Soon after the election, we head to England. I am attending a conference in Oxford but first a weekend in London to meet the Headmistress of City of London School for girls, to visit with a Laurel alumna, to visit the Churchill War Rooms, to take my god-daughter to high tea, to visit my old friends at the National Portrait Gallery. I travel with the woman who brought me to Laurel thirteen years ago. We are excellent travel buddies. She is intrepid and I am a good reader of signs. At Kennedy, I buy a massaging neck pillow. Snuggled across my row of seats sporting my new eye mask, I feel like a small purring animal. It is a pleasant journey.
This visit feels apart from time, as if I am floating—shifting dreamily between the 19th c. and the present, taking in the tiny touches at the Goring that make one feel cared for, transported back to a Downton world, where servants figured out what you needed before you had a chance to even consider what might be required.
Our beginning is not auspicious. The taxi driver from Heathrow will not take my credit card; I do not have the requisite PIN. Then, Dane, in his bowler, sweeps to our rescue, “We’ll just put it on the tab, Mrs. Juster. Off you go.” The staff calls both of us Mrs. Juster; I stop trying to correct them; it is lovely that they use any names. And then we are tucked into club chairs in the lounge, drinking tea and eating toast as our room is readied. Less than half an hour passes. We are under-dressed for the lounge, but no one minds. Before long, we are upstairs in our room, changing our clothes, cooing over the light switches that modulate the lighting—our favorite setting is “Ooh.” We swoon over the heated bathroom tiles and running lights, the enormous sheep that doubles as an ottoman, every detaBeyond the window, the garden is an emerald square, little houses on the non-Goring side, full of narrow casement windows and slate roofs and tiny chimney tops. “Where is Bert?” I wonder, in this behind the scenes Mary Poppins view. A real orchid blooms, white, on the round table by the window. Our room is shades of beige, soothing, like a cocoon.
In the public spaces, flower arrangements bloom on every surface, carnations massed so tightly they appear to be a single bloom. The windowpanes along the stairwell, dating from 1910, we are told by a footman, are textured, opaque and wavy, like wrinkled cloth. The wallpaper is the same pattern, but on each floor, the large flowers float against a different background. We know our floor because of the empty picture frames. “Pink panther,” our porter explains knowingly. Anne and I exchange a puzzled glance. In the hallway, even the chairs are inviting, as if you could retreat to the corridor if the room were suddenly too small. The Goring is populated by footmen and doormen and porters and ladies in long white coats, who seems to manage registration and smile and say “Brilliant,” to every mundane declaration. There are more attendants than guests it seems.
We head out to appointments, and then, duties accomplished, retreat back to the Goring for a respite. Our flight is catching up with us. At 4 o’clock, we hear a knock at the door. A tiny white china rectangle arrives sporting two stemmed Clementines on a gold dusted surface—we dip our fingers in the gold and spread it on our cheekbones before we head to the theatre. On the West End, at Half a Sixpence, the illusion of loveliness continues—a nosegay of a musical, bright, lithe and unself-conscious—an Edwardian confection with no hint of war to come. Gold garlands adorn the theatre; gilt angel-muses, in relief, frame the proscenium, one holding a trumpet that reaches out over the audience, the other an olive branch or laurel crown—it is too dim to see up so high. Four fat cherubim are wrapped in golden cloths, cavorting on the arch. At the interval, our aisle mates eat ice cream. We acquire tiny chocolate bars, named for Shakespearean heroines. I am enchanted. The leading man, a twenty-two year old phenom recalls the grace of Fred Astaire, leaping and twirling in effortless, elevated choreography. In the second act, he plays a banjo and the entire stuffy musicale crowd joins in, pressing cocktail shakers and end tables into service as instruments. It is rollicking, ridiculous, joyful. I eavesdrop on the audience members around us. I do not hear Donald Trump’s name. The absence of politics is restful. Afterwards, we are transported home in a taxi, the lights of the city sparkling, Christmasy, though we are not yet finished with November. Lord Nelson atop his arch, commands his lions to sit, stay. In the lounge, we drink champagne and shamelessly people-watch, nibbling cheddar biscuits, olives, crisps. Anne eats tiny crab cakes and I indulge in Welsh Rarebit, which