The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (8 page)

BOOK: The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
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Friday, July 2

I saw Trinity College and walked the Yard John Donne walked; I saw Oriel and sat in John Henry's chapel. And what I went through to see them, you purely will not credit. I think I finally had a temper tantrum. I hope I did.

We reached Oxford a little before noon and found the Davidsons' house on a typical tree-shaded, college-town street. Laura was there waiting for us. She said the Professor was working and son David was in school counting the hours till he could join us for tea.

She has a throaty voice and a lovely, odd accent; she was born in Vienna and grew up in England. She and her husband were both refugee children from Hitler's Germany.

She was vastly amused by the Colonel, she called him “the Commahnder” and said he reminded her of Winnie the Pooh. My problem was that by this time the Colonel and I had already had thirty straight hours of Togetherness and I'm not equipped for it, not even with the best friend I have on earth, which he isn't. Over lunch in a campus pub, he announced
(à propos
of nothing, I think he was just carried away by Oxford):

“The British Empire will be brought back by popular demand! An Egyptian said to me recently: ‘Why do you English sit modestly at home when you're needed all over the world?'”

For some reason this aggravated me and I said something rude, and we had at it for a couple of minutes till Laura tactfully inserted herself between us like a housemother, and restored harmony.

After lunch, my troubles started. I said Could we
please go see Trinity and Oriel Colleges? and Laura said First we must visit the Bodleian Reading Room, it was a magnificent Wren building and her husband was working there and wanted to meet me. We went there and I met the Professor and saw the Reading Room, vaulted ceiling, towering shelves and staircases, all spectacular.

We came out, and I said Now could we go see Trinity and Oriel? and Laura said Did I know the Bodleian library stacks ran for a mile under the pavements? and showed me which pavements. And the Colonel said he had studied one summer at Wadham College and I must see Wadham Yard. And he and Laura agreed they must take me down the main street to Blackwell's Bookshop, very famous bookshop and they both knew how interested I was in bookshops. (I despair of ever getting it through anybody's head I am not interested in bookshops, I am interested in what's written in the books. I don't browse in bookshops, I browse in libraries, where you can take a book home and read it, and if you like it you go to a bookshop and buy it.)

So, on the one shining day of my life when I was actually in Oxford, I'm dragged down the main street, I'm having every monument and every church pointed out to me, they're all by Wren (everything's by Wren), I'm hauled through Blackwell's Bookshop table by table and shelf by shelf, and the next thing I know I'm walking around the Yard of some place called Wadham, for God's sake. And it's getting later and later, any minute we'll be off to Laura's house to meet her son for tea and after tea the Colonel and I will be leaving for London.

So I had a tantrum.

I stood in the middle of Wadham Yard and hollered: “
WHEN ARE WE GONNA SEE SOMETHING
I
WANNA SEE?”

Laura hurried over to me and got very kindly and understanding (she used to be a Social Worker) and said:

“The Commahnder's loving it. Wadham is his only link with Oxford.”

And I replied reasonably: “HE LIVES OVER HERE, HE CAN SEE IT ANY DAMN DAY HE WANTS TO!”

And she said Sh-sh, and the Colonel strode over and said What is it? What's the matter? And they both thought it over and decided I was right, Now what was it I specially wanted to see? And Laura said Was I sure there was an Oriel College, she couldn't find it on her map, and the Colonel said Was I perhaps thinking of Trinity-Cambridge, Prince Charles had gone to Trinity-Cambridge.

And I said carefully No, I was thinking of John Henry Newman, who taught Anglican theology at Oriel College and died a Catholic cardinal and was a little cracked in many ways but who wrote English like few men on God's green earth ever wrote English, one of the few being John Donne, and they both went to Trinity-OXFORD, so could I please see Trinity and Oriel.

We came out of Wadham Yard and stood on a corner and Laura studied her map again and sure enough, there was an Oriel College. We went there and I sat in the chapel by myself and communed with John Henry. (Outside, I learned later, the Colonel was telling Laura I was “a crazy, mixed-up kid.”)

