Monday, July 20, 2009

In Which I Visit Virginia and Vanessa - and Buy a Dress at 40,000 Feet

Charleston, Vanessa Bell's house

Wednesday, July 15, 2009
I'm so wreckingly exhausted but this was one of the most wonderful days of my trip. I was alone, other Doves having doved or chickened out, understandably as it *was* a formidable undertaking - and not inexepensive - but the rewards were oh, so overwhelmingly worth it! I actually didn't mind being alone, I enjoyed every minute down to the ground and felt able to consult only what *I* wanted to do, and how fast I wanted to move, which worked.

I took the tube to Victoria and arrived in time to get a cappuccino and newspaper for the train. The rail journey was pleasant, an hour, on a comfortably empty train with lovely views of the green, green English countryside flashing by. The train arrived at Lewes on time at 10:20, and I confidently looked around for the expected 10:30 bus that would take me to Charleston, according to the bus schedule posted online. But it didn't come, and quoth the station master: "Why, that bus doesn't go on any regular schedule, it just runs once in awhile!" Great. Fortunately there's a taxi booking office and plenty of taxis at Lewes station, and I booked one to take me to Charleston, another to take me from Charleston to Monk's House, and a third to take me from Monk's House back to Lewes. The first taxi was fine. Drove through the pretty South Downs countryside to Charleston in less than ten minutes, cost L10. It was about 11 AM and the shop, ticket office and tearoom didn't open till 11:30, so I went for a walk on the downs. Beautiful, a sunny but windy day, so walking on this track past the farm, into rippling fields of tall grass, toward some beautiful soft hills and past flowery hedgerows, was quite exhilarating.

At 11:30 I went to the shop to buy my ticket. Another American woman told me she and her English friend were first in line, so I mildly assented, and she explained that it seems that only ten people are allowed in to each tour of the house, which takes an hour, and if we didn't get in the first tour, there'd be a wait. Later I saw that people who arrived at 1 PM couldn't get in until 4. But we did get in at noon. And I have to say this system worked very well indeed. Ten was just the right amount of people to be in the lovely, well-proportioned, low-ceilinged farmhouse rooms; more would have been too many, you wouldn't have been able to comfortably see all the paintings, the decorative art on the wood paneling, furniture and walls. The house is really breathtaking - I couldn't begin to specifically describe it, but its decorations and pictures are sufficiently covered online. I will, however, show you a small painting of a cat by Duncan Grant, that especially charmed me.

Opussyquinusque by Duncan Grant

The rooms have faintingly lovely views over the beautiful square walled garden and a picturesque pond - all fringed with the most vivid, stunning English flowers in high colorful summer season glory. Both Vanessa's bedroom and Virginia's at Monk's House have the feature of big windows onto their exquisite gardens, so they could lie in bed looking at them, and doors that opened into the gardens so they could step out in a moment. Most enviable beds.

While at Charleston, I got to chatting with the American lady and her English friend, who turned out to be interested in textiles, and when I fumed that I could see no way of getting to Berwick church, 3 miles away, that the Bloomsbury people decorated (and which is another must-see), they very kindly offered to drive me! So we went together; it was a ten minute drive, but would have taken hours to walk across the fields, for I'd certainly have got lost. The church was lovely too - there's a whole massive wall of multi-colored hollyhocks, and the church and green graveyard have views of the downs through the trees. After we'd seen the church, and bought some cards, they drove me back to Charleston.

Berwick Church

Another look around there, and my taxi promptly showed up at 2:30. It's a winding drive round to Monk's House, 7 miles away, and at the taxi station they'd told me it should cost L14 or L15 - but it cost TWENTY-FIVE POUNDS!!! The meter was running properly, too, but that's what it cost. I was shocked, and not sure I'd have enough cash left to take the third taxi of the day, so when I arrived at Monk's House I fumed to the lady at the desk, who was shocked and embarrassed and said if I could wait till 5:30, she'd drive me to the train station at Lewes! Well, that was too good an offer to refuse, and would, of course, save me what I'd lost, and not leave me with too little cash. It's rather a nice touch that the entire day, taxis, train fare, cards and things I bought, came to exactly what my fee was for the talk I'd given the night before!

