The Night We Discovered London – 1965

I am writing a short preface to this blog post to warn readers that this piece quite long and was written back in 1965. In my enthusiasm for our new home – shortly after arriving in London from the USA – I recorded my first impressions of what was to be our main area of cultural activity. It is completely unedited since then and thus might seem somewhat naive and dry as it is my first attempt at a blog ! However, it might have value as an historical document.  Consider this preface to be an apology in advance.

Every word is true.


Written 50 years ago and never published or edited

Except that my wife appeared slightly more radiant than usual, it seemed like a rather ordinary Saturday night as a 1949 Ford Prefect chugged across the Waterloo Bridge towards our private parking spot on a building site behind The Aldwych.  True, suffering from a severe case of ‘balletomania’ since arriving in London nine months ago, we were somewhat excited about the amphitheatre tickets for the Royal Ballet which I had carefully tucked into my waistcoat (‘vest’ to my American friends).

It was quite a while since I had teased Pat about her teenage crush on Rudolph Nureyev, probably because I was secretly in love myself with Svetlana Beriosova since her performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy at this year’s Royal Ballet gala. Scanning the Thames from Westminster to Saint Pauls, I remarked (for what seemed like the tenth time), “This is the view that will haunt me after we return to the States.” “Mmmmmm!”, she agreed inflecting her voice like a native Briton, as she gazed at the inspiring Gothic silhouette on our left.

After parking and racing down Long Acre Street (a habit acquired after we missed the curtain one night and watched Symphonic Variations on closed-circuit television) to Covent Garden, we received the first surprise of the evening. In what must have been a last-minute change, makeshift posters announced that the scheduled performance of Ashton’s revised version of Sylvia had been cancelled and that the same principals, Margot Fonteyn and Paris Opera’s Attilo Labis would dance a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The footnote stating that refunds would be given was dismissed as folly by the balletomanes streaming into the side door. In fact, most were elated. After all the critics had agreed that reviving Sylvia was somewhat of a faux pas de deux by Sir Frederick and the Royal Ballet. In addition, Dame Margot was, as one critic wrote after her recent homecoming performance, “the unchallenged champ of the Lake”.  Nevertheless, we were disappointed. First of all, I was anxious to hear the complete version of the lush Delibes’ score and Pat was naughtily looking forward to seeing Labis as that half-naked Aminta. But the real reason for returning the tickets was the fact that we had seen this new Swan Lake with the same artists only 10 days earlier and the lyrical beauty of Odette’s adagio in Act II and Odile’s breath-taking display of virtuosity in Act III (I counted the thirty-two fouettes) was still fresh and clear in our minds.

So, as I received the refund for the ten shilling seats from the box office a funny kind of excitement came over me. We were now smack in the middle of the West End on a Saturday night with no definite place to go and a pound note burning a hole in my pocket. Anyone who attends the old Vic, the Aldwych, or Covent Garden regularly and has learned to live with booking far in advance will appreciate how refreshing this feeling was. Like a kid in a sweet shop with a thrupence in his pocket, we scanned the entertainment guide in the evening newspaper.

“How about Spike Milligan?”, asked Pat excitedly. “It’s an 8.45 curtain.” “Nah, you can’t get near the place since Princess Margaret took her sister there”, I said smugly, as we strolled out of the Aldwych and onto the Strand. Hayfever was on at the Old Vic, and tickets were probably available for this lightweight of the National Theatre. Although this was the only item in the current repertoire we hadn’t seen, it was also the only one we didn’t care to. Noel Coward bores me to death. “I wonder if there were any last-minute ticket returns for Boeing-Boeing”, quoth I, as we passed the Duchess Theatre. I stepped into the lobby and saw that the window marked ‘This Performance’ was closed and that there was a queue (‘line’ to my American friends) at the advance booking window.

“Could we stoop so low as to take in a film?”, Pat said facetiously, “I’d love to see The Knack or Roman Polanski’s latest.”  “Do you know the London press never mentions the fact that Dick Lester, who directed that film, is an American”, I said, once more manifesting my inferiority complex about our country’s artistic achievements. “Cannes Grand Prix, quite an accomplishment.”