We went to Trinity and I walked around the Yard. And that was all. Tourists are not allowed inside the college buildings.

Unless you're interested chiefly in the architecture,
visiting Oxford is very frustrating. All that is open to tourists at any college is the Yard outside it and the chapel just inside the front door. Everything else is off limits. So I'll never see those freshmans rooms and I'll never know whether there is still “much snap-dragon” growing outside the window, as there was in Newman's day. And I'll never see the rooms Milton wrote in or the rooms Q taught in at Cambridge because Cambridge has the same restrictions.

We got back to Laura's house—five minutes before fifteen-year-old David came home panting and breathless, he'd run all the way just to meet me, I've never been so flattered.

The Colonel had a cup of tea and then marched off to a bedroom and took a nap, and Laura and David and I sat in the kitchen and swapped stories about Philadelphia, where their home is and where I grew up. They go back in September.

Over tea, Laura got very guilt-ridden about my day and begged me to sneak back up on a train one day and do Oxford by myself. (“Don't even let us know you're here if you don't want to,” she said, and David said, “Why can't she let us know she's here?”) I told her I'd seen what I most wanted to see—and within the limits of what was possible, it was true.

Driving back to London we passed a village called Thame—pronounced as spelled, like “same” with a lisp—and the Colonel told me why the Thames is pronounced Temmes. Seems the first Hanover king had a thick German accent and couldn't pronounce
th
. He called the river “te Temmes” and since the-king-is-always-right everybody else
had to call it the Temmes and it's been the Temmes ever since.

He told me about all the widows who depend on him for advice, they all seem to have “lashings of money” and children who adore him.

We got home at nine. I'll be grateful to him all my life for the trip, but it was a lot of togetherness. I holed up in the bar to write this; the Lounge is more comfortable and also free but anybody who talked to me tonight would've got bit.

Flock of messages for me at the desk. Marc Connelly phoned, the London
Reader's Digest
phoned, Nikki's Barbara phoned and a woman I never heard of phoned. The desk clerk was very impressed by all the messages. So was I.

Saturday, July 3

I just called Marc Connelly. He was a reigning playwright when I was a child and my parents were rabid theatergoers. They should have lived to see the fan letter he wrote me. It came just before Christmas and I almost threw it away without opening it. His name is on some way-out charity I don't care for, and I thought the letter was another appeal. Not till my hand was hovering over the wastebasket did it occur to me that the envelope was very thin for a charity appeal. So I opened it.

Dear Miss Hanff:

What with all those other letters closing in on you (How many grateful people have written up to now—one million? two million?) I don't expect you'll get around to reading this for a year or more.

Anyway, sooner or later you'll find it's just like all the others: telling you that “84, Charing Cross Road” is tender and funny and incandescent and beautiful and makes the reader rejoice to be living in the same century with you.

Genuflections,

Marc Connelly

And I almost threw it away without opening it.

I met him a few months later, and he told me he'd be
in London in July, at his club, and he'd take me to see what a gentleman's club looks like.

He'll pick me up tomorrow at one for lunch.

Can't call Nikki's Barbara or the
Reader's Digest
till Monday, both offices are closed Saturdays. Nikki—the friend whose deviled egg Chester-the-Sheep-Dog sat on at our Central Park picnic—works for a news magazine in New York. Barbara works for the same news magazine in London. The two girls have never met but they talk to each other every day over the teletype so they're good friends. Nikki made us promise to meet while I'm here.

I can definitely make it till the fifteenth, dinner invitations coming in nicely. I just phoned that woman I never heard of who called while I was away. She said she and her husband are fans of the book and want me to come to dinner to see their part of London. I'm going there Tuesday.

