A Letter from London

October 17, 2016

I have always had a thing for London. Like so many American baby boomers, I was introduced to it courtesy of the American musical theater. First, there was the television broadcast of "Peter Pan" with Mary Martin flying over the chimney tops, and then the movie, "Mary Poppins," which was all nannies and prams and tea and crumpets and even more chimney tops. In between, there was the Broadway musical, "Oliver!" which my father took me to while it was still in tryouts at the Shubert Theater in New Haven. That production taught me about London's dark, Dickinsonian side, what with its workhouses and pickpockets and orphans living on nothing but gruel. "Sweeney Todd" only reinforced that concept.

 

My first real glimpse of London was in 1968, as part of a family trip to visit an aunt and uncle who spent their winters in St. Moritz, the jet-set ski resort. We stayed at the Piccadilly Hotel, a big pile of a place that still exists. It's now called Le Méridien, and every time we are in the neighborhood, I like to walk by and look up at the windows that I am absolutely sure were our room. It was the first time I ever saw a bidet.

 

What I recall more than anything was walking back to our hotel with my parents and sister Karen one night- and seeing a huge crowd gathered in front of a theater. All of a sudden there was a roar and an explosion of flashbulbs as a petite dark-haired lady in a white fur stole and a glittering diamond tiara emerged from a big car. It was the Queen, arriving at the  Royal Film Performance of "Romeo and Juliet." I was 10 years old, but I remember it as if it were yesterday.

 

Once I began working as a fashion designer on Seventh Avenue, London was a required destination for shopping and trend spotting. I didn't come often, as I worked for some of the stingiest dress companies ever, but when I did, I always attempted to have the most authentic experience possible. At the time, I was addicted to the BBC series, "The Duchess of Duke Street." It was a marvelous precursor to "Downton Abbey," starring Gemma Jones as the salty proprietor of a hotel renowned as the private playground for the royals, including Edward VII. Further study revealed the name of the actual hotel as The Cavendish on Jermyn Street. So of course I booked myself into The Cavendish, expecting something marvelously dusty in that British sort of way.

 

Unbeknownst to me, my Edwardian fantasy had been replaced with a brutalist concrete tower. I was devastated, but I learned my lesson: don't believe anything you see on TV.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In later years, I had the great fortune to become friendly with Richard Dalton, Princess Diana's hairdresser. Through him, I got to know an entirely different aspect of London, along with the wonderful, eccentrics who prided themselves on their "access" to the royal family. Those years taught me about the uniqueness of a certain set of of Brits, and the allure of a life that seemed to have one foot in the present and the other in the past, what with all that pomp and tradition that is really only relevant to those listed in "Burke's Peerage." But did you know that "Burke's Peerage" has expanded its scope beyond British royals? I didn't until today. It now lists the presidential and distinguished families of the US, along with the ruling families of Africa and the Middle East. I call that progress.

 

Since my marriage to a business software guy, London has come back into my life in a big way, and I couldn't be more thrilled. We get to "cross the pond" as often as other business travelers get to cross the country- and London is once again revealing itself in new and surprising ways. It's a city in flux, much of it good but a lot of it uncertain. Brexit, terrorism and the influx of mind-boggling wealth from the Middle East has added an edge that doesn't sit quite naturally with the old tea and scones society. Now, there is a go-goism present, along with a contrasting "we gotta get outta here" attitude among some. The black cabs, colorful window boxes and polished brass plaques are still there, but they coexist with sparkling gold-plated Range Rovers with license plates from Qatar. There are more jewelry stores than ever, but also a surprising number of vacant storefronts. There are homeless people living in the underpasses at Hyde Park Corner.

 

We get to witness this seminal moment in London's history from the comfort and safety of nice hotels and good restaurants. But we now know the difference between "hard Brexit" and "soft Brexit," and absolutely think about whether that wonderful Eastern European bartender or front desk clerk will be there on our next visit. Our British friends are equally fascinated with the craziness that's going on in our country right now.

 

Still, London remains positively adorable. That "twee" element, that "spoonful of sugar," is still there, along with a politeness that I wish we could bottle and take back home with us. We get to eat Indian food for breakfast, lunch and dinner- and get to walk it off in a city that embodies the essence of charm, even in the face of enormous change.

 

Could we ever live in London? In a heartbeat. Would we? Probably not, as our families and friends in the US are far too important to leave behind. But for the few nights that our windows overlook the steady stream of traffic on Park Lane, circling around to Buckingham Palace, it's fun to fantasize.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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