By now fully confused and unable to make a definite choice, we decided to take the underground (‘subway’ to my American friends) to Piccadilly Circus and follow our noses from there. As one rides the underground from the Strand station to Piccadilly Circus, he walks up and down so many stairs, on and off lifts (‘elevators’ to you know who!), changes trains, up more stairs, escalators, through passage-ways etc., that he is convinced had he walked the distance he would have arrived sooner and, most assuredly, in a better frame of mind.

Before we had fully emerged from the sub-Eros pandemonium, we could see the great marquee of the London Pavilion which immediately convinced us The Knack should be our choice. Approaching the box office however, it became immediately evident that London’s movie-going public was giving this film a fantastic response. The queue for the 9.00 p.m. show stretched across the lobby, around the corner and along the entire length of the theatre and disappeared on to Shaftesbury Avenue. There they stood, mostly young couples, slouched over, leaning against each other, smoking and making conversation. The girls, pushing their long straight hair from their eyes and catching it behind their ears: the carelessly dressed boys with their thick wild hair growing down their neck were hanging onto their dates and occasionally kissing them on the cheek and neck.

We continued to stroll up Coventry Street and after getting pushed or stepped on at least a dozen times (always followed by the proverbial “sorry”), we came upon another enormous queue for Polanski’s new sex-shocker Repulsion. Seeing these phalanxes of humanity and the usual evening crowds all around us, we were easily reminded that there are more people in London any other city in the world.

Being forced to a cataclysmic decision after reaching the relative tranquillity of Leicester Square (pronounced ‘Lester’ – this isn’t half as bad as the way the English say the lovely French name ‘Beauchamp’, viz. ‘Beecham’; and they correct me for saying the ‘t’ in ‘Dupont’, we agreed that this would be our night to just walk through the streets, squares and parks of London. Strange as it may seem, though we had lived in London for almost a year, being so busy with the superb theatre, opera and ballet here, we had never spent an evening thus. In one week in Paris we walked all over the city and surely we knew the streets of New York very well, though never there for more than a weekend at a time.

In a few minutes we found ourselves staring into the famous bookshop windows on Charing Cross Road. The contrast from shop to shop is unbelievable. In one window, books displaying a revived posthumous interest in Eliot; a centenary tribute to Yeats; criticisms, explanations, translations of Brecht; a copy of Pinter’s The Homecoming already in print; a beautiful photographic study of the Royal Ballet; a biographical work on Donizetti; Jan Kott’s radical and vivid book on the Bard; a collection of Modigliani prints and hundreds more on art, poetry, drama, music and the dance for London’s discerning patrons whose scholarly appreciation of the arts never ceases to amaze me.

In the next window, a selection of books unabashedly set on appealing to a completely different group of people. Sex and the Single Girl; Sex and the Single Man; books by Harold Robbins, Mandy Rice-Davies, Marquis de Sade; books on homosexuality and lesbianism; Nymphomania – A Study of the Oversexed Woman; Ancient Sex Practices – Illustrated; nudes, nudes and more nudes.

In considering this contrast, this incompatibility of pornography and art, the vulgar and the spiritual, of enlightenment and decadence, one realizes what London is. She is all things to all men. The book shop windows reflect a great cultural divide which I have sensed between two major factions of the populace. It is much less subtle than say, in New York. These are the very cultured and, for lack of better language, the un-cultured; an intellectual class system. This division is catered to by the merchants, book publishers and press; manifested by the radio and television; and intensified by the country’s archaic educational system.

I see half a dozen daily newspapers that I wouldn’t even allow in my house and yet I meet music lovers who, when they ask me about American composers, mean Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland, not Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Passing through Cambridge Circus we were reminded of one of our first visits to a London theatre, the lively and gay Half a Sixpence, with Tommy Steele, now an established hit in New York. Little Me was now packing them in the same theatre. “A fair trade”, I remarked. Though Sid Caesar hadn’t crossed the Atlantic, Swen Swenson had and his “I’ve Got Your Number” dance in the second act was worth the price of the ticket. The Little Me tickets, for balcony seats at a Philadelphia try-out, cost us $4.80 each: the same location here for Half A Sixpence set us back ten shillings ($1.40). This ticket price differential is even more startling if New York prices are compared with London productions by companies subsidized by the British Arts Council. Ironically, these are the companies who rarely have an empty seat in the house, e.g. National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, English Stage Society, Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells. Even further savings can be had by joining clubs which support these organisations and attending dress rehearsals. For instance, next week we will see Maximillian Schell in John Osborne’s new play A Patriot For Me at the Royal Court the night before it officially opens; fifth row stalls (‘orchestra’) at twelve and six ($l.75). If you do get in to see it when it comes to New York, think of me when you buy your $6.90 or maybe $7.50 orchestra seat. As the coup de grace, contrast the new high of $11.90 that over-anxious theatre-goers are sending to the Mark Hellinger box office for orchestra seats to Alan Jay Lerner’s new untried musical, with the fifty-six cents I paid for the greatest theatrical experience of my life; four shilling gallery seats for Laurence Olivier’s Othello at the Old Vic this past January.

