What you are about to read is the realisation of a life-long desire, or very nearly. Back in 1961, my parents took my (ten years older) sister and my (eight years older) brother with them on a trip to England, and stuck me in a lousy summer camp. The reason they gave at the time was that I would be "too young to remember" the trip. Well, I wasn't too young to remember just how loathsome that summer camp was, nor too young to remember the picture postcards and stamps and coins and stories they brought me of their trip. I suppose the real reason was that I was not yet eight years old, and not the best-behaved child of my age either. But no matter: the urge to visit the Scepter'd Isle stayed with me since then, and I became a full-fledged Anglophile, doting entire on the literature, music, art and other culture of the British Isles. The obvious goal of such an urge would be a pilgrimage, but for many reasons this did not happen for some time. I had briefly considered going over in 1979 for Seacon (the 37th World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton), but had to marshal my money for my move from San Francisco to Minneapolis. (I did manage a return visit to New York, where I had not visited in 14 years, but of course that's not the same.) And then it was at the end of 1984 that I realised that my half-hearted desires to go to Britain were just that, half-hearted; and that if I ever was going to go, it was going to have to be planned. So I began to plan, in December, 1984.
First things first: Money. For money, I needed a steady job, and after having held a variety of underpaid and unpleasant jobs in 1984, I was fortunate to find myself employed (and actually appreciated!) at the headquarters of the discount store chain Target, in downtown Minneapolis. By the end of 1984 I figured (and correctly) that I had some job stability, and with some careful saving I would be able to afford my trip if I were careful to shop for low-cost fares. My supervisor's supervisor, Jan Hacker, was kind enough to understand my yearning to take such a trip, and allowed me to pool all of my personal holidays and vacation days around Memorial Day so that I could spend a couple of weeks abroad, time enough to make it really worthwhile. (Some people could probably stand to go to Britain for a week, or even a weekend, but I couldn't think of doing that!) Not only that, but Jan's secretary, Jo Holroyd, is from Yorkshire, and she was able to offer some bits of advice regarding things to see and places to go, from a native's point of view.
The really important thing was airfare. This was something of a problem, because while I was intending to travel in May/June, most special-deal airfares for that period of time didn't have their prices posted for quite some time. People Express proved a real disappointment, in that they (or at least their phone representatives) kept promising that their May fares would be available "next Thursday," again and again and again. Meanwhile, I investigated several different charter arrangements, and found to my chagrin that most of them involved flying on odd days (like Wednesdays). Finally, Dayton's Travel Service (Dayton's is one of the major department stores headquartered in Minneapolis; in fact, Target Stores is owned by Dayton-Hudson Corporation) claimed to have found me a charter with travel days to my liking. Actually, these were very slightly off from the optimum days I had originally gotten Jan to let me have off; but Jan graciously allowed me to take that one extra day off I would need, in order to save a couple of hundred dollars off of the APEX fare, and I called Dayton's and told them (as George Burns used to say), "Do it." Instead, they blew it, and after keeping me on tenterhooks for a couple of days, told me that they couldn't get me those dates after all. Instead they offered to get completely different dates -- which would have been totally impossible, given the work projects I had coming up. Needless to say, I was not pleased.
I immediately turned to Ask Mr. Foster, a travel agency located in the Minneapolis skyways (skyways are interconnecting second-story links between the downtown buildings, through which one can travel to avoid automobile traffic or inclement weather; St. Paul also has an extensive skyway system), and in the space of only a few minutes, they found for me a completely different charter company which would let me travel on the precise days which Dayton's had failed to get for me, for only $25 more. I asked them to hold onto that while I considered it, since (as I did not tell them) I was still calling People Express every Thursday to see when in God's name they would get around to posting their May fares. What it came down to was that I had to make a choice: I had to come to the offices of Ask Mr. Foster and sign the charter contract by a particular date, which happened to be a Thursday, or I could go with People Express if they posted their fares by that time and if these fares were competitive. That particular Thursday morning came, and I phoned People Express. I got a recorded message, stating that People Express would be coming out with their May and June fares next Monday, for real and for sure no kidding this time, promise, honest to God. Right. And the check's in the mail. That same day, on my lunch hour, I walked over to Ask Mr. Foster and signed the charter contract. My agent at Ask Mr. Foster was Carmen Sylwester, no relation to Ed Eastman's former drama teacher John Sylwester. In case you are curious: no, I never did bother to call back People Express to find out what their fares were. It had ceased to matter to me, and I am extremely reluctant to deal with them ever again. (I should point out that one of the reasons I was inclined to do business with Ask Mr. Foster in the first place was that there had been an Ask Mr. Foster Travel Service in Pacific Palisades, which was one of the local merchants who took out ads in a little magazine I published while in high school. So you see, it pays to advertise!)
Going through Ask Mr. Foster did put me at one slight disadvantage, though. I had to put the full payment for the ticket on a bank credit card, which meant that I had less credit available to me on that card during my trip. (I didn't know what the money-credit situation would be like, nor even what the exchange rate might be like, so I wanted to keep my options open.) At Dayton's I could have put it on my Dayton's charge, which, aside from keeping it off my world-wide-usable bank cards, would give me a slightly lower interest rate (for a while, until Minnesota changed some laws regarding credit interest, which happened a couple of months later). I had also planned to put my various land transportation on Dayton's charge, for the same reason. Now I had taken a big bite out of a bank card, and I still wanted to put land transport onto a department store card. I did not want to use Dayton's, since they had screwed up on me once. Fortunately, Dayton's is not the only department store in downtown Minneapolis. A woman who used to ride the morning bus with me turned out to be a credit representative for Donaldson's, so I took care of one of my needs and helped her keep up her quota at the same time. The travel service at Donaldson's is AAA Donaldson's, and my agent there was Virginia Mayo (no relation to Danny Kaye's former co-star). Ms. Mayo helped me pick out the land transportation and other services I would be wanting, including a one-week First Class BritRailPass, a couple of BritainShrinkers tours, London Explorer Passes (for the underground), and sleeper reservations for a side-trip to Edinburgh. This she did with great efficiency.
Accommodations in Britain were another thing. I had long ago written to a friend of mine there, who had once offered me lodging should I visit. I will not describe in detail how I tried to track him down, but let it simply be said that I gave up on this idea after a while and it never again has any bearing in the course of this narrative. Ultimately I determined that I could spend a couple of days at the home of Rob Hansen, a science fiction fan who is a friend of several friends of mine. After that I was on my own, but since London is replete with many hotels, I would then trust to my luck in that regard.
Other sort of planning-in-advance had to be done, too. For one thing, there was the matter of a passport, since I had never had one of these. Fortunately, that was a relatively easy matter to take care of, and since I made application for one in January, I had it in fewer than three weeks -- more than enough time! One odd thing that worried me for a time too was the fact that, on my passport, my photograph shows me with a beard, and during my trip I was clean-shaven (when I lived in Minneapolis, I always wore a beard during the cold months, and shaved it off the rest of the time), but this presented no problem whatsoever at any time, so it will not be mentioned again.
Then there was the matter of luggage. My own luggage was mostly a collection of family hand-me-downs, and I wanted something newer and better. Fortunately, working at Target headquarters, I was privy to all sorts of interesting information. It so happened that Target was going to put a fair amount of luggage on clearance, as I found out when the paperwork regarding this change routinely crossed my desk. By talking with the luggage buyer, I determined what sort of pieces I could best use, and found out which were going to be marked down. It was then a simple matter of getting to a particular Target store immediately after the markdown happened -- see what I mean about how helpful it is to be privy to inside information? -- and I got just what I wanted, a small Samsonite suitcase and a large Samsonite suitcase with wheels and a pullcord. I wound up getting these only a week before my trip, which was cutting it close -- but at least I did wind up getting them.
There was one more bothersome matter. I broke the frames of my glasses two weeks before my trip, and found that while the health plan I was on would cover the eye exam, and part of the cost of the lenses and frames, the tricky part was getting scheduled for the eye exam. They offered me a date a couple of days before my trip. This was clearly unacceptable, so I wound up paying the full amounts for the exam and the glasses anyway. Thanks for nothing, MedCenters Health Plan.
Anyway, I was all set. I was scheduled to fly out of Minneapolis on Sunday, 19 May 1985. On the evening of the 18th, I turned my television to the Reuters teletext channel, and found the most unwelcome news that the London Transport workers -- who were responsible for the running of the Underground and busses -- were planning to go on strike. Perhaps this sounds a little bit paranoid, but all my life I have felt myself a victim of others' indolence, inconsideration and incompetence, and this appeared to be yet another example of that. Oh well, I thought, I might as well kiss goodbye to some more money, for taxicabs; the world is going to screw me again.
Sunday, 19 May: I got a ride to the airport, by previous arrangement, with Stephen St. Onge and Kaye Roberts. On the way to the airport, we saw a cricket match in progress. While cricket is not entirely unknown in Minneapolis (there was an upsurge in interest a few years ago due to the presence of Sir Neville Marriner), I found this a little odd, to say the least. It was certainly not inappropriate. Steve and Kaye were very good company during the drive (I insisted on getting to the airport two hours before my flight took off), and we had lunch together at the airport and otherwise chatted for a while. Then it was time for me to board my flight, for my first trip overseas, indeed, my first trip outside the U.S. and Canada.
My flight was more pleasant than I had expected. The plane was a 747, very spacious compared with some others I have been on. Take-off was okay. There was a pleasant Japanese couple sitting next to me; they had just bought an all-in-one video camera-recorder-monitor, and were busily studying the multitudinous controls and instructions on the way to their vacation. The in-flight entertainment was the Robert Redford movie "The Natural," but I didn't care to pay the $3 the airline was charging for the use of those wretched little headsets. The food was edible, and I managed to nap fitfully for a couple of hours, fortunately. Usually I am completely unable to sleep aboard a plane, but for once this ban appeared to have been lifted.
Monday, 20 May: We arrived at London Gatwick at some ungodly hour in the morning. Customs into the UK was no problem. First there was a waiting area where one stood in a line -- er, that should be queue -- according to whether or not one was a citizen of a member-nation of the EEC (European Economic Community, or what we know as the Common Market). Then one went through a "declare" path or a "nothing to declare" path. I was shooed on my way by a person in charge, so I take it I was not suspect of gold-smuggling or anything like that. When I arrived at the head of the queue, I was asked how long I was staying, and the purpose of my stay. My passport thus stamped, I was formally admitted into the United Kingdom.
