Monday, December 25, 2006

A Foggy Christmas Eve

Seasons greetings from London.

It's foggy and cold here, so much that the planes have been grounded and travelers, along with gift packages, are stranded. When I traveled by train to Harrow last Wednesday the frost on the ground was so thick that it looked like snow. But the sun still comes out for several hours a day, weakly.

It's Christmas Eve and I returned a little while ago from watching the ice skaters outdoors on Hampstead Heath. It's the thing to do when the air is nippy and Santa is on his way. While decorating the tree, my hostess Helen and I watched a wonderful documentary about the most popular Christmas song ever in England, The Pogues' "Fairy Tale in New York." Now I can't get it out of my head. It's not exactly the Bing Crosby kind of song, but if you like drunk Irish punk music, it will make you weep. In an hour I'll walk up Highgate Hill to Holy Joe's (St. Joseph's Church) for Christmas caroling and midnight mass. Hopefully the fog will stay wet rather than icy.

Traveling to London from San Francisco on a British Airways non-stop flight was a breeze. I even got to see the new Pedro Almodovar film, "Volver," on the in-flight entertainment program which had yet to open in Santa Cruz. Penelope Cruz and her co-stars are magnificent, and the film, ostensibly about ghosts who "return," is filled with delightful twists and turns. As with most of his work, it's a woman's film and the men come out looking pretty bad. We men have much penance to pay for our sins.

My first shock at Heathrow was to learn that the dollar continues it's slide against the pound. A week ago the dollars was $1.95 to the pound, and by the time I had arrived it was $2.11. Everything is consequently expensive. The small Christmas tree I bought was the equivalent of $60, and dinner the other night at Chez Rouge in Hampstead, with Helen's friends Arnold Brown (a well-known British comic) and his gardener-artist wife Liz, and their friend Jane who has performed at Edinburgh in a one-woman show, was about the same, for each of us.

On Saturday I took the train ($36 for a round-trip, an hour's ride each way) to Oxford, where my host was Professor Noel King's oldest son Francis. He met me at the station with his 5-year-old son Harry and we toured the town, stopping at first at St. Peter's, the college where both Noel and Francis got their degrees. Francis is an administrator for the oldest Anglican church in Oxford and he took me up in the church tower (he wrote the tourist bochure) where we had a terrific 360-degree view of the ancient university city. It would have been better without the fog, of course. After peeking through the doors of several colleges into the quadrangles where students would gather were it not the Christmas holiday, we repaired to the Turf Tavern for a pint, a watering hole that still boasts that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were their most famous customers. The beer was good. Later, Francis walked me back through the misty fields behind Christchurch College to his house near the canal, and I was treated to a wonderful lunch by his wife Catherine, joined her mother Jillian and boyfriend Ewan, and Richard from Toronto, a former Rhodes scholar (Catherine workes at Rhodes House where the famous scholarships are administered). And of course young Beatrice, Harry's slightly older sister. Oh yes, and Francis showed me where Bill Clinton, perhaps the most famous Rhodes scholar, lived while studying at Oxford. And he was rumored to be a patron of Turf's, where smoked marijuana but did not inhale.

I purchased an Oyster card at Heathrow for travel on the tubes and buses while I'm here now and in February. It allows you to pay as you go, with special low rates, but I spent 15 pounds on trips during my first two days. The London underground is the most expensive in the world, and its different travel zones make it difficult to compute fares. But the trains are frequent and directions easy to understand.

Since I was last in London a year and a half ago, and did the major tourist sites and nostalgic revists (I lived in London from 1964-66) then, this time I've stayed close to my home away from home in Highgate not far from the cemetery where Marx, George Sand and other worthies are buried, with a couple of trips into the city to visit the large Barbican cultural center with its art galleries and theaters, and to take a look at the controversial new British Library building next to the gloriously baroque St. Pancras train station. I found the red brick building modern and bare, but quite spacious and beautiful.

During my trip to Harrow where I visited Shawn Hendrick, the travel agent for Indus Tours who has been arranging the visit of our group from Sangha Shantivanam to ashrams in India, I walked up the hill to Harrow school and past the venerable buildings (Harrow and Eton are considered the top preparatory schools in England) to "The Gerards," a house my family and I rented in 1972 for a month. It's a three-storey Victorian mansion with large trees in front and back, and God knows what possessed us to think we could afford it. At the end of the month the promised job in the British record business failed to materialize and we were forced to sneak away on Christmas Eve without paying the next month's rent in order to catch a flight back to Southern California. But my eldest son remembers the house and so I sought it out to take photographs for him. I remember little. Who can retain memories from almost 35 years back?

May everyone reading these words have a merry and warm Christmas, wherever you may be!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas Pop....can't wait to see the pics.