THE GREEN DIARY : Stay- or UK-ationing?

Paper cups and social distancing! Bill Bailey! At the Royal Opera House! What next? Our first visit to the theatre and, specifically the Opera House since Swan Lake on the 12th March last year. Seventeen months. It seems incredible; and that it should be the most un-operatic show too –  Bill Bailey’s Summer Larks certainly provided a refreshing change.

I don’t have to start with my usual Worzel Gummidge/Bojo and the Shudder of Clowns rant. Bill Bailey did a wonderful hatchet job on the lot of them and had a largely sympathetic audience in stitches. What a pity the tragedy of Afghanistan had not started yet – he could well have had a lot more to add. Shame on us!

https://en-gb.facebook.com/royaloperahouse/videos/578710349783928/

We visited Nero at the British Museum before walking down to Covent Garden. 

They are politically re-habilitating Nero it seems, rather like Richard III and other monsters in history, the myths are being unwrapped and we find that Nero may well have fiddled while Rome burned but that he did not start the fires nor was in Rome when they were lit but, rather, at his villa strumming his lyre and seeing the flames engulfing the city from a distance. He introduced many reforms and had some good ideas many of which were inimical to the interests of the Roman elites who saw to it that the social media of the times destroyed an otherwise good man in their quests for power and wealth. 

That, at any rate, is the new air-brushed Nero presented here.

So, no fiddling friends, though it didn’t stop the museum from placing a vast poster of Peter Ustinov laurel’d and lyre’d at the entrance to the exhibition, to remind us of the mythical version.

Lots of headless, legless and armless statues, all looking suspiciously similar, the Julian-Claudian gene evidently a strong one, illustrated the man and his deeds, though rather like Beckett, there was less there than at first it seemed.

The Bow Street Magistrates’ Court now NoMad

Opposite the opera house of course, are the Bow Street Magistrates’ Courts where Oscar Wilde was famously committed for trial at The Old Bailey. The building has been converted by the NoMad chain into a 91 room (sic) boutique hotel though I am sure that can’t be right? 91 rooms? More like 19 surely?

Thirty quid for two glasses of Grenache gives you some idea of what your stay-over bill might look like. It was filled with trendy thirty-somethings and Tony and I were definitely the oldest things in the NoMad bar! It set us up nicely for Bill Bailey.

The rain in London these two days has been astonishing. Tropical downpours reminiscent of the Zambesi valley or Amazon jungle – just stair-rods and vast pools of water which the drains seem incapable of removing fast enough. I’ve never seen anything like it here before. So our walk up to Swiss Cottage for The Two Character Play, one of Tennessee Williams’ late plays now being revived at the Hampstead Theatre –  where it premiered under the direction of James Roose-Evans in 1967 – was somewhat spoiled.

Back to Mistley for the Regatta Fireworks, an annual event in our local calendar; friend H- to stay and much walking and talking.

Vacuum cleaners always remind me of the wonderful film of Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana? I think it was the first time I encountered a modern vacuum cleaner actually, in the shape of “nothing sucks like an Electrolux”! A sausage shaped thing with a hose protruding that forever reminded me of Noël Coward and Alec Guinness! 

I had no idea it had been turned into a (not very good) play; but there it was as part of the Aldeburgh Summer Festival along with others, including Alan Ayckbourn’s rather clunky It Could be Any One of Us, written in 1983 and billed as a comic murder mystery. Great Summer Stock. Thorpeness friends Kathy- and Trevor- always ask us to join them in their annual visit to the festival and this year was a good one. Masked or not, we inch towards normality. Thanks K & T – it’s always a pleasure. 

I have had my hands rapped (it happens often) for using the word Staycation to describe holidaying in the United Kingdom.

Apparently it’s not PC and causes offence to the leisure industry who complain that it subtly downgrades holidaying in Britain implying it to be inferior to foreign vacations. A Staycation I am informed by the Etymological Stalinistas describes a holiday spent at home – rather like the German version, a Balcony Holiday. 

So, Friends what to do? I have come up with UKcationing and hope that will explain more clearly our earlier Summer idylls and our current odyssey with two of our grandsons, as we make a stately progress through the cities of Oxford, Bath and Bristol – to London.

