Antony and Cleopatra, Balthazar, Brexit, British Library, Fortnum & Mason, Hatchards books, National Theatre, Ralph Fiennes, Sophie Okonedo
Friends, I am happy to report that London is still there. The British Government seems to be circling the drain. Theresa May is a zombie prime minister, propelled by dark forces and plodding along without realizing that she is dead. She’s headed for a very steep cliff, and together with the other Tories, appears intent on mindlessly pulling the whole country into the abyss.
But at least for now, the UK is still scraping along and London is there at its heart, thrillingly alive, and full of all the colors of the world.
I was there for a conference, and I took the opportunity to see Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo at the National Theatre in one of the very last performances of their Antony and Cleopatra. I had a chance to see how that big revolving drum beneath the stage of the Olivier works. It lets them change the set very quickly, and it was used to great effect, making the three and a half hours go by in no time. As for the acting, a friend remarked that the two leads are sexier apart than together. That’s about right. You can’t manufacture chemistry, but the acting was impressive, all the same.
I made my usual pilgrimages to my favorite places to shop, but with a new consciousness of how Anglophilia always blinded me to the darker side of the UK. England combines a romantic view of its own insularity with the arrogant presumption that it knew (knows?) best how to rule a host of other people around the world. Fortnum’s sells an ideal of luxury based on the glamour of royalty and the prosperity of empire. Does a hankering for afternoon tea suggest a secret desire in Fortnum’s many customers to be “upper class”? Or is it just that we shoppers take sensuous delight in colorful marzipan fruit, miniature sandwiches, and fine porcelain?
The Empire has faded away, but its sense of entitlement and willful ignorance are still to be found in the people who sold to British voters the fantasy that the UK still has “imperial” leverage with Europe, or that its people can somehow exist as an island, entire of themselves. I suppose that theoretically, they can do this. But don’t ask me where they’re going to get all the fresh tomatoes for those famous English breakfasts. To say nothing of lifesaving medicines…
Another favorite is Hatchards, the oldest bookstore in London, the neighbor of Fortnum & Mason, which also enjoys the patronage of the Queen. Today it’s owned by Waterstone’s, but it still has a very distinctive romance all its own. I love the carefully curated selection of poetry and essays, and especially the publishers’ series which carry on the 19th-century tradition of beautiful book design made affordable to the average customer.
But I couldn’t help noticing that, although Hatchards has a section devoted to Wales and another on Scotland, there is no section on Northern Ireland (and certainly not one on the Emerald Isle itself, for all it is the earliest and most important of England’s former colonies). Seamus Heaney at least is there, having won the Nobel Prize. What you will find in abundance is books on English church architecture, the poetry of John Betjeman (founding member of the Victorian Society), perennial borders, and other odes to Englishness. There is a section devoted to “Foreign Literature” (not “World Literature”).
The last thing I want to do is complain about a brick and mortar bookstore, and I still dearly love Hatchards. But I saw it with new eyes on this trip, and wondered for the first time about the principles of selection and curation for a shop which strives to be both a general bookstore and an icon of Britishness. What is Britishness today? Is it really still about the village green? Or do we need to think of it in a much more inclusive way?
The British Library was holding an exhibit called “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms,” which I’m sure was planned well before the 2016 vote, so I don’t see it as a secret vote of support for Brexit. It is the business of the British Library to study that which is British, including the ancient British. But as we have learned from recent controversies, even Roman Britain had a very diverse population.
Catching up with a friend at tea or supper in London is the most delightful of outings. I have a special friend who loves opera, and chose Balthazar, right next to the Royal Opera House, for our dinner. I can report that London restaurants are still expensive and the food is still very good. Balthazar’s macaroni cheese has been written up in Esquire as “the best in London” and it was indeed delectable, with a crispy, umami-laden crust of Gruyère. Perfect with a pinot grigio while discussing the charms of Ralph Fiennes.
Last but not least, the Senate House Library was staging an exhibit of books on the history of magic, based on the collection of magical literature donated by stage magician Harry Price. As a longtime lover of magic and investigations of the paranormal, I enjoyed this very much.
My visit was invigorating and sometimes bracingly chilly. (I brought a pair of tights which unfortunately had to be discarded because they kept falling down around my knees.) But the winter weather in London seems very mild to an Ohio resident, so it was a pleasant break from what we have here at home. À la prochaine, Londonium. I hope to greet you again, hale and hearty, at the Chelsea Flower Show!
Oh Linnet – you were in London. How lovely. And how lovely to read you here, again, after such a long time. It sounds as if you are well. Well, in London at least. No surprise there. It is a fabulous, unique place to be.