Monk's House, home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf

So I spent three full hours at Monk's House. It's National Trust, while Charleston is privately owned, and clearly isn't as well run - it's a very small house with cramped rooms, and while they're intensely interesting as belonging to Virginia and Leonard Woolf, they were CRAMMED with people, a tour came through. So after a brief look (her bedroom is particularly poignant), and walk round the stunningly flowery garden, I decided to go walk down to the river and see where It happened. So I walked. And I walked. And no sign of any river! Fortunately I ran into an elderly English couple doing a walking tour, and they showed me on their topo map that the Ouse was more than a mile from the House. Poor V. must really have wanted to die, going all that way in her determination. The couple walked with me, on this path through the downs, and I did see the river. Then walked back to the house, and glory be, all the people had gone! So I had another longer look round, and then walked all over the 3 acres of pasture and kitchen garden and saw Virginia's outdoor writing studio and the picturesque church. There was a cottage that was doing an exhibition of a local lady's flower paintings, but they also were doing TEA, and I had the loveliest tea in their garden, a home baked, delicately fresh chocolate cake and tea. There were just three other elderly women in the garden, and one had taught the children of the nice woman who was to give me the lift. We chatted, and I played with Oliver, the garden cat. Then it was time to accept my ride back to Lewes - but walking through the garden, I fell and banged my knee. Nothing serious, just a bark, but it's swollen and stiff now and I'm hobbling. It does seem that the Final Pound has been administered to my limbs, and that it is getting to be time for me to hobble home to California where I don't walk, only cruise around in my SUV!

The Ouse, where Virginia Woolf drowned herself

I fell asleep on the train (what a surprise), got off at Holborn looking for my next stop, which was to meet people from the Girls' Own list in a pub, but I couldn't find it and was so tired. So I simply walked up to the British Museum, as I knew a Greek restaurant that had been highly recommended was in the next street. It's Konaki on Coptic Street, and it was just perfect. I had a quiet table where I could sit by myself and read the new Diana Mosley compendium, and I had a nice starter of the most delicious hummous/chickpeas dish with pita, followed by lamb kebabs, delicate macaroni-rice, and salad, plus a truly excellent dish of chocolate ice cream. All for L12. That was the set inexpensive dinner, there were lots of choices - and a huge menu of a la carte choices. Afterwards I hobbled back to the hotel and had a pleasant visit in the lounge with Arnie, who's at the hotel next door. Now I'm tucked up in my hotel bed, and ready to go home tomorrow. What a trip it has been! I don't know that ever in my life have my spirits simultaneously been so high and my body so battered!

George Hotel, Cartwright Gardens, Bloomsbury


A bit more to the trip! After my English breakfast at the George, I took my now incredibly heavy and book-laden bags and took a cab to the Baker Street station, for it would be a direct train ride from there to Piffle friend Gillian's (The College Cat) house. She welcomed me so hospitably, showed me her lovely big house crammed with books and its wide green garden, and introduced me to her two elderly black cats, Ozymandias and Cleopatra. Lesley (Cross-eyed Lens) arrived and we had lunch; Ozy, said to be declining, woke to life and exhibited remarkable zest in seeking out delicate pieces of smoked salmon. I gave Gillian and Lesley books of mine and Peter's, and Lesley gave me a lovely new biography of Margery Allingham.

Ozymandias and Cleopatra

It is now time to show the books I acquired on the trip. Here they are:

Oxford Diary, 2010, from the Bodleian
Penny Plain by O. Douglas (Ann Buchan, 1940), a girls' book acquired at The Haunted Bookshop for L3
Claudine's House - Colette, early essays, bought at Blackwells
A Year in Nature Notes by Derwent May, a gift from Roz
A Houseful of Girls by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey, 1901 (from the Haunted Bookshop, L5)
The Journal of Katherine Mansfield from the Persephone shop
On the Writer's Trail, 20 Great Literary Journeys by Christina Hardyment, a gift from Barbara
The Friendship, Wordsworth and Coleridge, by Adam Sisman. From Judd Books, London. (L3.95)
The Pursuit of Laughter, Diana Mosley, bought at Blackwells
Clothes-pegs by Susan Scarlett (pseud. for Noel Streatfeild), The Haunted Bookshop
The Adventures of Margery Allingham by Julia Jones, gift from Lesley
Jane Austen's The History of England & Cassandra's Portraits edited by Annette Upfal and Christine Alexander whom I met at Chawton House conference
The Blue Hour, a Portrait of Jean Rhys by Lilian Pizzichini, gift from Elaine
The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White (gorgeous edition bought at Selborne)
An Lasair, Anthology of 18th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse (for Peter)

Lesley, with incredible kindness, then drove me to Heathrow. Smooth ten-hour flight on Air New Zealand, which provided scones, cream and jam. Otherwise boring trip, but I was diverted by buying a dress at 40,000 feet. No, it wasn't in a catalogue and it wasn't some variant of the Mile High Club. My seatmate was one of the prettiest girls I've ever seen, and she told me she was a fashion designer, Laura Dawson, flying from her home in London to Los Angeles for the "reunion" of a reality show she'd been on - it was a fashion show spinoff from Project Runway. She showed me some of her dresses on her computer, and stood up so I could see the one she was wearing - and it was so lovely, *I* wanted it! Of course she is slim and the perfect model, but she assured me she could run one up that would fit me and she thought dark plum would be my color (it is). So when I got home we emailed and I ordered the dress, which is returnable in case it isn't right. Here it is. What do you think?

In Pifflechat

scall0way: so were the kitties happy to see you home Denny?
Birchalls: oh the welcome was overwhelming!
Birchalls: I had been longing to see the kitties, but even though I had their pictures with me, I'd quite forgotten how BEAUTIFUL they are
Birchalls: when I came in the door, there was Catullus, looking almost impossibly pretty, such a lovely fluffball. I said to Peter, "Goodness, I'd forgotten we have cats that lovely!"
Birchalls: Then I sat down at my computer, and instantly Pindar jumped on my lap, and kissed me, and purred!
Birchalls: Martial, who has depths and neuroses, but loves me the most, hid behind the monitor and peeked at me while Pindar was on my lap
Birchalls: but when Pindy finally jumped down, Martial jumped up, and rubbed her little snout on my stomach then lay down with a sigh of content. Goodness, it was nice. And of course it was wonderful seeing Peter and Paul, too...

"Oh, so you're back again, are you?"

Hampshire and Oxford

Roz at Autumn Cottage

Sunday, July 12
A four cat day, which is a good day. My friend Roz came to pick me up at the Swamp promptly at nine AM, and drove me to her lovely cottage about a half an hour away in the pretty Hampshire countryside. I know Roz through the list "Armchair Travelling," and I fell in love with her two baby kittens though only knowing them online. Pippin and Lily were litter mates, identical with sweet little faces, only different in color, one silver, one gold. Here they are, as they were (photo by Roz):

Lily was killed by a car, but I wanted to visit Pip, whose auntie I am (why am I starting to sound increasingly like an old cat lady? I suspect that battle is lost), and their other cat, Lissie. Today this was accomplished, and I also met Roz's sweet husband Alec and saw the fabled Autumn Cottage, subject of her beautiful blog that I've followed for so long. Amazing that the place, the people, and the cats, alive in my imagination, have now come really alive in person.

Pippin in Maturity


Me, Roz and Lissie

Outdoors cats

The biggest revelation to me was the stunning difference between "indoor" and "outdoor" cats. Living all my life in New York or Los Angeles, I'd only known indoor cats, and had never seen real English outdoor cats in action before. To see gold Pippin and black and white part-Persian Lissie running across the lawn, climbing trees, and digging in the garden, was something entirely new for me. It really is the most gorgeous life you can imagine for a cat; they seem far more outdoorsy and bold than our girls. Fearless. The cats are brought in every night, but the fact is that in 30 years six cats have been lost on the road outside Autumn Cottage. So the English/American outdoors/indoor cat debate has plenty of fuel. I played with the cats to my heart's content, and much enjoyed seeing all Roz's antiques and pretty things as well.

