More from the journal: England, Part Four

[For Part One, see]

In early 2006, after a long period of ill health, I traveled to England to take the walking trip I had dreamed of since my teens. My 17-year old niece, Maddy, accompanied me. Maddy had Asperger’s Syndrome and had never been so far away from home.

Photos are my own except when credited to others.

June 8

I had to walk into town from our B&B across the Avon River to get cash to pay our hosts. My hostess got into a bit of political ranting when I returned and happened to express my interest in her thoughts. She’s the second person on this trip who has complained to me about immigrants (particularly from Eastern Europe) ruining England, and the second to remind me, “We’re only a small island, after all.” She expressed the belief that this Labour government and the modern welfare state are sending England to the dogs. It was interesting to hear the same sentiments expressed twice.

We caught the 10:42 for Paddington Station, and checked into our hotel, the Phoenix (Best Western) at Kensington Garden Square. It was horribly hot and even a bit humid, and nothing is air-conditioned (a situation that is bound to change with the global warming). Maddy and I bought passes on the Underground and learned how to navigate, which turned out to be far easier than New York’s subway system because of superior signage and organization. We ate some grocery carry-out snacks and caught the Underground to the British Museum, where we spent two hours strolling through roasting-hot galleries without air conditioning. Maddy was in raptures over some of it, like the Egyptian stuff, and indifferent to other stuff (like the Assyrians, whom she’d never heard of) and the Elgin Marbles, although she did agree, once I had told her their history, that they ought to be returned to the government of Greece.

Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy

When we were properly wearied, we hopped back on the Tube and rode down to the Thames Embankment, then walked upstream to the Houses of Parliament, which shone handsome and brown in the blazing sunlight. The gold on Big Ben was particularly handsome – I had never realized it had gilt decoration. Across the river, the Eye of London (an enormous bicycle-wheel Ferris ride) slowly rotated. Behind the Houses of Parliament was a huge heap of a church built from a pale stone. “What’s that?!” asked Maddy, all agog and totally thrilled and taking photos of everything. I consulted my map and replied with surprise, “that’s Westminster Abbey!” Click, click, went her camera. I had left mine in my hotel room, not wanting to lug it in the heat.

Photo courtesy
Photo courtesy

We walked next west along St. James Park as far as Buckingham Palace, which looked grander in the sunlight than I had remembered from my previous trip. The entire circle in front of the palace was adorned with Union Jacks on standards, so I hazarded a guess that the Queen might be at home, since it wasn’t decorated like this when I was here before.

We walked north through the park to the Green Park subway station and rode the rest of the way home. My feet were in sorry state, and my knees were stiffening after two consecutive days of forgetting to take my glucosamine. We watched an entertaining nature show on BBC-2, and then watched a very interesting documentary about Temple Grandin, the famous cattlewoman and animal behaviorist who has Asperger’s, like Maddy. It was very enlightening. Maddy told me some extremely poignant things afterwards about her own struggles with Asperger’s. She explained that she had trouble with humor – what others find funny she does not find humorous, and what she thinks is funny leaves other people staring at her. “When I was little, I had seen a few movies by the Three Stooges, and I thought they were really funny. I like slapstick more than other forms of humor. So I tried doing that kind of stuff to the other kids, but I just got in trouble.” She said she was too young to realize that the Three Stooges weren’t actually poking each other in the eyes or clobbering each other on the head. I fault my brother for providing that sort of movie to his daughter without explaining to her that it was an utter fantasy.

June 9

I’ve been sleeping with sleeping pills every night; I’ll have to break my habit when I get home.

Today was our last day in London. We took the Tube to the Tower and did the place without a tour, by ourselves. It was not particularly crowded; I had envisioned having to shuffle through long queues for half the day. But it was completely endurable; perhaps the continual heat is putting off the number of visitors. It was nice to get to see the inside of the place, but it was (of course) enormously altered by the passage of time. I liked the old Norman part the best, with the round arches; the barrel-vaulted passages; the garderobes up a step or two and around a corner (did they use anything back them to wipe their bums?); and the lovely arched chapel with its fabulous geometrical simplicity of line. I also really enjoyed the armor and weaponry, but Maddy was completely bored and had no interest whatsoever, so we kept moving along quite swiftly. I barely got a good look at Henry VIII’s tournament armor (with his initials entwined around Katharine of Aragon’s in a lover’s knot) which showed that he had been in his youth as slim as my brother, if perhaps a bit shorter-waisted (although that might have been the styling of the armor). The tournament armor came complete with horse armor as well and was a magnificent sight. Then there was his old-age armor, by which time he had swelled to Frank’s girth (if not slightly more). There was also a set of armor for a man who was well over 6 ½ feet high and who must have been an amazing, almost giant-like figure of a man; and some little suits of armor for boys about Miles’ size; but I had to scurry after the plodding Maddy.

