Exploring London again after so many years is quite fascinating – discovering at almost every turn a monument or historic site (Charing Cross, the Seven Dials, the statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus) and wandering down tiny laneways that were originally constructed for horses and carts but now seem to be right – of – ways for great big lorries (in England they are lorries, not trucks) – there are significant cultural differences in the usage of the English language – I do have to keep asking shop assistants to repeat themselves! Maybe I need a hearing test?
First stop after morning coffee was Oxford Circus – the Christmas lights are up and the crowds are there! My favourite shop is Liberty’s – I just love the timbered halls and the sense of being in the middle of an Agatha Christie crime novel – timber everywhere, wonderful displays and it reminds me of trips to England over the years – we always came here….
Then on down to Selfridges, another iconic London shop and John Lewis where I bought a jumper (it is freezing and I am not a person who likes the cold!) Fortunately there is a vast array of coffee shops and ‘Pret a Manger’ where you can get good fresh sandwiches, sit comfortably and connect to wi-fi.
Along Piccadilly and past the Royal Academy of Arts – I’ll go back there to see the Abstract Expressionism exhibition, through to Berwick street markets to find Cass Arts – looking for brushes that contain a little water well so you can paint without having to dip the brush into water all the time – a bit of a challenge when backpacking! I have done a bit of sketching and painting but it’s too cold to do anything plein air at present, so I sit in coffee shops and draw and sip on lattés.
One of the places of great nostalgia I passed was Fortnum and Mason’s, with its extraordinary clock on the facade that chimes the quarter hour and then has a display of 18th century figures that do a little turn on the hour.
My godmother, Dorothy used to take me to the most fabulous High Tea there. She was an extraordinary woman, I think she epitomises a particular type of English gentlewoman upright of bearing, very well connected but not aristocracy, she lived with an abundance of beautiful antiques – she gave me small bits and pieces over the years but was, I think, also a feminist long before that name was thought of (although she probably would not agree!) She held an important position in the Women’s Land Army during World War II and later managed the Conservative Party Office (where my mother worked for her). When I was in England I always had to stuff envelopes with Conservative Party information which she would send out to the members. She never married, deciding to turn down a doctor who asked her because she wanted to have a career – marriage and career were not possible in the 1930s. She was never afraid to speak her mind and mentored young women coming to England to attend university from Pakistan and India for many years – helping them to settle in to English life. She took her job as a godmother seriously and I received postcards from wherever she visited and I could talk to her about anything but her advice was always to manage everything with a stiff upper lip and a gin and tonic! She lived until she was 102 and was invited to tea by Lady Thatcher at the House of Commons on her 100th birthday (she probably would not approve of my politics now) and she used to tell stories about Winston Churchill. I did a portrait of her in about 1998 sitting in her favourite blue velvet chair – she could watch the comings and goings from her lovely flat overlooking Putney Bridge on the Thames.