The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (6 page)

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
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Afternoon

I'm lying under a tree in St. James's Park. There are three downtown parks adjoining each other—St. James's and Green, both small, and the big one, Hyde Park.

All the parks here are very serene, very gentle. Young couples go by, arm in arm, quietly, no transistor radios or guitars in hand. Families picnic on the lawn sedately. Dogs go by on leashes, equally sedate, looking neither to the right nor to the left. There was one exception: a woman came by with a small gray poodle on a leash, I said hello to the poodle and he veered toward me, always-glad-to-meet-a-friend, but the woman yanked him back.

“Please don't do that!” she said to me sharply. “I'm trying to teach him good manners.”

I thought, “A pity he can't do the same for you,” and had a sudden vision of Dog Hill on a Sunday afternoon and wondered how everybody was.

We had a picnic there one night—Dick, who lives in my building and owns an English sheep dog, and my friend Nikki and I. I had some cold turkey for sandwiches and I deviled some eggs, and Dick made a thermos of bloody marys and we went over to the hill with Chester-the-Sheep-Dog. Nikki came up from her office and met us there. You have to be crazy to picnic on Dog Hill, but Dick and I thought we'd try it. We didn't get there till six-thirty, most of the dogs had gone home.

Dog Hill is a broad, sloping hill in Central Park, and the largest canine Social Hall in the world. On a weekend afternoon you'll see forty or fifty dogs up there, charging around off leash meeting friends. (You don't take a dog to
Dog Hill unless he's a friend to the world but I never met a New York dog who wasn't.) On a good day you'll see everything from Afghans and Norwegian elkhounds to Shih-tzus and Lhasa Apsos, not to mention all the standard brands. The dog owners sit on the grass or stand around like parents at a children's party, keeping an eye out for sudden spats over whose stick it is or whose ball it is.

“George, if you can't play nicely we're going home!”

“Mabel, get off him! I don't wanna hear about it, just get off him!”

You do not stretch out on the grass to sunbathe because if a couple of great Danes and a collie are having a race and you're lying in their path they're not going to detour for you.

Dick and Nikki and I settled at the top of the hill and Dick poured out the bloody marys in paper cups. A few dogs were playing halfway down the hill, and normally Chester-the-Sheep-Dog would have joined them. But he'd smelled the picnic basket all the way to the park so he just loped down the hill and sniffed everybody and then came back up, figuring he'd hang around us till dinner time.

I understood this, so when I got out the sandwiches I gave Chester a sliver of turkey out of mine. That was all it took. In five seconds, there was a semicircle of dogs in front of me: every dog left on the hill had come to the picnic.

There were two basset-hound brothers named Sam and Sid, Romulus, who is a great Dane, a beagle I didn't know and a very timid German shepherd pup named Helga—all standing stock still, eyes glued to me and my turkey sandwich. The beagle was drooling.

I had an extra sandwich in reserve so I sacrificed the
one I'd started on and gave each dog in turn a sliver of turkey. (Helga was very nervous, she was anxious to step up for her piece of turkey but how did she know I wouldn't bite her?)

Chester-the-Sheep-Dog figured there was too much competition, so he left and trotted back to visit Nikki's sandwich. And just as I was feeding the rest of the dogs the last of the turkey, Nikki set up a great to-do because Chester had taken a sip of her bloody mary. Dick called, “Chester! Sit!” And Chester, wanting to show how well-trained he was, sat on Nikki's deviled egg. Whereupon Nikki took a fit. (She's young and pretty and she went to the London School of Economics for a year, but she's a cat lover.) I turned and called Chester, hoping to lure him away from her—and the instant my back was turned, the beagle (Morton, I think his name was) seized the untouched reserve sandwich and made off down the hill with it.

His mother came up to apologize and thank me; she said he only eats chicken and now she wouldn't have to cook for him when they got home.

We walked back down through the park to the Seventy-second Street entrance, past a baseball game and an impromptu marimba band fighting a rock concert that penetrated clear up from Fifty-ninth street.

Lying in peaceful St. James's, I realize how much a city's parks reflect the character of its people. The parks here are tranquil, quiet, a bit reserved, and I love them. But on a long-term basis, I would sorely miss the noisy exuberance of Central Park.

9 p.m.

The Colonel phoned up, he's back. He said, What part of our glorious countryside did I want to see most? I told him I was going to Oxford next Friday and I'd be very grateful if he wanted to drive me there.

“Well, now!” he boomed. “We can do much better than that, my dear! If you're free on Thursday, we can drive through the Cotswolds and be in Stratford-on-Avon in time for dinner and the theater, and drive on to meet your friends in Oxford on Friday.”

