Tuesday, 6 September 2016

English journey

SHARE





Robert Frost said home is where, if you have to go there, they have to take you in. I didn't have to go to England but went because Brexit made me realise not how much I love my country - I knew that very well every day - but how rarely I visited. 


And I like to go to politically exciting places like Iran, Pakistan and North Korea. This summer that meant the UK. 

And I still haven't written up my journey. Here's a start.

I arrived in England at midnight. I had bought a ticket with Easyjet from Nice to Luton and a room in a mediaeval hotel in St Albans. This was not a good idea as my plane was delayed over an hour and I was told I was lucky. Easyjet planes are often delayed three hours.

St Albans. The staff at the station, who had never heard of my hotel, the best known in the town, told me it was too far to walk, which it was not. I ordered a minicab from a dreamy and rather sweet Kashmiri with a beard that stretched almost to his waist. He told me there was a large Muslim community in the St Albans. He had been to Kashmir a number of times and felt equally Pakistani and British.

St Albans is one of the loveliest old towns in England. And a great place to stay if you visit England, as it is very close by train to London but very far away indeed, its buildings Georgian and earlier. It existed, of course, in Roman times, when St Alban was martyred.

Lunch in Inner Temple with two charming people mourning the referendum result and dinner with a friend whose life's work Brexit represented. She, like all the really passionately anti-EU people I know in Britain, is Jewish. I don't think this has any significance, except to disprove the idea that Jews are less patriotic than other people.

What fun Soho is, how beautiful and serious the women are. Morally serious, I mean, not unlaughing. The intelligent people in their late 20s are what make every city. The ones in London are very impressive, unarrogant, stylish but modest. 

England is the best country in the world and nowadays has lovelier women than Romania, although this is partly because the hot Romanian girls are now mostly in London (you, gentle female Romanian reader in Bucharest, are, of course, the exception).

Dinner the next night with a City friend, a former young fogey and strongly Brexit. He said, ruefully, 

There is a problem, for the City. 
There is a problem.
i knew that and was anxious.

His career has not been stellar, but he owes mortgages calculated in millions, he said.

Rochester has what all towns should have, a castle and a cathedral. It's the setting for Dickens' last unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, under the name Cloisterham. It's a murder mystery and the murderer is still unknown. 

Rochester used to feel Dickensian and be the one dingy, working or lower middle-class cathedral city, but it was tarted up in the end. Everywhere has been. I used to blame this on Margaret Thatcher, but she is long gone and shabbiness continues to be swept away everywhere, even from Eastern Europe.

The cathedral stands in the street, like French ones do. It is enchanting, of course, though spoilt by the Victorians. I didn't notice the savagery they visited on cathedrals when I was a boy.

No-one knew about the soi-disant Prince of Transylvania buried somewhere in the nave, in the place where the bookshop stood before 1914, though one older guide had been asked about it before. How uninquisitive guides, like all experts, are. Les savants ne sont pas curieux.

On Sunday Westminster Cathedral was cut off because of a race and I went to Latin High Mass at the Jesuit church in Farm St. I remembered these lines that I happened across some time ago. When I first read them I thought them racist, but now I think they make a good point.
We had just come from Sunday Mass in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Farm Street, London, where Evelyn Waugh was converted and later married to Laura Herbert, and were crossing St. George’s Garden behind the church toward Scott’s Restaurant in Mount Street when the thing happened. The architecture in this neighborhood is late 19th century in the Flemish and Renaissance style, salmon-colored brick relieved by white marble trim set off by the brilliant green lawns of an English autumn, and there were gravel walks across manicured lawns and those sturdy wooden park benches, the same as one used to find aboard Cunard liners, and pigeons and a squat fat-boled palm tree surrounded by a circle of gravel, and I seem to recall bow windows on the ground floors, though I can’t find them in photographs—and suddenly, in the midst of so much peace and beauty, and after receiving Communion, I felt a sudden access of fury, struck by the thought that had been gathering all week in the new semi-Asiatic London, that all this storied historical loveliness is on the verge of being inherited by barbarians who did not create it, know nothing of the civilization of my people from whence it sprang, and have neither interest in knowing it nor attachment to it.
Catholic Mass is now followed by instant coffee, just like in Anglican churches, and I met some interesting people. Latin Mass always attracts them and I ran into Glenys Roberts, who looks too beautiful to be a good Catholic but nevertheless is one.

Outside on a bench in the churchyard sat a row of Romanian gypsies, who, I was told, were pickpockets, who came to Mass to steal. I spoke to them in Romanian. They claimed to be looking for work but I doubted this.

Some good dinners in London. I recommend the Red Fort and Le Mercury in Islington Upper St., but not the Gay Hussar, whose day has passed. The food at the Reform Club is good, madeira is £3 a glass there and the pudding trolly is England incarnate. I always skip the pudding course except in England - pudding is the glory of English cooking. Especially trifles and summer pudding.

