Monday, April 28, 2008

Harrods and the Heart's Desire

In the Food Halls

Let me start by saying that if it didn't come from an auction and it is in my house, it probably came from the Dollar Store or Big Lots or Christmas Tree Shoppe (another liquidator of consumer goods, nothing to do with Christmas trees). My horrible clothes are mostly bought at another super deep discounter in that international fashion capital, Johnson, Vermont called The Forget Me Not Shop. In days of yore, in the distant 1980s and 90s, I bought things with belts, things that had to be ironed, things with shapes, things that might be brought to a person in a dressing room in various sizes and colors by an assistant. And, are you sitting down? I once paid retail.

Those days are gone, long gone. And in this, my current, great horking, tatty American form, with a habit of cheapness so deeply embedded that it is as natural to me, and as reflexive, as blinking, I visited Harrods on three occasions during our four-days in London last week. Mind you, during this (maybe) once-in-a-lifetime trip, we (my ten-year-old daughter and I) didn't manage to get to the Tower of London or the British Museum or Hampton Court Palace. No Elgin Marbles for us, but we did see the shrine to Dodi al Fayed and Princess Diana at the foot of the Egyptian Elevator on several occasions. Oh, and we both loved it.

Anyone reading this blog probably already knows that Harrods is the most famous of the many great London department stores and a British Insitution now owned by Egyptian Billionaire Mohamed al Fayed (also famous as father of the late Dodi Fayed). The place was almost certainly more tasteful before M. Fayed got his hands on it, but this was my first time seeing it so I don't know any better and wouldn't really have cared anyway. I was beguiled - bad taste be damned. The Disney effects are, of course, only part of the story. The sheer marvelousness of the place, of its situation on Brompton Road- great crossroads of the world! Its immensity, its profligacy (more on that in a moment), and its real beauty (the jewelry, the antiques, even the "luxury toilets" [yes, they actually have signs, and not a few, to let you know where the luxury toilets may be found] were just so, what?, so enchanting.

We did spend a few dollars, although we didn't buy any clothes (I was beguiled but I am not crazy). Kid 1 insisted on shopping the children's section despite my oft-repeated warnings that we would not buy anything there. I shared a wonderful moment of recognition of the absurdity of the prices with an English grandmother who flipped over a tag on the same rack I was perusing. We looked at each other and laughed at the idea of a 50 pound child's blouse. We did buy the ice cream, and the cookies in a Harrods tin to bring home; we changed money in the basement (probably a very bad deal but the "bank" was beautiful and the uniformed cashier was charming).

For our hundred dollars or so we got a few odd bits that say "Harrods" on them,a few sugary drinks and snacks, and a bunch of images that will last a lifetime. It was worth it. There was an opera singer in the well of the Egyptian Escalator who sounded good enough for La Scala last Saturday. I thought it was a recording till I heard the applause. The one sight that most impressed me were the legions of dark-suited young people who staff the miles of floors outside the food halls. (Inside the food halls everyone is dressed in what amounts to a costume that reminded me of Dick van Dyke on his day out with Mary Poppins in "It's a Jolly Holiday.")

The dark-suited ones seemed never to be talking to any customers or completing transactions. They seem to stand and watch -- although they can, and do, point the way to the luxury toilets, as they demonstrated for me. ("They also serve who only stand and wait?") To have this young, well-dressed, well-coiffed phalanx available at every turning was the most luxurious thing about the place. When I say that Harrods is profligate, this is my prime example.

On our last night in London our lovely (rich) friends took us to dinner at the sushi bar on the 5th floor at Harvey Nichols ("Harvey Nicks," as our host said). What I know about Harvey Nichols I learned from watching Absolutely Fabulous. It was great, of course, very cool, very smart, very expensive - just the place for Joanna Lumley's character on Ab Fab. But I preferred to be dazzled and to have fun, a declasse colonial in the end, I suppose. I guess we must get to Selfridges if we ever get back to London, and to the Elgin Marbles eventually.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Perfect Sunday

So much to blog about, so little time.

We have been back from England for three full days and the glow is wearing off. We'll always have London, of course, but the pictures have been printed and the bags unpacked and tomorrow it's back to work and business as usual. Sigh...

A Sunday evening contentment prevails. A new episode ofThe Simpsons is on as I write. I scored a cache of great pottery at the auction today, along with a box full of Hotwheels for Kid 2 and an entire library of children's books from the 40s through the present day for Kid 1. We were all very happy with our respective hauls. From the auction we went over to our friends' farm to see the new pony and for some play time for all of us. (These friends have a beautiful farm and just redecorated their 200 year old house and I helped them hang some beautiful pictures while the kids played on the sunny, warm lawn). The kids played auction on the lawn, and bestowed their friends with lots of books and Hotwheels. (We have a lot of books in that box, maybe 150! and about 60 new in the box hotwheels. What fun). Kids all jumped in the pond, it was that warm - at least the air. The pond was frozen just a few weeks ago.