I was wildly excited, which surprised me. I'm not terribly attracted to birthplaces, to me Shakespeare was born in the Globe Theater. But when he said he was taking me to Stratford-on-Avon I shouted my excitement, you can't help it.

Asked if he knew a shop where I could buy a cheap overnight bag and he said:

“Nonsense, I'll send a nice BOAC bag round to you.”

I tell you it's insidious being an ersatz Duchess, people rushing to give you what you want before you've had time to want it. If I kept this up for more than a month it would ruin my moral fiber.

Monday, June 28

I'd left my number with Leo Marks's answering service and he called back this morning. He has a beautiful Oxford baritone. (Or Cambridge. I don't know the difference.) He and his wife will pick me up for dinner tomorrow night at seven.

Dinner and
Midsummer Night
with the Grenfells tonight, so this morning I took my cocktail dress downstairs and said to the young desk clerk:

“Can I have this pressed before five this evening?”

“D'you want it cleaned or laundered?” he asked.

“No, just pressed,” I said.

He stared at me blankly.

“Do you want it sent to the Cleaner's?” he repeated, emphasizing each word as carefully as if I were Russian or deaf, “or do you want it sent to the Laundry?”

“I don't want it cleaned
or
washed,” I said, enunciating as carefully as if
he
were Russian or deaf, “I just want it
pressed.
It's
wrinkled
.”

This seemed to stun him. He stared at me a moment. Then he pulled himself together, mumbled, “Scuse me,” and went off to consult the Office. In a minute he was back.

“If you'll go up to Room 315 and speak to the housekeeper,” he said, “p'raps she can help you.”

I went up and knocked on the door of Room 315 and explained my problem to the motherly-looking housekeeper. She nodded understandingly and said, “Come this way, dear,” and led me down to the end of the hall and opened the door to a little dungeon with an ironing board and an ancient monster iron in one corner.

“You can press it right here, dear,” she said. “Mind the iron, the cord's a bit frayed.”

I was a bit frayed myself by this time. The dress is silk, the iron was unfamiliar and didn't look friendly. I took the dress down to the desk and told the clerk to send it to the Cleaner's, he was very relieved. This is what comes of being allergic to chemical fabrics in a drip-dry world.

Later

I got lost trying to find the Waldorf on foot, overshot it by two blocks, ran back and tore into the lobby ten minutes late—and Joyce Grenfell must have been watching the door, she came out to meet me looking exactly as she looks on the screen.

She led the way into the dining room and introduced me to her husband—”RegGEE!” she mostly calls him—and their Australian friends, Sir Charles and Lady Fitts, he's a famous doctor. I sat down, suddenly shaken by the fact that these four distinguished people had wanted to meet
me.
I tell you, life is extraordinary. A few years ago I couldn't write anything or sell anything, I'd passed the age where you know all the returns are in, I'd had my chance and done my best and failed. And how was I to know the miracle waiting to happen round the corner in late middle age?
84, Charing Cross Road
was no best seller, you understand; it didn't make me rich or famous. It just got me hundreds of letters and phone calls from people I never knew existed; it got me wonderful reviews; it restored a self-confidence and self-esteem I'd lost somewhere along the way, God knows
how many years ago. It brought me to England. It changed my life.

The Grenfells had got house seats for themselves and the Australians, and when Joyce read I was in town she invited me along—even though it meant Reggie had to give up his house seat to me and go sit in the balcony, I was horrified.

It's an experience walking down a theater aisle with a famous theater personality. Every eye in the audience was on her, and when we took our seats you could feel necks craning all over the house.

Peter Brook's production initially a shock, half play, half noisy circus. Mrs. G. was immediately entranced; I kept worrying about whether Puck was going to fall off his stilts or drop the plates he was juggling. Halfway through the second act I was suddenly moved, and I thought, “I resent it but I love it.” Stimulates you to death, seeing Shakespeare explode all over a stage like that.

They drove me home after saying goodbye to the Australians. Joyce drove because it's a new car and Reggie wanted her to get the feel of it.

She had a hell of a time in Bloomsbury. The one-way streets here set drivers crazy, you have to go five blocks out of your way to find a street going in the right direction. And she was NOT going to drop me across Shaftsbury Avenue on the wrong corner of Great Russell Street, she would NOT drop me round the corner on Bloomsbury Street, the hotel entrance was on Great Russell and she was By God going to drop me in front of the door. And after zigzagging north and south for half an hour she triumphantly did it and accepted my congratulations graciously.

