Friday, June 28, 2024

Fin de Siecle

 I don't want to, but I have to mention a few things before I start today's post.  I watched the un-debate last night.  It was truly awful.  I wrote to my friends that Biden should step down, let Harris finish the term, and dems should pick a new candidate at the convention.  Little did I think that today's papers would all be saying the same thing.  It was that bad.  Trumpers today are doing their happy dance.  But dems, the way they are going, would probably pick a candidate who is polarizing and would lose anyway.  Get out of the market while you can.  Things will go south quickly.  

1999.  The fine de siecle.  There is usually upheaval if history teaches us anything at all.  The end of the 19th century was pretty much a prelude to the end of the 20th.  Boilerplate.  

It was an upheaval personally as well.  

In March or May of that year (depending on whether I or my friend V is correct), my wife and I went to London.  Her father was president of the publishing company that owned Penguin Books.  On the top floor of their office building was an apartment he used when he went there for business.  That is where my wife and I stayed.  

It was a modest building that one entered through giant double glass doors into a large lobby/reception area above which were several floors of offices and meeting rooms.  It was rather strange to enter the building during working hours.  The receptionist would recognize us and smile as we crossed to the old fashioned elevator with the iron grate doors.  But at night, when everyone had gone home, it was absolutely spooky.  Dim nightlights illuminated the ground floor and the offices were dark.  My wife refused to use the elevator then, so we would climb the stairs to the apartment.  We passed many open doors to the meeting rooms wherein I spied bottles of liquor on cabinet tops, and being bereft, I would pour myself a drink to take to our room.  I guess I was a bit of a rascal.  

We spent our days wandering the city, visiting the parks and palaces and walking pathways along the Thames.  The weather was incredible, bright and sunny.  It seemed during this time that everyone was on holiday.  The streets were full of happy people standing outside the pubs and bars.  Sidewalk tables were set up outside of restaurants.  Everywhere one went, there were smiles and laughter.  

"Don't expect this to last," my friend V warned.  "It will cloud up and begin to rain any time now."

But it didn't.  Not once.  We were in some enchanted weather bubble and would never know the "other" England.  London would always be a sunny, excited place full of happy diners and imbibers.  It might as well have been the Grecian Isles.

V decided to take a few days off from work in order to show us around.  She got us tickets to see Cate Blanchett in a production of "Plenty" at the historic Albery  Theatre.  It was a time of terrorist activity, though, and we had a difficult time getting to the theatre after a bombing nearby had caused the police to close off most of the streets.  We made it in time, however, to take our seats somewhere in the rafters.  We spent the play mostly watching the top of Blanchett's head.  

After the play, V took us for sushi underground at an Icelandic bar and restaurant.  Old V had become a sophisticate of city life since I'd last seen her.  

The next night, we dined with her and her husband, a writer of history books, at a posh restaurant that looked out over the Thames.  The next day, V, who had a small automobile, took us to the country to a place called Christmas Commons to see the Blue Bells which blossom each year from March to May (a fact that does not help me fix the timeline here).  The myth surrounding the Blue Bells is that they ring when fairies are summoning their kin, but if a human were to hear it, they would die.  

"Do not trample a Blue Bell," we were told, "or you will anger the fairies."

Oh, no. . . we did not want that.  

We, however, had trouble finding the Christmas Commons.  English countryside roads were not often marked, and so we stopped many times to ask directions.  

Once, we stopped by a pub next to a poling station.  The owner said he couldn't server us as it was Election Day, and all pubs were supposed to be closed. Then he took a sneaky look around and opened his door.  

"Come in," he said, and he poured us a round of beers.  

In another minute, there was a knock on the door.  The pub owner looked at us and we obscured our pints as he walked warily across the room.  

"Quick," he said opening the door a crack, "get inside," and a few lucky voters, people he knew well, were allowed to join us.  There was a holiday spirit now, which, for me at least, was akin to reading a British novel.  

With the helpful directions of the pub keeper, we were able to find the Christmas Commons, much to V's relief.  

There are laws in England that property owners must provide passage to hikers through their properties, and every farm and field had turnstiles you could cross that kept the livestock in while providing the hiker with an entryway.  For this American, at least, it felt as if we were sneaking onto someone's land as trespassers, but walking, it seems, is a sacred part of British life, and the rights of hikers has been greatly protected.  

At the end of the day, we went to a field of wildly blooming Blue Bells, and fortunately, not a one of us heard the calling of the faeries (link).


The next day, wife and husband took the train to Cambridge past vast, golden fields of blooming rape seed.  The view from the passing train was stunning, and in just over an hour we were walking through the the university.  Cambridge is made up of 31 different colleges, each a separate area of study.  Founded in 1209, the buildings dated from the 13th and 14th centuries.  We got tours through some of them and saw the dorms where students lived.  It was quite surprising to us to find that students each had a maid service and could, upon request, have meals delivered to their rooms.  It was stunning, really, to a hillbilly boy who had matriculated through the state university system at home, and I felt I had missed out on some wicked grandeur in life.  But I was doing o.k. and had presented international papers with graduates of this system without feeling myself either enthralled or lacking.  Indeed, with the breadth of my education, I felt quite the opposite.  

Still, there was much envy.  

We wandered the campus and ended up at The River Cam where boats were available for punting.  We, of course, couldn't resist.  Really, other than eating and walking around there was little else to do. 

In the late afternoon, we took the train back to London.  That night, we were going to eat with V in an area  just north of London where Prime Minister Tony Blair owned a home.  She took us to a good Indian restaurant.  After dinner, we wandered the more suburban streets that housed a diverse cross section of the onetime members of the great British Empire on which the sun never sat.  

The next day we headed to Notting Hill where my wife fell in love with fruit tarts and I with the amazing antique markets filled with a panoply of paraphernalia.  I bought old brass spy glasses, an ancient compass, and a four inch long curved whale's tooth, all of which still lie on mantles and desktops around my home.  

Our last day in London, the skies turned cloudy and grey, and it seemed the party was over.  In the streets and on the train to the airport, people were dressed in dull raincoats and were silent as they stared in dumb seriousness at the ground.  Oh, we had had a grand trip and a magical time, but even then, there was something off.  It was one of those things one knows deep down but does not wish to admit.  And when we returned home, things went south.  By summer, my marriage was at its end.  My wife declared she was no longer happy and we separated.  

In August, I met Skylar, and by year's end. . . well, you know the rest.  New Year's Day and the New Century. . . . 

The fin de siècle was indeed finished, and we knew not what we would face in a new and turbulent century.  

But that, my friends, is for another time.  

You'll have to excuse the poor quality of the pictures.  I was in a hurry and did a shitty job of scanning.  Same with the writing.  I drank too much watching last night's debacle, and knowing I was too agitated to sleep, I took double the amount of my usual dose of Tylenol PM.  I have written with a numb body and brain.  But you know how it goes. 


Kind and gentle daughter
No one tells you ’til you’re much too old
The wine turns back to water
And even then its harder still to hold

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