But not before the Vietnamese Reunion with Cousins at Westwood Farm in Semley, Dorset.

Cousin Sophia! Are you taking the picture?

Five years ago we were all on the beach at Mũi Né witnessing and celebrating Cousin Rufus’ nuptials. Sadly neither he nor Diah, currently locked down in Saigon, nor Oliver his brother could be with us but that did not dampen proceedings a jot as family embraced in the bucolic surrounds of Semley, glasses raised to absent friends, an excellent way to remember a happy event in these times.

And so to Oxford.

Putting up at the newly refurb’d Randolph Hotel handily positioned opposite the Ashmolean where breakfast was not included nor rooms ready for the arrival of Team Jabe. No wet room; breakfast á lá carte with a rack of four toasted triangles, a knob of butter and a thimble of Tiptree marmalade weighing in at ten quid. Toasts for five over two breakfasts came to £100! Coffee, eggs to order, freshly squeezed orange juice, fruit and yoghurt – the Greek variety – all priced separately. Times five, times two! Shock horror!

UKationing does not come cheap; and very iffy service all round. John Thaw everywhere and Tony and I were bedded in the Oscar Wilde room. I kid you not. Though I noticed I had a Margaret Thatcher keycard.

But what a city. So beautiful. I’d forgotten. 

Jabe asked us last year if we would travel with him to France during the summer holidays but that was all put into touch by the Pandemic and a much smaller scale UKation was planned and our entourage, Team Jabe, met in Oxford last Monday.

I first came here when I was 12 years old, to be re-introduced to my Godmother Sister Julia SLG (Sisters of the Love of God) at the Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres; up the Iffley Road, passed the famous 4 minute mile athletics track; and when I came to live in England forever in 1979 I visited her with special permission, every Easter, Christmas and Birthday until she died in 2004. I raced down from Manchester between shows for her funeral and that was the last time I was in the city.

Family legend has it that, thwarted by my Mother in a race for my Father, she became a Nun. Perhaps. Whatever. She was a wonderful Godmother. I adored her and loved Oxford where I was nearly once myself a postgraduate – but that’s another story.

Jabe loved Oxford too; we managed to dip in and out of Exeter, Magdalen and Oriel, gazing at that Imperial monster Rhodes in his niche as we passed by, thinking of the £12,000,000 endowment and how he earned it. 

To the Bodleian, no access; along the river, no punting of course, but success at the Ashmolean where there was a stupendous exhibition on Tokyo well worth a visit if anyone is in the neighbourhood. I’d never been in the Ashmolean and loved the whole place. There’s an excellent collection of paintings there, in the European section, which we enjoyed.

Much of the city centre has been pedestrianized; great for walkers and the wheelchair; and it’s immaculately groomed. A café society has developed and the fresh air disperses the germs we are told.

Travelling with Team Jabe is an event in itself. He has a specially designed VW van for his collection of wheel chairs and two PA’s who travel with him, this time his brother Tyger and Manager Emily – so we are five altogether.  Irritatingly none of the Parking Garages allowed access. Too tall.

Holidaying in Britain has always been fraught in one way or another. The traffic, the cost of petrol, parking costs, the astronomical expense of accommodation in England and often poor service, all make the experience daunting.

Add to these Grandson Jabe’s special needs and the endless frustrations with accessibility and often indifferent staff, you’d be forgiven for not starting off on any journey ever. Brexit and the Pandemic have only aggravated these realities. In restaurants, café’s and hotels staff shortages are endemic and these have a knock-on effect. 

For further rants, see below!

Blenheim of course. We had to go there, just 25 minutes down the Woodstock Road – it’s all part of the Imperial endeavour and certainly impressive; a sort of massive theme park complete with miniature railway – pulled by Winston, the engine – to whisk you to the walled garden and the maze and back – if you felt like it. We walked. A beautiful sunny day, blue skies with cotton wool puffs; absolutely perfect English weather and when Britannia basks she looks fabulous.

It’s interesting revisiting places you think you’ll never see again and watching the reactions of those for whom it is a first time; hearing what they think. By now we are in London on the last leg and so far only Bristol Zoo has disappointed Jabe he confessed this morning.

