This is a report I wrote for my parents in 1969 after my first trip to London. It has surfaced following the death of my mother in 2000. I find it interesting, in 2001, to look back on how much London (where I have not been since the late '70s) and I have changed.
Everyone's vacation is unique -- to them, at least -- and sometimes the way it starts can set the tone for all that follows. I guess I should have been warned when my friend Janet [then Hill, now Amato] locked herself in a stall in the ladies' room at the Provident National Bank, that this was going to be no easy vacation. The stall in question was on the 10th floor and the locking-in may or may not be put down to nervousness on the part of our Janet in anticipation of her first airplane ride (I suspect 10 storeys was as high as she cared to go). At any rate, you will agree that this is no way to spend one's vacation and so doing a rather shaky limbo under the door of the aforementioned stall, she quickly surmounted that obstacle -- ah, Yankee ingenuity!
Our second pre-vacation problem was a restaurant -- two out of three that we had tried were closed and when we finally wound up back where we started from, at Tarello's (in Philadelphia, on Chestnut between 16th and 17th), we were beginning to feel a trifle doomed. However, after a brief rest at a local movie house where we saw POPI, we were greeted by our friends Linda and Ron who had graciously volunteered to chauffeur us to the airport. The trip down was uneventful, meaning we got no tickets and Ron didn't drive on the left side of the road; and Janet became more and more subdued as we neared our destination.
However, reassured by the bored attitude of the terminal ground crew, we were soon standing in line awaiting our turn to board the TWA jet. Our flight was due to leave at 11 p.m., but by five after that hour we were still waiting in line. Finally, we were allowed to board, and we sloshed uncomfortably to the plane through the downpour that was gracing Philadelphia with its beneficent presence. Once on board I collapsed onto my seat and did absolutely nothing, I confess, to deter myself from falling immediately asleep.
This was not to last for long, however, for shortly after I settled myself, our captain proclaimed through the loud speaker system that two of our toilets were broken and must, on such a long voyage as ours, be fixed before we took off. By midnight we were still comfortably ensconced on our runway, but I believe we took off shortly thereafter. At any rate, I was once more awakened, when we were airborne, by one of our ubiquitous stewardesses who was smilingly handing me a fried chicken dinner. Mumbling sleepily that I didn't care for any, but my compliments to Col. Sanders, I dropped off to sleep only to be roused yet again by a different stewardess proffering a set of earphones for the multi-channeled stereo set each seat is equipped with. I let it be known that my taste ran to lullabies and since none were on the programme, declined the earphones and once more popped off. This time the interruption was the steward, who wanted to know if I were an American citizen. In my best Russian spy accent, heavily accented by sleep, I assured him I was, whereupon he handed me a charming card full of questions in three languages which I promptly lost. I think I might have had almost a half hour's uninterrupted sleep at this point had not an unthinking lady passenger, some several seats forward, taken it into her head to faint. Naturally, the oxygen equipment was located behind my seat and I was temporarily dispossessed while it was in use. I just had time to resettle myself and being to nod, when yet a third stewardess tapped me on the shoulder with breakfast. Snarling at her with genuine enthusiasm, I silently wished for a high-powered rifle ("will no one rid me of this meddlesome stewardess?").
In all, for the six hour flight, I'm sure I had at least four minutes sleep, but somehow I just didn't feel rested. We landed around noon in London -- a bright, sunny, rather warm London, much to my disappointment (as I was expecting fog). With nothing to declare, we breezed through immigration and customs and spent some time fumbling around outside before we determined which terminal bus would locate us most conveniently in London proper. When we arrived at the terminal, we quickly caught a cab, from which we disembarked at our hotel.
Ah, our hotel: The Park Lane, so called because it faces Ye Olde Green Park and is also situated not too far distant from Old Park Lane (which runneth along Hyde Park). Click here for a map. This establishment, I should hasten to mention, was the only one, in all our far-in-advance inquiries, which would give us sanctuary on the London shores. However, I was immediately struck by the fact that the hotel did not normally cater to overseas guests, but rather its usual clientele were local British subjects. We were conducted to our room by a bellboy who could easily have modeled for a Ronald Searle cartoon - typical British schoolboy urchin. Our room was rather large, with two narrow, but exceedingly high beds, two chairs, a highboy, dresser, lamp, desk and night table. Next door was a small foyer with an enormous (thankfully) closet and next to that was our bathroom. This consisted of a sink, toilet, mirror and rather deep tub. We quickly dumped our luggage, rearranged our flight bags with their many "necessities" and were off!
The front (or perhaps it was the back, I never could determine) of our hotel led out onto Piccadilly Street, which was one of the least typical of all British roadways. Most British streets, particularly in the 'tourist section', where we traveled, were completely overrun with little stores. You could not walk two paces without the display in some window front catching your eye. But Piccadilly had no little stores; indeed, I am at a loss to explain what it did have: high white buildings with bland, blank facades and nothing but the park across the way. Consequently, it was very dull to walk along this street; and because all the buildings looked so similar (Lord Palmerston's, for example -- although I never found out Lord Palmerston's what -- or the Royal Academy of Drama), I could never find a point of reference as I walked along and hence never knew how much farther I had to walk. Neither Janet nor I could gauge exactly how far it was to our hotel and one or the other of us were constantly turning in at the wrong doorway, or even the wrong building, as we made our way home each day.