We had a packed afternoon. Roz drove me through several villages associated with Jane Austen, such as Kintbury. Austen visited Kintbury often; her sister Cassandra's ill-fated fiance Tom Fowle was son of the Rector there, and the church still looks much as it did in Jane Austen's day. We also stopped in Hungerford to see antiques shops and the canal - very pretty in the July sunshine. Jane Austen knew Hungerford well and wrote to Cassandra, "If there were but a coach from Hungerford to Chawton!" Not surprising, if it was as good a shopping town then as now. The antiques were scrumptious and Roz presented me with something I've long fancied - a lacquer tray whose design was entirely composed of real butterfly wings.

After that, we collected Alec and went to their local pub for a most lavish Sunday lunch: ham hocks pate with cream pease, truly fine roast beef with potatoes and Yorkshire pudding (they had bream), followed by armagnac parfait with strawberries. Wow. Then Alec did me the great kindness (after my experiences on London trains) of driving me to my next stop, Oxford. I am starting though to be aware that it's hard to be first lady in company when one's clothing supply is so scant and grubby, toward the end of a trip when the suitcase is crammed with books and you're moving far too fast to do laundry.

Me at Kintbury Church

At the Hungerford canal, picture by Roz

Alec and Roz

It was lovely to arrive at the home of my friend Jean, whom I've known since she organized a halcyon Jane Austen conference at St. Hilda's College back in the early 1980s. She and Tony haven't changed and are as lovely as ever, but her son Antony was a toddler when we first met and now he's 25. We chatted for awhile, and then my Piffle friend Elizabeth (nom Miss Layton) came to collect me for an hour - she lives ten minutes away, in a pretty 18th century stone house of her own in a little stone village, and we played with her two cats, a black 10-year-old big gentle boy called Tom, and a 2-year old with white socks, called Socks. The latter was shy like Martial and jumped up on the stone wall and watched us suspiciously from very high. How outdoor cats do love their life! When we pulled up to the village square where she lives, we were greeted by Tom, who came right from her door up to the car - walking as freely there as a human. It takes you aback! Elizabeth drove me back and Jean, Tony, Antony and I settled down to my second delicious Sunday English roast beef dinner of the day - and I'm of the opinion that you can't get too many of them!

Elizabeth and cat

Outdoor cat on wall


Jean and I spent a leisurely morning chatting and me catching up on my internet, after my days of deprivation. Then we took the bus into Oxford, and as arranged, met Simon in the Bodleian shop as he came out from his library work day at 5. We recognized each other instantly! Jean wanted to meet Simon because I'd introduced her to his blog (the popular Stuck-in-a-Book), and I thought I might need her to translate Oxonian, but she took herself off shortly, and Simon and I proceeded over to Cafe Nero at Blackwells, where between the door and the cafe we picked up 3 books for 2 (I got a new volume of Diana Mosley's essays, and an early Colette memoir, and he acquired what he calls "a lovely Hesperus edition of Katherine Mansfield's In a German Pension, which I've read but don't own," though I didn't notice at the time because we were chatting too much. Capuccino and tea and chat at the cafe, and then we reckoned it was time for dinner. We wandered over to the Nosebag which was perfect. It wasn't crowded and we had a lovely seat upstairs overlooking the Oxford scene; I had beautiful Tasmanian lamb curry and rice pilau and salad, and he had red pepper and lentil lasagne with enormous salad - the food was really fresh and lovely. We spent from 5 to 9 PM talking and eating (some time after the dinner I suggested a cream tea for dessert, scones and jam and clotted cream, and Simon most kindly fell in with it). We talked energetically about books and Doves and writing and degrees and libraries and families and driving and Jane Austen and Oxford. I rather missed the bus back, and Simon, who has just gained his driving license, bravely and nobly offered to *drive* me back to Jean's house on Cumnor Hill in his roommate's car! So we walked to his house in a quiet corner of Oxford, in the lovely silver and pink twilight. As Big Tom started to toll, Simon noted that we were right near Dorothy L. Sayers' birthplace. So we crossed the street and there it was: an ancient stone building on a side street, with the blue plaque saying she was a Scholar and Writer, just as she would approve. I cannot tell you how moving it was, seeing that and hearing the bell solemnly tolling. After that, Simon drove me back with impeccable skill, the first Dove driven.