I remember my first visit there too, back in 1965, when in front of the Gorilla cage brother David was pelted with turd. It smelled terrible and I think we may well have taken the smell into My Fair Lady which had just opened at the ABC nearby. Loved the movie; hated the smell.

Poor brother David, he was always falling into Devonshire streams, Warwickshire cowpats and other uncomfortable things.

Poor Aunt Barbara, she never knew what to do with us all. “I’m only an artist!” she’d exclaim in answer to all questions. Brother David got into scrapes. At Stratford we were taken to see The Merchant of Venice and he thought he was being helpful during the interval when he returned to their holders all the opera glasses in the dress circle at a shilling a pop. Poor Barbara indeed. I recollect many shilling pieces, or sixpences, being frantically sought and binoculars released.

This picture is from my 1965 diary and reveals that Janet Suzman played Portia, Eric Porter was Shylock and I see Charles Kay played Launcelot Gobbo.

Bath next.

Putting up at the Double Tree by Hilton a few hundred yards from the Pump Room and Roman Baths where we headed immediately. 

On that same trip when I was 12, we were brought here, again by My Aunt Barbara (MAB), and I remember eating in the Pump Room. I think it has been restored to within an inch of its existence since those days and the Roman Baths made far more fascinating than I remember them. Team Jabe had “Champagne Tea” accompanied by a palm-fringed quartet playing Mozart and Bach. Necessary sugar input for the gruelling walkabout this Mendip’d town. Please don’t let your batteries run down, Jabe, we have a ways to go! The thought of deploying the manual chair made us quail!

At 12.

Bath is in good shape. Also well groomed – and popular. Timed entries everywhere of course though not always ramps when needed. The ghosts of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley are all about – and others besides. It basked in sunshine too and it’s easy to see its attraction to Romans and English alike.

Bath Abbey was beautiful. It was the first time we came across a real attempt to contextualise some of our less savoury history. There was none such at Blenheim.

The debate about Rhodes in Oxford rages on. Inside Bath Abbey the subject of our Imperial past is met head on. Personally I am very much against airbrushing history or anything that resembles “cancel culture”. The Slave Trade and its hideousness looms large in this part of the world. 

Mini rant coming up – Slavery should loom large over all Britain since everything we are today is because of the wealth and power generated by our trade and the exploitation of subject peoples throughout our Imperial past.

Bristol next and contextualisation is everywhere. In the MShed Gallery, on the docks, there is a comprehensive history of the city and what made it. There the disgraced statue of Edward Colston lies in a special exhibition dedicated to the events leading to his de-plinthing, and drowning in the harbour. It is an extension to a fascinating, existing exhibition of all Bristol’s endeavours and quite shocking in the virtual holocaust it reveals. There was a lot of interest and I’m glad because surely this is a subject that should be compulsorily taught in our schools? Along with so many social, political and economic wrongs perpetrated in our name through our Imperial Past? I can’t help feeling it can only help mend race relations?

The SS Great Britain

We put up at the Radisson Blu Hotel and here our experiences reached their nadir: it took three and a half hours to check in! In fact they told us to go away and see the Isambard Kingdom Brunel miracle (The IKB Experience) the SS Great Britain; perhaps by then they might have found us rooms.

They didn’t. Tony and I checked in but Team Jabe languished in the foyer for a further hour at least before the wrong rooms finally became available. No accessible wet room, the lifts were not working properly, the rooms had clearly not been properly cleaned, parking in the nearby NCP cost the earth and all this despite the long term planning. It was grubby. Actually, unlike Oxford and Bath, Bristol itself was grubby. End of mini rant!

Travelling with a wheelchair user is a humbling experience. Our grandson Jabe is one of the politest people I know. He has such huge difficulties; often people are patronising; often, too, expectations are not met; promises of accessibility are either exaggerated or broken altogether yet he and his carers, Team Jabe, are patient, polite and show a forbearance and humour that is a lesson in diplomacy and tolerance I find very moving.

Care of course is much debated at present. There is not nearly enough of it, spread so thinly and unevenly as it is, and what there is costs the earth in funding almost impossible to source. A radical rethink not just for the elderly but all who need care and help is long overdue. 

