In the middle of May, I went to England for a couple of days. Stay tuned for a thrilling description of my trip.
Thursday, 18 May
First, I visited herself just for 24 hours. We had such a nice time. She is a devotee of the schedule and she sends me a programme in advance of my visits. “Weird,” you say. “Absolute genius,” I say. It allows us to tweak and decide exactly what we are going to do and when packing maximum value into any visit. Also, she books stuff. On arrival, after dropping my things at the lovely guest house, we went straight for afternoon tea. There’s a girl who knows her mother. When I don’t see her for a long time, I forget what great company she is, we did have a nice time.
Sadly, she was slightly under the weather and went back to her room to recuperate after the tea but thanks to the schedule (TM), I was able to take myself to the piano recital she had booked us into. It was free (I love free) and absolutely amazing. I am not generally a fan of musical concerts of any genre (I know, shoot me) but this was an event aimed at students and there was just the right amount of explanation and music. The setting – England on a summer evening, old buildings, wisteria out – was absolutely beautiful. I don’t know when I have enjoyed a concert more.
Later I went to a student poetry reading event where herself was going to be reading some poetry. It was informal in nature and upstairs in a pub. As I arrived late, in the middle of herself reading a poem, the assembled young people chorused “Hello [the Princess’s] Mum!” You get the vibe. I was the oldest person there by about 100 years. Surprisingly enjoyable. English young people are very polite and quite formal in some ways. Whenever one of them was about to read a slightly risqué poem he or she would say, “Sorry [Princess’s] Mum.”
Friday, 19 May
We went out for a lovely breakfast herself had booked. I was pleased to see that she is back on her bike. I believe it spent its first year in storage and I was beginning to fear that it might have been an unwise investment. Here is a selfie using the iphone portrait filter which I love because it removes all my wrinkles and she hates because it makes her look like she’s made of plastic but whose blog is it, I’d like to know?
We had a little boat tour and the guide said that we were like sisters. I was pleased herself was outraged. Until the guide said, “No not that you look like sisters but the way you bicker is like sisters.” Cue reversal of sentiments.
Afterwards we went to her room where we were able to shelter from torrential rain. This was particularly important to genius here who decided to travel without a coat. Though, in fairness to me aside from that, arguably fatal, flaw, my packing was impeccable and I wore everything I brought.
A slight let up in the rain gave me a chance to scurry to the art gallery where I had a quick look around before meeting herself back in the hotel. Then, she escorted me to the bus stop, told me where to get off and how to get to my destination in London where I was meeting my sister. Very competent too. It’s weird that she knows London so much better than me now. Your correspondent struggled to find the underground entrance (right beside the bus stop) and then floundered around finally reaching her hotel safely without undue incident.
My sister was arriving in very late so I arranged to meet for dinner an old, old friend who I first met more than 30 years ago when we were both the most junior, the lowest form of life in our jobs in Brussels. We partied, we rose up the ranks a bit, we went to each others weddings then, we both moved out of Brussels permanently – me to Dublin, her to London – and had less opportunity to see each other. But R and I have stayed in touch over the years with Christmas cards and the odd whatsapp messages. When we were in Finland some years ago, we thought we might catch up with them on the Åland islands (her husband is from there and they go there in the summer). We did not. Åland is a long way from mainland Finland, I will tell you that. I digress. Anyhow, I’d say it’s at least 15 yeas since I’ve seen her. I was worried that I might not recognise her but I need not have feared, she looks broadly unchanged. It was so much fun to go for dinner with her. She had lots of news – sometimes that doesn’t work so well when you are apart for a long time – but it worked really well. It was great fun. Even though some of her news and mine was a bit grim, she had that very day installed her father in a nursing home, it was overall brilliant and so interesting to hear about each other’s lives and families in detail.
Inspired by our meeting we got in contact with some other (female, as it happens) members of our gang from that long ago time. They’re all on the internet. I was struck by their lofty job titles. It occurred to me that we are the first generation of women whose careers have progressed that way. Most of my mother’s friends went to college but very few of them remained in the work force once they got married. Those who did, like my mother, almost all had part-time roles which were never going to be the most senior (that’s the way of overwhelmingly female part time jobs, perhaps a subject for another post). I can honestly only think of one senior professional women who worked full time among my mother’s friends and she was unmarried. My mother’s friends’ husbands sure, yes, they had senior jobs but their wives whom they had often met in college not so much. Now, I know tons of senior women across many walks of life. If you needed a professional female role model in 1980s Ireland, basically, good luck with that, whereas now, I feel that things are very, very different. I am certainly not saying that things are perfect but, maybe worth acknowledging how much better things are than they were.
Saturday, May 20
My sister having arrived the previous evening, we had breakfast together in the hotel. After considering our options we decided to make a little trip that turned out to be something of a pilgrimage. I know that this is a hotly contested issue but I would say that for most of his lifetime my father was Samuel Johnson’s greatest living fan.
