a good long squint at me. Then she turned to the wispy friend sitting next to her and shook her head “No!” firmly. The wispy lady refused to be daunted. She kept staring at me with the tentative half-smile you use when you know the face but just can't place it. I made the mistake of smiling back, and from then on neither of them took their eyes off me.

I was also the only shoulder bag in the house, if I have to add that.

At the end of the service I was the first one up the aisle and out of there.

Had to come back up here for lunch. NOTHING is open here on Sunday, you could starve.

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