Of course, I was now faced with the usual traveller's problem when one has come straight in off the plane: getting into the city. Fortunately, Britain is nothing if not well served by rail, and there was a convenient train from Gatwick to Victoria Station. This was only a few quid, so I decided to go first class. First, I stopped at the BritRail office to exchange my voucher for my first class BritRailPass. I was not going to begin to use this yet, because these are good for the period of time for which you purchase them, running consecutively from the day you begin to use them. As I had arranged to do all of my rail travelling in a period of seven days (with my trip to Edinburgh in the middle of this), I simply got a blank seven-day pass without the starting day filled in, and purchased a separate ticket (at a different window) for the train to Victoria. The man at the first BritRail office had a particularly high, squeaky voice. On the way to my train, I bought a copy of the Times, and a London A-Z. This last, if you haven't heard of it, is a map-book covering the greater London area. Since street names are duplicated all over the place, and since streets are often named and numbered in a variety of bewildering and mutually exclusive fashions, one practically needs maps to get around unless one is a life-long native (and elderly, with a good memory). Fortunately the A-Z (the "Z" is pronounced "zed," which is how the English say it, rather than the American "zee") is around to help confused travellers such as myself.
The train ride to Victoria Station was quite pleasant. I was glad to have booked first class, since there one has more room to stretch out in, and a little table upon which to rest reading matter, and one can be more nearly reasonably assured of a place to sit down. I arrived at Victoria Station and decanted myself and all of my luggage. This was it. After all those years of waiting, I was finally in London!
My first impression of Victoria Station was that it was full of pigeons. On further examination, I noted that there were a few humans here and there. There would certainly be more later on, as the day progressed. But the pigeons strutted around the common areas inside the station, almost as though they owned it. I saw a small record shop and looked around; it was rather disappointing, but about what would expect if railway stations had record shops. (The real ones were waiting for me, as you shall soon see.)
There were several things I wanted to do. There was a "Left Luggage" or luggage-checking area, complete with lockers, so I stored all of my suitcases except for a shoulderbag. I also took the time to ring up Rob Hansen. We arranged that I should meet him at his favourite pub, the Black Friars, after work. And now, it was time to go sightseeing. First things first: I asked a constable to direct me to the Palace: "Straight on, sir," he said, and pointed down Palace Road.
As it was already around 9:00 a.m., there was -- strike that, there were a considerable crowd around Buckingham Palace already. I soon discerned that I was not the only tourist there; I heard American and Canadian accents all about me, and cameras abounded. There were a number of youngsters speaking French. If you have never seen the Changing of the Guard, you might be aware that it is a whole big production, but you might not know exactly what kind of production that entails. A military band first marches in and plays several selections to entertain the audience. To my surprise, they opened with a Rodgers & Hammerstein selection (not, really, all that surprising, since "Oklahoma!", "South Pacific," and "The King and I" were all staggeringly popular in Britain and, amongst the three of them, ran continuously on the West End from 1947 to 1956; facts verified by an independent source.) Still, it was strange that, after I had waited these many years and come all this way, the first music I should hear performed in Britain would be American.
Completely unaware of my utter astonishment, the band dropped the other shoe and played a medley from "Annie." After this had been endured, they launched into a potpourri of tunes from The Yeoman of the Guard, which was more like it, though strictly speaking not entirely accurate as the military ceremony we were about to see involved the Household Guard and not the Tower Warders. But no matter. Gilbert and Sullivan having been suitably evoked, l gazed at the spectacle that is the Changing of the Guard. I won't try to describe it here, because it's been so well-described elsewhere; and besides, I didn't have all that great a view on this occasion. But still I was impressed.
One thing I shall always remember has nothing to do with the pomp or pageantry of the military display. Rather, it has to do with the skies above. A couple of times, I looked up and saw several ducks flying over the Palace. The ducks were quacking; at least, I could see that their beaks were opening and closing, since the band succeeded quite well in drowning out most other sounds. For some reason this image sticks in my mind: While the Royal Army did their duty in the service of their queen, the ducks saluted her in their own way. Quack!
Afterwards, I felt as though I should make real a relationship which already existed. Being completely at a loss for directions, I hailed a cab and gave the driver the address of 2 Great Marlborough Street. Fortunately for my finances, this was relatively close at hand. The cabbie sounded like a Cockney; I found myself wondering whether he actually was one, or merely affected it for the tourist trade. I did not care to ask, in case it was an illusion, for I did not want it spoiled. (In London, the taxis look like large black sedans, and often have large advertisements on their sides. One of the more amusing ones was for Elephant floppy disks.)
Meanwhile, I set off to explore the site I had chosen as my second-most-important attraction in all Britain: Harold Moores Records. This is a perfectly marvellous record shop with an excellent selection, courteous and knowledgeable staff, and a mail order service that does not flinch from serving the far corners of the world and customers who want, and get, practically anything. I've been a mail-order customer of Harold Moores for years, and on occasion I've even been desperate enough to place telephone orders, so I felt as though they were old friends already. By my great fortune, Mr. Harold Moores himself happened to be in, and so we were finally acquainted in person. I allowed myself only the very briefest of looks at the stock, just a couple of hours, but was pleased to note that there were quite a number of new releases that hadn't even been mentioned in the most recent issue of Gramophone, let alone made their way to the States.
It wasn't too long before I looked at another newspaper and saw that the London Transport strike had fizzled out; most of the workers decided to cross picket lines, and service was nearly back to normal by late afternoon. (In fact it was back to normal by that evening, I am told, and no further problems with transportation enter into this narrative.) Other big news included the following: A man was sentenced to five years in prison for leading fights at soccer stadia. There was also considerable debate in the Commons regarding doing away with the bans against Sunday shopping, since many shops simply fail to comply and are willing to hand over the nominal fine if caught. There were also debates about eliminating the mandatory closing of pubs for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. This had apparently already been tried in Scotland, and was found successful there.
Ultimately it came time for me to gather up my luggage from Victoria and make my way to the Black Friars, which I then did, with directional assistance from a couple of Londoners. I must say a word about Londoners; if you stand on a sidewalk, hold open for all to see your copy of A-Z, scratch your head and wear an expression of the profoundest bewilderment, one or two inhabitants of the city will stroll up to you and offer their assistance with directions. When was the last time you saw anyone do that in New York?
Brief observations about the Underground: Street musicians, or the equivalent, sometimes play in passageways between tube lines, though this is technically not permitted. I saw a few guitarists (including one amplified acoustic) at various times, as well as a saxophone with recorded accompaniment, and even a violinist who played one part of the J. S. Bach Concerto for Two Violins, with the other violin and the orchestra on a recorded track. Also, Dan Goodman had told me that the Underground stations had vending machines on the train levels, which vended Kit-Kat candybars. His information was perhaps a little bit out of date; I did see vending machines with Nestles and Cadbury bars of various sorts. (The English, by the way, pronounce that brand name to rhyme with "wrestles.")
There was an amusing series of billboard-sized cartoons in many of the tube stations, advertising the services of Telecom, the now-private telephone company. The advertisements suggested that tourists telephone home to their loved ones to tell them of their experiences in Britain. (Me, I'm more sensible; I've waited a year and a half and am writing up my experiences at abominable length.) The billboards were keyed to several nationalities, and in those languages, and I suspect that each one was done by a well-known cartoonist from that country. The German advert showed a man who complained that the pubs closed during the middle of the day, and he couldn't get his beer; an excitable Italian finally gets into trouble and needs a lawyer; one Frenchman who gets caught in the rain, and in a separate advert another Frenchman who is lovestruck ("Je chante sous la pluie!"). But by far the most interesting cartoon was the American one, done by no less than Charles Addams. In this one, Uncle Fester and Morticia (to give their television names, because as far as I know they haven't got any otherwise) travel throughout London, and see a Tower Warder (Beefeater), a punk, a periwigged judge, a member of the Household Guard, and a hooker, inspiring Morticia to ring home: "Yes, grandmama, we're having a wonderful time here in London. These people could be part of the family!"
All the time I was in London, I saw lots of vicars, priests, and nuns. I even saw a couple of Eastern Orthodox priests, which I had never seen before.
At the Black Friars, I finally met Rob Hansen. I found his company and the pub atmosphere most congenial. Then it was over and across a number of little winding streets some of them paved with cobblestones, and even past St. Paul's itself (which was being renovated on the outside to clean away some of the dirt and grime which the sooty London air had left there) to get to the tube station. Rob lived out in West Ham, a considerable way on the District Line. Eventually at his place we sat around and talked for a bit and watched television. I had already been aware that British television, which is on the PAL standard (along with the rest of Western Europe, except for France, which is on SECAM just to be different), has a higher scan line rate, so that the picture definition is noticeably better. Rob's television (made in Finland, of all places, and much to my surprise) was a somewhat venerable model, he said, but the quality was still higher than most of what I've seen at home. We watched a couple of programmes: One was a sort of talk-show hosted by Terry Wogan, who I suppose could be very roughly described as the British equivalent of Johnny Carson, but merely in function, not in style. Wogan is a plump amiable Irishman who is the mainstay of popular British television and apparently known to all. Or perhaps I can better convey his popularity this way. The John Williams/Boston Pops recording of Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" was issued in two English-language versions: The one issued in Britain was narrated by Terry Wogan, and the one issued in the U.S. was narrated by Dudley Moore. I don't know what this means about Dudley Moore's popularity, or lack of it, in the U.K.
The other television programme we watched was some bizarre sitcom called "The Young Ones." It is about a bunch of aimless punks who sit around, listen to so-called New Wave music, and otherwise behave obnoxiously. Between the non sequitur action and the heavy dialect, I didn't understand the least bit of it. About the only thing I remember from the "plot" was someone sitting on a ghost's face, and breaking wind. This pile of meaningless drivel has since shown up on MTV in the United States where, of course, it has been a big hit. Could this truly be the same nation which produced Shakespeare and Milton?
"The Young Ones" did serve one very useful purpose, however; it bored me so completely that I had no trouble getting to sleep, even on the cot that Rob had thoughtfully set up for me.