But today we were walking away from the hotel -- toward Piccadilly Circus, which we found with very little trouble. Crossing it was another matter, but we finally made it in one piece.
I firmly believe that crossing London streets is a fine art; and one at which, I admit, I never became adept. For one thing there are no cross walks at intersections; indeed, I can't even remember seeing any intersections, because most London streets twist and end so abruptly. However, where my American mind tells me there should be a pedestrian crossing area, there is no indication of one. Instead, usually in the very middle of the street is what is known as a "zebra crossing". These are diagonal white stripes on the black asphalt of the street, and they are further marked by flashing yellow lights. It took me a bit before I caught on to how the system worked and once I worked it out, I immediately named it "Pedestrian Roulette". The idea is, if the pedestrian enters the zebra crossing before the car, then he has the right of way. However, if the car makes it first, too bad for the pedestrian. I'm not sure how the score is kept, but I think the drivers get one point for an adult, two for a child and five for tourists. Pedestrians get no points for a successful crossing, other than the satisfaction of outwitting the enemy motorist and retaining their life and limb. Not all motorists play by these rules, however, and it is very confusing as you hesitate on the kerb, deciding whether to risk a run or not, if the car stops for you. I do not consider this cricket, as it forces the pedestrian to move before he has planned through his strategy and will most probably leave him stranded in the middle of the street -- no safe place in any country.
[2001 Update. I hear from my friend John Groushko that zebra crossings are a thing of the past, replaced by "Pelican" crossings (PEdestrian LIght CONtrolled, which is a pedestrian crossing with lights operated by the pedestrian), and even these are about to be replaced by "Puffin" (Pedestrian User-Friendly INtelligent) walkways. These high-tech crossings monitor the progress of pedestrians as they cross the road: if necessary, detectors extend the time the red traffic light is shown, and if a pedestrian crosses before the traffic has stopped, sensors stop the signal from changing to red.]
At any rate, the only other difficulty I had with the traffic was remembering where it was. As an American I constantly looked left when I crossed streets because I am used to American drivers coming along the right side of the road. Just to confuse things, British drivers come along the left and this has given added nuance to the game, not to mention enlivening things for both sides.
Inspite of this, we managed -- eventually, to cross Piccadilly Circus and we made our way to the Prince of Wales Theatre where we obtained tickets to that evening's performance of CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS, a farce starring, among other performers, Elizabeth Seal and Victor Spinetti. We then recrossed the street (further hampered by a series of fences the British have seen fit to line their walkways with) and had dinner at Lyon's Corner House (one of the many meals where we were to face that dynamic duo: chicken and an Indian waiter); and proceeded from there to a local hippie store called I WAS LORD KITCHENER'S VALET, where both Janet and I spent well over a pound ($2.40) on postcards. At this establishment we received directions as to how to find Carnaby Street and, noting these carefully, we started out.
I would like to say a word here about people's directions. I found the British people most happy to offer their assistance whenever we stopped to ask our way -- too happy, really, as they launched into detailed and complicated explanations of seemingly easy to find places. One of the difficulties was, of course, the unusual way London streets are set up. No London street is completely straight; it winds and twists most alarmingly from its point of origin and yet, without making a complete turn, will suddenly become another street. You can walk along for three blocks and never turn a corner, yet you've walked along a street with three different names. On the other hand, if you eventually do get to an intersection, the street you are on may very well continue at right angles to itself but under the same name. Consequently, when someone tells you to follow a certain street and then turn left at the end of it, this is not as easy as it sounds.
We did eventually find Carnaby Street, although it was not where we expected it to be, but popped up at us when we were rounding an unexpected corner. Carnaby Street is like an outdoor market that just happens to be indoors. Literally thousands of people line this tiny street, where thirty or more stores hawk their bright mod gear. Now picture, if you will, Janet and me in the unexpected warmth of the London afternoon, somewhat tired from our sleepless airplane ride, and laden with: raincoat, umbrella, flightbag, camera, passport, travelers' checks, etc., etc., etc., wending our weary way up Carnaby Street.
The stores are so narrow that in order for them to have sufficient room to display all their merchandise, they each have an upper floor and a lower floor. So after Janet and I had trudged up and down the narrow staircases of thirty little Carnaby Street stores, you may understand why were were less than enchanted with it. Carnaby Street is not by bag. Then I was bitten by a monkey.
We had just exited from the throngs of people who were jammed into Galt's toy store, situated on a corner where Carnaby Street mysteriously becomes Great Marlborough Street, when I looked down and saw that I was holding a live monkey in my hand. It was dressed in a bright red crocheted suit of wool and was actively engaged in directing my thumb toward its mouth. When I turned to point out this phenomenon to Janet, I discovered that she too had a money in her hand, but its little knitted suit was a charming orange. Meantime, an enterprising photographer was trying to line us up in the sights of his camera so that he could take our picture, collect his monkeys and continue to take advantage of more gullible tourists. Anyway, the wretched thing did manage to bite me on the thumb and that would have made an interesting photo but, alas, the prints never caught up with us.
