London Journal January 10, 11, 12

Friday, January 10

A grinning child came scooting towards us carrying a case the size for a small violin, his mother trailing behind. That nicely illustrates the change in English school children in the last thirty years: from apparently docile lambs in dark blue uniforms shepherded in groups, to rambunctious free spirits speeding along ahead of their parents. That is merely one observation as we were heading up Redcliffe Gardens, each with errands of our own. We are in a neighborhood of many colors, yet nearly everyone wears black, including myself. We each have a flag of bright color, a scarf, or hat. Together my husband and I checked on the location of a highly recommended pub with a fireplace. It seemed to be a gathering place for beautiful people, a suitable destination for lunch tomorrow with our elderly English cousins.

Roger turned back to Mailboxes, Etc., and I continued on to the High Street to get my pay-as-you-go phone account topped up, the online top-up not able to accept my foreign postcode. The clerk may have charged me twice, declaring that the first attempt did not go through though he had me sign the slip. I asked him if he tore it up and he said yes. We’ll see. I then mentioned to him that we would be staying six months. His name was Moustafif – or something like that. His picture was on the wall with the other reps. I won’t forget.

My list of needed items was in a slot in my safety pouch which I clung to under my scarf. There wasn’t as much time as I’d hoped. I looked for brown boots on sale in the Ecco and Russell & Bromley stores, and browsed for soap amd shampoo in M&S (which entitled me to use the loo), but nothing suited, so I went to Boots. I was hoping to find either my American Burt’s Bees or other reasonably priced lines I remembered from back when. The High Street store seemed all about luxury fragrances at one end and medicines at the other. I noticed that hearing aid accessories would be down in the basement, where old people would not diminish the appeal of the ground floor. By then it was dark, so I headed back to the flat on foot, 1.06 miles, according to Google Earth, with an eye out for a food store. There were other women out alone, I noticed, but I still felt uneasy.

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Finally, when I was almost to the Old Brompton Rd., I stopped in Sainsbury’s local and bought a few items, swapping out potatoes for rice at the last minute as the load looked heavy. Then I went to the bus stop and rode the last few blocks, chastened for my fears when a boy, age about 10, on the bus with his musical instrument case and earplugs, positioned himself to get off at my stop. It was not even five o’clock when I got out door unlocked.  Living at a higher latitude will take some getting used to. (And so will living with four front door keys.)

 Saturday, January 12

423 As it happened, we did not need the pub. Our English “cousins,” Peter and Linda Smith, were content with the idea of going straight from Victoria Station to the National Army Museum. I waited inside Costa’s coffee bar (having been roused out of bed too late to have any breakfast) while Roger met their train, and then we all rallied around a table before setting off (via the loos, now 30 p, up 150%) for bus 170 and the Royal Chelsea hospital, a grand campus lined with buildings in Georgian style, noteworthy for massive chimney stacks. The grounds were a lovely, lush green in the rare winter sunlight, and some shrubs even have blooms. The museum, however, is a dirty yellowish-gray brick building squeezed into an alleyway (or so it seems).

Perhaps my attitude was not fairly receptive to the idea to visit a museum honoring killing, though it was my suggestion that we go there to please Peter’s penchant for anything military. He is the eldest of us and may not have many more days for exploring London. In fact, it was with some distaste that I mounted the staircases to the exhibits, walls decorated with quotations about how to be an effective infantryman and why civilians should appreciate those brave or sharp enough to keep us safe from our enemies. I had not got much beyond an Anglo-centric model of the battlefield at Waterloo (the historian’s assessment) – in fact I got as far as the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse – when I opted to go down to the café and get a drink so I could take two ibuprofen.

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The message of the remarkable musical play LOST BOY is still too fresh on my mind to think anything about war except that it is a mark of the depravity of the whimpering average man. In the play, which is portrayed as partly in a dream, the adult Peter Pan is not really “grown up,” and after he and Wendy declare their love for one another and decide to marry, the other boys take him to a woman of the streets who will “make him a man.” When at the altar Wendy hears of his debauchery, she turns away from him. He then goes off to war to further prove he is worthy of her. When he finally kills another human being in battle – in fact kills 30,000 of his own men by leading them into battle as General Pan – he asks Wendy who is at the front, “Am I a man now?” We left the theater in tearful despair, the rousing songs and cannonades ringing in our ears.

Paul Ham emphasizes that the decision to launch World War I was that of generals eager to move up in their careers. This comes as no surprise. We see it in the marketplace. We even see it in academia. I am more startled to be informed that the excellent English and German and French railway systems were built to bring opposing troops to the front lines of battle. When the first men left the station, there was no turning back for anyone.

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