So, we went to Samuel Johnson’s house. We loved it and, if you are a fan of the great lexicographer (and who isn’t?), I can truly recommend it. It is run by volunteers and the little shop is full of enthusiasts telling their favourite Samuel Johnson stories. I returned home weighed down by Dr. Johnson tat.
My saintly sister-in-law and her family are based in London. I sent her a craven message saying that the shortness of my stay did not permit me seeing her and her loving family (of whom I am genuinely v fond) and, to add insult to injury, could she recommend some good places to eat. I find she is extremely solid on such recommendations. She did not let me down.
We went to Noble Rot on Lambs Conduit Street for lunch and I can heartily recommend both the lunch venue itself and the delightful browsability (is this a word? you know what I mean) of the street itself. Sadly, the lovely Persephone book shop which used to be here has decamped to Bath (note to self for future reference) but otherwise an entire success.
My sister decided to go back to the hotel before dinner but I was determined to get into the National Gallery. As predicted by my esteemed sister-in-law, it was heaving. I was a bit surprised, I definitely remember having it more or less to myself in the past. Maybe it was the time of year or the fact that it was a Saturday. Nevertheless, very pleasing. As a friend of mine says, every room you walk into, it’s like seeing an old friend on the wall.
We had dinner in the Piazza in the Royal Opera House. Yet another stellar recommendation from my sister-in-law. Sadly, as it was a beautiful evening, we were not seated on the balcony and I was too afraid to ask to be moved. I am sometimes a timid, shy creature. I later overheard a waiter refusing to sit someone on the balcony as it was for snacks only, that was all that was wanting to set the seal of delight on my evening; I was not missing out after all.
I’d booked us in to a play (2.22 Ghost) which was reasonably enjoyable though a certain amount of jump scares which I do not love. I was irritated by one of the main characters who was a Catholic (code for will believe anything which was in itself annoying). She kept blessing herself at various dramatic moments with her left hand. Surely to God there is someone left in England who could put them right on that.
Sunday, May 21
Our hotel, paid for by my kind sister from her hotel points (hurrah) was in South Kensington so we thought we would take a look around the Natural History Museum. Heaving with a big (though ultimately speedy) queue to get in.
I was quite taken aback by how crowded the London cultural institutions were although the V&A seemed reasonably empty, at least there was no queue to get in. My sister is not a fan though so we gave it a skip.
We went to mass in Brompton Oratory. There were a lot of people there who could have given the “2.22 Ghost” people a steer on how to bless yourself. The priest was from a non-English speaking country but spoke really good English aside from a problem with the “th” which is unfortunate as he was surrounded by people who have really mastered that trying sound. Vatican 2 appears not to have reached Brompton as the priest said mass with his back to the congregation. There were some women in mantillas which is something I have literally never seen in a church in Ireland. I noted that there was a Tridentine mass available earlier in the morning. I’d say you’d get the full pre-Vatican 2 experience there.
Inevitably, everyone knelt for communion at the altar rails which is something that has really gone out in Irish churches but was a feature of my youth. I was surprised how quickly I remembered the ritual of lining up behind and going forward in a wave as the previous kneelers rose. This reminds me of my friend who had a crush on the boy up the road (one of a family of seven all of whom were ferociously bright and brilliant at sport, including this boy who was also very handsome – I see from the internet that he is a doctor in the US now and, although he has kept his hair, he is not what he was in 1983). He was an altar boy in her local church. It was non-stop fun being a teenager in the 80s in Cork. When the priest came to give out communion, she was kneeling at the altar rails. The handsome altar boy followed behind the priest holding – as was standard – a golden salver under your chin (I am sure there is a proper name for this, but I do not know it) in case of disaster, I guess. Anyway my friend was fixated on the altar boy instead of turning her mind to higher things and when the priest said, “Body of Christ,” to be clear correct response, “Amen” she said, “Hello”. Which I still find hilarious.
One of the prayers of the faithful was for King Charles and a just and lengthy (seems unlikely) reign for him, it was kind of wrapped up in world peace and I faithfully gave the response but I noted that my sister did not, doubtless concerned that she was being fooled into swearing fealty to himself.
After mass we went to lunch in a nearby Pain Quotidien (my ardour remains undimmed and I was pleased to see that it was heaving unlike the ones in NY which are busy closing down).
Then my sister was off to see her friend in distant Chiswick and I headed to the airport. I got there in very good time. The “two hours before your flight takes off” is excessive. Not helped at all by the fact that my flight was late.
Mr. Waffle had to fly out on a work trip on the Sunday night so he left the car in the short term car park and I picked it up. I felt that this had the potential to go disastrously wrong but all was well although Aer Lingus’s delay meant that the parking cost me €16.50 which was still a lot cheaper than both of us getting taxis. So, a win I guess.