Last leg London. Easy for us as we just checked into our flat. Team Jabe, having changed horses so-to-speak, put up at the Camden Holiday Inn where things were altogether more efficient for a change.

Sit still long enough and someone will take a picture, trying to remember which character you were and where they’d seen you before!

Handy for us and the West End, we embarked on at least twelve thousand steps a day across parks, along canals, via rose gardens to Van Gogh Alive, Madame Tussauds, The London Eye, Fortnum & Mason, Covent Garden as part of a list of boxes Jabe wanted to tick, some of which we’d not been near for many, many years and never thought we’d see again – most unrecognisably worked over and modernised.

This is in 3D: you can walk into the picture.

Jabe is amazing.  He is at Loughborough completing an MA in Mathematics. There is nothing he won’t try. He will paraglide off mountains, skydive from planes, ride any ride, play Boccia for the UK, the list is endless  – if others can do it why can’t he? 

Averaging 12,000 steps a day we covered 120,000 and the only batteries that ran our were ours! Oh….and Jabe ran over my foot in his 350Kg Wheelchair, an occupational hazard said carers Vic & Emily.

Top hole, Jabe! Top hole! It’s been a great little UKation!

Sister Julia SLG, Fairacres, Oxford, 1987.

5 Replies to “THE GREEN DIARY : Stay- or UK-ationing?”

  1. Thanks as always for such an interesting blog (is that the correct term?). Must say I read it with an underlying envy – I, like so many of us down here, are so tired of the isolation.
    Love, P xxx

  2. So fascinating as usual Peter. My son Matthew now lives in Oxford. I have never been there and doubt if I ever will the way things are going so thank you.

  3. What fun Peter! I’m making a few notes for our own London visit in mid November. Right now we are in cognac after a gentle drive from Provence. Stayed over in castle something or other built in 1421. In old Aquitaine which used to be English. Tomorrow we join friends on the charante river for a week on a hired boat. Visiting La Rochelle to see the Uboat pens.

  4. Am always amazed at the synchronicity of experiences you evoke in your blog.
    Way back when I was a young slip of a thing I was appointed as a Magistrate by the then Lord Chancellor. My very first experience of sitting in a court filling that role was at Bow Street Magistrates Court. It was a very hot summers day and I, like everyone else in the courtroom (one of many, tucked up under the roof of the building) was dripping with sweat. The first chap in the dock had come from Wormwood Scrubs and had obviously not had the advantages of hot soapy water and deodorant. I clearly recall trying to pay attention to the legal arguements whilst trying not to gag on the smells in the small, overcrowded court room. After a few stints there I was moved to the serious stuff in Horseferry Road Mag. Court, where I really learned to cut my teeth.
    All magistrates’ courts were originally Police Courts and located near or adjoining Police Stations. Obviously Bow Street was the oldest as the ‘Bow Street Runners’ turned into the early police force under Peel, and that is why the court house was there. And now it is a swanky dank hotel/bar ..well who would have thought. Does it have any aspects of its old incarnation on display?

    As to “Staycation”, I am with the Tourist Board – its not a Staycation, its a HOLIDAY in Britain. Otherwise the implication is that unless one travels abroad it is not a vacation/holiday – which is patently nonsense. Until the 1960s when package trips to Spain/Greece etc etc began, most people holidayed in the UK. A ‘Staycation’ is when you have holiday time but spend it living in your own home enjoying local sites/events and so forth.

    Finally – was riveted to read about your travels with Team Jabe. The video of him skydiving from 3 miles up was amazing. My goodness that lad has guts, there is no way I would have even contemplated doing something like that when I was his age. I am a fan!!

  5. Bill Bailey! Bucket list stuff!
    Gosh – your amazing outlook and insights – and the bizarre juxtaposition of Wilde and Thatcher – a brand new boggling of the mind, for sure!

    I so so look forward to many UK-ationionistic excursions – should I successfully find gainful employment and the emotional strength to get around! Oh the bliss of adventure – I’ve been dreaming that I’m Frodo – which must be a good thing!

    all my love to the both of you

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