As you know if you read last month’s post, Ed and I spent all of May in the home of my heart, London—a city I have visited some twenty-odd times since doing a semester there in my student days. London always stirs my senses, my thoughts, my emotions. On this trip, I kept a loose collection of notes during our rambles about the city (you should have seen the mess that was my purse by the end of the trip—ticket stubs, programs, even Sainsbury’s receipts, all inked with impressions I wanted to share with you). More, I confess, than could comfortably fit into a single post, so once more and with feeling I give you “Notes From the Road: London, Part 2.”
Sunday on the Heath
Hampstead Heath on a sunny Sunday—it’s magical. We start by going down the High Street through Hampstead itself to where the heath really gets going [Note to any urbanites out there: a heath is open, uncultivated land, with lots of heather, gorse and coarse grasses], stopping along the way at The Hill Garden—a tumble of green lawn, dense gardens, and a lily pond. Rising above this idyll is my favorite spot in the universe, The Pergola. Built by Lord Leverhulme (of Lever Brothers, think soap), and later donated to the city, the Pergola is a long L-shaped elevated walkway with pillars that support a latticework “roof” covered in roses, wisteria, and a host of flowering vines. It’s a popular spot for wedding and fashion photographers. But most of the time, it’s a sanctuary of silence and beauty.
From The Hill Garden, we wander over the heath—wooded and densely green in May—down to Golder’s Hill Park. It’s a great lifestyle, this wandering from park to park. If only I had the dosh to do it year-round! Anyway, Golder’s Hill Park is a huge family-friendly space with a croquet lawn, a café and ice cream stand, tennis courts, gardens and fountains. It also features a small zoo, home to a dozen deer, several rare donkeys, ring-tailed lemurs, coatis, and a variety of birds—Eurasian eagle owls, white-naped cranes, and kookaburras among them.
The birds are kept in the kind of large cages—about 25 feet in height and twice that in length—that allow them to fly, but not far. Or high. While watching the speckled pigeons, I noted this fact the park had posted:
A speckled pigeon’s lifespan is 3-5 years in the wild and 30 years in captivity.
That’s quite a striking difference and, on the surface, a real boon to the birds. They’re fed daily. They face no predators. And their lifespan is extended by a factor of 6 to 10. But… their flight is severely restricted. They never soar.
As I watched the birds—pecking at seeds, preening, shifting from one roost to another—it struck me this is the trade-off we’re always facing: freedom versus safety. Not just on a physical level, as these birds are, but emotionally, mentally, psychologically. Freedom versus safety. The one with its risks, but also its joys. The other with its certainty, but also its sameness, its predictability, its confinement. Of course, we’d all like to have both, but when push has come to shove in my life, I’ve always chosen freedom. And that, as the poet Robert Frost said, has made all the difference.
Anecdote from our guide during a fascinating tour of the old tunnels on London’s Underground (the Tube): Hundreds of thousands of Brits sheltered overnight in the Tube tunnels during the Blitz in World War II. So full were the platforms that some even slept on the escalators. These folks received quite the wake-up call when the stairs beneath them buzzed into life each day at the station’s opening.
On a more somber note, at various loos in pubs across London, I still encountered a few of the old pull-chain toilets. The ones where there’s a water tank overhead and you pull down on the chain to flush. It took me back to my student days in the late ‘70s when these were the rule rather than the exception. In the streets back then, one could still see evidence of WWII, especially along the Thames (a nightly target during The Blitz). The skeletons of bombed out buildings. Piles of rubble in vacant lots. It takes a long time to recover from a war, to restore a city, a country. To move beyond the death, the destruction, the dislocation. I think about this when I see the before-and-after film footage of cities in Ukraine. Such a sad, stupid waste. Of everything. Maybe the madmen who start these nightmares should be strapped into rockets and launched on a one-way trip to deep space. Bye-ee!
Imagining a New World
The Tate Modern is housed in what used to be the Battersea Power Station on the south bank of the Thames. It is a ginormous building—over 85,000 square feet of display space with vast halls and lofty ceilings—the perfect showcase for the best of contemporary art. Happily, our visit coincided with the Tate’s “Surrealism Beyond Borders” exhibit. Big fans of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Max Ernst, among others, we’d eagerly ordered tix in advance.
