I would say it’s my favorite city, but truly it is my only city, at least the only big one I have known. So it’s London for things truly urban. And there are more things than you can shake a stick at there. Many more. And the rate at which London changes means that those things, or those sticks, keep shaking differently. Yes, this metaphor is exhausted, but so am I. Thus, jetlag.
I spent much of my time on this trip worrying. Family matters from back home were preoccupying me. But that’s the thing about travel, you have to expect a journey. The other preoccupation had to do with aging, with what I can and cannot do. And that’s the other thing about travel, you do what you have to do. And what do you have to do? Well, when you are dressing on your own and discover the effects of too many curries, too many onion bahjis, too much mango chutney, too much pulau rice, well, you need help.
Help being the issue at the heart of the disabled experience. So this matter of fastening the trousers has vast implications. But for the moment nothing is vast, except your waistline. The vastness of life, that can come later. For now, you have to get your trousers together, and yourself together. They are more or less the same at this point. What you need is a strategy. Using the ’tilt’ option on the wheelchair gets you quite horizontal, which does help in the trouser fastening department. That is to say, it gets the button and the buttonhole closer. But close is not close enough. And because repeated efforts – paralyzed right thumb hooked into belt loop, button maneuvered by the working left hand – have come to naught, well…. Well, well, indeed. The last time I went through this – in the very same hotel room – was two years ago. And I berated myself mightily, struggled and struggled. But I am wiser now. Which is why I threw on a shirt over the open trousers, piloted the wheelchair downstairs to the concierge’s desk, then rolled into a little used corner by the bar. Same trick, tilt back, and the concierge did the buttoning. Mission accomplished. And a few days later, faced with the same problem, knowing that I had the concierge’s full support…damned if I didn’t do it myself.
Mind you, at this stage we are barely out of the hotel room, and not remotely out of the hotel. ‘Out’ proves to be an interesting word in the disabled context. Yes, the doorman can get you a cab. But you’re not really out of the hotel’s sphere, are you? No, the way to really plunge into things is to board the 205 bus, a.k.a., The British Library express. Okay, no one calls it that but me. The 205 is actually headed for Bow Church in East London. But in my little tourist world, this has become a familiar route. Not only the British Library, but three of the major mainline stations, actually four, appear along its route. Not to mention Sadler’s Wells Theatre, a mile beyond. Imagine, all this from one bus. But the best thing about this one bus is the crash course in British sociology.
I’m not used to seeing women in veils. Not just the headscarf, dowdy though it is, but the full Monty, the woman’s face utterly invisible behind the mask. What is there to do but ask? And so I did this, quizzing a twentysomething son of a friend. David and I shared a couple of evenings at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s five-hour romp through Tudor England, ‘Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.’ Okay, it’s not a romp. It’s a slog. For all Hillary Mantel’s stylistic difficulties, I would rather read her then see these truncated dramatizations.
Besides, the experience does not compare favorably to the RSC’s current Stratford hit, ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona.’ The latter being not just joyous but melodious…as good a word as any for iambic pentameter, Shakespeare’s wordplay and the happily colliding fates in this slighter of the comedies. Anyway, this explains David…but not veils. The latter being one of the cultural imports the West could do without, it seems to me. But David, a native, had a slightly different take. Look at Western culture, he said, with its objectification of women, the sexualization of everything. And he’s right. Nothing to brag about there. Still, veils? Why not chastity belts?
Anyway, contemporary London. And although the 205 bus runs in both directions, it turns out that I don’t. I cab it back to the hotel. Good thing there’s tea in the hotel. There’s tea everywhere. This is England.
During my days in London things warm up. They needed to. My week in Gloucestershire seemed to startle everyone, including my hosts, Caroline and Alastair. It rained. Nothing odd about that. The daytime highs never got out of the 50s, and that is a bit odd for August. Downright cozy sitting by a coal fire in mid-summer. I’d brought a jacket, of course. But not a wool one. I picked up a couple of extra lambswool pullovers in Stratford.
Elsewhere in Warwickshire, there is Compton Verney. It’s a country home. More or less on the Downton Abbey scale. The interior is devoted to a museum, including that most wonderful of things, British folk art. Henry Moore sculptures dot the grounds. And it’s the grounds themselves that captivated me. They are designed by Capability Brown, Britain’s famed 18th-century landscape architect. And for once, perhaps having something to do with this time in my life, this Arcadian country garden profoundly affected me. What is this look? Massive oaks and plane trees trimmed to look as though they grew that way, round and orderly. These trees in pleasing openness. Green rolling lawns in between. As I was telling my cousin Barbara, it all adds up to a sense of balance. As though life is naturally this way. A natural order. Barbara said that the Arcadians chose pieces of the English Lake District and effectively re-created this look hundreds of miles south. Bits and pieces, mind you. Carefully selected. Art.
Which brings us to the Shaftesbury Theatre. The place has brought a lot of people through its doors since 1911. But wheelchairs? Hardly. The Shaftesbury must be one of the most difficult West End theaters in terms of access. The management seems to have tried hard to comply with EU regulations for the disabled. But it’s a big old house, and patrons must either go sharply up to the dress circle and beyond, or sharply down to the stalls. Unless they’re headed for the boxes. This is less of a chore, but it’s all relative. To provide wheelchair access to the Shaftesbury boxes…well, the only real solution is serious construction. That is to say, replacing the existing steps with a concrete incline. Unless you want to try to replace the existing stairs with portable metal ramps. The result is something like a wheelchair ski jump. Steep, frightening and, for the hapless cripple, largely out of control. And so what? You want to experience Edwardian London? There’s no better way.
Surely there’s no better way to get to Canterbury than the fast trains from St. Pancras Station. Can the hundred mile journey really only take an hour? Actually, slightly less. My cousin Jake and I spent a wonderful day there. Much of it in the cathedral itself. Maybe in early September the tourists were beginning to thin out. But for whatever reason, I found the docents remarkably helpful. Jake asked an innocent question about the knotted ropes depicted in one of the stained-glass windows. And a docent went scurrying off to research the matter. Has to do with heraldry and the Plantagenets. But that’s another story. There is another story. And I’m not too old and too disabled to travel – so there will be another.