When we had escaped from Carnaby Street, we strolled along Regent Street for several blocks and easily found several stores that were more than willing to cash travelers' checks for our purchases. Somehow I spent $36 American my first day and that turned out to be one of my more conservative days (how low that amount sounds in 2001!)
When we got back to Piccadilly Circus, we managed to find our way home again, down the endless dullness of Piccadilly Street. Upon reaching our hotel, with what little vigor we could muster, we set to the all-important task of unpacking and setting up household. The bathroom had no medicine chest, much to our dismay, for we had brought with us a veritable drug store, but we quickly organized our respective pills on the bathroom window, where they mercilessly melted for our 13-day stay. (I take so many vitamins now, in 2001, I can't imagine what I was taking in 1969; this is lost in the mists of time).
A word here about the weather: hot. When packing for this trip, I had been assured by friends and relatives alike that not only was England never given to extremes in temperature, but also that July was actually a cool month over there and I would be wise to pack nothing but winter clothes. After hearing this continually, I gave in and packed mostly heavy woolens with long sleeves, etc. Well, givers of advice, let me tell you that we managed to pick the two weeks during which England had its heat wave: 89 degrees. This is not really extreme in itself, but when you have nothing to wear but winter clothing, and have been brainwashed into expecting cold, it can give you something of a jolt. As for precipitation -- I have already mentioned how disappointed I was (brainwashed from old SHERLOCK HOLMES films) that it was not foggy when we landed at London airport. I later discovered that London gets fog only in October and then it is not extreme, but we were soon to face a famous London shower. For the first two days we were in London (a Tuesday and Wednesday, during which we did most of our strenuous sightseeing), it would rain every two minutes for about thirty to sixty seconds. This is not really so annoying as it sounds, for London rain, unlike American torrents, is quite light and before you have made up your mind that it is, indeed, spitting, it has already stopped. This is clearly demonstrated by the local citizenry, who can be easily recognized as the only people who did not put up their umbrellas when it rains. They have long ago realized the futility of this action and stoically ignore the little sprinkles for the moment or two that they are manifest. Janet and I quickly adopted this procedure also, as it became too arduous to stop, shift our packages, newspapers and flightbag in order to position our umbrellas every time the rain started. However, as the sky looked threatening every day and you could never tell if there might be a downpour, Janet and I were tricked into carrying our umbrellas and raincoats around with us throughout the next eleven days, even though it never again rained after that first Wednesday.
You are probably wondering what this has to do with our bathroom and why I suddenly branched onto a weather report after mentioning our melting medicines. Well, however hot it was outside, our bathroom was in comparison a steam chamber. For some reason, our pipes were constantly hot and these apparently radiated into the room, practically taking your breath away each time you entered. It was necessary to let the cold water run for some five minutes before it actually became cold, as hot water seemed to breed in our pipes and spew forth no matter which tap we chose. This led to some confusion at first, because English spigots are not labeled "H" and "C", but are instead green and red. To further complicate matters, the hot water is on the right, rather than the left as we are used to, and since our cold water tap had hot water for a while anyway, it took us some time even to discover that we had cold water. Imagine our pleasure when we did! The only other unique feature in our bathroom was the tub itself which, as I have mentioned, had exceedingly high sides. It was also higher on the inside of the tub that it was on the floor of the bathroom, so that when you stepped onto the floor, you weren't stepping onto ground of the same level, but rather lower ground. This, coupled with the unusually high sides of the tub, made it quite dangerous and I carried bruises from my experience there for some time.
When we had finished unpacking and discovering the vagaries of our room, we went once more up Piccadilly to the Circus where we had dinner in a chinese restaurant; I confess I don't remember what I had, but I shouldn't in the least be surprised if it were chicken. The waiter, although not Indian this time, was, like all the waiters we encountered, foreign. During our entire stay, I cannot recall having an English waiter. I don't know whether this is due to the fact that the British think it beneath their dignity to wait on tables of if there is some form of class distinction barring them from the unions, but inevitably we would get an Indian, Pakistani, Italian or French waiter -- or one of an undetermined nationality. I was always left with the impression he could not understand one word that we said and, in most cases, I certainly could not understand what he muttered. All our waiters had the uncanny ability to make Pepsi sound like a deadly poison; and Janet and I were in constant apprehension over what might appear after we had ordered.
Even if we did get what we ordered (which did happen now and then), it was usually over- or under-done, soggy and completely inedible. British food is heavy and extremely bland. I, who never use pepper or mustard or ketchup, and [back in 1969] salt only in moderation, was liberally dousing all my meals with as many spices as I could get my hands on -- anything to make the food taste. Desserts were another ordeal. They are called "sweets" on the menu, but this is just a euphemism (sodas are called "minerals"; isn't that appetizing?), and include such "savories" as baked beans on toast, mushrooms on toast, spaghetti on toast and some horrid meat pie with its greasy, soggy, underdone crust. All their pastries are dry and crumbling. Their vegetables are infinitesimal; meals are extremely cheap and you can get a full course meal for around $.98, but what good does it do you if it is inedible? There are no such things as sandwich shops, and if you want something little and light at luncheon, that is just too bad. All the restaurants have menus with full course meals, and it is impossible to get anything else but a hot meal at any time. There are no such things as sandwiches unless you count those weird little wedges they serve at tea time: white bread with crusts removed, liberally and thickly spread with (unwanted) butter and garnished with -- believe it or not -- clover. Beautiful, green, three-leaved, white-stemmed, straight-from-your-front-lawn clover. Yummy! [Note: in subsequent trips to London, the food improved enormously, pizza shops sprang up, sandwiches and hamburgers became available, but not on this 1969 first exposure.]
