Monday, January 17, 2011

London 26.12.2010: Christmas Crowns and Dr. Johnson's Pigeon

I’ve reached that stage of a trip when journal-keeping begins to seem a chore, a chronicle of this and that.  And so I put off writing, and the unwritten chronicle grows ever longer.

But since we’re back in our room after a long, cold Boxing Day walk and I’ve had a hot shower, I have time to catch up, so let the tedious chronicle begin.

I believe I last left it at “Ideal Husband,” which was delightful—just the frothy thing for a Christmas eve theater stint.  To my mind, Fiona Button as Mabel Chiltern was the grand star of this show, with her droll, slightly exaggerated but entirely appropriate, facial expressions, her over-the-top (and again appropriate) vivacity and flirtatiousness.  Perfect for Wilde.

And I was struck by something that I suppose is obvious about Wilde and has certainly been much commented on, but about which I’m not sure I’ve thought much in the past: his keen moral sense.  His incisive, wicked skewering of bourgeois morality, of its pretense to be what it’s not, to be about honor and integrity and the value of one’s word, when it’s actually all about money.  About getting and keeping.  And arranging one’s relationships to facilitate getting and keeping.

Surely it’s for this critique that he was hated as much as for his homosexuality, and one wonders if he was hounded for the latter primarily to stop the former.  Seeing this play makes me want to re-read Ellmann’s biography, to see if any of this is on the right track.

Have I mentioned that I booked two plays at the same time on Christmas eve?  The other was a panto at the Old Vic.  When we discovered we couldn’t change the ticket for Wilde (and I’m sure I did mention this previously), we offered the panto tickets to T.W., who couldn’t go, so we ended up giving them to the staff at Parkcity as a Christmas gift.

The plan had been to nip from the Old Vic across the river to St. Martin in the Fields for evensong at 6:30, after the panto. Instead, we walked down the Strand, from the Vaudeville, where “Ideal Husband” was staged, to St. Martin.

Which we had trouble finding, since we’d located its steeple in daylight and it was now dark.  So we made a large circle in the dark through Trafalgar Square, eventually finding the line for evensong, which was a block long by 5:30 and which brought us back to the corner of the Strand where we’d started our circle.

It was quick-moving, though, and the wait was made lighter by a pleasant conversation with a London lady who’s come to the event for 20 years, and with her friend who had come down from Luton for the service.

We got wonderful seats near the front of the church and enjoyed the evensong—though to say it was magical or even moving would be an overstatement.  Part of the problem, I think, is that the nice, benign, kind things official church types tend to say at Christmastime grate, increasingly.

And so the sermon, with its references to Amnesty International, China, and Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, left me cold.  It’s so easy to find pertinence over there, so much more difficult to grapple with it here.  It’s so comforting to talk about helping women struggle against oppression in China, about mending the social wounds of apartheid in Africa, etc.

And so much harder here.  But the churches want to avoid pertinence here—in their official face, they want to do so—because it’s costly.  And we were treated to a reminder of this during evensong itself, when a fellow worshiper began to wave and gesticulate during one of the carols, to the obvious consternation of everyone around him.  Ahead of us, a young couple broke into laughter, and the sober young Scotswoman beside me jerked her chin in his direction as she pointed him out to the man she was with.

I say this incident was a reminder of the price of pertinence, because constantly dogging the steps of the Anglican church everywhere today is a powerful right-wing watchdog group, often allied to charismatic piety (and the gesticulating caroler was clearly a charismatic), monitoring when, how, where the church applies the gospel today.  In contemporary culture.  Here.  Now.

Easier to talk of China and Africa and Amnesty and leave the faithful to sort it out for themselves—where and how any of this applies to London or Luton.  Or El Paso or Corvallis.

And then back to our room for ham sandwiches we’d bought at Waitrose early in the day, and shlepped with us all day.

Christmas day: the one liturgy we’d identified as a possibility was at St. Mary Abbots at 11:30, and we’d asked the hotel to make reservations for us at a nearby restaurant at 1, so we decided to spend the morning reading and then walk to the restaurant, Chutney Mary’s, for 1.

It was a good walk, about half an hour.  The meal: shockingly expensive, and frankly not worth what it cost, to my mind.  The name itself says to me that this restaurant, which has become something of a local chain, is modeling itself on pseudo-upscale American chains that love to call themselves Ruby this or Molly that, as they sell over-priced and pretentious second-rate meals to yuppies.

Several proper British families scattered about when we arrived, enjoying their Christmas curry with crowns from their crackers atop their heads.  We promptly joined them, snapping our crackers open and donning our crowns.

Soup good, though as I heard the young Irishwoman at the table next to us say, far from piping hot: a reduction of yellow beetroot, with curry and coconut milk.  This followed by a kebab platter with a large prawn, a piece of lamb, a tiny taste of chicken masala.

For the main course, Steve chose a lamb curry and I a country captain, so I was surprised to receive a plate of curried lobster.  I decided to say nothing, since I thought sending my dish back would entail sending Steve’s, too.

But Steve decided to point out the mix-up when the waiter came back to ask how the meal was.  The waiter was apologetic, and did offer to bring the country captain, but I insisted on sticking with what had been brought to me.

Something definitely does seem to have been off about Chutney Mary’s yesterday, since the staff tried to serve us dessert twice, and, when we returned to our room and examined the bill carefully, we found we’d been charged for a diet Coke—which neither of us ordered or could imagine ever ordering.

Oh, well.  The meal wasn’t by any means bad.  Just over-priced, and when one factors in the discombobulated service, the cost was even less warranted.

And on to today: a long, cold walk along the Strand from Trafalgar Square to St. Paul’s and back again, with a welcome stop on the return at a pub—Duke of Wellington, it may have been called—for a traditional Sunday dinner of roast beef, potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, and two veg.

The highlight of the walk, for me, was finding Dr. Johnson’s statue behind St. Clement Danes.  With a pigeon atop his head.

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