Passing the tiny Ambassador Theatre, sold out again for Agatha Christie’s mystery The Mousetrap, now in its 13th year, Pat suggested enthusiastically, “Let’s stop for a drink, there’s a charming little pub over there.” Being an obliging husband, though not as keen on English beer as she, I was quick to agree and we settled down in the corner of the Scot’s Hoose for “two halves of bitter” and some cozy conversation about how great it is to be together in such a city and how lucky I was to win that fellowship to go abroad to study for my Ph.D. We were convinced these two dreams were gone forever when we were “lumbered” with our second child in 1963. The Scottish (‘Scotch’ is whiskey, I’m constantly reminded!) plaids and coats-of-arms on the wall were reminders that before returning to the United States we hoped to visit the regions from which our ancestors emigrated in the nineteenth century, mine in Ireland and Pat’s in Italy.

It’s great fun to watch English girls relaxing in a pub or in the park. I find them strangely more attractive than the short-haired, bermuda-clad co-eds I had known in Fort Lauderdale and Ocean City or the continental types we had seen on the Paris metro. So many of them are tall and willowy with milk-white skin. They wear long straight hair, gobs of eye shadow, little lipstick and clinging wool knit dresses which stop about an inch above the knee. Their legs are straight and slim and covered with every kind of hosiery imaginable. I’m sold on the ‘London Look’; the English girls are justly proud of their new independence of the fashion trends in Paris and New York … and I don’t mean the “kookie” stuff on Carnaby Street.

Leaving here, our unguided tour led us past the strip-houses and international restaurants of Frith Street into Soho Square where I joyously reminded Pat in “’enry ‘iggins” style how “h’s” are dropped everywhere in this part of London. Suddenly we were on Oxford Street, window shopping as we had done on Rue du Faubourg St. Honore and Fifth Avenue. We saw the modern façade of the Academy Cinema whose arty posters in the subways are enough to convince one that these must be great films. This avant garde cinema house with its prosperous new look, was another sign of the large numbers of serious theatre-goers in this city.

Reaching Oxford Circus, I suggested to Pat that we might enjoy a drink in the rooftop cocktail lounge of the London Hilton as we had done in Manhattan’s Rainbow Room overlooking Central Park. She rather rudely stated that it would be like spending your only night in Paris at Harry’s New York Bar! After a few minutes of silence, I agreed and we took the underground to Trafalgar Square.

Quite by chance, we strolled through Admiralty Arch and down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace. We noticed a large crowd gathered across the Mall near the entrance to the park. Could it be the Beatles were celebrating their appointment today as Members of the Order of the British Empire with an impromptu concert in the park? Was it a fire – or a fight? As we slipped neatly into the crowd to get a closer look, we realized that we had stumbled upon the greatest show in London. All the pageantry and color of this country’s military tradition in one fell swoop. As a climax to the Queen’s Official Birthday celebration earlier in the afternoon, fourteen bands, the Life Guards, the Royal Horse Guards, The Royal Dragoons and the Royal Scots were marching on Horse Guards Parade in an impressive ceremony to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. The bands filled the air with patriotic music (including the French National Anthem which, appropriately always reminders me of Napoleon I), battle sound effects were provided by the guns of the King’s Troop and the Royal Horse Artillery, and the sky was filled with beautiful fireworks. The scene was poetic, as Big Ben, hovering majestically in the background, struck ten o’clock; the notes producing a strange dissonance with the rousing music below. The crowd, as still as the audiences at Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells, was unperturbed by the nervous prancing of the well-groomed steeds of the mounted police. The warm dry air, the clear star-studded sky and the ivy-covered buildings were a perfect setting for this fitting tribute to one of England’s greatest military victories.