At any rate, after our so-called dinner, we walked around a bit and tried to find a post office. Specifically, we tried to find the Leicester Square branch which is open 'round the clock. Well, we found Leicester Square with no difficulty, but, of course, the Leicester Square Post Office is not on Leicester Square. By now I was learning how to play the game and this didn't seem too illogical to me. The Leicester Square Post Office, we found out, was two blocks (around one corner) away on St. Martin's Road. It proclaimed blithely on the door that it was the Trafalgar Square Post Office. Naturally, Trafalgar Square is two blocks the other way; where else?
For some reason the theatre was still where we left it earlier in the day when we had bought our tickets, and that is one thing that is the same the world over. I would definitely have recognized it as a theatre even if it had said "fish market" on the marquee (but then, how many fish markets have marquees? -- caught you there!). It is probably because both Jan and I were so exhausted and so tired of coping with all the adjustments we had been having to make, but neither of us cared for the play. Indeed, it seemed a very amateur effort to me, with its contrived situations and obvious, almost slapstick, humor. Perhaps under different circumstances I might have been more tolerant. At any rate, we were introduced that night to another British custom: that of lowering the safety curtain at every performance. To me this seems just one more example of useless tradition, but I'll admit I enjoyed the slides they flashed on the curtain advertising some of the local shops; sort of vaudevillian commercials. We also sampled some of the intermission fare, being a strawberry sundae in a plastic cup -- one of the coldest things I had in a country that has apparently never heard of refrigeration or ice.
After the theatre we attempted to take the tube home, but it was too crowded at this rush hour and we were unfamiliar with the procedures, so we wound up walking once again down Piccadilly. To our hotel. And bed.
Ah bed! You will remember in our last chapter that I mentioned that the beds were narrow and extremely high. Well, they were also provided with two pillows, two sheets, two blankets and a comforter. I am used to sleeping on a double bed and it was difficult for me to adjust to the narrowness. The large number of covers made the bed very slippery and more than once during the night I almost slid right over the side. No rest for the tourist.
Wednesday it rained off and on, as I have detailed. We got up quite early and had breakfast in the hotel. I won't bore you with any more descriptions of the jolly meals we had while in England, but let me just say that if it weren't for the rolls that we managed to steal each morning and secrete in our flight bags, we might not have made it.
Today we had our most ambitious sightseeing plans. We started out (the long way, we soon discovered) for Buckingham Palace. From there we somehow managed to locate Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. When all of these had been duly photographed from as many possible angles as a tourist can think of, we paid a visit to Westminster Abbey. This took some little time, as the Abbey is quite extensive and was already quite overrun with other tourists. I also dragged Janet down to the wax museum beneath the Abbey and we both stopped at the souvenir counter and stocked up on still more postcards and booklets. It was by now raining briskly, but we made our way across Westminster Bridge to a touring boat and soggily lifted anchor for London Tower. The trip, narrated by our captain, was captured on film by yours truly using Janet's movie camera (2001 note; I don't ever remember seeing this film.) Our trip was by way of any number of historic bridges, monuments, buildings and warehouses (including a section supposedly the location of Fagin's hideout in OLIVER TWIST).
Finally we reached London Tower where we disembarked and made our way to the Tower gates. Again, we took a number of tourist-type photos of buskined soldiers and turreted towers and such and then bravely plunged in. I don't know off hand how many towers this monument has because the guidebook I bought has been sent home by surface mail and not yet arrived, but as many as tourists were allowed into, that is how many Janet and I visited. I hope to this day that I never lay my eyes on another circular staircase or suit of armor again. To say that we reached a saturation point for these two items is to reiterate that we ran into a lot of chicken dinners and Indian waiters.
It is here in London Tower, of course, that the Crown Jewels are displayed. These are most impressive, and not set up at all the way they were in the movie THE JOKERS. Once again Janet and I paid a visit to the souvenir counter and stocked up. We also paid a visit to the toilets, which is as good a time as any to comment on this peculiar social phenomenon. British "public conveniences" are just as historical and tradition-steeped as any of the buildings and statues that surround them. Certainly they pre-date the Crusades and those of them that can be flushed (the minority) are equipped with a marvelous overhead chain that does the job -- maybe. I am reminded of the way that Peter O'Toole took a bath in BECKET. Good old Pete. One of the most frightening things in England is their so-called toilet paper. I cannot imagine what it is made out of, but it surely must be made by the enemy. The upper lips of the English are not the only things noted for their stiffness. Enough said.