Tuesday, 21 May: I woke up rather later than I had intended, but that was just as well, as I really did need the sleep. I perceived that I was having but little trouble adapting to the time change. Since this was the first time I'd ever had to deal with six hours' difference, I was glad that it wasn't proving nearly as much trouble as I had feared. (There have been times when I've not been able to adapt to a mere two hours' difference, even after a week of trying.) But today was to be the day of another important bit of tourism, namely, a visit to the Tower of London!
Fortunately, the Tower is very easy to find. There's a nice thing about the biggest and best-known landmarks: the city and the people and whomever else is involved know that tourists come to see their sights, so they make it possible, nay, easy for one to find these sights. It was slightly drizzly by the time I got to the Tower, though I was able to duck out of the way a couple of times when the sky threatened to open up. The next couple of hours were taken up by walking up stairways and down, seeing the various buildings and finding out what and who were associated with them. For example, there were the quarters in which Sir Walter Ralegh (whose name was consistently spelled that way on the premises) had been imprisoned. On display in this homey but small room was a glass case containing some of Ralegh's own writings, in addition to King Henry VIII's (attributed) "Counterblaste to Tobacco." Since I firmly believe that Ralegh was, regardless of his intentions, responsible for foisting a great and despicable evil upon Western Civilisation, it was with grim pleasure that I regarded the place which had been his final dwelling upon this Earth.
After this, I spent more time on the Tower grounds, and of course I had to see the Crown Jewels. On the way in to see the Jewels, there are many military decorations, swords, shields, emblems and other regalia of great interest and variety. The Jewels themselves are truly remarkable; even if you have seen a first-rate photograph, this cannot truly capture their beauty. I was particularly interested in the present queen's Coronation Regalia, and especially the Star of Africa, the gigantic gemstone cut from the enormous Cullinian Diamond. I think I stayed on the upper level and gazed at this marvel for fifteen or twenty minutes. It is the single most beautiful and wonderful sight I have ever seen in my life. If there had not been all of London waiting for me, I could have been there for the rest of the day.
By the time I was about ready to leave the Tower, the skies did open up, and I did get caught in the downpour. Fortunately, I had planned ahead and had my small folding umbrella in my shoulderbag. At one point I turned around suddenly and saw a huge black bird staring back at me. This was one of the six ravens which reside at the Tower in perpetual fulfillment of a command by Henry VIII, acting on a legend that England could never fall so long as there were ravens at the Tower. One of the Tower Warders (under orders) explained that the ravens have their wings clipped so that they cannot fly away. Unfortunately, he continued, the ravens can only mate in mid-air, so the birds are rather frustrated as a consequence.
This was about enough standard sightseeing for the time being, so it was off to more record shops. First, I went to one shop in the Music Discount Centre chain, where I saw a fairly similar selection of new releases to the ones at Harold Moores. The shop had more of a brusque, business-like attitude than the more casual, friendlier attitude at Harold Moores. I wound up in a very pleasant conversation with a fellow customer, an older gentleman by the name of Mr. Richard Musman, who seemed genuinely pleased to find a young American who was so conversant with British musicians and their recordings. Mr. Musman was also an Americanophile, having formed this high opinion during the Second World War; he could scarcely mention the United States without expressing his high regard for the country and its people: "America, God bless her!" I found it particularly pleasant to have found the company of someone who was so overwhelmingly pro-American, and this without any mention of factional politics. (I hesitated to tell him of my low opinion of Ronald Reagan, because I did not consider it germane to the conversation at that time.)
Then it was off to a book and record shop, Collet's, which had advertised a recording I'd particularly wanted to get, of the opera "Rothschild's Violin," by the obscure Soviet composer Veniamin Fleischmann. The opera is based on the story by Anton Chekhov, and is of interest because the composer, who had not finished the work when he was shipped off to the front in the Great Patriotic War (aka World War II), left the manuscript with his mentor, Dmitri Shostakovich, who completed and orchestrated the work. Since I am a Shostakovich collector, this was an item worth obtaining, and I apparently got the last copy Collet's had, due to a very favourable review in the Telegraph the previous Sunday.
While I was in the area, I stopped in at a bookshop called Foyle's, and spent some time looking at the music, science fiction, and other books there. Their building had extremely old lifts, all in steel mesh; I found myself wondering about the age of the lifts, or for that matter of the age of the building. Anyway, Foyle's had a very odd system for making one's purchases. First, you would bring everything you wanted from a particular department to the desk for that department. The clerk there would write up a receipt for you, but keep the merchandise. You then would have to repeat this procedure at each department where there was merchandise you wanted. When you had all of the receipts representing the merchandise, you would pay for everything at a central cashier, and then take the stamped receipts back to the original departments to claim your merchandise. It is as confusing, inconvenient, and time-consuming as this description indicates.
Then it was time to visit another one of the major record shops I'd long known about: Covent Garden Records. This shop might be of some interest even to those who do not frequent record shops, since it bears the rather famous address of 84 Charing Cross Road, which used to be occupied by a rare book shop and was made the subject of a book of letters to and from Helene Hanff. CGR was, when I was there, in the process of clearing out their LPs and increasing their stock of CDs and CD players. I noticed that they did have the carrying case for the Sony D-5 and D-50, which peripheral was in very short supply in the States at the time. More about this particular player later. The day was done, and I went back to Rob's for the evening. Rob showed me a Tandoori take-away restaurant in his neighbourhood, and I feasted on tasty and inexpensive Indian food before bedding down for the night. In general, I found the food to be nourishing and quite cheap. Since I don't insist on haute cuisine, the transition from what I normally eat to the supposedly poor English cuisine was hardly noticeable.
Wednesday, 22 May: As soon as I was able to get bathed and dressed, I went down to Victoria Station, where there is a sort of a clearinghouse for hotel lodging. Whilst waiting here I met a woman named Carol who was originally from Connecticut, but who had spent the past couple of years teaching English in the People's Republic of China. She had in fact just arrived in Britain, having come all the way from Beijing by land. This involved a couple of weeks of rail travel, including the Trans-Siberian Railway! We arranged to meet later and do some sightseeing together until I went to Edinburgh.
Before too long, I was able to get a fairly reasonable room at the Park Lodge Hotel in Bayswater, W2, for only £20/night, without bath. Once I had moved my belongings here, I went off to do some more touring of the city, beginning with Trafalgar Square. This is of course where one finds what may be the most famous monument in all of Britain, Nelson's Column. The Column itself is on an enormous stepped pedestal, and is surrounded by stone lions. I suppose these lions are, in a sense, equalled in fame only by the lions in front of New York City's 42nd Street Library. At Trafalgar Square, there were more pigeons than I had ever wanted to see. In the surrounding area are the Main Post Office, where one could even buy stamps up to 9:00 p.m., and for several hours on Sunday. I purchased a number of 26p stamps (the air mail postcard rate), and was even able to buy the regional stamps with the symbols of Wales and Scotland on them. (I used these when mailing postcards from Wales and Scotland, of course.) By my great fortune, the GPO had just issued a block of four stamps honouring British composers, and I sent not a few cards out with the one devoted to Gustav Holst and "The Planets." Also there are the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (which apparently used to be in the fields before the city became so built up), and the National Gallery. This was one of my planned stops, and I spent a good chunk of the day there, looking at Leonardos, Titians, Raphaels, and Uccellos (a specialty of mine from way back). By the way, it is at least mildly surprising to see that there is a statue of George Washington in front of the National Gallery.
One observation I couldn't help making was that there were lots of Americans in London. One could hardly go anywhere without hearing American spoken. (This was of course also true on the guided tours I took, but this was only to be expected.) The city is also full of "Bureaux de Changes," where one can change currency at almost any time of day or night. London also has a great number of Indians or Pakistani.
Other impressions: I was amused to see that signs say "WAY OUT" instead of "EXIT," except in Wales. Trains have smoking and non-smoking sections, and this works out fairly well. I saw a great number of German- and French-speaking travellers. There are many attractive English women. I found it bizarre to see left-hand driving. One typically has to look to the right when crossing the street. (Remember what happened to Churchill in America!) Fortunately, I picked up this habit without any problem. I jokingly wondered if, back home in Minneapolis, I would head downtown to go to work, and look to the right while crossing the street and get killed by a bus. Fortunately, this didn't happen.
It was also nice to see that practically anywhere, I had no problem using my Mastercard. Talk about universal money!
I should remark that during my stay in Britain, I saw Douglas Adams' So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the fourth book in the "Hitch-Hiker's Guide" series, prominently displayed in all the book shops. The English are justifiably proud of their literary and other heritage. They also seem to be proud of a little car called the Vauxhall, but I can't see why.
Carol and I met and went wandering around a bit, finally ending up having lunch at a McDonald's. Then I went off in search of science fiction at the specialty bookshop devoted to it, Forbidden Planet. For some reason I wound up instead at Forbidden Planet 2, which is the media-oriented shop, but I found much to look at there. It was only after this that I was able to get all of my belongings moved from Rob's flat to my hotel. Afterwards, Carol and I went pub crawling. I had decided that whilst I was in Britain that I would try some of the various house bitters, and some of these were quite good, if a little heavy. (Foster's Lager was widely available in London, in both the small and large cans, and possibly the bottles too.) I was already aware that the English like their beer served at around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and so I was prepared for this. (If I really had a craving for a chilled drink, though, there was a very simple solution -- order a Guinness Stout. It's supposed to be served that way.) We had a fine evening and I went back to my hotel.
Thursday, 23 May: This was the day of my day-trip to Wales. Early in the morning, I left my hotel (skipping the included breakfast, alas, but that's the way it is) and made my way to Paddington Station. This is the rail station that was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, of whom there is a roped-off, seated bronze statue in one of the common areas. I went to the appropriate window and had my BritRailPass stamped, thus beginning my seven days of available use for it. I then had breakfast (I remember trying my first scone) while I waited for the tour guide to show up. An old man asked me what I was looking for, and I told him. "Oh, the red one," he nodded, referring to the red jackets worn by the tour guides.
The BritainShrinkers tours are the only tours organised around (and in cooperation with) the facilities of BritRail. Thus, obviously, one is able to travel to one's destinations by rail. One also gets a cut rate for the tour if one has a valid BritRailPass. The cost of my seven-day first-class BritRailPass was roughly comparable to the first-class round-trip London-Edinburgh fare, so having the pass made a lot of sense.
The tour-guide arrived, and we boarded the train for the trip to Cardiff. The train was one of the fast ones, and made the trip in only a couple of hours. At the train station, we transferred to a bus. (This was standard for these tours.)