When the ceremony was over, the gathering gradually started to disperse and we walked back out onto the Mall. Before the police had a chance to direct us to a neutral corner, a ripple of excitement went through the crowd as a huge gorgeous Rolls Royce slowly turned out from the Horse Guards Parade onto the Mall. “It’s the Queen”, someone shrieked. Believe it or not, there she was, only fifteen feet away as she nodded and waved to us, seeming to say, “Glad you could come.”  Recalling the recent news photographs showing the thousands of Germans who stood for hours to catch a glimpse of her passing entourage, I couldn’t help feeling over-privileged as the light inside the car revealed her lovely white beaded gown and cape and Prince Philip’s dashing red and black uniform. They were dressed for the formal military dinner in Whitehall earlier that evening. The tiny sparkling tiara in her hair was the only reminder of the great seat of history and tradition she represents.

After the Queen’s car had slowly passed by, a sexagenarian woman standing near us ecstatically announced the occupant of the second, equally splendid, Rolls. “It’s the Queen Mother”, she cried revealing by her sudden enthusiasm that this gracious lady in the chic white ermine wrap was still the “Queen” in her eyes. The celebrities in the third car were not immediately identifiable to us, not being concerned with the personalities and activities of the court. A young girl within hearing distance, as if on cue, sighed, “Look at Princess Alexandra, her complexion is so creamy!”

The crowd drifted apart now, some smiling and talking excitedly, others gazing down the Mall as the three shiny automobiles, accelerating ever so slightly, took a tired Queen back to her palace. Her day had begun about twelve hours ago when she rode up this same thoroughfare astride a beautiful mare for the annual Trooping the Colour.

Deeply moved by the ceremony of the hour, I grasped my wife’s hand and set out to show her the bronze equestrian statue of Wellington near Hyde Park Corner. Before we were halfway down the Mall, however, I had changed my mind. The moon was reflecting off the lake in St. James’s Park and the snow-white swans gliding to and fro looked like the most beautiful scenery for Swan Lake Act II that one could imagine (this is the only act Mr. Balanchine will let us see in New York). I was sure I saw Von Rothbart hiding in the trees, and as we sat down on one of the large wooden benches, I was trying to guess which cygne would become the prima ballerina. Silent for several minutes, this romantic setting overwhelmed me. I felt a warm glow that immediately recalled our first night in Paris when we sat on the banks of the Seine and stared at Notre Dame after wandering through the narrow streets of St. Germain des Pres.

I spoke my thoughts and found that Pat had the same reaction. She went on to say how unfair it was for writers and poets to romanticize Paris more than London and New York.  Each of these great cities, we could now judge, had its own personality and charm that must be captured as we had done tonight.

We would have stayed and talked for hours had not someone remembered that our neighbours, who listen for our children, usually expect us back from Covent Garden about 11.00pm. Since it was already past that hour and our car was still in back of the Aldwych, we were soon on our way down Birdcage Walk toward the Westminster tube station. As we reached Great George Street, walking toward Westminster Bridge, the steeples of Westminster Abbey came into view. Despite the many historical events that have taken place in this great hall, Sir Winston’s lying in state earlier this year had eclipsed them all for me. I thought of those endless queues of sad people, shivering in the cold, damp London air, approaching the Abbey at a snail’s pace to pay their last respects. I recalled that bleak and cold Saturday morning as I stood with a lump in my throat watching the gun carriage move up Fleet Street. The ceremony, not surprisingly, had stirred my memories of Washington, November 1963. But the feelings I had on these two occasions were worlds apart.  Churchill’s death was peaceful, ending a long life of victories, achievement; a great sense of fulfilment; Kennedy’s had been violent and senseless, frustrating; and thus so much more difficult for me to accept.

We paused momentarily at the base of Big Ben, noting with alarm that the giant hands were approaching midnight. I took Pat’s arm and we raced to the middle of Westminster Bridge to survey the Thames panorama once more before calling it a night. As the man said in 1802: *

“Earth has not anything to show more fair: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty…”

As we drove back across the Waterloo Bridge to our home in south-east London I laughed when I realized that the pound note was still in my waistcoat pocket (‘vest’ to my American friends).

*From the poem, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”, by William Wordsworth.