Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Ned and John's London adventure

For years I've written nothing but political rants to friends. There's a reason for that. My own life was uneventful and depressing. I also found that I didn't want to phone friends because at some point the question would come, "So...um...how are you doing?"
Well, at last I've got something pretty super to relate: two weeks spent mainly in London, but with an overnight motor trip to Oxford, Blenheim, and the Cotswolds, the towns and villages of which I'd wanted to see for thirty years or more. The weather was lovely, not a day without sunshine---and during most days there was plenty of it--until the last two days, by which time I'd taken pictures of most of the places I'd gone to London to see.
None of this would have been possible without the aid and companionship provided by John Polhamus. He was superb. Having lived in London for ten years, he's a walking London A to Zed, and insisted on pushing me everywhere. After having had to push myself for twelve years, it was really cushy to be whisked from Trafalgar Square to Whitehall in a jiffy by a fellow who knew the shortest route and took it at good speed. One welcome fact: London, during the mayoralty of Ken Livingstone, has done a splendid job of providing curb-cuts at intersections and of re-grading cobblestones at alley entrances and such to accomodate wheelchairs. Even so, many occasions arose when John had to hoist me over curbs, and did so just like that. We also discovered that all city busses now have extendable wheelchair ramps amidships and space inside for wheelchair parking. Moreover, wheelchair passengers ride for free, as do their assistants. The tube is mainly off-limits, but the new Jubilee Line out to Sratford north of West Ham is wheelchair accessible, as is the Docklands Light Rail.
Me and London: When I was at Oxford in 1960-61 I think I got to London only twice, mainly because I simply couldn't afford to go there. I became acquainted with the city when I was teaching at East Anglia in 1968-69 and Beth and I would get down there once every month or so. It was the Scots architectural critic Ian Nairn who really introduced me to the city in his quirky, droll, and profound Nairn's London (Penguin, 1968), which I still have and took with me on this trip. I remember one lovely spring day in 1969 when Beth, my mom, and I took a Nairn-guided walking tour of the south embankment from the Royal Festival Hall all the way east to Bermondsey, with our destination being the Mayflower pub at the wharf from which the Pilgrims departed for America in 1620. Nairn said it had a fine porch from which to view the river, and so it had. In 1969 such a walk was for the determined architectural pilgrim, for as Nairn said of that whole sweep of the river, "apart from some half-finished and mediocre work, the area is in a chaotic muddle." Of the frontage between London Bridge and Tower Bridge, "Plenty of roads run down to the river, but a connected walk is impossible until Tower Bridge." And of the area farther on, he acknowledged the hazards but urged, "But try and follow the thread, however thin, because it is the city's real lifeline."
Now all is transformed. (Well, it was fourteen years ago when I took that same tour with my wife Mary, but now it's complete.) As London's Contemporary Architecture: A Visitor's Guide (purchased at the bookshop of the Tate Modern, and one of the few really first-rate things to be found in that monument to artistic bankruptrcy in the early twenty-first century) says, "The southern embankment of the Thames has become a promenade." What forty years ago was a tour only for the physically fit and the intrepid is now, but for sixty yards or so of the whole three miles, easily done in a wheelchair(and even that sixty yards John got me over lickety-split, up onto a narrow pavement, down onto cobbles over which shock-absorbers would have been handy, up on pavement again). London's back was turned to the Thames for centuries. Now the riverfront is a sort of urban riviera, what with the London Eye (the great ferris wheel) the new pedestrian bridges flanking the Hungerford railway bridge, the new Millenium pedestrian bridge connecting St. Paul's and the Tate Modern, and the continuous promenade from Vauxhall Bridge to Tower Bridge.
So, I wanted to take in all this stuff; I'd been dying to for fourteen years. In 1992 my life changed drastically and perpetually for the worse. London had been my oyster, mainly because John and Mary Whiting lived in the Hampstead Garden Suburb, and I'd always had free lodgings there. When I was teaching at Frankfurt, 1978-1980, it was Christmas at the Whitings, dining on Mary's cookery, drinking John's wines, and sipping whisky from the Channel ferry duty-free. Jaunts to Bath and Bristol, football matches at West Ham, Chelsea, and Tottenham, museum going, pub crawling, the theater...
In 1987 my not-yet wife Mary and I spent two weeks with them. I treated to tea at the Palm Court of the Ritz! My Mary and I went to a matinee at the Haymarket of Simon Gray's made-for-Alan Bates play Melon (not up to his much earlier Butley), but it was Alan Bates, Mary's heartthrob, and she was thrilled. She and I came back for another two weeks in January 1991, taking advantage of low off-season airfares. I shot rolls of film of the new Docklands developments. She and I went to see a comedy by Corneille, forget the title, at the Old Vic directed by Jonathan Miller, quite enchanting. After that, Mary and I would joke about winning ten million from the Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes and buying a condo at Butler's Wharf, just east of Tower Bridge, then being developed by Terence Conran. And we four would be friends forever.
That spring or fall I put on a slideshow of London architecture for the San Diego Friends of Architecture, an organization formed a few years earlier by the redoubtable Harriet Gill, an elderly woman I had met when we both had commentary slots at KPBS-FM, the San Diego NPR affiliate. One Saturday morning every month between September and May, a slideshow-talk by some prominent architect or town planner. I persuaded Harriet to give me one, and it went over very well and seemed in my mind to quite justify my going to London for two weeks in January.