My first impression of Wales is that it is very green and quite different in "feel" from London -- which is as expected. Road signs are in English and Welsh. The air is pleasantly scented. I saw some Welsh bricklayers going about their jobs, and they sang as they worked. I do hope that wasn't just show for the tourists. I strongly suspect it wasn't. Our tour-guide informed us that there was to be a local Eisteddfodd in a few days, and I considered returning before my BritRailPass died. (I didn't.)
Cardiff Castle was most lovely. The architect who designed the embankments on the facing main street was said to have been an animal lover, and he demonstrated this by having a wide variety of animals portrayed in sculpture, crawling over the embankments. The castle itself was more than I could describe, so I won't try. There were many birds visible, including several peacocks (one in full display) and peahens, geese, chickens, and even a few mallards.
After our tour of the castle, we had lunch in the cellars (which is so much nicer than saying "dungeon," because that is apparently what this once had been). Lunch included leek soup (a typical Welsh dish, since leeks are a very standard food there), quiche with leeks, an excellent potato, and a roll, with some very fine tea. (The English also drink very good tea, as I discovered upon many occasions. For some reason, I simply failed to buy any to bring it back with me.) While we ate, a harpist played several tunes, including the only three I could definitely recognise as Welsh: "All Through the Night," "The Ash Tree," and "Men of Harlech."
Next, the bus took us to Llandaff Cathedral, which dates from the 1400s or so. The book shop here had C. S. Lewis' Narnia books very prominently displayed. Then we went to the Welsh Folk Museum, where the equivalent of a Mediaeval Welsh Village is kept up (sanitarily), with many authentic-looking houses. There were also a mallard drake and duck swimming around in a marsh, and a pheasant running through the brush.
After this, there was a brief stop at a shop in St. Fagan's where we were able to buy souvenirs (no self-respecting tour would ever leave out this sort of thing). I noticed that Katherine Kurtz' books were prominently displayed here. The only things I bought were some sticking-plasters (known in America by the genericised trade-name of Band-Aids) and a badge with a red dragon on it. The dragon is the symbol of Wales, rather as the lion denotes Scotland. (Or you can think of leeks and thistles, but more about thistles later, when I get to Scotland.)
Back on the train, I spotted a person whose badge bore a pennyfarthing, or old-fashioned bicycle -- a reference to the old television show, "The Prisoner." This turned out to be a science-fiction fan, Richard Edwards (no relation to VinĘ), who told me that fans would be gathering that coming Friday at The Cock. I was sorry that, by the timing of my trip, I would be missing the "One Ton," the gathering of all science-fiction fans in London on the first Thursday of each month. Oh well. Another science-fiction fan turned up on the train, but I failed to note down his last name; I believe he was David Smith. Some Welshmen noticed my dragon badge and my white braces (suspenders), which they took to be a reference to a Welsh television comic named Tommy something. Heck no, I just wore them to keep my trousers up! They asked me if I had liked their country, and I freely admitted that I do. The rest of the trip back was spent in pleasant conversation either with the Welshmen or the fans.
In the evening, I met Carol and we went as planned to the Queen's Theatre to see Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial" with Charlton Heston (as Lt. Cdr. Queeg) and Ben Cross (as Lt. Greenwald, the defense counsel). Good drama, with just enough humor here and there to set it off nicely. Heston was wonderful (I'd seen and heard him live once before, around 1969, as the narrator at the premiere in Los Angeles of Jerry Goldsmith's cantata "Christus Apollo" to a text by Ray Bradbury), and Cross was first-rate, with an excellent American accent. (This was more than one of the bit players, a sailor, could manage, and there was some laughter from the audience, which I guessed to be full of Americans.) It was particularly odd to see John Schuck (as Lt. Cdr. Challee, the prosecutor) in a dramatic role, but then, he's quite capable. (Schuck is perhaps best known for his debut role of "Painless" in Robert Altman's "MASH"; later, he starred on "Holmes and Yo Yo," the robot-cop sitcom that was plagiarised from Ellison's and Bova's "Brillo." More recently, in Summer 1986, he played Captain Hook in a Los Angeles production of "Peter Pan," and most recently, he can be seen as the Klingon Ambassador in "Star Trek IV.") The set was true to period, with a linoleum floor! I found the lighting less convincing; the rays of bright (artificial) sunlight streaming in through the window shades belied the play's setting -- in San Francisco! I mean, a bright, sunny day in San Francisco is as rare as, well, a bright, sunny day in London. But I digress.
Other observations: In the foyer of the theatre were photographs of the Queen's Theatre in times gone by, including before and after the bombing by the Germans in the last war. I suddenly felt very strange as I realised that I was now in a country, and in a city that had actually been touched by modern war. It is truly something that one must be on guard never to forget. The curtain really did say "SAFETY CURTAIN" in huge letters; and programs were not free, but sold for 50p, thus ending the tradition begun in the last century by Richard d'Oyly-Carte, no less. It was also possible to rent little opera glasses from seat-back dispensers for a 20p coin. And finally, sweets were indeed sold in the house during the intermission interval. No, they did not offer albatross. More to the point, they had no strawberries. Yes, I asked.
After the theatre, we paused to look at some interesting coins displayed at one Bureau de Change. The Royal Mint had introduced a new coin a couple of years previously, with the value of one pound. This was made to the same diameter as the gold sovereign, and since it was also supposed to be the same weight, is rather thick. The 1983 issue bore the coat-of-arms of England, 1984 Scotland, 1985 Wales, and (I was told then) 1986 Northern Ireland, Heaven help us, with appropriate mottos around the rim (in Latin for England and Scotland, in Welsh for Wales; I haven't seen the Northern Ireland coin, of course).
We then had dinner at a Greek restaurant. (Carol informed me that napkins, as the kind one uses while eating, are called "serviettes" here; "napkin" more commonly refers to diapers. It's good to know these things so one won't get hopelessly confused.) Then I went back to my hotel for the evening.
Friday, 24 May: This time I made my way out to Waterloo Station for my tour group's train to Salisbury. As I was making notes for this journal, I sat across from a young woman dressed in some sort of punk mode. I still cannot understand why some people do this to themselves. Just outside of Vauxhall, I saw two buildings connected by a skyway! There were also, on a siding, some Pullman cars visible. These looked extremely sumptuous. I briefly considered taking a short jaunt on one until I learned that the fares were really high, and that even my first class BritRailPass would not apply toward these. Oh well. Our tour group first visited Salisbury Cathedral, in my experience a truly ancient building. (On the way there by bus from the rail station, we were briefly delayed by a procession of ducks.) The old one was built in the 1200s, and the new (!) one a few centuries later! This cathedral has the tallest spire in England. It is also enormously large inside, and many people are entombed there. There was also an early copy of Magna Carta on display nearby.
Back on the bus, we took a tour through several villages, passing several thatched houses. Our tour guide pointedly remarked that this old and honourable profession was indeed the origin for the surname "Thatcher." I saw a goose and several tiny goslings along the road. Eventually, we made our way through miles of country roads to Stonehenge. What can I say about this bizarre and ancient site except that I felt finally fulfilled, awed and still a bemused as I ever have been. The site has been roped off for a few years because the constant flow of tourists has been judged to be hazardous to the stones' condition. (There has also been considerable controversy over a group of neo-Pagans who try to hold their services there at various times of the year. This year they had to be held back by armed police. That happened the day after my visit. Whew!) In fact, there has been talk of closing it off to casual tourism entirely, and funnelling the visitors to a polystyrene replica, which has been (un)popularly named "Foamhenge"! Bleah! But, for now, Stonehenge was Stonehenge. I regretted not having dressed for such chill and damp weather, though the tour guide was kind enough to lend me a bright red umbrella. I stood and gazed at the stones and pondered their mystery.
Next it was off to lunch at the Deane Gate Inn, after first passing through Steventon, Jane Austin's birthplace. The food was good, but I can't quite recall what it was. Then, on to Windsor. Approaching Windsor Castle from a distance, one could see the mausoleum with the tombs of Queen Victoria and Prince Consort Albert. There is also a statue of Queen Victoria by the side of the road. Our tour guide remarked that we were visiting on Queen Victoria's birthday (that date in 1819). (I understand that Victoria Day is still observed as a holiday through much of the Commonwealth of Nations; in Canada, for example, it is observed on the last Monday in May. Oddly, that same day is simply designated Spring Bank Holiday in England and parts of Scotland; but more of that later.)
Windsor Castle, we were told, is the largest castle in the world. The present queen grew up there, and it is said to be her favourite residence. St. George's chapel contains the tombs of many kings and queens. I particularly noted the elegant tomb of the last king, George VI, and observed that the bas-relief portrait of him did indeed resemble his portrait on some of the older (pre-1953) coins in my pocket. One of my fellow Americans, undoubtedly thinking of the Revolution, asked the tour guide the location of George III. She replied, "You're standing on him." There were more statues and paintings on display here than you would believe. The state apartments, which were then open to public view, were filled with portraits and busts, almost entirely of royalty and nobility, with only two exceptions: Handel and Churchill!! Speaking of Churchill, we saw the chamber in which the ceremony of the Garter takes place, and Churchill's crest was pointed out.
The trip back to London was by motor coach this time, rather than rail for some reason. However, it was no less comfortable nor pleasant. I saw a particularly nice stretch of the Thames along this route; yes, there were mallards swimming in it.
The rest of the evening, unfortunately, did not go all that well. The directions I had been given to The Cock turned out to be most inadequate, and I wandered around aimlessly for a couple of hours. I eventually wound up at a different pub by the same name -- it turns out there are several -- and wandered around a bit more. Now, it is a sign of a silly chance of fate that often, when I am exasperated or depressed or even just out of sorts, sometimes I will look down at the sidewalk and see a penny. I don't know whether this is fate's way of laughing at me, or else of telling me to cheer up. In any event, after I had been wandering around Oxford Street for a while, I saw a familiar coppery glint, and what do you think I saw? A penny. Not a British penny, either, but a U. S. penny! Heartened by Lincoln's profile, I went back to my hotel and read for a while. I also had a blister on my foot, so I bandaged it.
