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Monday December 25, 1995
Christmas

Sitting in the downstairs lounge, but very briefly; the weather is lovely so we will walk to the Temple, which James hasn't got to see yet, then to the Cumberland Hotel where I found him what promises to be a good dinner — So, no diary entry now, rather walking around a bit.


4:35 P.M. and let's see just how far I manage to catch up on this diary before falling asleep after a hefty Christmas dinner after which my waist measures 31¾ʺ.

So, back to Thursday morning around ten at the Turner Bequest at the Tate. There are 9 rooms of paintings, almost all of them Turners, but not quite: for example there is (actually it's in one of two appended rooms of watercolors and "sketches" upstairs, the sketches sometimes being highly finished large oil canvases) a watercolor of a gothic church by Turner and one by a drawing student of his — also a portrait of his father by someone else; and a plaster death mask of him with no teeth —

The paintings themselves rather a mixed bag: it made me feel good, actually, that even Turner had his bad days — there were about 3 or 4 paintings either in awful taste or very badly executed. On the other hand, of course, half of the Bequest are masterpieces and it was wonderful finally to see the originals of the color photographs on which I've been basing my taste for Turner so many years; even if in one or two cases (most notably the view from Petworth terrace) the photos are better, in most they're not. The self-portrait is extraordinary, of a daring that is quite breathtaking; and one thing no book or photograph will show is brush technique — most peculiar, very diverse, and often quite experimental in feeling, in the case of the skies especially: Santa Maria della Salute is remarkable in this respect, but others as well, altho' I can see how the thickness of paint might pose conservation problems. Turner's people, though, admittedly come off less good: he seems incapable of viewing them as individuals (except for himself) and instead sketches blurry faceless crowds that have an unpleasant quality to them. Ultimately, what comes out of the corpus of his work is that he really cared only about light and air: often the subjects are handled, or even chosen in the first place, to show some aspect of light — there are even some insipid Greuzelike stable interiors to demonstrate that; and by the end of his life, I think all those odd impressionistic things aren't preliminary sketches or underpainting at all: they might have started that way, but I think Turner left them that way, "unfinished", because that's how he preferred them.

The day turned into a museum walk, mostly because of my cold and the weather. We walked to Trafalgar and climbed into the National Gallery because I'd asked at the Tate where three of my favorite Turners were (the Fighting Temeraire, the Burning of the Houses of Parliament and the Packet Boat at Calais) and was answered they were at the National Gallery: in fact, the Burning of the H of P is not, altho' Steam & Fire (Locomotive on Waterloo Bridge) is — and so is the Turner hung at his request next to the le Lorrain.

This latter, in a small room apart from the 7 other Turners in the National Gallery, comes off better than the Claude, alright, but not overwhelmingly and not in all respects: technically Claude is better, in both his figures and his perspective; but Turner's painting captures your interest more, and as a study of light is almost incomparable.

The National Gallery was also a place for James to get a feel for a number of the great English painters, so we looked at quite a bit of Constable, some Kneller, Lely; Gainsborough by the wallful, a couple of Reynolds, a couple of Landseers — the smaller the subject the better — and a Carrington, two Roger Frys, and a Vanessa Bell — all fairly successful — and two Duncan Grants, bad paintings, period.

We also saw a large room of Victorian and preRaphaelite canvases, most of them monstrous kitsch, although Rossetti is OK and surprisingly the famous Millais Ophelia, that looks so kitschy in reproduction, is a lovely painting, saved by its green.

Back to the hotel — showers, hot tea, get warm — and back to almost the same spot all by tube a couple of hours later: a "candlelight" performance of Messiah at 7:30 at St. Martin-in‑the-Fields.

It was very good. Not utterly wonderful, because it was too quirky; but the singers, twenty-four total, blended beautifully, were in perfect time, and brought out the parts very crisply; the altos all men, and at least three very lovely individual voices (a short punk-haircut soprano, a classic English-poet of an alto, and a bass looking for all like an American graduate student). The orchestra was unnoticeable most of the time; the soloists good, but less so than the choir taken as a whole. The soprano soloist was very pretty and wore a low-shouldered strapless black dress. The performance overall was sensitive and intelligent, especially the soloists, rather than emotional; the approach was dramatic (telling a story freshly) rather than musical, although here and there, there were some wonderful moments: a particularly vigorous "Surely" especially. The final Amen was disastrously mannered, very slow to accelerate to slow — and came close to spoiling the whole shebang. The church was a good setting, with a trumpet up in the clerestory at one point; the candlelight consisted of yahrzeiten strung along the windows and that's that, safety obviously being the major concern: most of the lighting being spotlights down on the choir.

After the concert (our seats £25 @), which let out at 10:05, we walked out onto Trafalgar Square with its spotlit Nelson and various wonderful buildings, fountains, lions by Landseer, statues, a wonderful if chaotic ensemble, and succeeded in finding a simple Italian restaurant down towards the Embankment tube station, and had some relatively unmemorable food, got on the train and hit the sack well past midnight. I had some trouble going to sleep [. . .]


Friday 22d, very briefly (I may not catch up at this pace!): skating, Peter who stammers — see above somewhere — walk and tube to Holborn meeting James at Cardinal Newman's house at 17 Southampton Place, for a rather dreary progressively colder walk thru Bloomsbury following a book of such walks; with a stop for lunch at the Queen's Larder: Cumberland sausages, sherry trifle, ginger wine; then a briefish visit to Dillon's and back to the hotel, read newspapers — mostly Diana and Charles stuff, since she snubbed the Queen who then told her to get stuffed — and slept.