And so many interesting observations in your post, I don’t even know where to start. Such a bittersweet focus. It is clear that you love London – and the UK – but there is also a sense of sadness, loss, even incomprehension at the anachronistic return to the dream of an empire that some part of the UK is currently dreaming. Particularly your observation in Hatchard’s (separate sections for three out of four constituting parts of the UK) kind of hurt. I think that probably exemplifies exactly how the Northern Irish feel about the UK – mostly ignored. Not good enough. Always only an unloved after-thought. Yet actually all down to Britain’s imperialism. There we are – full circle again.
Glad to see so much Irish reading matter in your loot. Seamus Heaney – you *must* come back to Dublin, soon, because we have a fab new, permanent exhibition on Seamus Heaney in the Bank of Ireland, to rival the W.B. Yeats exhibition in the National Library.
And do I assume correctly that you met up with a mutual friend? Best company there is, when you are in London. I am hoping to see her soon, too.
Anyway, hope you are well!
Yes, indeed a mutual friend, and a great delight it was, to spend time with her : )
Thanks so much for your comment. It’s true I don’t often have time to blog these days, but I still *think* about potential posts all the time, and this one happened to emerge when I had a few hours to myself.
The Heaney exhibition in Dublin sounds great, and I would also like to see the new Seamus Heaney Home Place in the North. I was quite shocked by what appeared to be the second-class status of Northern Ireland in the curation of Hatchards. Somehow I always assumed it was on an equal footing with Scotland or Wales, but apparently not. It is like Puerto Rico for the United States, and that is very unfair and wrong. This really does help to explain the Brexiteers’ heartless attitudes when it comes to the Good Friday Agreement and other issues in relation to NI.
I do love London, and I’m afraid for the whole country. I’m still hoping that the adults in the room will prevail and put a stop to this insanity.
Ann Burns said:
Thank you for your post on London – food for thought indeed and sheds a different light. Following the Brexit issue here in Australia – I have been finding it hard to understand how it has come to this. Same issues seem to exist everywhere though.
Thank you for the comment, Ann. I am following Brexit from the US, and it has certain parallels with our own political woes! But I am hopeful that things can get better.
An interesting take on the current state of affairs as you’re not stuck in the middle of it, and not a political commentator, but a visitor. If you can see the identity crisis this country’s been going through the past 2.5 years by simply visiting … that says a lot. (A lot of us EU migrants who have made Britain our home feel compelled to become British citizens now. Not because we particularly want to any more, as many of us no longer feel welcome here, but because it feels like the only way to truly protect ourselves. Ten years ago, when it was half the price and fewer hoops to jump through, I only decided against citizenship because, well, there was no real benefit to it, and the almost £700 it would cost sounded a bit much. Now I wish I had gone through with it back then. Ho hum …
Anyway, glad you enjoyed your trip! 🙂
Thanks Traxy! I hope that you do become a citizen and help to change the place for the better. I think “identity crisis” is a good description. And yet this is a country whose favorite dish long ago stopped being fish and chips, and became chicken tikka masala. Tea is not made in the UK and most of the flowers in those perennial borders aren’t native plants. It’s similar in the US. Our “identity” is a lot more fluid than people think.
thank you (again), almost like sort-of like axually “being there”.
Betty so wants to go “somewhere exotic” (but a Caribbean playa would suffice) and we DO have good friends in the U.K. …
You should go! Except that the whole Brexit thing makes for some uncertainty. I mean… will there be food? I am taking my mom in May to the Chelsea flower show and I’m a bit worried that there will be no flowers!
read this again. seemed like the ‘first time.’ if I won the lottery i’d hire YOU to be Betty’s tour guide! still haven’t “gone anywhere” since we/I last chatted here. well, I went to Moab (You-taw) to participate in a running race. Betty continues to pine for a beach …
Haha! Thanks for being a faithful reader, even when there’s not much to read. Every so often I hatch something, but it’s a slow process. Betty being the beach-pining type, maybe she would not love London so much, but as the good Dr. Johnson almost said, “When a woman is tired of London, she’s tired of life!”
Black Tulip said:
It is so interesting to read your post, and the comments, written from disinterested observers. I just despair at the way my country is going, and obviously it has got worse since you posted this. I would like to think that there are some grown-ups working to prevent us from crashing out without a deal, but the signs are not good.
Black Tulip, it took me until my 50s to learn that there aren’t any grown-ups–or at least, they are very few and far between. It’s a frightening thought. All the people in the Midwest of the US who I thought were solid, sensible folk and would see through Donald Trump like a sheet of plastic wrap–they turned out to be total suckers for his silly posturing and racist dog whistle. Very disappointing.
I still have hope for the UK even if Brexit happens in the worst way, but it will be a hard road. Those who got swindled by the Rees-Moggs will slowly realize it, but they won’t turn to Labour as Corbyn hopes. I really think that Corbyn has to be toppled and someone younger has got to come in and offer a fresh vision.