I have not appended a London map to this text, although I was constantly with one in my hand; so that even if my unfurled umbrella did not give me away, the map would have marked me as a tourist. However, the places that I have thusfar mentioned for this day cover a good bit of distance which, aside from the boat ride, Janet and I had tackled entirely on foot. It was by now only lunch time, so we repaired to the Tower restaurant where we shared a table with a German couple.
Throughout our entire stay in London, we ran into very few American tourists. I'm sure they were there in force, but we must have missed them wherever we went, always one twisty block before or behind us. However, I was impressed by the large number of other foreigners which inundate Britain as tourists. No matter where we went, we ran into citizens from Germany, Italy, Sweden and especially France. I got to be exceeding fed up with the constant French chatter and giggling that seemed to follow wherever we went. I do not think I would enjoy an extended visit to France.
From the Tower we struck out blindly for the following: St. Paul's, the Stock Exchange, The Bank of England and the Old Bailey. Again, all of these are quite far from where were were, but Janet and I were determined to walk there in order to take in the little shops and local sights we had come to England to see. Consequently, during our time there, we got to know several sections quite well (except that well-traveled set of blocks on Piccadilly that never became familiar) and felt by the time we had left that there was very little that we had missed; indeed, that if we had skipped something, it wasn't worth seeing anyway.
This day I outdid my previous spending performance with a total outlay in American money of $46 (to put this in perspective, I believe I was earning less than $50 a week at the time). We were, by the way, not doing too badly adjusting to the British money. Both Jan and I had done a certain amount of homework and although there was some fumbling around with the coins, it was due more to the British way of putting things than to unfamiliarity with the coins and their American equivalent. As a matter of fact, as time wore on, Janet and I found that we actually liked the big heavy British coins and enjoyed the fuss it took to settle our account every night. We were constantly borrowing money from each other, because neither of us ever had the exact change and for some reason it was difficult for certain stores to make change for the paper money. So at the end of every day, we had a "quick count up" that went something like: "I owe you 7 and 6, but then you paid for my ice lolly, so subtract 9 pence, etc., etc., etc.". Also, there are so many coins and so many ways of paying a given amount, it was diverting to make everything balance. At any rate, we had fun. (This is in the old pre-decimal days, when Britain was on the pound, shilling and pence standard).
I confess I don't remember where we had dinner, but that is probably all to the good; I am just getting over my food nightmares anyway. That evening we went to the Adelphi Theatre and this time we saw a musical called CHARLIE GIRL which we both enjoyed. It was not, I must add, any great shakes by Broadway standards, but it was pleasant enough with a very personable cast, including Gerry Marsden from GERRY AND THE PACEMAKERS and Derek Nimmo. I believe this was the only theatre that bothered to play GOD SAVE THE QUEEN before the performance. It was also the only show that had what we call a programme -- a picture book of the show. Their playbill -- what is what they call a programme -- costs a shilling ($.12) and rather than a lot of boring articles about food and clothes, contains instead pictures and writeups about the cast and show, and possibly some photos from the production.
This was one of the evenings when we took a bus home. The public transportation system is one of the finest things about England -- or London, at least. Their buses run frequently (except the "9", which is what we seemed to take all the time; that ran once every two days); and the fares were incredibly inexpensive (by American standards). Their tube was also well set up and difficult to get lost on (although we managed) and equally inexpensive.
For some reason I was never tired when we got back to the hotel, which at least gave me time to write postcards. Janet had over 40 people on her list and, to her credit, I believe she wrote to every one of them; but it must be pointed out that she said virtually the same thing on each postcard: "Sightseeing and shopping all day and theatre every night." To this was appended some reference to her aching feet -- which I could heartily echo.
Thursday we decided to get in some serious shopping -- mainly on King's Road, Chelsea, where I talked myself into buying several dresses (which I needed, I'll defend myself by saying, to replace the winter clothes it was too hot to wear; these I sent home to myself to make room for all the goodies I was buying). By this time I had also amassed a huge number of paperback books and records which I also mailed home.
After all our shopping, we felt obliged to take in a bit of culture and so popped over to the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as the British Museum. The latter was by far the more interesting, being a combination of Philadelphia's Museum of Natural History and Franklin Institute.
This was the evening of the Big Traffick Jamme. We had been seeing signs for the last couple of days which warned: "Avoid this area on July 10". Well, here it was, July 10, and now we were about to discover why this was an area to be avoided. The Queen, it seems, had given a garden party and her "guests" who numbered in the thousands, were leaving en masse on the only route from Buckingham Palace which was, apparently, Piccadilly.
Dinner that night, if you could call it that, was at a Soho hangout called Le Macabre. This was an extremely tiny place with a rather grisly decor consisting of skeletons and the like. The table was in the shape of a coffin -- which should have warned us about the food, but then, remember, this was only our third day. We were still hungry after our sojourn to Le Macabre, so we ran around the corner to a place that we had seen that had advertised pizza. At least they said it was pizza, but it bore no resemblance to the American dish of the same name.
We hardly had time to recover from this meal when it was theatre time once again: this time the Apollo Theatre, where we saw Alan Bennett's comedy, FORTY YEARS ON, starring John Gielgud and Bennett himself. And again we enjoyed both the show and the safety curtain.