Every breathing tourist who has breakfast in this hotel has seen a piece of royalty but me. (How I know is, whoever is breakfasting alone at the next table strikes up a conversation with you, usually beginning with, “
Might
I trouble you for the marmalade?”) Either they saw the Family leave for Windsor, or they were getting on the elevator at Harrods just as the Queen Mother was getting off it, or they saw Princess Anne wave as she entered the hospital, or they just-by-good-chance happened to be passing by this boys' school as seven-year-old Prince Edward was coming out with the other boys. So this morning I'm going down to Buckingham Palace and try my luck.

10 p.m.

Went down to Buckingham Palace, walked up and down along the spiked iron fence for a while but all I saw was one more anachronism: a seventeenth-century carriage drawn by white horses, driven through the gates by a fancy-dress coachman, and inside the carriage a pair of cold-eyed diplomats in top hats with cigarettes hanging out of their twentieth-century faces.

I find the treatment of royalty distinctly peculiar. The royal family lives in palaces heavily screened from prying eyes by fences, grounds, gates, guards, all designed to ensure the family absolute privacy. And every newspaper in London carried headlines announcing PRINCESS ANNE HAS OVARIAN CYST REMOVED. I mean you're a young girl reared in heavily guarded seclusion and every beer drinker in every pub knows the precise state of your ovaries.

Walked home by way of Lincoln's Inn Fields, a park this side of the Inns of Court facing a lovely row of houses on a street called King's Bench Walk. Sat on a bench and looked at the houses and listened to the conversations going by:

“. . . well, not uncouth, he looks like a Highland rabbi.”

“. . . but she wasn't getting anywhere out there so she packed it in and now she's home, looking . . .”

“They're all out to save their own neckties, you can bloody bet on that!”

I'm in the bar again. I don't normally drink after dinner but in this hotel they think you're strange if you drink
before
dinner. So at 10
P.M.
I'm having a martini. More or less.

The first night I came in here I said to the young bartender:

“A martini, please.”

He reached for a bottle of Martini & Rossi vermouth and poured a glass full of it before I could scream WAIT A MINUTE!

“Would you put the gin in first, please?” I asked.

“Oh!” he said. “You want a
gin
martini.”

He got the gin bottle and a shaker, and I said:

“Would you put some ice in the shaker, please? I like it cold.”

“Right-o!” he said. He put an ice cube in the shaker, poured a jigger of gin on it, added half a cup of vermouth, stirred once, poured it out and handed it to me with a flourish. I paid him and shuffled over to a table telling myself sternly.

“Don't be like all those American tourists who can't adapt to another country's customs, just drink it.”

Nobody could drink it.

The next time I came in it was dinner time, the bar was empty and the bartender and I got chummy; he said Wasn't I the writer? and told me his name was Bob. I said Did he mind if this time we used my recipe instead of his and he said Right-o, just tell him exactly what I wanted.

I said First could we start with four ice cubes in the shaker. He thought I was crazy but he put three cubes in (he was short on ice). He poured a jigger of gin in the shaker and I said:

“Okay, now another jigger of gin.”

He stared at me, shook his head in disbelief and added a second jigger of gin.

“Okay, now one more,” I said.

“MORE gin?” he said, and I said:

“Yes, and lower your voice.”

He poured the third jigger, still shaking his head. He reached for the vermouth bottle, and I said:

“I'll pour that.”

I added a few drops of vermouth, stirred vigorously, let him pour it out for me and told him it was perfect.

Now he makes it by himself but he never can bring himself to add that third jigger of gin, he thinks he'll look up later and see me sprawled face down on a bar table sodden drunk.

Sunday, July 4

Got very gloomy remembering the days before the Viet Nam War when I gloried in my country's history and July 4 meant something.

Marc Connelly picked me up at one. I wore the brown skirt and white blazer, and he said, “Don't you look fine in your little yachting outfit,” and saluted. He said we'd have lunch at the Hilton because nothing else is open.

The Hilton has several dining rooms, he took me into the largest. It was crowded with sleek, well-groomed men and beautifully dressed women; nobody looked dowdy the way they do at the Kenilworth. And the strawberries were huge and the cream was thick and the rolls were hot and the butter was cold and the chicken livers were done to perfection.

