Friday July 15, 2011
I’m always anxious before flying, but this was one of the smoothest flights ever. An hour shorter because of tail winds, with nary a bump. Air New Zealand’s the best airline I’ve ever flown on – the planes have been redesigned with relatively large seats even in coach, so comfortable. Sat in emergency exit row with nice young English medical researcher working in New Zealand, who encouraged me to try New Zealand films. I watched four entire movies (oddly much more of a distracting diversion from fear-of-flying than reading is for me), and only one, An Education, wasn’t from NZ. That’s the one about the teenage Oxford-bound girl seduced by an older man; I thought it was rather overrated and unconvincing, but at least it kept the attention. The NZ movies were much more alive, particularly Boy, a glowing, feeling story about a Maori boy who idolizes his criminal father. There was also one about a Maori Jesus-like madman, which sounds awful but was sweet, and then a charmer about a Chinese girl secretly marrying a white NZ boy and her family’s disapproval (My Secret Wedding). Didn’t sleep a wink on the flight, but was quite well entertained.
Buddleia in Osterley Park
As the flight got in an hour early, my friend Ron hadn't arrived yet. That gave me a chance to change money and use the internet, and then Ron turned up and whisked me off. Even something that may sound as ordinary as the drive to his house in Peckham Rye was great fun. It was a summery English day, with Constable clouds decorating the sky, and extra-green foliage and purple buddleia everywhere. Our route wound around south of the river, and Ron stopped to show me Osterley Park, a great house I’d never seen. Walking in the extensive park like grounds, with their pond, ducks, swans and weeping willow trees, was ecstacy after nine hours on a plane, and provided a piquantly refreshing contrast to Los Angeles. I felt I'd been magicked into an English country estate, only 20 minutes from Heathrow and on the way into London, a sleight-of-hand conjured by Ron!
Water-lilies at Osterley Park
Jet-lagged at Osterley Park
Ron and Helena live in a lovely big high-ceilinged Victorian house that opens onto a picturesquely overgrown garden, and we sat outside relaxing in the long golden English afternoon. I was introduced to the cats, whom I’ve known since their birth by email and pictures, and quickly made friends with the exquisitely pretty Tiger Lily, our Pindar’s doppelganger, and her long-legged, elegant grey son Max.
Max's beautiful young mother, Tiger Lily
I also caught a glimpse of Max’s dad, a pretty russet boy with a sadly bad leg, who lurks around the shed. While I feasted my eyes on cats and English verdure (a la Fanny Price in Mansfield Park), Helena feted me with a dazzlingly delicious home made tea, a revelation, infinitely better than you get even in the fanciest restaurants. There were small scones, Cornish cream, and homemade jam; cucumber and ham and salmon sandwiches; and an airy, orangey, flavory Clementine cake. After that, we all needed naps, to get up strength for a beautiful dinner for a summer evening – a delicate whole salmon trout with boiled new potatoes, avocado cream sauce, zucchini, and a beautiful summer pudding. I sipped elderflower and enjoyed chatting about their English lives and my American one, as much as I could while going in and out of tyrannical waves of jet lagged sleepiness. Never was there a more easeful entry into England!
Helena's High Tea
Saturday. Slept only from 1 to 5 AM, woke up and was too excited to get back to sleep. A grey day, 60s. Breakfasted on lovely granary toast, sweet English butter, homemade marmalade and blackberry jam. Then we drove to Chawton, a couple of hours away. Ron showed me the sights along the route: Dulwich, where the actor Edward Alleyn lived and founded a school, and William Blake claimed to have seen the Prophet Ezekiel under a bush; Clapham, associated with the evangelists; Wimbledon. Soon we were out of the city and driving along grassy meadow flowery fields to Chawton. On arrival, the heavens opened and I had to pull out my flimsy little Californian umbrella. The grass was a bit muddy, but the tents kept the happy crowd dry, and the enjoyment of being at Chawton was undimmed. Examined the books for sale and the Women’s Institute cakes and handmade goods in the church, and chatted with some of the great and the good of the Jane Austen world, Patrick Stokes, Maggie Lane, Elaine Bander, Deirdre LeFaye, Maureen Stiller, Gillian Dow.
Me at Chawton
The Chawton House Library gardens
Then Jan arrived in Maureen’s car, and I was amused at my being able to welcome her, ironically, to Chawton. After the short business meeting, Jan had lunch with the committee and I picnicked in the church pews with Ron and Helena, who had packed a gorgeous curried Coronation Chicken with rice into a French picnic basket. Oddly, the lunch served by the Chawton caterer was also Coronation Chicken, but was no more like Helena’s than a lamp is like sunshine (as Emma compared her playing to Jane Fairfax’s). Helena’s was real chicken curry, while Chawton’s was more mayonnaise with a little curry in it. Then back into the tent to hear Jan’s lively talk about Mr. Darcy and the romantic role he plays in the female imagination. (The “real” Darcy, as written, is not so charming as his property and power.)
Visiting scholars' quarters in the remodeled stable block at Chawton
Afterward, Jan left for London, and Elaine showed me the beautifully remodeled stable block where she and the other fortunate visiting fellows stay. The Chawton day closed with Evensong, and then we drove back, me and Helena dozing in the car. Reviving, I went for a walk with Ron who showed me Peckham Rye Common, which was uncommonly beautiful; after which we were ready for what Helena called a “light” dinner, but which was a symphony of more of her beautiful cooking: homemade gazpacho, garlic croutons, salami, mozzarella, granary bread. Played with Tiger Lily, who seemed to understand that I have a cat much like her at home, and cleverly adapted herself to behave just as Pindy does, asking for luxurious pattings of her clever, pretty little head.
Peckham Rye Common gardens
Rainbow at Peckham Rye Common
Up at 6, some sunshine, nice day. After coffee, I bid farewell to sweet Helena and sweet cats, was presented with a ravishingly pretty little glass dichroic vase, and then Ron drove me to Paddington. He was so kind – never was such kindness, as Miss Bates said, and he was very much indeed the Mr. Knightley to my Miss Bates, for he actually parked, came inside the station, helped me with my bags, waited as I got food, and helped me look for Jan, who got on the train while we weren’t looking. We had a jolly ride all the way to Penzance, which took a little over 5 hours, arriving at 4:15. Penzance cool and grey, with a lamentable weather forecast for the Scillies. We dined at the Admiral Benbow, a cozy, attractive historical pub that had been highly recommended (you know who you are!), but the food was a terrible rip-off - appetizers (crab, scallops) so miniscule that Jan, who ordered two starters, would have starved if I hadn’t shared my fish and chips. Then we walked back to the Beachfield Hotel, a classic white Victorian hotel on the promenade overlooking the sea. The rooms were overpriced (though the sea views were beautiful) and we felt rather annoyed as there turned out to be a much cheaper annex next door that they don’t tell you about while booking. Still, it was very comfortable and served its purpose, and I went to sleep with the happy sense of a trip begun, and adventures to come.
Penzance, St. Michael's Mount