King Henry VIII's tournament armor. Photo belongs to
King Henry VIII’s tournament armor. Photo belongs to

We then got in line to see the Crown Jewels, which were housed in a building filled with gold and silver plate and ceremonial panoply. When looking at the series of tall golden maces, each one with a different date and a different monarch, I wondered aloud to Maddy, “What was wrong with the first one, that they had to keep making them?” The shuffling of the line (the only line we encountered anywhere at the Tower) prevented me from stopping and reading the descriptive cards next to each item. Maddy was even more bored with crown jewels than she had been in the armory, and didn’t even want to go in until I told her that her family would be disappointed if she didn’t. We stepped onto a moving sidewalk that whizzed us past all the crowns with their purple velvet and big shining jewels, and the last one of all was simply sparkling with gazillions of tiny diamonds, and then were outside again, with hardly time to draw breath. We went to the Tower Green where Anne Boleyn, Jane Gray and Essex were beheaded, but there was nothing to see, just a shady grassy place with some paving stones that were being pulled up in preparation for some sort of restoration. We went quickly to see Sir Walter Raleigh’s quarters in the Bloody Tower, which were furnished reasonably well despite the conditions. To an Elizabethan, the accommodation was probably not much worse than at his regular residence. Then we exited, after purchasing some trinkets at the Tower gift shop (Maddy is a perfect addict of gift shots and booksellers).

We strolled down to Tower Pier and caught a water-taxi down to Greenwich, which turned out to be a very pleasant, laid-back place. We toured the Maritime Museum, which was a top-notch museum but sadly lacking in air conditioning. We grew so hot and weary from tramping excitedly from one gallery to another that when I found I had completely overlooked Nelson’s last uniform, the one he died in, in a gallery we had already visited, I declined going back. We trudged out the doors back into Greenwich town, which was sweltering beneath a merciless sun, and I decided it would not be a good move to walk up to the top of the nearby hill to visit the Royal Observatory and see the strip in the pavement that marks zero degrees longitude, and see the place from which Greenwich Mean Time gets its name, because Maddy was faint and dizzy again. I think she’s in extremely bad physical condition and ought to be exercising at least an hour a day to give her growing body the workout it needs to be fit; but she is firmly convinced that she is simply weak by nature. I was strongly reminded of myself as a teenager – always slightly languishing rather than physically active, and wondering why I was so weak, the cycle perpetuating itself. In fact, now that I’m off eating wheat, and recovering from what amounted to a long period of slow food poisoning, I feel fabulous. In the old days I would have wilted in the sun like Maddy. Now I feel strong, even immortal, hooray!

The restored Cutty Sark (which burned after I visited it). Photo belongs to
The restored Cutty Sark (which burned after I visited it). Photo belongs to

After the museum, because of the heat we visited the local market, where Maddy purchased a pentagram necklace from a local witch / capitalist / vendor and we toured the Cutty Sark, one of the fastest China clippers ever built, a noble vessel. Her hold now contains a stunning collection of 1800s figureheads from other ships, which reminded me strongly of American carnival ride animals in their carving style and the thick layer of shiny varnish atop bright paints. The one I liked best was a sultry lady in a scarlet dress that was off both shoulders and half over one swelling breast, her dress plastered against her voluptuous body as if by the wind itself. There was one figurehead of Abe Lincoln, to my astonishment (there was a statue of Lincoln in front of Westminster as well – what does he represent to the British mind, I wonder?).