But at the Kenilworth, nobody sends the eggs back. Nobody talks to the waiters with the casual rudeness that says, “I am better than you are because I am richer.” And the waiters don't answer with that studied blend of contempt and servility, and none are obsequious—my God, Alvaro couldn't even pronounce it. And nobody at a Kenilworth breakfast table looks bitter or discontented, no men at the Kenilworth moodily drink their lunch, no women with hard-painted faces keep a sharp eye on their handbags.

You look at the faces in the Hilton dining room and first you want to smack them and then you just feel sorry for them, not a soul in the room looked happy.

After lunch Marc took me to his club on St. James's Street. The building looks narrow from the street; but you step through the doorway into an enormous drawing room
with other large rooms beyond it, you climb a great curved staircase, the wall alongside lined with portraits of club presidents all looking like Peter Ustinov, and upstairs you find more spacious rooms—breakfast rooms, game rooms, reading rooms. We watched cricket for a while on color TV in one of the game rooms. At least, I watched it. Marc went to sleep. He's eighty, he's allowed.

I woke him at three to say I was leaving and he said cheerfully, “Now you know what I think of cricket!” and saw me to the door and told me to walk down Jermyn Street and look in the shop windows.

I did that, and then went over to Regent and was walking down Waterloo on my way to St. James's Park when who should I run into, standing on a corner on a little pedestal looking small and spruce, but Gentlemanly Johnny Burgoyne who lost the Battle of Saratoga to us rebels. I think he was supposed to link up with some other general's forces but there was a snafu and Burgoyne's entire army was captured. He'd be pleased to know he's the most appealing character in
The Devil's Disciple
, he was a playwright himself. He wrote a play and produced it in Boston, with his officers in the cast, when his troops occupied the city. Can't imagine what possessed the British to put up a statue to him, I suppose he won some battle somewhere but he lost the American Revolution almost singlehanded.

Wished him a happy Fourth.

When I got down to the Mall there was a band concert going on. In honor of the Fourth of July the band played “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Well, why not? I don't know who Hampden was, why should they know July Fourth doesn't commemorate the Civil War?

Sunned myself in St. James's Park for a while but the band concert went on and on and I wasn't in the mood so I thought I'd walk up to Lincoln's Inn Fields instead. I couldn't get back up the broad marble steps, they were jammed with concert listeners, so I walked along the Mall looking for another exit. I came to a small flight of steps, maneuvered my way around the people sitting on them and came up into Carlton Gardens, a beautiful street of very plush apartment houses. It reminded me a little of Sutton Place: the buildings, the expensive cars at the curb, the starched nanny going by pushing a pram, all reeked of money. I walked around it and maybe I walked along an adjoining street, I'm not sure. Then I turned a corner and found myself on a street I had not been on before and the likes of which I never expect to be on again.

I don't even know where I was. I could find no name to the street, I'm not even sure it was a street. It was a kind of enclosed courtyard, a cul-de-sac behind Clarence House and St. James's Palace. The anonymous white buildings on it might be the backs of the palaces. The white stone glows sumptuous and the street is absolutely still. A footstep is loud and you stand without moving, almost without breathing. There is no reek of money here, only the hallowed hush of privilege. Your mind fills with stories of the fairy-tale splendor of monarchy, the regal pomp of England's kings and queens. And then suddenly you remember Karl Marx in an untroubled grave in Highgate, and Queen Mary welcoming Gandhi as she had welcomed the rajahs before him, as George III had been forced to welcome as Ambassador to the Court of St. James old upstart John Adams. You are awed by the contrasts—by the
fact
of St.
James's and Clarence House resting so serenely in Socialist England.

You decide to stop using the word “anachronism” when a seventeenth-century carriage drives through the gates of Buckingham Palace carrying twentieth-century Russian or African diplomats to be welcomed by a queen. “Anachronism” implies something long dead, and nothing is dead here. History, as they say, is alive and well and living in London.

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