All this time we had been looking around for a delicatessen or grocery store in order to buy something edible to snack on, especially at night. But we were unable to find any, except for a couple of places in Chelsea that were too far to trek to every day from our hotel.
Friday Janet felt ill, the result I don't doubt of the pizza from the previous evening. I didn't feel too well myself, but I somehow managed to soldier on. I met Elsa, a friend from the bank where I work, who was also vacationing in England, and we had lunch (the best meal I had had so far and eminently edible) at the Cheshire Cheese pub. We then did some shopping at Fortnum and Mason's, Britain's posh department store (which consisted mostly of window shopping on my part), and then I returned to check up on Janet. She still was not feeling well, so I popped down to the "chemist's", the local drug store, and got her some "Astringent Elixir", whatever that is. It looked and smelled vile, but Janet managed to get some down and I think it did her some good.
Jan did not feel like going to the theatre that night (no more did I; but I find it hard to admit defeat), so I rang up Elsa, who with a hastily procured ticket for her friend Roger, accompanied me to the Comedy Theatre. THE NIGHT I CHASED THE WOMEN WITH AN EEL was a comedy-drama starring Pauline Collins and John Alderton that was better acted than it was written, but I was becoming acclimitized to British theatre and enjoyed it. Elsa was overwhelmed by it and Roger bored stiff. I think Janet would have agreed with Roger.
Saturday we had planned to venture out to Salisbury and Stonehenge, but Janet was still feeling poorly and suggested I go out on my own to take in Madame Tussaud's, which she was not interested in seeing. To get there, I took my first tube ride, which was an experience in itself. First, you must pick your destination; then you figure out which underground route (or combination of routes) will get you there. There are about nine different underground lines and during our stay we managed to try out each one. You can then put your money in a machine and out comes your ticket and change. The ticket must be surrendered at your destination, but you can go literally miles on five pennies; the most I ever paid on the underground was about fifteen cents.
With your ticket, you go through a turnstile; and thence to one of the steepest and longest escalators I have ever seen. As I was not feeling too well myself again today, I was less than thrilled about this method of transport, but in retrospect, considering how many times we took the tube, I am heartily glad I didn't have to walk up and down all those steps instead.
There was a line awaiting entrance at Madame Tussaud's and, as always happens (I discovered) when there is a "queue" for any length of time, two funny little men, buskers, came up with banjo and spoons and began to entertain us. They passed around a hat afterwards; a performance well worth the price of admission.
Madame Tussaud's was not as big as I had imagined. The figures were amazingly lifelike -- some of the best I've ever seen -- but as for their looking like the originals, this was difficult to say as most were historical figures from the distant past, some of whom I had never even heard of. There were very few present-day celebrities and those that there were were certainly a mixed group: Burton and Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Twiggy (not to mention the Beatles, complete with their YELLOW SUBMARINE -type costumes). Madame Tussaud's famous CHAMBER OF HORRORS was also not what I expected: real life British criminals in a dark, dank, dungeonlike atmosphere, complete with poor lighting and weird music. Not a place I'd care to be alone in! I also took in the planetarium at Madame Tussaud's and had the moon's geography explained to me; a very timely subject as this was only five days prior to the first moon landing.
Afterwards, I walked down Baker Street to Oxford Street, another great shopping district and visited a couple of well known department stores, Selfridge's and Marks and Spencer. I had tried to call Janet a couple of times, but was unable to get a typical London telephone "kiosk" to work; stupid foreigner. I continued along Oxford Street, turning onto Bond (which a few blocks later became New Bond Street and then Old Bond Street and finally disappeared altogether), but Saturday is early closing day and there was nothing I could do but window shop. Back at the hotel, Janet had revived somewhat and decided to strike out on her own; so I popped over to the National Gallery, another sight which Jan was not interested in, and absorbed a bit more of the British culture.
I have a feeling that neither of us had dinner that night and wonder of wonders, no theatre either, but a movie instead: OH, WHAT A LOVELY WAR! Although we had not had a chance to see any British television, the movie came complete with about ten minutes of commercials, which were humorous in a way the British people probably didn't suspect. I think Janet enjoyed the commercials more than the film.
Sunday we were both sufficiently revived to tackle breakfast and after church services went shopping in Petticoat Lane, an outdoor market that extends over quite a number of blocks. Petticoat Lane had all sorts of things to offer: jewelry, clothing, china, records, food and bric-a-brac. We were there for several hours and had by no means covered half of the area when we decided that the heat was too much and we would go to the zoo instead. (It is this kind of faulty logic that characterizes the American abroad). So after a complicated route via the underground, during which we managed to take at least one wrong train, we arrived at Regent's Park, where we made our way to the zoo. Compared with other zoos I have seen, the Regent Park zoo was extremely clean. It was well laid out with many interesting exhibits and, although it had no koalas (other than the stuffed variety, which Janet bought immediately), I enjoyed myself. It was here I managed to lose my umbrella, a circumstance that did not bother me in the least, as I was bloody tired of carrying it around (it had not rained for four days) and wanted to buy a genuine English one anyway.