Then disaster of course: my spinal cancer, Mary's breast cancers---different strains in each breast!--all confirmed in the same week, dual mastectomy for her, paralysis for me, unsupportable grief, estrangement, separation, divorce. Finis.
For years London seemed impossibly far away. No kipping at the Whitings' for one thing; lodgings a fortune. For another, no tube. No taking the bus to Golder's Green, hopping on the Northern Line train, getting off at Tottenham Court Road and taking the stairs three at a time up to Oxford Street and Charing Cross, and browsing bookshops. John visited San Diego for a few days in '95; we wrote, John phoned me every birthday, urged me to for God's sake to get on the internet.
This Spring I thought, "I'm going to be seventy in September. It's now or never." I had it in my bonnet that if Harriet Gill would give me a slot in the Friends of Architecture schedule for 2005-2006 then by God I'd find a way to get to London. I phoned her. She said, "Of course, you'll have a companion?" I said no, I'd be going by myself. She, sensible woman, rather doubted the feasibility of this project. I am not on the FOA calender for 2005-2006. Then my sister said, "Look, if you can get Bob Kiwala or John Polhamus to go with you, I'll pay his airfare." Kiwala couldn't go (as it developed, this was fortunate: it would have been Laurel and Hardy in London, us taking turns saying, "Well, what a fine mess you got us into this time!"). And it turned out that Polhamus could; no scheduling conflicts after July 8! Done.
Di cautioned me about planning thoroughly; type out an exhaustive list of everything to be packed, and tick them of as you pack. No repeat of my 1996 trip to St. Louis when I forgot my meds and she had to send my coumedin by express mail. Not to mention other misadventures. So I did that: everything going into a suitcase was included. What did not go into a suitcase, however, was my commode. It's lightweight, aluminum, but absolutely necessary. You see, not having legs, I have no way of lifting my butt to finger and stimulate the anus and then to wipe my ass. There has to be room between the seat and the top of the toilet for me to put my arm and hand underneath myself. In fact it was that commode that made a companion absolutely necessary, for how would I get it from the baggage carousel at the airport to the taxi stand without someone to carry it? We were on the airport shuttle when it dawned on me that the commode was still sitting in the bathroom. John said, "There's still time to go back for it," and there was, really, but I made the totally dumb decision to press on without it. When we finally got to the Premier Motor Inn in London it was instantly obvious that without a commode, I'd have to take a return flight pronto or go without a bowel movement for two weeks.
John was not discouraged. He spent about four hours racing around London and finally came back with a servicable commode that cost sixty quid. There remained the problem of bathing. In this "fully accessible" room there was a bathtub. No wheel-in shower stall, something unheard of, evidently, in England. So John had to hoist me from the wheelchair to the top of the bathtub and I'd lower myself into the tub. But how to wash my ass? This duty fell to my companion. I'd hoist myself by my elbows, and John would wash underneath. Through all of this he kept up a running commentary in the voice of a Pathe newsreel or BBC git (John is a wonderful mimic), jaunty and fatuous, who always at some point in the narration said, "Once again, Britain leads the way in" whatever it was. For this service, it was, "Regent's Ass Cleaners', keeping the British anus spotless for five genertations." I added, "By appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II."
When we were driving through Oxfordshire, we came upon a direction sign, "Idbury-Foscot, 2 miles," and John had the perfect name for his announcer, Nigel Idbury-Foscot. Of the west Oxfordshire Idbury-Foscots. His other persona was my man Branston, after Crosse and Blackwell's Branston pickle, our favorite relish. An ordinary cheese and onion sandwich from Tesco's becomes a fine dinner with some Branston pickle on it, accompanied by a decent claret. Whenever he did something extraordinary for me, as he did all the time, I'd say, "I say, Branston, you're a man in a million," and he'd gravely reply, "Just doing my duty, sir."
My favorite Polhamus inspiration, though, came at Blenheim. Here we were in the forecourt, this stupifying elevation in front of us, flanked by wings with collonades, finials, towers, and I wanted to take a wide-angle lens shot of it. But there were three people in conversation in front of us. I waited for a while, they continued to converse, and I was almost at the point of asking if they'd mind steeping aside for a moment. Branston was inclined to be rather harsh with them. Branston would have said, "See here, you lot, the mahster is taking a picture of that building and you don't need me to tell you you're not in it! Now be off with you." Fortunately this was not said.
I might go on and on, regaling you with the splendid dinner we had with the Whitings at Rule's, London's oldest restaurant (same location in Maiden Lane since 1795) which was to be my treat until Mary Whiting grabbed the check. I'd been there once before, when a friend of Beth's took us in 1969; John Whiting hadn't been in fifty years, Mary Whiting never. John Polhamus had passed it many times but had never looked inside. It reminds me of Sir John Soane's Museum, all walls crammed with oils and prints (directly over our table a large oil of the Thames and the city near dusk, around 1870, in the manner of Turner, very fine). Sublime dinner. With dear friends I'd feared I'd never see again. All of this seemed to me something worth writing about.