She said they're “going on holiday” but will be back on July 13 for her church dialogue. She has a monthly church dialogue with a minister—on The Nature of Love and The Nature of Beauty and so forth—at a noon service at St. Mary LaBeau's Church in Cheapside. She said Why don't I come to the July 13 dialogue and then come to dinner that night and they'll drive me around to see the sights. I told her I wasn't certain I'd still be here on the thirteenth, though I'm hoping to last till the fifteenth.

During the second act, that cold caught up with me. I started to cough and nearly strangled trying to muffle it. I leaned over and whispered to Joyce apologetically:

“I've been fighting a cold all weekend.”

She thought about this a moment and then leaned over and whispered back:

“Oh, have it.”

So I'm having it. Sitting up in bed hacking and snuffling and even that doesn't depress me. I seem to be living in a state of deep hypnosis, every time I mail a postcard home I could use Euphoria for a return address.

Tuesday, June 29

I'm in the dining room having my fourth or fifth cup of coffee, feeling the way you feel the first morning of a full-blown cold. I was going to call Leo Marks and cancel dinner but if I stay in the hotel all day I'll want to get out of it tonight so I'll keep the date and try not to cough in their faces.

The dining room's emptying out now; between eight and nine every morning it's jammed and the waiters are frantic. The room rate here includes “Full English Breakfast” and we all eat everything: fruit juice or cereal, bacon and eggs, toast and marmalade, tea or coffee (and the girl who brings the coffee pot asks “Black or white?”).

The breakfast regulars always include British Willie Lomans in from the country on business and a sprinkling of middle-aged women from all over “the U.K.” traveling alone. (They never say “Great Britain,” it's “the U.K.”—United Kingdom.) Several pale, pointy-nosed professors are stowing away enough fuel to last them through the day at the British museum, they all look as if they lunch on yogurt.

This morning, a long table of Scots matrons here for a conference accompanied by a scrubbed young vicar. Ladies all complained they didn't sleep a
wink
for the noise, the motorcars go by in the street just-all-NIGHT. Quietest place I ever slept in. They should try tucking up over Second Avenue, where the trucks start rolling at 3
A.M.

Lots of Russian and Czech tourist families here, with blasé well-behaved children. Several parties of German tourists, middle-aged to make it worse. (The young ones you don't mind: they-didn't-do-it.) The tourist parties all
eat with one eye on the clock; they've all signed up for some bus tour and the buses leave the hotel at nine sharp. At two minutes to nine there's a heavy Russian-Czech-German bustle and a ponderous exodus to the line—where the Czechs gesticulate wildly at signs they can't read and the German tour leader bawls,
“Achtung!”
and,
“Halte!”
to get everybody lined up. The Russians just stolidly find the bus and get on it.

The only Americans here besides me turned up at breakfast this morning for the first time: three California college girls, blond, tanned, radiantly healthy, conferring anxiously on whether Full English Breakfast meant you could order everything, it's all free with the room? I asked the waitress for more coffee and when they heard my American accent one of them came over to my table to ask about what you can order and Are you supposed to tip. I said No, the management adds 12 per cent to your bill for tips. Alvaro was scandalized when I tried to tip him the first day. No, No! he said, It is all cared for!

Will now retire to my room with last weekend's newspapers and their fiendish crossword puzzles and spend the morning “enjoying poor health,” as my mother used to say.

Crime Note

From Saturday's evening paper:

£50 FINE FOR TEACHER

WHO ASSAULTED GIRL

AT WIMBLEDON

A 54-year-old teacher of statistics at London University . . . appeared in court today charged with insulting behavior at Wimbledon tennis championships.

He was fined £50 after admitting indecent assault in the standing area of No. 1 Court.

Temporary Det. Con. Patrick Doyle told Wimbledon magistrates that [the defendant] put an arm around an 18-year-old girl and held her breasts.

[The defendant], who is married, said:

“I suffered a temporary lapse of commonsense.

“It is ridiculous that a man in my position should do such a thing.”

A Wimbledon umpire . . . aged 66, was also accused of insulting behavior at Wimbledon. Altogether 10 men appeared, charged with insulting behavior.

The sixty-year-old umpire was extra lucky, they put his picture in the paper.

Here's a help-wanted ad for you:

BUCKINGHAM PALACE. Vacancy in the central wash-up of the main kitchen, for female applicants only. Non-residential. . . . Apply in writing to Master of the Household, Buckingham Palace, London SW 1

Wouldn't you like to take that job for one day, just to listen to the gossip?

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