We caught the water taxi back to Tower Pier, took the Tube to St Paul’s, and got out to walk along Cannon / Fleet street. St Paul’s was not really visible from street level, I mean the famous dome; all we could see was beautiful, lovely pale outer walls rising high above us. Maddy was in no mood for any more churches, and it was 5:00 pm after all, and I was afraid it would be closing its doors to tourists, so we strolled around the churchyard and watched people picnicking atop the old tombs, and we went on down Fleet Street in search of Dr. Johnson’s house. We found it down a tangle of tiny lanes that undoubtedly dated back to the Middle Ages or even the Saxon era; for all I know they could have existed since the city was rebuilt from the ashes of Boudicca’s rebellion. Johnson’s house was not open, or at least, the woman who answered the door told us in a markedly unfriendly way that it was closing in five minutes. I went back down the steps, looking up at the red brick building with regret, but I thought with delight, “Boswell walked here! Johnson and Boswell walked arm in arm through this lane!” The court adjoining Gough Court where the house is, is now called Johnson Court, and there is a building nearby named after Boswell, which is nice. There were two Elizabethan buildings on Fleet Street within the next block or two, one in splendid shape, the other deformed and altered by the years but still handing out over the street. I was amazed by the fact that I could walk through 2000 years of history on one day of walking through London, and see a statue of Johnson’s cat (“A very fine cat indeed”) to boot.

Johnson's cat, Hodge, adored oysters. Photo belongs to
Johnson’s cat, Hodge, adored oysters. Photo belongs to

Maddy was doddering with exhaustion, so I bought her a Cornish pasty and we took the Tube home to the hotel, where we hung out and relaxed after another grueling day in the sun. We are both glad we’re going home tomorrow. It’s been good, but it’s time to go.

June 10

We had a long talk last night, and Maddy wiped tears away as she told me agitatedly about how her parents had to put down their old dog, Zorba. “He didn’t want to go!” she cried in a passion. “And they killed him! They kill all their dogs – Shondo, Sadie, and now Zorba. I hate it. It’s totally wrong.” I said gently that the dog probably didn’t want to leave Maddy, but animals know when their time was up, and since he was old and very ill with cancer and congestive heart failure, it was a mercy to put him to sleep to spare his suffering. “Maddy, if I’m ever in a position where my own survival is hopeless, I’d want someone to help me along gently,” I said; “Frank on the other hand wants to be kept on life support forever, even if he’s a helpless blob.” Maddy said savagely, “I don’t care what happens to PEOPLE when they get old and sick. Animals are all that are important to me.”

We got up, breakfasted and strolled a little in the Bayswater neighborhood around the Phoenix Hotel, then checked out and caught the Tube to Paddington, then the Heathrow Express, then a Virgin Atlantic flight to JFK, then a Delta mini-jet to Indy. Actually I’m in the Delta jet right now as I write. It’s almost seven in the evening, which is midnight English time, yet I don’t really feel weary (yet). I have time to think about what I did, and learned, on this vacation.

First, the British are infinitely superior to Americans in politeness and friendliness. Secondly, their public transport is splendid. Thirdly, whenever British people express satisfaction with something, they say “It’s lovely!” Fourthly, I left part of my heart in Cornwall on the cliffs and moors and in the sudden secret lush valleys. Fifthly, Maddy proved to be excellent at navigating the airports, train stations, and buses. The only place I equaled her was the subway – am I slipping in my old age? I feel distinctly “blurry” in comparison with her instant comprehension of the arcanities of English transportation. I used to be far more accurate, I feel sure. So what has happened? Countless times during this trip I stood holding a schedule or map, puzzling, working it out slowly in my head, only to have Maddy say somewhat impatiently, “Oh, we just have to do such-and-such.”

I'll never forget the cliffs of Cornwall.
I’ll never forget the cliffs of Cornwall.

And lastly, I found that Maddy and I have a lot in common. Her Asperger’s is quite mild; she said on a scale of one to ten, she might qualify for a three; but if so, where does that leave me? A one? or a fraction of one, perhaps? I’m literal and often can’t tell if someone’s telling a joke if they do it deadpan, at which I often become annoyed instead of laughing. I used to have problems making eye contact. I used to be physically weak and clumsy like she is. I used to be a social “bug” whom the other kids made fun of, and when I was with my peers in an enforced setting, they’d draw back from me because of my over-enthusiasm and gaucherie. I have problems handling light in my eyes, and I have problems with noise, and with crowds in tight public spaces. But that’s the extent of it, really. I become more “Aspergerish” when I’m pre-mensing, and it goes away altogether when I’m not.

And that’s the end! “Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.”

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