The best bits of my holiday were slow breakfasts with the papers at the club to which I was elected at eighteen, the Oxford and Cambridge. They made me feel like a bachelor character in a minor Trollope novel. 

A friend told me that it Is very odd to see oneself as a character in a book and a philosopher once told me I was 'apperceptive', which means looking at oneself living. 

The Oxford and Cambridge Club would be a sort of home for a self-exile, except that I only use it because I'm now a member of another club. And women members have changed its Platonic essence. It's not the club I belonged to. And tieless men in jeans are to be seen there nowadays at the weekends.

Everyone I met in passing treated me like an Englishman, unaware of my 18 years in another world.

The night train to Penzance was exciting, the staff lovely. I slept well and saw that the old England of the 1930s still exists outside the conurbations, despite New Labour, diversity and progressive ideas. Enid Blyton, Malcolm Savile, films from Alfred Hitchcock's British phase.

Cornwall. Mystical, un-English. Arthurian.


The walk to St Michael's Mount in light drizzle - the temperature 59F which is 15℃. The scene was the  most beautiful thing I ever saw in my life, perhaps. The grey of sand, sea, sky and monastery, turned country house, seguing into each other. 



I never envy anyone but I made an exception for my university friend who leads a rather lazy, well paid bachelor life at the Exeter Bar, his chambers five minutes' walk from the Cathedral. New Labour has done some but not too much damage to Exeter and my friend dines with the High Sheriff, goes to Goodwood and knows the secrets of the gentry (he's a divorce practitioner).

I escaped modern England in Bucharest. He has escaped it at the Exeter bar.

The train journey from Penzance to London is one of the most beautiful in the world. 

I took my family to dinner in a grand hotel and Phantom of the Opera for birthday presents. 

A few months after I started work The Phantom of the Opera opened at Her Majesty's Theatre and now I finally got round to seeing it. I am not a fan of musicals or Lord Lloyd Webber but it was spellbinding, very good theatre, very good songs and very moving. Partly because it followed fairly closely the wonderful 1925 silent version of the film, with Lon Cheney Snr (that's right, Senior), which I have seen and loved twice. 

I was sad that the Phantom didn't get the girl. I identified with him, of course.

Watching the show in 2016 it seemed very 1980s, very redolent of the Margaret Thatcher era. I thought The Phantom of the Opera  was modern but it opened 30 years ago. I worked out afterwards that taking my 17 year old niece and nephew is the equivalent of my being taken, at the age of 17, to South Pacific.


Oh Lord.

The next day we drove around my beautiful, much maligned native county of Essex and many very beautiful old places, including Coggeshall, Thaxted, Castle Hedingham and Finchingfield.

I tried to remember why Coggeshall was famous and then it came to me. It was because of Jeremy Bamber, a psychopath who killed his sister and her children for an inheritance and still claims to be innocent. 
Remembering suddenly while buying pies, I asked the butcher about Bamber. He said there had been a lot of murders in Coggeshall and not all discovered. 

Something about the way he said it made me ask myself if he had committed an undiscovered murder. I looked anxiously at my pie.

When I was a teenage boy I despised the pretty-prettiness of Finchingfield from the very bottom of my heart but, once again, time has done its work and I now find the place lovely, just as my parents did. Dodie Smith, of 101 Dalmatians fame, lived here.



Finally Colchester in the warm sunshine. Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that Colchester, capital of Britain when the Romans arrived, is named after Old King Cole. The better view is that it is named after the River Colne, on whose banks it sits. In any case, it is very beautiful. I said this to three women I met while shopping, who all looked astonished and clearly didn't agree. One replied that it didn't have good shopping. This seemed a non sequitur but there are many people who have no sense of beauty.

The town I grew up in is much less beautiful and much newer, but how lucky one feels to come from an old country.


If you want to know what people said to me about the referendum resulting and leaving the EU (I still feel amazement and joy typing those words) please click here.

8 comments:

  1. Excellent. Lovely photographs too.

    ReplyDelete
  2. lovely - and glad to see Pz features strongly in text and photos!

    hope you're well. Having trouble typing. Making scones instead....


    Rebecca

    ReplyDelete
  3. Really charming piece of writing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A compliment from you!

      Thank you very much - I thought it was rather workaday myself.

      Delete
  4. Oh, you can be an excellent writer. Your piece on Jimmy Savile laid a cold hand on the heart. I like the relaxed tone of this one.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Beautifully written, as always.
    I am glad you appreciated England. There is still much to appreciate here.
    Ben

    ReplyDelete
  6. I love this piece.
    You've still done more than I have in 26 years here. I know London like the back of my hand, and Glasgow, and bits of Berkshire. Otherwise, it's just travelling to courts and back.
    Anthony Lenaghan

    ReplyDelete