After we left the zoo, we strolled through Regent Park where we were attacked by a marauding band of pigeons and narrowly escaped with our peanuts. We stopped back at our hotel (walking the three blocks from the tube stop along the blank face of Piccadilly) to deposit our purchases (I had picked up a panda to match Janet's koala) and then started out for Hyde Park which was around the corner Speaking of which, we stopped at Speaker's Corner, located near the Marble Arch-end of Hyde Park and watched the local fanatics rant on about their respective causes. Here it is not unusual to see signs reading "Repent the end is near" and other encouraging bits of grafitti. We hiked to the Serpentine, the lake which runs through Hyde Park and stared enviously at the locals who were bathing therein. We decided to have a more leisurely meal this evening and not try to run to a movie or show afterward. We chose a place called Benny's the Taming of a Stew, which turned out to be a little supper club complete with a singing guitarist (who talked like Anthony Newley, although he, unfortunately, didn't sing like him), and his accompanying xylophonist and bongo drummer. This was happily one of the meals that was fairly edible. We left the restaurant around 9:45 pm. Now this was the first night that we hadn't been in a cinema or theatre at night since we had arrived in England and we were both amazed that at practically 10 p.m, it was still quite light out.
Monday we rescheduled our delayed trip to Salisbury. The train left from Waterloo Station and arrived some two hours later in Salisbury. We were picked up at the station by the Wilts and Dorset touring bus (whose home address is 111 Endless Way) and taken from there out to Stonehenge. Somehow the impressiveness of Stonehenge was undiminished by the fifty or so tourists who were climbing all over it; but I could imagine how even more eerie it would be at night with no sign of life for miles. The trilithons, or three-stone monoliths, were truly immense and it is difficult to conceive of prehistoric man having the intelligence and skill to transport and erect such a remarkable structure. By this time we had enough postcards to paper a fair size wall, but we loaded up on still more and bought a few instructive brochures as well.
The bus took us back to the depot and from there we stumblingly found our way to the Salisbury Cathedral which, in my opinion, is much more impressive than Westminster Abbey. It is also famous for having the tallest spire in England, although it does not look so immense from outside. We stopped for a meal in a little Salisbury pub, but had no further chance to sightsee as we didn't want to miss our train. We went directly from the train station to Oxford Street to get in still more shopping and it was here that Janet and I found yet another koala bear for our respective collections. I also managed to buy a few more dresses and was beginning to wonder how I was going to get everything home; so we talked one of the local shopkeepers out of a large cardboard box and, with our booty, took the nearest tube back to our hotel.
We had managed to get last minute tickets for BOYS IN THE BAND so we were off to the theatre (Wyndham) once again. It was the only American-import that we saw while in England, but it had a mainly British cast. it was very short -- too short -- and both Jan and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Tuesday was given over to some serious gift-shopping, because by now our schedule was so tight, we had to fit this all important phase of our trip in where we could. Piccadilly Street finally yielded one shopping section: Burlington Arcade where both Janet and I spread our travelers' checks around rather thickly. We also stopped by Regent Street again and Liberty's, a department store nearby. From there we started to knock off a few stores that were on our 'things to do' list, including Samuel French where we both bought plays, and a typical little British toy store. That afternoon, we split up again, Janet going back to Regent Street and I off in search of still more dresses in Kensington. We had a late dinner and an even later Michael Caine movie, THE ITALIAN JOB.
Wednesday, we went shopping in Harrod's, one of Britain's more expensive department stores, and then discovered what might have been the most important store in all our journey: Kettles, which sold boxes! (so we could continue to mail things home). Since we were in Holborn, we dropped by the Old Curiosity Shop and, after shopping the afternoon away, decided to treat ourselves to dinner in someplace a bit posher than our usual haunts: the Post Office Tower. This is a fairly new building, London's tallest, with a revolving restaurant on the 38th floor, which circles London's skyline once every 30 minutes. Dinner for a change was excellent and, upon leaving, we were presented by our waiter with a certificate stating that we had completed dinner in orbit at the Post Office Tower.
Thursday we were off to Stratford-upon-Avon from Paddington Station. We had to change trains at Leamington Spa and from there passed through tiny hamlets with names like Bearley Halt. When we arrived we had no idea where our hotel was, and felt completely at sea without any kind of map, such as the one we had been relying on in London. However, we asked directions of several of the local people and in about ten minutes had traversed what appeared to be the entire length of Stratford to the River Avon where our hotel was located across from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. We checked in and were shown to our room in the extension of the Arden Hotel.
To reach our room it was necessary to go through the main hotel dining room, via a circuitous route outside through the garden and into a completely different building. We walked around Stratford a bit, adding to our postcard collection and visiting the museum to the side of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. After lunch at yet another local pub, we caught a bus to Warwick, some nine miles distant and visited the famous Warwick Castle where Janet, at least, made a huge hit with sundry peacocks (and finally got to see a haunted room). Up to this time we had not taken too many photos, but here at Warwick and the following day at Kenilworth, we made up for lost time, taking around 36 pictures (each) in less than two days. Upon returning to Stratford, we found we had time before our dinner reservation at the Dirty Duck Inn, so we took a walking tour around Stratford and visited Hall's Croft, the home of Shakespeare's daughter. After dinner, we walked across the Avon and fed the swans; and in the evening saw the Royal Shakespeare Players in Thomas Middleton's WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN. I had read this play prior to our trip and found it exceedingly dry, but in the hands of such professional performers as the Royal Shakespeare Players, it truly came alive. Janet was less than excited by the play, but it was extremely well done.