Saturday, 25 May: Carol decided to go off to Cambridge for a day, and since I would be in Scotland by the time she returned, we parted company. Meanwhile, I found a fairly convenient laundrette, which looks just the way one does in Monty Python's "Bicycle Repairman" sketch except that the people there weren't wearing Superman suits. Packing my suitcase with clean clothes, I checked out of my hotel and left the luggage over at Kings Cross Station, before heading over to Forbidden Planet (the book shop this time). It turned out that John Nathan-Turner, the producer of "Dr. Who" for the past few years, had just published a book entitled The Tardis Inside Out, and the book shop was hosting an autograph session. This was loads of fun, and JN-T appreciated all of the attention. He seemed especially delighted to be reminded of the programme's fans in America, a point brought home when I asked him to sign six copies of his book: one each for me, Ed Eastman, Ed's then-girlfriend-now-wife Beth, and three of their friends. I spent some time afterwards chatting with various young people in Dr. Who outfits, exchanging opinions of various other TV programmes. ("Dangermouse," an English animated series that is something of a cross between "Get Smart" and "Rocky and Bullwinkle," has something of a following here still.) I also met a young woman from Hastings, Minnesota, Sue Bartholomew, who was working at the London Zoo on a college-credit basis. (Oddly enough, I ran into her in Bloomington, Minnesota less than a year later. Small world.)
I spent some time wandering around various bookshops in Charing Cross Road before making my way at last to King's Cross for my trip to Edinburgh. (It was quite strange to go into a book shop and look at the magazines, and find such a different selection on the racks. Just about the only familiar titles are Time and Newsweek, which have international editions after all, and Gramophone, to which I subscribe.) I retrieved my luggage just before the Left Luggage department closed (there were no lockers here as there had been at Victoria), and waited around in a bar in the station until my sleeper compartment was ready. Having little else to do, I went to the jukebox and put on as many American songs as I could find. During "We Are the World," one rather tipsy Scotsman stood up and began to dance and sing along.
I noticed here that train spotting is very popular in Great Britain. Whenever I took a train from any of the major stations, I often saw people standing near the tracks, watching the trains. At some stations, one may buy a platform pass for 6p which entitles you to stand on the platform and watch trains. You also have this privilege if you hold a valid railway ticket or RailPass. There are many magazines devoted to this hobby, too.
Finally my berth was ready, and I boarded the 2345 train, the Night Scotsman, express sleeper service to Edinburgh, Waverly Station. I noted that the porter was Indian. My compartment was small but nice; this was First Class, after all. The engine had not yet been added, so I never did see what it was. I ordered a jigger of Scotch whiskey and retired. I slept rather well.
Sunday, 26 May: I awoke around 7:30 a.m. to tea and biscuits, and was told by the porter that "we lost engine," just 45 minutes out of Edinburgh. The train then sat in the middle of -- well, somewhere, probably Yorkshire, until another engine was sent to meet us. We actually wound up in Edinburgh around 9:00 a.m., which was okay by me. It gave me more chance to look at the scenery and listen to the first two (of four) parts of a taped dramatisation of "Dracula" that I had acquired in London.
Disembarking at Waverly Station, I did something rather silly: I hailed a taxicab and asked to be taken to the Royal British Hotel. It turned out that the hotel was right across the street. My room was not yet ready, so I left my luggage and went out in search of something Scottish. I had been told that French cuisine has had some influence there, and sure enough, back at Waverly Station, I found a crepe stand. The counterperson was a pregnant woman from North Carolina who had married a Scotsman and moved with him to Edinburgh. I also met a black woman named Dahna, from San Diego. We compared notes, and agreed to do some sightseeing together later. I bought some magazines (including some television magazines) at a newsstand, and by this time my hotel room was ready, so I checked in. My hotel, as I've already remarked, was the Royal British Hotel. The "City of Edinburgh" booklet that I had earlier borrowed from Judy Cilcain and David S. Cargo has on its cover a lovely color view of the city taken from the Royal British. I didn't have that room, but I still had a very nice one, at only £33. The television worked, the room had two beds, and the attached bathroom had a large bathtub. This gave me very hot water in very little time, and I had a pleasant bath.
I cashed some traveller's cheques at the front desk, and there was one thing I found slightly bizarre: In England, the paper money consists of banknotes issued by the Bank of England. In Scotland, there are no fewer than three Scottish banks empowered to issue banknotes: the Bank of Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and the Clydesdale Bank. These notes all circulate alongside of Bank of England notes. A tour book had suggested that one might have trouble using these in England; the hotel clerk assured me that there would be no trouble. The hotel clerk was right.
I met Dahna, as arranged, on Princes Street, and we walked around for a bit before finally deciding to visit the Royal Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. This had a fair amount of bizarre modern art, but was worth it for amusement value at least. Dahna then wanted to walk up to the Castle, but I begged off on account of my foot blister, and we parted company. (That's one of the advantages about travelling alone.)
Since I only had a couple of days in Edinburgh, and would not have the opportunity for as much leisurely wandering around as I had in London, I took a guided coach tour of the city and the surrounding area. The driver began by pointing out the Robert Burns Monument. This is so tall you couldn't miss it anyway, as it dominates the city. (It certainly says something about Scotland that their largest civilian monument -- perhaps their largest monument to any individual, I'm not certain -- is to a writer, rather than a general, admiral, or politician.) There were also monuments to Livingtone, James Watt, and many others. The driver also pointed out the birthplace and primary school of Robert Louis Stevenson, and the street where Alexander Graham Bell was born. There is also a statue of Greyfriars' Bobby, a famous little Scottish terrier. There was also an unfinished Parthenon-like building, confirming Edinburgh's nickname of "The Athens of the North." I also got to see the Firth of Forth (near Fife) and many other sights. Dinner found me at Pizzaland.
Impressions of Edinburgh: It was certainly a nice change from the Zoo that is London. The Scots move at a slower, more relaxed pace, but then, perhaps this was because it was a Sunday. Monday, 27 May, was not a holiday here, as it was in England; apparently, the different Scottish counties pick and choose when they will observe their holidays. It happened that Lothian County had already taken Spring Bank Holiday on the 20th, so the following Monday would be business as usual. Thus I probably avoided a bigger crush of tourists than I might otherwise have found. At least there were fewer tourists here than in London. They seemed to be mostly American and English, but I heard some German being spoken as well. I enjoyed watching the locals whilst they walked around, quietly being Scottish. There were far fewer punks than in London. Many women here were as attractive as their English counterparts. I saw only a few Scotsmen walking around in the city in full Highland dress, but there were many Scotsmen and -women wearing tartan ties, vests, sweaters, and skirts, and some with tartan rucksacks! Lots of people were out walking their dogs, and I saw several Scotch terriers. (Lots of people in London had been walking dogs, too.)
Some of the Scots I met spoke with a thick burr, making it difficult for me to understand them. Their attitude was generally friendly, though not as outwardly so as Londoners. My theory for this is that in London, one is constantly thrust into close contact with others, and so must be friendly there. This is not to say that the Scots are cold; they are friendly when you actually deal with them, and they simply aren't as effusively outgoing as Londoners. In book shops, I found that works by Scottish authors were very prominently displayed. I gather that the Scots are rightly proud of their heritage.
Whilst toy-shopping in Edinburgh, I saw a display that I wouldn't have seen back home: two dozen Cabbage Patch Kids, sitting around unsold. I always knew the Scots were sensible.
Edinburgh had a new shopping centre, Waverly Place. This was in fact so new that it had not yet been officially dedicated (by the queen!). It is a typically American inverted shopping mall, with lifts and escalators serving three or four shopping levels, and some tacky American-style shops, though there were two good book shops. The fast-food level included one concern called "Yankee Doodle Burgers," (I wonder what they'd think of the American motel chain, "The Thrifty Scot"?) and another which served haggis! No, I did not try either of these.
It was interesting to see how the Scottish national symbols, the lion and the thistle, dominate the local symbology. The logo of The Scotsman, for example, is a thistle. And I did buy a badge with a lion on it.
Tempted by the name, I ventured forth to a pub called the Conan Doyle (another great Scottish writer, of course!), and put down a half-pint of the house bitter. Back at my hotel, I watched a TV programme on the Tanglewood Music Festival (in Massachusetts), of all things.
A brief explanation of British TV is in order: BBC has two channels, 1 (the main one) and 2 (the oddball one); ITV, the first commercial television station in Britain, is Channel 3 and there is a Channel 4 simply called Channel 4. In the provinces -- which is to say, outside of London -- some stations are not simply repeaters. So, the BBC-1 that I saw in Edinburgh was BBC Scotland, with much the same programming, but many more local-interest things, including the weather. ITV similarly becomes STV, or Scottish TV. (Part of the reason I bought the television magazines that I did was to give them to Dan Goodman, who is interested in such things.)
I listened to the rest of the "Dracula" tapes, and went to sleep. (This must prove that I'm cold-blooded. Or something.)
Monday, 27 May: I found a copy of a very good newspaper, The Scotsman, outside of my room door. After bathing and repacking, I took a very good breakfast in the dining room whilst I read this paper, and was mildly surprised to see in it a letter from the noted musicologist and Berlioz-scholar, Professor David Cairns. I hadn't known he was an Aberdonian! I felt like another bus tour, so this time it was the "Grand Tour of Edinburgh." There was some overlap with the other tour (and also some of the same bad jokes in the spiel), but this time there was much more driving around in the surrounding countryside.
First we saw St. Giles' Cathedral, which has been Presbyterian since the 1600s or so. Here also was the chapel associated with the Order of the Thistle, the highest honours for a Scot. The tour guide pointed out where the queen sits during the ceremonies, and she remarked that technically it was not permitted for anyone else to sit there. In practice, though, she couldn't stop anyone who wanted to try it, and she left the room. In case you are curious, no, I didn't. On our tour, I noticed an attractive young Spanish woman with extremely beautiful eyes.
Edinburgh Castle was the main portion of this tour, and is just the place to find a remarkable display of military memorabilia: uniforms beyond number, remembrance books of Scottish servicemen who fell during the World Wars, and the Scottish Honours. These last are the Crown Jewels of Scotland, and are said to be far older than those of England, since these were successfully hidden from Cromwell. The gift shop was most welcomely non-tacky. The castle also had a dry moat, and many portcullises. The Guard were soldiers from the Black Watch, and were just as smart and military as the Household Guard at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle.
The next stop was Holyrood House, Queen Elizabeth II's official residence while in Scotland (what happened to Balmoral?), but it was closed to tourists because of preparations for something called a Grand Assembly. I was a little disappointed that I was not able to see the inside, considering how interesting Windsor Castle had been, but that's the way it is.
