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Florence in Words

A Week in London

It is hard to explain why London is so fraught for me with emotional longings, for home, for missed opportunities, regrets, losses, and, at the same time, filled with anticipations of joy and even magic. I like the look of it—yes, that’s one simple pleasure. I connect it with memories of youthful adventure, including the month I spent at the British Museum copying out the manuscript of Mrs. Dalloway, each morning greeted warmly by the guards, to whom I had made presents of political buttons calling for an end to the Vietnam War. I remember the visits to the National Gallery, the old Tate and then the new Tate Modern. I remember the little hotel on a street one block long, just off Piccadilly, where I stayed with daughter Alice one year, with friend Helene another, and once with Mariam Chamberlain as well. Five years ago, I shared an apartment in the suburbs with Susie Tharu and her husband, and I remember a very hot day, when we walked across the pedestrian bridge to see a play at the National Theatre. And the early days of the National itself, gleaming white in the sunlight, pristine still. I’d visit on the very first day to buy tickets to whatever was on in its three theatres. And in those days, there would be live music an hour before curtain time in the extensive lounges on the ground floor.

But this visit bound to be different not only because of my walking problems—we took many taxis--but also because I was going to share the time with Christiane Owusu-Sarpong, the French translator of the Women Writing Africa volumes, two of whose children lived in London. Didier, Christiane’s son, and his fiancée, Clare Podbury, had just bought the apartment in Canary Wharf they had been living in for a decade. The area, on the river, and within a short bus ride or a long walk to the underground and ferry wharf, is the new financial center of London (see skyscraper photos). They invited us to stay with them for a week. The apartment is spacious, beautiful, decorated in what Clare calls “greige,” and ornamented as well by the river and by exquisite sunsets off a deck outside the living room’s glass wall. One day Christiane and I walked along the river from the apartment to take the Thames ferry to the Tate Modern.












Christiane and her daughter, ColetteDidier and ClareCanary Wharf
Christiane and her daughter, ColetteDidier and ClareCanary Wharf


In all, we saw three plays, viewed four art exhibits, and ate two lunches at the Tate Modern, one at the Globe, another at the National Gallery, and took Clare and Didier out to two dinners in upscale restaurants. The plays: Julius Caesar at the Globe, a special experience because of the theatre, and a good example of how discomfort can vanish when one is caught up in language and movement. We were at the National twice, catching it in some disarray, as it prepares to revise itself in time for a 50th anniversary celebration. There, we saw Alan Ackbourne’s A Small Family Business, an old play but totally contemporary in our greedy world; as if to prove it, we also saw Great Britain, the brand new riff on the newspaper scandals that tore open other veneers of our shared greedy culture.












Out the window during the dayThe GlobeStorm over London
Out the window during the dayThe GlobeStorm over London





View from the apartment
View from London flat in Canary Wharf


On our first day in London, we went to the Virginia Woolf exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, a new experience for Christiane, who is just beginning to read Woolf, and overwhelming for me, for many different reasons. Later in the week, we took the boat to the Tate Modern first to have lunch with Christiane’s daughter, Dr. Colette and her young niece Ohemma, who would also like to be a doctor, then to view the huge exhibit of Henri Matisse’s “Cutouts,” which included snippets of film showing him making them. Still later in the week we returned to the Tate to see a large retrospective of the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich, whose work I had first seen in Russia in 2006. As our last exhibit, Christiane chose an unusual riff on “Color” at the National Gallery, focused not only on the paintings but on the creation of paint itself.

I should mention one sharply different experience of London. When traveling with Mariam, for example, we always did a bit of shopping, and never missed a trip to Liberty’s, Mariam’s favorite. We ate in little tearooms she enjoyed in the shopping area, or off Piccadilly. This time, when Christiane and I took the bus to the Canary Wharf stop of the underground we took escalators down to a huge mall, where we could have coffee at Starbucks, use the bank machines, and buy the International New York Times. One morning, all four of us went to that underground mall to choose a Nespresso machine as a thank you gift to Clare and Didier. We could also have done the week’s marketing right there as well. Yes, London was different, but for me still a charmed place.
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