The show’s scope far exceeded the usual focus on Parisian and Spanish artists to highlight a half-century of surrealist works across the globe, from Buenos Aires to Cairo, Mexico City to Prague, Lisbon to Seoul. Works designed, their creators stressed, to “subvert reality. To find the uncanny in the everyday. To tap into our unconscious desires and bring dreams to life… a way to challenge authority and imagine a new world.” And so they did. In gut-punching color and vigorous lines, the paintings and sculpture made bold statements on the struggles of women and indigenous peoples, the inhuman pace of modern life, androgyny, war, and religion.
Ed and I spent a lively three hours, crisscrossing the twelve rooms of the exhibit to share perceptions, reactions, “must-sees”. But it was a quote, displayed on the wall, by British-born, Mexican artist Leonora Carrington that blew me away: To possess a telescope without its other essential half—the microscope—seems to me a symbol of the darkest incomprehension. The task for the right eye is to peer into the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope.
A timeless truth yet speaking so eloquently—and imperatively—to the hour we find ourselves in now.
From a display at the Imperial War Museum of casings made for the “Little Boy” atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, killing 70,000 people, this note by historian Ian Kikuchi: From the moment the first bomb was dropped, there was no going back. Even now,70 years on, who has the bomb and who does not continues to shape our world.
Over the Millennia…
About 5,000 years ago, people on the Salisbury Plain in the southeast of England started building this enormous thing we call Stonehenge, a circular enclosure more than 330 feet in diameter which is believed to have served as both a ceremonial site and a place of burial honoring the ancestors. It was also aligned on the Sun and possibly used for working out when to plant crops. We were lucky enough to be in London while the British Museum was running an in-depth special exhibit on this wonder of the ancient world which continues to fascinate anthropologists and archaeologists around the globe.
Monuments of stone arranged in a circle or an ellipse were common enough. The British Isles and Brittany were dotted with them. Israel had one of the oldest, begun some 3,000 years before Stonehenge, but Stonehenge is the most architecturally sophisticated prehistoric stone circle in the world. It took about 1,500 years and countless generations to construct. Your father built Stonehenge—dragging 25-ton slabs of sandstone overland, using sledges and ropes (the wheel had not yet made it to England)—as his father had done, and his father before him. As you would do, and your son. And his. It… was …s-l-o-w. It was also a communal undertaking—everyone pitched in.
So, what happened? Why did structures like Stonehenge cease to be built over the centuries? To make a long story very short, people started clearing the land and farming. At first, it appears they did this communally, but hierarchies developed as the quest for metals—copper, bronze, gold—and the luxury items that could be made from them—items that conferred status to the owner—made their way into trade with the outside world. As humanity became more global, people became more territorial (sound familiar?). Working for the community became working for one’s family, accumulating both property and private wealth.
On the day I came back to the flat after seeing the Stonehenge exhibit, I was greeted by this headline on the daily paper: Shell Oil reports over £7 billion (more than $9 billion) profit in first 3 months.
“Progress”—it’s a funny thing. A bloody thing. An inevitable thing. But I can’t help feeling that somewhere along the way we might have made better choices.
Soho sits in the heart of London. Just south of Oxford Street, north of Chinatown, and right off the Charing Cross Road. In the “Swinging ‘60s”, its Carnaby Street was the destination for the young and fashionably hip. Soho is also the lively hub of the city’s LGBTQ+ community and has been since the 1600s when sodomy was a hanging offense.
[A bit of history here: Henry VIII, that notorious beheader of wives, created the first anti-gay laws in England (The Buggery Act of 1533), and like the fate of his women, the penalty was death. This was changed to imprisonment in the 1800s—with a side of hard labor as Oscar Wilde discovered—and finally de-criminalized in 1967. Five years later, the UK Gay Liberation Front organized its first Pride march—an annual event to this day—and same-sex marriage was legalized in 2014.)
Yes, Soho is alive with the pulse of the LGBTQ community, but everyone goes there. Gay, straight, trans, black, brown, white, the young, the not-so-young—all crowd the streets of this vibrant area lined with clubs, pubs, restaurants, and sex shops with names like Agent Provocateur and Harmony. Mary Poppins, the stage musical, is playing at the Prince Edward Theatre.