appears like cheese toast. In Room 97, the maid has been back to remake the beds, leaving lip balm on our pillow. Balm, salve. Healing. Under the eiderdown, I sleep deeply, fully, resting, giving myself over to the experience. In the morning, the bath is deep enough to float in, the light wintry but bright when we pull back the satin drapes. I run a finger across the silk brocade wallpaper—silk brocade? In the dining room, where elegant Savorski cherry branches light the space (to the dismay of more traditional guests, our server tells us), egg cups march next to porridge bowls. Breathe it in. Grace, ease. A respite. We set out, fortified with porridge, and notice a statue of a young Queen Victoria in a tiny, gated square behind the Goring. Another hotel is putting up holiday decorations, garlands and greens and red fronds. Strolling down the Birdcage Walk, we admire a pink pelican, notice a heron atop the birdkeeper’s cottage, chuckle at other tourists making friends with a squirrel. Apparently squirrels are never seen in Australia, and these squirrels, demi-celebrities, are happy to cavort with those from down under. We crunch through fallen leaves, skirting a protest. Grey-coated guardsmen burst into the unlikely strains of Copa Cabana—the tune stays in my head all day, though Anything Goes, their next tune, vanishes into the autumn air. In Churchill’s War rooms, the destination I was determined to visit on this trip, I imagine London enduring the Blitz; I try to reconcile what I know of that great war with what I’ve known, the bits and pieces that I feel I’ve always known, about Churchill. Grace and Will, my cousin’s children, are good sports, but eventually, they leave with their dad, the setting not conducive to conversation. After two hours and a half of wandering, I think of Churchill’s Clementine, not particularly well-liked, I am sad to learn, and of Winston—revered, despised, revered again—what a statesman he was, how he understood the vicissitudes of politics. Where are those statesmen now? The rooms, underground, are efficient, unexpectedly immediate, as if Churchill, himself, could be lurking around a corner in one of his one-piece velvet rompers.
A spontaneous stop at St. Martin’s in the field yields an orchestra in rehearsal for a Beethoven piece—listening feels a little illicit, like spying, but we stay. I rest my sore feet in the wooden pew, look up at the intricate carvings, garlands and patterns floating on the ceiling, arches that end with the heads of three baby angels. The window behind the altar is plain, no stained glass in the whole church, but the mullions look as if they have been bent to make a cross. The lectern is in the middle of the congregation, not at the front. I like that. The simplicity of the windows makes the elaborate plaster work all the more whimsical. I like the combination—contemporary and ancient. There has been a church on this site since 1222. America feels like a gangling infant to me today.
We drink mint and pea soup and a ginger/apple concoction at the ubiquitous Prete, gazing out the window at a statue of Edith Cavell. I remember Daddy telling me about her heroism, a nurse, who smuggled soldiers into Holland and was executed by a German firing squad. So much atrocity in so short a time—those two great wars. There are red poppy wreaths at the base of many statues—Remembrance Day in England feels more tangible than Veteran’s Day. Here, in London, the two wars also feel more recent, as if I have only just missed them.
Next, the National Portrait gallery, where I greet my old friends, the Tudors and the Stuarts, lots of 18th c. actors—Sarah Siddon, Edmund Dean, Charles Kemble—no sign of Fanny but a likeness of Nell Gwynn I do not like as much as the one in my dressing room at home. My feet give out, burning, aching—I am annoyed. Back to the hotel for a respite before tea at Fortnum and Mason—sumptuous, Tiffany-blue china and towers of tea sandwiches, scones, and sweets. Bravely, I devour a garish pink rose éclair, even swallowing down the rose petal, because I may never have such an opportunity again. Grace and I browse after, searching for a gift for her birthday, rejecting a 1000-pound hamper filled with Christmas crackers. We settle on a kaleidoscope and some candy—big decisions. And then, in the damp dark again, we find a taxi and make our way back to The Goring, full of London, ready for the jaunt to Oxford.
I write, my feet resting on a giant ewe, an unlikely ottoman. I savor being in this lovely spot. And then, a few weeks after I've returned home to the States, I read that Queen Elizabeth has lunched at the Goring, and Dane, our favorite doorman, Anne and I are sure, had to evict a drunken intruder. Drama at the Goring and we missed it. Next time.