Afterwards, there was much more driving around the neighbouring area. We went up to the top of a hill, and I saw a lake there! (Since I've lived both in San Francisco, which is hilly, and Minneapolis, which has lots of lakes, this seemed a particularly interesting combination.) There were mallards swimming in it, of course. After the tour, I walked back to George IV Bridge Street for some serious shopping. I found one record (a recital by the Italian tenor Aureliano Pertile, on the Rubini label) that I had been looking for all across the U.S. for more than five years! I visited various book shops, and saw many interesting sights on foot. At one department store (John Menzies), I finally found some Dangermouse books and Vu-Master slides.
Finally, I had dinner at Desperate Dan's, an excellent hole-in-the-wall steak restaurant which had apparently made a half-hearted attempt at a "Western U.S." atmosphere, judging from the name of the place and such menus references to some place called "Cactusville," wherever that may be. I had an excellent lamb kabob, and lentil soup. They didn't mind my sitting here for a few hours, which I spent reading, and finally getting caught up writing a few pages of notes for this journal. They were certainly in no rush for me to pay, which I did around 10:30 p.m., by which time I had been here for three hours and was just about the only customer left! Then it was back to Waverly Station to catch the 2335 train, the Night Scotsman, express sleeper service to London Kings Cross. This time, the porter was Scottish. I forgot to look at the engine. Once again, I had a jigger of whisky before retiring.
How convenient the sleeper train is -- I can bed down in one city and (ideally) wake in another. And since the sleeper supplement -- that is, what one pays in addition to the fare (already taken care of by my BritRailPass) -- was only £15, it was practically like having a hotel room for that price. This way, to give specific example, I was able to spend practically two full days in Edinburgh, relaxing from the hurly-burly of London. Conclusion: When British Rail works, it works quite well. Nowadays there is no major nation with a rail system where that rail system does not have government subsidies. Ronnie will probably let Amtrak die the death, but Britain will always have BritRail, one may hope.
Tuesday, 28 May: The train arrived at Kings Cross on time. Once more I utilised the services available at Victoria, and soon had a room at the Stuart Hotel in South Kensington for £19.50, with toilet facilities and a shower in the room. My room was not to be ready for a little while, so I hopped on a randomly-chosen bus, and found that it went past the Victoria and Albert Museum and Speaker's Corner at Hyde Park. I found two copies of New Musical Express for some friends back in Minneapolis; this was a special issue with an enclosed record, and had sold out very quickly, except at one druggist on Baker Street. Baker Street itself has been renumbered since the last century, and there's still no 221-B. In fact, there isn't even a plaque from the London Council. I had heard that there was a Sherlock Holmes Museum, but try as I did, I could not find it. I did see one tribute, though. At the Baker Street Underground Station, one section is tiled over with little Sherlock Holmes profiles!
Back at the Stuart Hotel, the desk clerk did not understand why I was so amused to find the hotel was next to Cromwell Road. Since I had enjoyed my motor coach tours in Scotland, I broke down and finally took a tour of London, where I saw London Bridge (the new one; I was present at the dedication of the old one after it was moved to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, around 1972), the Bank of England, Westminster Hall (the Houses of Parliament), and enough statues to choke a foundry. Unfortunately, the tour guide had a very thick German accent, and four children were screaming as loudly as they could, so I wasn't able to make out much of the commentary, and often when I could, the tour guide had her information wrong! Fortunately, they forgot to charge me, and I wasn't eager to point this out to them, though I did tip the driver a quid, as I did on all of my tours. I went back to my hotel, did my laundry, and went forth for some unguided tourism. In fact, whilst riding the tube and writing notes for this journal, I wound up seated opposite a cute, freckled trumpet player, and made note of this, only to find that she could read my scribblings, upside-down yet. How embarrassing!
I decided it was time to take a closer look at the government offices, so I got out at Westminster tube station. As I left the station, the first thing I saw was a close-up view of Big Ben -- wow! It had scaffolding all over it, which ruined the effect a bit. I took a longer look at the statues around Westminster Hall; there's even one of Abraham Lincoln! (Now, that has to be more unusual than, say, finding the statue of Lincoln in San Juan, Puerto Rico.) There is also a fascinating statue of Churchill, in his feisty mode, of course. There are constables around Westminster Hall whose job it is to keep people out. Downing Street is likewise closed off, but a constable told me where I could stand for the best view, and pointed out No. 10.
I still felt somewhat daring, so I once again hopped a random bus, just to see where it would take me. I like doing this when I've been in a new city for a few days; by that time I've learned enough that I'll be able to find my way back fairly easily. Then it was back to my hotel, as it had been getting chilly after a surprisingly warm day. How do the Londoners know how to dress for the day's weather? (Maybe they've just gotten very good at faking it.) I must try to get the hang of it sometime, if I can.
Wednesday, 29 May: It was a beautiful, warm, sunny morning. And this was London!? I decided it was the perfect day to go back to Buckingham Palace to watch the Changing of the Guard. This time I got there earlier and had a much better view, so that I was able to see the old guard and the new guard do their maneuvers. The band was rather late, and one horn and one bassoon wandered in and out a couple of times. Finally, the band did arrive, to Sousa's "Washington Post March" (!), and used "Non piu andrai" (from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro) for the guards' slow march. The band carried on with the Figaro Overture, and then a Stephen Foster medley, followed by something Viennese that I couldn't quite identify -- Johann Strauss the younger, or Lehar? The pressure of the crowd shoved me up against two American teenaged girls. Ducks flew overhead, quacking as before.
Afterwards, I went to one of the game arcades I had discovered, and spent some time there, winning money from one machine and losing it at another, until I decided to quit. The machines are of various types: there is one variety where one drops in a 10p coin, hoping that it will fall or slide down a series of platforms and ultimately cause some 10p coins to fall down the chute. These are extremely tricky, and if you find one that's "ripe," you can (perhaps) clean up for a while. Most treacherous was "Supersircles" [sic], where you would drop in a 10p coin through a slot and onto a table decorated with circles; if the coin landed completely within one of the circles, you won 50p or £1 (depending on what the circle said; they alternated in a checkerboard pattern). Winning on this machine is based on pure luck, of course, but there were times when my luck was with me. Then there are the "fruit machines," which are rather like slot machines without handles. These are more interesting than their Las Vegas counterparts in that you sometimes win the privilege of holding one or more of the windows so you can spin the others again, or (even more useful) the option to "nudge" some of the windows up. These are unfortunately very addictive, and it is possible to go through several quid before you know it.
On the whole, while I was in Britain, I drank and gambled far more than I normally do, which is next to not at all. I'd be tempted to be a bit disappointed in myself, but then, I have to realise that I was, after all, on vacation, and this was a time to go out and do something different. From now on, I must curb my fascination with fruit machines. I am making a mental note not to be too eager to visit Las Vegas or Atlantic City.
Chemists are an institution in England, as they sell a wide variety of goods. Some of them are quite different from American products. For example, there are foot products here sold under the name "Scholl," not "Dr. Scholl" as in the U.S. (I wonder if he was struck from the medical rolls?) Pocket packages of Kleenex and other tissues don't just unfold into rectangles of tissue paper, as they do in the U.S., but into little paper handkerchiefs, with embossed borders! I was quickly spoiled by these, and still wish that I'd bought some to take back with me.
Most chemists also had dozens of varieties of sweets. One oddity: The candy-bar sold in the U.S. as Snickers is sold in Britain as Marathon; it is the same candy, and even the same package design, down to the lettering style in the name. Prices of sweets tended to run 20-22p. I saw some Jelly Babies in a sweets shop near Queensway tube station, and knew that I had to buy some of these to take back with me. For some years, the title character of the "Dr. Who" TV series used to eat and give out these sweets, and they have something of a cult following in the U.S.
I visited another shop of Music Discount Centre, and then went back to an arcade, where I took an initial investment of one pound, doubled it, and left. I thought I was starting to get the hang of these places by now.
Then I went back to another Music Discount Centre (there are three of them in all), and finally to Harold Moores, where I finished my shopping there. Harold Moores' basement is full of used records, with some rare and unusual items among them. Evening saw me dropping another ten quid at an arcade. I didn't feel particularly proud of myself at this point. But then, it was a fairly cheap evening's entertainment.
At a book shop I saw by chance the first issue of Words, the New Literary Forum. As the issue contained a fairly interesting article on the English poet and composer Ivor Gurney, I bought a copy on behalf of a Minneapolis musicologist, Jill Robinson, who is an Ivor Gurney specialist, imagining that she would be quite pleased. (She was. I had also promised to look for the sheet music to some Gurney song cycles that Jill had not been able to find in the States, but was unsuccessful.)
When I got back to my hotel, I found people gathered around the television in the lobby, and the news reader announcing that the Prime Minister was asking people to stay calm. I was somewhat relieved to find that World War III had not started, but still, there had been a tragedy at a soccer stadium in Brussels, and the culprits were apparently a group of Liverpudlians. (At various times during my stay, I had been slightly tempted by the many advertised low rail/ferry fares to Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels. I realised now that it was a good thing I didn't go to that last-named city, because of the stadium disaster there. It would not have been a nice thing to wander around that city and speak English and be held responsible for that disaster.) I read for a while, and finally conked out.
Thursday, 30 May: This was the big day of my visit to Chandos Records, Ltd. At the time I made my trip, I was a regular record critic for two magazines, American Record Guide (LPs and CDs) and Digital Audio (CDs only), and the first-rate productions of this little English company seemed worthy of some research and an interview-article, probably for Digital Audio. (I had also wanted to include another label, Nimbus, but they did not agree to an interview, whereas Chandos had done so most readily. In any event, skipping ahead of things quite a bit, Digital Audio later stopped paying its writers for a while and we parted company acrimoniously. American Record Guide, on the other hand, has since changed editors, and we don't see eye to eye. At the time of my trip, though, the visit to Chandos' offices was a going concern.)