Ed and I have rented Airbnb flats in Soho several times, and one of our favorite eateries in London, Balans, is here. Balans serves excellent food and is open until 5 a.m., a real plus to those of us who like to dine after the theatre. It is also one of the most welcoming places in the universe. We ate there several times on this trip, and during our second visit, Ed tapped my arm. “Look around.” I put my fabulous scallop dish on hold for a moment and did a visual 360 of the room. Every table was packed with people laughing, talking. “No one’s on their phone,” Ed said. It was like spotting a Golden Pheasant, so rare and wonderful was the sight. A sight that’s still possible when people stop putting each other into categories—inferior, superior—and just start hanging out together. As Sly and the Family Stone sang: “I am no better and neither are you. We’re all the same, whatever we do … Different strokes for different folks, and so on and so on and scooby-dooby-dooby. We got to live together.” That’s Soho.
Bargaining with the Devil
Among the fourteen evenings we spent at the theatre, for me the most arresting was a drama titled “The End of the Night.” The play, based on a historical event, chronicles the wee hours of April 21, 1945, as three men meet at the home of Dr. Felix Kersten. Besides Kersten, there is Norbert Masur, the Swedish delegate for the World Jewish Congress… and Heinrich Himmler, commander of the S.S. and the chief architect of the Holocaust. In terms of power, he was second only to Hitler.
The times are fraught with danger for the German High Command. World War II is winding down. The Allies are advancing. Any day now, they will discover the concentration camps. Hitler has made it clear he wants all surviving prisoners to be murdered before they can be freed. Himmler has no trouble with Hitler’s wishes, but he has begun to think about saving his own skin, about holding off a final annihilation in order to bargain with the Allies. This is why Kersten had invited Himmler to his home this night. To make a deal. A much bigger deal than any he has previously been able to wrangle from Himmler.
Felix Kersten is Himmler’s therapeutic masseur. He came to Germany in the days of the Weimer Republic. Fabled for his talented hands, he soon became the masseur to Berlin’s wealthy class. His success bought him a big house in the city’s wealthy quarter and a German Aryan wife. Then came Hitler and, with him, Himmler, who suffers from torturing stomach pains. He wanted Kersten to be his personal masseur and doctor. At first, this was a request, then a command: Serve me or be sent to the camps.
As Kersten listened to Himmler’s horrific details of Nazi atrocities, he began to see a way he might yet make some good come from his situation. Instead of taking money from Himmler for his services, he would trade each massage for a life, sometimes two. In this way, he was able to win freedom for some of those Hitler deemed unfit to live. The hope Kersten harbors in the early dark of April 21 is, with Masur’s presence, to save thousands of Jews before the final slaughter.
Both men have to endure several hours of Himmler’s anti-Semitic rants, lies, and pompous self-vindication, but at “the end of the night” Hitler’s right-hand man signs an agreement to release several thousand Jewish prisoners to Masur who will transfer them safely to Sweden.
The play lasts a mere 80 minutes, a full hour shy of the running time of most productions, but it posed a powerhouse of troubling, thought-provoking moral questions: Should Kersten have fled his cushy life in Berlin when Hitler rose to power? Should he have declined to be Himmler’s personal masseur even though this would have meant a one-way ticket to the death camps? Do the ends ever justify the means?
Norbert Masur’s host did not flinch before Hitler’s henchman, in fact was gracious—which was uncomfortable to watch—but his method got things done. It’s a historical fact that Kersten saved a number of Hitler’s victims—Jews, homosexuals, political opponents of the Nazis. As the play is constructed, Masur is our “in” to the human dynamics of this meeting. Clearly uneasy with the monster that is Himmler, he nevertheless must, and does, place his trust in Kersten.
A Last Glimpse
Riding London’s Underground, one is confronted by a host of posters—what’s on in theatres and the cinemas, ads for products and shops, service notices about healthcare, safety. Travel come-ons. My favorite was a large bright notice pasted on the tunnel wall across from the platform at Tottenham Court Road (and likely in numerous other stations). A rainbow of hands is marked with the words: WE STAND TOGETHER AGAINST HATE. To the right of this, the copy runs:
London stands together against hate directed at someone on our transport network because of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender identity. If you experience or witness a hate crime, report it to a member of staff or by texting [number]. In case of an emergency call 999.
London: I can’t wait to go back there.