Jean in Oxford

Me and Simon

Cafe Nero at Blackwells

The Nosebag

Dear Peter & Paul & Cats,

One of the most exhausting days of my life, I think, but WHAT FUN!

Jean put me on the train for London this morning - took me by bus to rail station, placed cappucino in my hand, directed me to right track, helped carry bags. What a friend! The ride was pretty and pleasant, I spoke to you during it (seems 24 hours ago not 12!). Reached Paddington, and as I had very heavy bags, I took my first London taxi of the trip to my b & b, the George Hotel in Cartwright Gardens, Bloomsbury. Dumped bags at hotel; my room wasn't open yet. Then I started walking to the London Review of Books cake shop (really the most enticing name for an establishment I've ever heard) which is right near the British Museum, but I was waylaid by the Judd bookshop (nice little shop that the last time I was here, Bevis ran across the road to it at light speed) and bought Peter a gaelic poetry anthology and me a book too. (Paul will get chocolate.) Reached the shop and there were the Doves (members of the Dove Grey Readers list, which started out centering around Persephone Books) - Barbara, Curzon, Clare, Julie - at a pretty, quiet, sunny table. The "Dovefest" was champagne-like in its delightfulness. Barbara made it so special for me by creating a hilariously impressive sign to put on the table that announced that it was a book signing by Diana Birchall, who'd just arrived from Santa Monica! And she *had* brought my three books to sign - what joy! She also gave me the loveliest book about literary trails, a really beautiful well done one with maps and pictures and descriptions. We had quiche and salad, scones and tea. After much talk we strolled over to the Persephone shop, and enjoyed ourselves there, talking to the owner/author, Nicola Beauman.

Book browsing at the Persephone shop, picture by Barbara

Beautiful sign, by Barbara

Sayers house, picture by Barbara

Ate it all. Picture by Barbara.

After this, I was getting tired, and Barbara walked me back to the hotel, where I checked in and rested a little. Then I walked to Euston Cross, took tube to Paddington station, and met my artist/writer friend Jane Odiwe at Cafe Nero on Platform 1, as arranged. Jane gave me the most beautiful gift, a painting she'd done for me specially of the Eltons!

"Why does he not try Bath?" "-Indeed he should." Painting of the Eltons by Jane Odiwe

Jane helped me buy my ticket and we took the train to Reading, talking all the way, where I was to give a talk to the Thames Valley Writers Circle. We were met at the station by a very kind short story writer, Dick, who drove us to the hall where my talk was to be given. About 50 people and dear Jean had come from Oxford, along with some other members of the Oxford Writers Group! I did my "Thirty Years in Hollywood Story Departments" talk, with excursions into my Winnie biography and Austen books, and they received me so warmly and kindly! People from the Oxford group hoped I'd come to them again, and goodness I'd love to. After the interval there were questions, about an hour of them, which really is a good reception. The organizer, writer Elizabeth Berk, drove me and Jean and Jane to train station, and she stopped to show us the ruined Abbey and gate house, where in 1785 Jane Austen went to school, her teacher being the wooden-legged Mrs. La Tournelle. Very late train back, change at Paddington, back at 11:30, but got tandoori chicken from the Indian restaurant around the corner, and am eating on my bed listening to the rain and writing to you! So nice to have internet.

With Elizabeth Berk at my talk

Jean, me, and Jane at Reading Abbey

Cousins across the sea - our Pindar, and Roz's Pippin

Peter, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed what you wrote about the little cats! Nobody writes about them better than you. I just loved it when you described how little Pindy's dignity was a bit miffed at being carried away from my clothes, and how she licked her silvery tail; and I love you calling Catullus an sprite and Martial an imp.

Lots of love - got a date with V. Woolf tomorrow!