Chandos' offices were in Islington, a Northern suburb of London, and just outside the area served by the Underground. In order to get there I had to take the Underground to Moorgate and change to British Rail, but fortunately this sort of trip was considered to be included in the pass I had for the Underground. I got a bit lost for a while, but since I had left plenty of time for my trip, I had no trouble getting to my destination once I had found the way. The first sight which greeted me when I emerged from Essex Road Station was a sign on a flat reading, "FOR SALE Hotblack/Desiato & Co., Islington." Fits of hysterical laughter, even worse than when I found out that "Ford Prefect" was a very popular model of automobile. (For those of you who haven't followed the zany radio, book, gramophone, television, and computer game versions of Douglas Adams' "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy," these are characters in that work, Ford Prefect appearing in all versions and Hotblack Desiato, lead singer for the heavy metal band Disaster Area, appearing in only the gramophone and television versions. Douglas Adams resides in Islington.)
I reached Chandos, which is on a quiet little residential street, and interviewed Mr. Ralph Couzens, one of the greatest recording engineers now living, and Peter Battershill, the marketing director. They were only too pleased to answer all of my questions into a cassette recorder I had borrowed from Ed Eastman for that purpose. The Chandos folk let me sample some of their CDs, playing them on a Sony D-50 player. (This is the European equivalent of what in the U.S. sells as the D-5. At the time, these were the smallest CD players made.) Not only did I get to play with this machine, but I got to do so in the office of Brian Couzens, President and founder of Chandos (and Ralph's father). Afterwards, I was able to arrange a courtesy promotional price for their CDs. Their product is among the very best in the world, and I'm sorry I've not been reviewing lately.
I figured out why I had been sneezing and blowing my nose so much. London is an incredibly sooty city; also, as Ralph Couzens told me, it was hay fever time, and since I am particularly susceptible to strange pollen I was feeling none the better for it. I found myself glad that I had already gotten through the worst of my annual hay fever attack in Minneapolis before I left.
I decided to take a slightly different route back into the City, and so took the train from Essex Road up to Highbury & Islington, thence the Victoria Line south to Victoria Station. On the Victoria Line train, I saw a cute young woman, and decided to sit down across from her. When she saw me looking at one of the CDs I had just gotten, her face lit up (a sight to behold). I grinned back and flashed the shiny side of the disc back at her, and we struck up a conversation. This young woman, named Amanda Broome, turned out to be a musician, and was about to sing at a choral concert in London that evening. I decided this would be the perfect way to spend an evening. We somehow located the church (St. John's, Smith Square) in the Westminster area for her rehearsal and the concert, and I went back to my hotel. There was a Colonel Sanders' Kentucky Fried Chicken near my hotel, so I had wound up eating there frequently. The chicken is very much the same as what one gets in the States. The interesting difference is that the sauce for the Kentucky Nuggets comes in three varieties: Ketchup, barbecue, and mild curry. This last was very good! I ate dinner, then took the tube back to Westminster for the concert.
The concert was quite nice. The chorus was the Holst Singers, conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton, a man who is also the Director of Music at St. Paul's Girls' school, and is thus the successor to Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and others. The program consisted of Giovanni Gabrieli's Sonata pian e forte, played by two brass choirs, and then three choral numbers: J.S. Bach's Motet "Lobet den Herrn" (a cappella), Stravinsky's Mass (with winds) and Anton Bruckner's Mass in e minor (also with winds). Before the concert, a little old man (who oddly resembled Bruckner) had told me that the Philharmonia Orchestra was going to be playing the Bruckner Symphony #7 under Giuseppe Sinopoli the following evening; so I decided to go.
The Holst Singers turned out to be one of those wonderfully tuned and focussed English choirs, a credit to the Anglican singing tradition. Davan Wetton is a solid conductor, and his career should bear watching. I met Mandy's parents, who are from Devon, and we chatted about a wide variety of things. During this conversation, Mandy's mother told me that a certain extremely well-known American conductor, whose name any of you would instantly recognise, does not advance the careers of young conductors unless they oblige him in certain fashions. I had heard stories to this effect (and also in reference to heavy cocaine use) many times in the States, but it was distressing to hear them here as well. Fortunately, that was not the only topic of conversation. Eventually I saw Mandy's parents off at Victoria Station, and I went back to my hotel to retire for the evening.
Friday, 31 May: In the morning, I rang Judith Hanna and Joseph Nicholas, two more science-fiction fans I knew from their letters and publications, to make arrangements to meet tomorrow for dinner. I then finally managed to reconfirm my return flight, and found that while there was no change to my flight, the same carrier's flight for the following day had been cancelled and combined with ours. It was only now that I realised some of the disadvantages of travelling by charter.
I decided I should try to finish off my record buying today (so that, for convenience' sake, I could consider all my purchases to have been made in May; I keep a ledger of all of my purchases since 1977), and also to get some items Bob Epstein had asked me to pick up for him. (Bob had been kind enough to get me some Bruno Walter CDs when he was in Japan the previous year, and I was all too happy to return the favour.) For myself, I did manage to find Vol. 2 of the Josef Lhevinne piano rolls, and the English edition of "Tom Lehrer Revisited," which was near the top of my comedy record want list.
I then visited Hamley's, which calls itself the largest toy shop in the world. It very likely is; their slogan is "Six floors of fun." I came here to see if I could find any more Dangermouse memorabilia, but unfortunately I didn't. It should be noted that the entire third floor is given over to stuffed toys. The first thing I saw as I came up the escalator was a life-sized, stuffed toy camel, only £300.
In the evening I went to Royal Festival Hall for the Philharmonia Orchestra concert. Royal Festival Hall is an attractive not-too-modern edifice on the South side of the Thames, in an area built up for the Festival of Britain in 1951. The whole building has a festive air, and contains bars, buffets, a restaurant, a record shop and a very fine music book shop. As I stood in line for my ten-pound ticket, I noticed that the rest of the program would be the Beethoven Piano Concerto #2, with Martha Argerich. This really excited me, as I not only admire Argerich as a pianist but find her quite a beautiful woman, extremely sensual in appearance, with a purity in her face that reminds me of my former girlfriend, Louie Spooner Trainor (or vice versa). When Argerich made her entrance, I observed that she is just as attractive as in her photographs, though I was not prepared to see that she was only five feet tall, in high heels yet. Sinopoli looked different from his publicity stills, as he had had his mop of hair greatly shortened, and had trimmed his beard considerably.
The performances were most enjoyable. The Beethoven got a luscious performance, if a bit langourous at times and occasionally over-pedaled. The Bruckner was quite well played (apart from a brass bobble at the start of the slow movement), but I didn't find it as cohesive as some of the best Bruckner performances I've heard. I hope and assume that Sinopoli has been doing better in his recent Mahler performances and recordings.
After the concert, I noticed a very strong difference from the way things happen in the U.S. In the States, after a concert, people leave in a hurry and run home right away, while the house closes up right behind them. Here, the Festival Hall stayed open, and people went back to the bars, restaurant, and shops; social hour all over again! I spent some time in the book shop, and ultimately purchased a copy of John Hunt's excellent new book on Furtwaengler, which includes a discography. I also saw a display of batons which had been used by conductors who had performed at the Festival Hall: Toscanini, Solti, Bernstein, Dorati, Boult, etc., etc. -- and Edward Heath.
Afterwards, I walked over the bridge to the Embankment Tube Station. As I did so, a boat sped under me! At the station, a mildly amusing, but also slightly annoying thing occurred. Now, I generally don't like to look like a tourist. Whenever I travel, I try to "fit in" as much as possible. When I visit New York, for example, people have been known to take me for a native. (This isn't so far off, since my mother was born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx.) I decided before I went to Britain that I should limit my efforts to fitting in visually, since I certainly was not going to try to affect an appropriate dialect. I therefore enjoyed a sort of "game" where people (always American tourists) would ask me for directions, and I would surprise them when I opened my mouth (but helping them if at all possible, of course). Thus it was that a couple did this, and I got a very surprised reaction from them, the best I ever got, in fact. But then, it turned out that they were from Utah, and they were surprised that I was travelling by myself, and that I was not married, etc. ad nauseam. Letting this implied criticism roll off my back, I went back to my hotel and to sleep, in that order.
Saturday, 1 June: So much time, so little to do! Wait. Strike that. Reverse that. I had put off one of the more typically tourist attractions for too long, so this day I went to Madame Tussaud's. It was jammed beyond belief, especially with babbling Germans, and I sorely wished I had gone earlier in the week. Then again, it might always be like that, but that's just rationalisation. There were many amusing exhibits. There is a panoramic display you can walk through of the Battle of Trafalgar, complete with the dying Nelson about HMS Victory. The Conservatory is full of various people of varying renown; Liza Minnelli goggles her eyes at you, and Andre Previn, thick spectacles and all, leans smiling over a railing. Elsewhere there are more models of royalty and world leaders than can be imagined; I particularly enjoyed looking at the representations of Kings Edward VIII and George VI, and Lord Louis Mountbatten. President Ronald Reagan even donated the tie that adorns his waxwork. (I for one feel that he should have been portrayed in Western garb, as the guest of honour at a "necktie party," but then nobody ever listens to me.) There is a large display devoted to the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and Mrs. Thatcher beams her henlike grin from nearby, with Mr. Kinnock (the leader of the Labour party) somewhat farther off. Here is what I found really amusing: Mr. Steel and Dr. Owen, the leaders of the Liberals and the Social Democrats, two smaller parties which have formed an alliance, are also on hand, smirking at one another. I had read reports that they might hold the balance in the next General Election, so perhaps they had good reason to smirk.
Downstairs, for those not weak of heart, is the Chamber of Horrors. Yes, it is true that Hitler greets you at the entrance. Numerous torture and execution devices adorn the wall, and there are endless displays devoted to various murderers. Charles Manson and his "family" are there at the end to see you out. I was glad to escape, and into the common area once again. At the very end of the exhibits, near the souvenir shop, there is the smiling model of Tom Baker as the fourth Dr. Who; this waxwork was used for a BBC-TV publicity photograph when Baker refused to show up for a photo session.
Feeling the need for greater intellectual stimulation, I went to the British Museum. I was most disappointed to find that the coins and stamps were not currently on display. I did get to see a number of manuscripts and a wide variety of letters, including some from Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Mary, Queen of Scots (in broken English; she was far more fluent in French!); there was Nelson's last letter to Lady Emma Hamilton, and Lenin's application for a reader's permit (under a pseudonym). I also saw a Gutenberg Bible, and two early copies of Magna Carta. The music displays were even more interesting: These tired old eyes gazed on the original manuscripts of Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Haydn's Symphony #103 ("Drum Roll"), Handel's Water Music, Brahms' Rhapsody in E-flat, Schumann's Piano Sonata in f minor, Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, the Polka from Walton's "Facade," and other manuscripts, sketches, letters, and reductions by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, J.S. Bach, Vaughan Williams, Holst, and others.