[image ALT: A view of metal frameworks, upwards to a very distant ceiling. It is the interior of the dome of St. Paul's in London.]

A bit of the view up; and of course I took a view down, too.

Saturday 23d: no skating available at Queensway; freezing rain much of the day, so we took a train to the Monument and walked thru the deserted City, saw the Temple of Mithra remains, most unimpressive; several small 17c and 18c churches, mostly closed — but St. Bride's; Sam Johnson's house; a little church with a Romanian Orthodox or possibly choir rehearsal in progress; St. Paul's Cathedral, including all the way up to the top of the dome (me) but James got uncomfortable about 75 steps short of the top and went down on his own — we also saw the tombs of everybody who ever lived, all in the crypt. More rain, then the beautiful and moving church of St. Clement Danes, the Royal Air Force's church, with its rolls of war dead, including one case for a book of the U.S. Air Force dead. Somewhere in all that we ate at a deserted but strangely open of course Italian restaurant in the city; back out of the hotel, it had dried up, at 6:00 we had pannini at a tiny Italian-run wedge-shaped 8-seat dive near the station, then found Sadler's Wells at a distant tube station called Angel, and enjoyed a moderately good performance of Prokofiev's Cinderella; then into Soho looking for a gay restaurant on Dean Street called Steph's and finding it closed thru Jan. 8 ate down the street at a good Chianti place called La Tavernetta, affable Tuscan blonde curly-haired waiter, to bed via the last trains of the two lines, by good luck since we didn't know it beforehand. Asleep around one A.M.

Yesterday Sunday 24th, I left late on my own to Alexandra Palace, skated an hour and a half, met Duncan and his wife Jennifer Leonardsp., coaches; the ice is extremely hard, hockey-style — and indeed it's a hockey rink — but otherwise a normal rink like what I'm used to in the States. I had a good time and my back spiral Biellmann variation is OK already and shows lots of promise: I got a tip to get my head into place and pull my arm further back (shoulders tight) if I'm to get the leg more in alignment — Bought myself a little Wedgwood dish with skaters, at the skate/gift shop. Alexandra Palace (or "the Palley") is set in a park at the top of a hill 19 minutes on foot away from the Wood Green tube station. The weather had turned to near-lovely (partly sunny, dry) as I came back into town: the view is extensive but of no interest, merely urban sprawl for endless miles to the horizon.

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Alexandra Palace; often abbreviated by Londoners to "the Palley".

Back to the hotel to drop off my skates and change, James came in to drop off stuff (he'd spent the day in Covent Garden and on Charing Cross Road), we left together on foot for Westminster at 1445 arriving at 1510: a long line into Great Smith Street, but we got in, and sat thru the hourlong service of carols and lessons in the north arm of the transept, next to the Pitt monument. The carols all sounded so English, the choristers' voices what did it. Il est né le divin enfant sung in French: the boys' French pronunciation was completely undistinguishable from native; the men's, not — even James noticed it.

Wandered about a bit and had an earlyish dinner at a pretty good tandoori place just north of Piccadilly Circus, and came home and to bed early too.

Today we walked almost to the Temple (that James has three times failed to see now): this time, his feet hurt from new shoes and a sort of accident yesterday, we only made it as far as Cleopatra's Needle and the Savoy — it was lovely weather — then walked to the Cumberland via Covent Garden Market and Oxford Street, to our meal at 12:30.

A large rectangular mustard-colored room, a good meal (duck pâté Cumberland sauce; scotch broth; an all-you-can‑eat buffet of pork, lamb, turkey, beef, lots of trimmings incl. some excellent pork cracklings and some baked apples glazed with a touch of brown sugar and lots of almonds and walnuts; Christmas pudding with double cream — very black pudding, I make better, and I missed the hard sauce) with an Oxford Landing Cabernet Shiraz — perfect for the meal, an Australian wine much like California wines used to be 15 years ago; coffee, brandy. Out at 2:40 (Spanish waitress aged about 55, named Fina, I tipped her £30 cash rather than add it to the £140 credit card bill because she said this latter would take six weeks to clear — she was working quite hard and this way she got it all) and milled around in the lobby until the Queen's 3 P.M. speech, in which she looked unhappy and pinched but resolutely spoke of doing our duty quietly to make peace in the world around us. James and I drank a glass of champagne, Piper Heidsieck, as we listened to this; then at 3:10 walked back to the Windermere via Belgravia, Belgrave Square quite nice; and by the sheerest accident found my own Lime Tree Hotel where I used to stay 25 years ago — memories only slightly colored — walked in, took a card as I told them my story, left. . . .

At the hotel in our room, wrote all this, watched a new episode of Hyacinth ("Keeping Up Appearances"), read some Nostradamus, wrote more of this, and just ten minutes ago woke James up — he'd had a 2-hr. nap this afternoon — suddenly remembering he needed to call his Mom. It took some doing but finally the desk told us the right thing (9‑001 + number) as opposed to a bunch of wrong things that were not working, but were infuriating me. It is now one minute past midnight into Boxing Day and I'm caught up on this diary, albeit summarily. (I should try and expand on some of it as time allows: I suppose I really must mention, now, the rose of the Abbey during the beginning of the afternoon service yesterday, slowly turning with dusk from multicolored to slate blue against the stone, looking for a while very much like those 16c enamels white against deep blue grounds, maybe that's where the idea came from — anyway, very beautiful.)

James's parents OK if alone for the day; Michelle came and made them Christmas dinner last night, though. The Queen doing her duty; James and me here alone too — and me doing mine, finally: there is no need to transport any of my états d'âme onto anyone else, it does not improve the world. Things are OK, and that's enough.


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