The next day we took a bus trip to Kenilworth and this proved a most worthwhile and enjoyable outing. It was here that we took the majority of our photographs on the ruins of this huge castle, posing ourselves on turret and wall, in the dungeon and (yoicks) the circular staircases.
Back in Stratford we took a ride on a horse-drawn carriage and had a look -- in passing, at least -- at all the monuments and Shakespeare memorabilia we hadn't been able to get to on our own. It was the nearest thing we had taken to a guided tour so far.
After luncheon at still one more local pub, we caught the slow train out of Stratford. When we changed over to the Paddington train at Leamington Spa, we teamed up with a fellow American tourist and a little old lady from a village bordering on Stratford. Our tourist friend, Kathy Swanson, was in England for only two days on her way eventually to Switzerland on her own. The little old lady was on her way to her sister's in Chelsea and was full of advice for what we could see and do with our remaining time in England. I had asked her if the length of Stratford, which Janet and I had walked in ten minutes (even hampered by our suitcases) was the extent there was to the town, and she said, "Yes, it's quite large, isn't it?" I can imagine the size of her village if she thought Stratford big
Back in London we had dinner and took in one last movie (complete with commercials, of course), MONTE CARLO OR BUST. This was mildly funny, but too slapstick for my (and Janet's) sense of humor.
Saturday we rushed around quite desperately trying to fit in everything we had missed so far. First off we went to Portobello Road, another open-air marketplace which operates only on Saturdays. This was somewhat more expensive than Petticoat Lane, but a place with an equal mixture of merchandise: including plucked chickens with their heads still attached that were displayed among the clothing, antiques and jewelry and which, quite frankly, made me queasy. It was here that I finally bought myself the umbrella I had wanted and one more representative of Britain I could not have found, for it had on it the pattern of the British flag. From Portobello Road, we went to the British Theatre Museum and also Leighton House, and then back to our hotel to pick up the extra film we had forgotten in the morning. Then a quick dash to Victoria Station to catch the train to Canterbury. Once there we had little trouble finding the Cathedral (also more impressive than Westminster) and even less trouble spending our money in the ubiquitous souvenir shops. After dinner at a seafood place called Overton's, we spent most of Saturday night packing and fixing up packages to be mailed home; and so did not get to bed very early.
Sunday I took pity on Jan and let her sleep late while I went off to Mass at Westminster Cathedral. Afterwards, we both bought paintings from the artists who display their works outdoors every weekend along Green Park.
After lunch we took our one and only tour: to Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace, because we were too tired to drag ourselves there under our own steam. I am glad that we did not make a practice of taking tours; it certainly leaves you less tired in the long run, but it is much more boring to have your entire journey narrated with absolutely everything, including the trees, pointed out as something of historical significance. Windsor Castle is simply immense, but much more interesting from the outside than from within. The town itself has been kept very traditionally and you almost would not know that you were in present day England. Our guide, an extremely cultured-looking woman, had an unfortunate whistle whenever she spoke. It was difficult to keep a straight face when she spoke of the shimply shmashing Tudor wallsh. From Windsor, we went to Hampton Court Palace, which was decidedly dull in comparison. We were absolutely whisked through it, but at this point, neither Janet nor I cared; we were completely played out.
Monday, of course, was our last day. We took a cab to the Pan Am terminal and the terminal bus to the airport. London airport is the most disorganized one I've ever been in, with hardly a gift shop in sight; but that was just as well since both Janet and I were practically broke; and I, at least, had exceeded my duty-free spending by almost 100%.
The plane trip back was uneventful. Both Jan and I fell asleep during the film, HELL IN THE PACIFIC. Surprisingly, immigration and customs were quite simple and fast and not as expensive as I had feared. Back home again!
Looking back in 2001 at my first visit to London, I note that I didn't bother mentioning passing through Trafalgar Square the night before we flew home, where TV cameras had been set up for live coverage of the first moon landing. I've always found space exploration very boring, and I was not at all interested in it.
I wish I had noted down in more detail the stores I visited and what I bought; the umbrella I was so pleased about is long gone. I still have a shooting stick I bought, although I never used it. I still have a lovely little porcelain teapot I bought on Portobello road as well as a painting of an owl I also bought there. I still have a decorative china plate with koalas on them, but the stuffed koala I bought is also long gone. I still have the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore LPs I bought, although I can no longer play them, as my speakers no longer work.
In the little bit of sleep I got on the plane ride to London, just before we landed, I had a PETER PAN kind of dream where London was spread out below me as it looked in Victorian times. Some of my preconceived ideas about London proved true and some did not, but overall, I enjoyed myself very much and vacationed in London 4 or 5 more times over the years through the late 1970s. During this first trip, I never believed I would be lucky enough to get back to London, so I tried to jam in too much and exhausted myself running around. On subsequent trips, I did relatively little sightseeing and instead spent my time shopping and going to the theatre, as many as 13 shows in 14 days. London will always be one of the highlights of my life.
Reminiscence by Judy Harris
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