There was still more to come. I saw, and touched, the Rosetta Stone. I saw a Shakespeare signature. There was also a very interesting display of old maps and globes. One 1968 map of the U.S. showed Minnesota without Minneapolis, but with St. Paul, St. Cloud and "Shakope" (sic; the correct spelling is Shakopee).
Lest I feel museumed-out, I broke up the day by visiting a record shop I had forgotten about, Caruso's, which apparently is run by the people who owned Direction Dean Street before that store was sold to Music Discount Centre. I couldn't resist a couple of items here, including a disc with Toscanini conducting Kalinnikov's Symphony #1 and the "Internationale." I had a very good pizza at Pizzaland (in their non-smoking section!), and finished off the shopping for the day by picking up scarves for my mother and for Paula Clark, my supervisor at Target HQ.
Now it was museum time again. When I was making my plans, Dan Goodman had suggested I take in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and now I did so. I was a bit disappointed that some of the artworks I could have wanted to see were not available for display, as portions of the museum were being restored. However, there was a remarkable collection of musical instruments, and I spent a couple of hours in that room scrutinizing every instrument, including a cut-glass flute, a tenoroon, a serpent, a gigantic double-bass which had once belonged to the great Italian bassist Dragonetti (this was mounted on the wall), and a lovely white oboe which is believed to have belonged to Rossini.
In the evening, I went over to Pimlico to meet Joseph Nicholas and Judith Hanna, as previously arranged. We had originally planned to go to dinner at an Indian restaurant, but Rob Hansen had invited us, and a couple of other people (Greg Pickersgill and Pam Wells) round to his place to meet his fiancee, Avedon Carol, who had just come over from the U.S. to move in with Rob. This was a delightful evening with much fannish silliness, proving to me once again that science-fiction fans are just about my favourite people. There was a huge greeting card which had been drawn up for Avedon by lots of her friends at Disclave, a convention in Washington DC; she and I were the only ones there to understand the Rocky and Bullwinkle references. There was also some heavy character assassination, chiefly directed at various people for backing Martha Beck in the Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund. (I'm glad to say I was blameless throughout; I very visibly supported Rich Coad all along.) Avedon, like me, was filling up on Old Coke; she didn't know anyone in the States who liked the new formula. (This was before Coca-Cola announced that they would be bringing back the earlier formula as Coke Classic, so we were acting under the impression that our preferred version was in the process of going away forever.) Since I had lately been to Madame Tussaud's, I mentioned to Rob that Terry Wogan was in the Conservatory; Joseph said, "What, not the Chamber of Horrors?" All in all, a nice evening.
Sunday, 2 June: Well, this would be my last full day in the British Isles on this visit, and I was determined to have a good time and still be able to relax somewhat. By this time I was of two minds: Of course, I was dying to get back home to hot showers and my friends and hot showers and my stereo system (so that I could play all the LPs and CDs I had bought), and yet I wished I could stay. Of course, if I stayed I'd need more money, and I was down to £31 by this time. Fortunately, I had paid up at my hotel, and I already had my rail ticket to Gatwick (naturally, I already had my return ticket to the U.S. before I left). But this day would be a slow day, since it was a Sunday and most shops would be closed; but then, that was just what I needed, after all.
In the morning, I transported myself to the London Transport Museum, which had many trains, trams, busses, and even horse-drawn coaches on display. There were many exhibits with explanations and demonstrations of track-switching. The principal special exhibit was "London Transport at War," dealing with LT's roles in the World Wars. There were posters of the sort which were posted in the Underground during the Blitz, biographies of famous London Transport workers who had done their part, and even a photograph of a London bus which was sent to Belgium in 1914-18, shown surrounded by the German soldiers who had captured it. At the souvenir stand, I bought a t-shirt with a map of the Underground, and a little rectangular badge which says "Conductor."
I took some time to wander around the Covent Garden area, looking at the outside of the Royal Opera House. There was a flea market going on in the area. There was a Punch & Judy show being given, in which Mrs. Thatcher was mentioned derogatorily, with a perfunctory disclaimer afterwards. The flea market had many hand-made goods of very wide variety, not at all like the identical necklaces one finds along Berkeley's Telegraph Road, or the clowns-on-velvet on Minneapolis' Lake Street. One booth even had hand-made boomerangs! I then strolled up and around The Strand, visited an arcade (breaking even this time), and had pizza for lunch.
I went to the National Portrait Gallery and took in practically everything there, including a very fine selection of portraits of British musicians (including a wonderful painting of Ralph Vaughan Williams of which I've long been fond). I also bought lots of NPG postcards, and was able to buy stamps to post them that very day because the GPO was open (on a Sunday, remember!). Trafalgar Square was teeming with hundreds of people; it was sunny, as it had been for the past few days, and the temperature even reached a high of 25 Celsius! I bought the Jelly Babies for Beth, and had to search a bit to find a chilled Coke; even during warm weather, Britons like their drinks close to room temperature. With beer, I can understand it; but Coke is something different. Ah, well. Then it was back to my hotel to rest up a bit.
Afternoon arrived, and I paid a visit to Speaker's Corner. This is a corner of Hyde Park where on Sundays, by tradition (and you know how the English are on tradition) anyone who wishes may stand on a crate and hold forth on any subject whatsoever. There were some political radicals (one Socialist who was avowedly anti-Communist, or at least opposed to the Communist regimes as presently constituted), anti-apartheid speakers, a supporter of Arafat (he drew the largest crowd for a while), a couple of preachers, an old man and an obnoxious youth who sparred verbally for a while, and a 14-year-old girl from South Boston (or so I would guess) who seemed to have thought that it was Nixon who got us into VietNam. I successfully resisted the temptation to climb on a crate and discourse on performance practice in the Berlioz Requiem.
After a couple of hours at Speaker's Corner, I went back to South Kensington for dinner. A grocery here had some blancmange, and I bought some at last! Blancmange is a sort of set milk pudding, and is probably known to Americans through the "Monty Python" episode entitled "You're No Fun Any More," which contains the famous "Science Fiction Sketch." This is the one about the giant blancmanges from the planet Skyron who come to England and turn everyone there into Scotsmen so that they (the giant blancmanges) can win Wimbledon. I had first had blancmange prepared for me by Nancy Read back in 1978, and I had been wanting to get some more ever since. The three boxes of five packets each have been holding out very well, and I still have most of it left. I also had what I believed at the time might be my last can of real Coke. I did some preliminary receipt-sorting and packing, and then slept very soundly indeed through the night.
Monday, 3 June: After breakfast, I finished packing, and checked out of my hotel. I took the tube to Victoria Station, and found a tremendous jam of people. As I said to a fellow American tourist, "I didn't have to visit the London Zoo; it came to me!" From Victoria I took the express train First Class back to Gatwick Airport. Just outside Selhurst, I saw a bunch of kids playing cricket. Does that seem familiar? I shared a compartment with a Maltese diplomat and his family. The train stopped a couple of times in the middle of nowhere, presumably to make sure the points were clear. There had been a bad accident a few days before when the Gatwick Express had collided with a regular train. We arrived at Gatwick ten minutes late, and I felt a little like Reginald Perrin.
Gatwick Airport was crowded beyond belief. It was a bit of an ordeal waiting so long in the queue, but soon an airport representative came by asking people their destinations, and those of us going to the Midwest got put in a far shorter queue.
I planned all along to apply for a refund of the Value Added Tax which is levied on most goods sold in the U.K. This involved getting forms filled out by the merchants covering goods that were to be exported, and most of them wouldn't do this unless the purchase was substantial. Fortunately, I had made enough large record purchases that I would get something back, eventually. Since some of my VAT-exempt material was packed, I was helped through British Customs by a porter. By 12:01 p.m., I was all through being checked in and through, and I had a couple of hours to kill before my flight left. There was a non-smoking lounge in the waiting room at Gatwick; how very civilised!
As I mentioned earlier, my flight had been combined with another flight that had been moved up from the following day. For some reason, we had to travel not on a spacious 747, nor even on a DC-10, but on a DC-8, which has to have been the most wretchedly cramped (not to mention long and skinny) aircraft I've been on since the heyday of the 707, or prop planes in general. The cabin was also unbearably hot at first. When the Captain announced that the in-flight movie would be "The Natural," many passengers groaned, "But we saw that one on the flight out!" (Haven't some of these people ever heard of reading?) The Captain therefore changed the film to "The Woman in Red," but I still didn't want to shell out $3 for wretched headsets.
The flight wasn't all bad. The meal (lunch or dinner) was quite good, the best I've had since I flew from Vancouver to Oakland on CPAir in 1977. But then, the flight wound up being very tiring, especially since we weren't able to move around very much. The landing at Chicago's O'Hare Airport was the bumpiest I have ever experienced, and some passengers speculated that they were changing pilots because the previous one had been drunk. Only the Chicago-bound passengers were allowed to get off here, since those of us flying to Minneapolis would be going through Customs there. Sigh. After an incident-free flight, we finally got back to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Terminal around 7:10 p.m., CDT. There was a long wait for luggage, but I've had worse.
Since I had taken the time to draw up an inventory of my purchases, I had no problem getting through customs, though I had to explain to the agent about the Jelly Babies and the blancmange mix. They didn't even want me to open my luggage. The agent particularly wanted to know many books I bought; books are normally exempt from duty, and it happened at the time that so were records, temporarily, due to a direct Presidential order. So Ronald Reagan did something to my advantage for once, and saved me something like $15!
Once past Customs, I was greeted by Ed and Beth, in Hawaiian shirts, welcoming me back to "tropical Minnesota." Yeah, sure, you betcha. I soon ascertained that my apartment was still there, and that there had been no illnesses or deaths in my circle while I was gone (always a relief). Back home, I unpacked a bit, and gave Ed and Beth the John Nathan-Turner books and the Jelly Babies, which they appreciated. My answering machine contained a lot of messages, mostly from a waitress I'd made plans to go out with who apparently hadn't believed me when I had told her I was going to Britain for a couple of weeks. Alice Ableman, bless her heart, had indeed taped the PBS documentary on L. Frank Baum. In other words, all was well. Home at last!
Copyright © 1987, 2000 by Matthew B. Tepper
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