I'll be back with more when I can catch my breath... Remind me to tell you about Harrods and International London and the English class structure. I'm just dying to do so...

Here are a couple more England pics. Bath in the first shot, and Oxford in the next two. All were taken near the homes of the friends with whom we stayed. Nice friends with nice addresses.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Vermont -> London, Oxford, Bath -> Vermont

Yesterday morning, 5 AM in the UK, I awoke in the smallest hotel room in London with Kid 1 still snoozing in the bed that occupied nine tenths of the room. How small was it? "My hotel room was so small I had to go outside to change my mind." (buh duh bump). Well, it was only for one night, the night before our departure from the great UK adventure of 2008, which began with a car trip from home in Vermont to Montreal, air travel from Montreal to London, site seeing in London for three nights, off to friends in Oxford for two more, then one night with more friends in Bath and then back to London (in a chauffer-driven Mercedes that detoured to Stonehenge, more on that in another post); a long plane ride back to Montreal and not so long car ride to Vermont. Absolutely ripping overall, as they might say - and the small hotel room was clean and gave me a chance to repeat that old joke and to own a London accommodation story worth repeating so I am not really complaining. It made for a comic ending to a fun trip for me and my ten-year-old daughter. As I write from my accustomed perch in The Back of Beyond of Vermont, Kid 2 is outside in the sun with Vermont greening up all around us. He mastered a two-wheeler today (at last) so it is a good day to be home. I have lots to say about our trip to England but it will have to wait to be unpacked, rather like my daughter's luggage. So much to do when one has been away for a week...

Above are a few of my favorite pictures from our trip to whet your appetite and remind me what I want to write about. The one below of the sleeping kid is an attempt to capture room 153 Days Inn and Suites in Westminster. I had no room to back up which meant it was impossible to capture the smallness.

Hard to believe that just yesterday we were treading the pavements on Belgrave Road into the cavernous (and wonderful) Victoria station. Sigh. Off to Newport (Vermont) for pizza with the kids.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Mommy's Day Off - Thoughts on Rock and Doris

What a luxury at my stage in life (43 with two grade-school kids and a parttime job as a lawyer)to have a sunny weekday at home. I don't even have to fetch the kids from school! The neighbor will pick them up and take them to her house after school for a play date. Wow. Now, to make things even better, Turner Classic Movies is having a Doris Day day - it's her birthday, I guess. Right now, it's Rock Hudson and Doris in Lover Come Back (so wonderfully dated, so ironic). Putting my free time to what feels to good use, I must blog.

As I write, Doris (Carol) is contemplating in song whether she should "surrender" to Rock (Jerry Webster). The song plays in a dreamy voiceover as Doris pours the champagne in her Manhattan kitchen. She's just cleared away the dinner dishes, (noting, "That's a woman's job" when Rock tried to help). Her blonde hair is whipped into a meringue. She is wearing a beautifully tailored skirt, sequined top, diamond earrings, red lipstick. In the opening scene she whooshed into her Manhattan office in a black and white dress, hat, and gloves, that must have been by Chanel. Ann B. Davis (Alice on The Brady Bunch) who made a career out of being the plain, stalwart retainer, was close behind to help Doris with her rear-buttoning jacket. The fashions were fabulous. Back to the unfolding plot. Should she or shouldn't she? The fatal question: "surrender? surrender? surrender?" plays as a refrain.

I won't get into the plot, check Wikipedia. Who cares anyway. Aside from the technical changes in the movies, tecnicolor, panavision etc., this is interesting only as a relic and cultural artifact. How amazing to think that they packed into the theaters for the great, prolonged tease only one generation back!(The film was released in 1961 while my parents were in college). And Rock Hudson, here again on display as a paradigm of American manhood! Deceived, naive people. The mind boggles. Oops, there goes a gay joke, actually a series of them. Rock has just been deserted by the side of the road in his jockeys (Doris found out he had been wooing her under false pretenses). He has been picked up by a truck driver in one of those Maytag-repairman uniforms. "Man you were a sight," the truck driver quips; Rock standing behind him in a woman's fur coat for some reason. Next, Rock comes into his apartment building and is spied by a pair of middle-aged men, whose only purpose in the movie is to stand by and comment on Rock's virility (as Rock rushes by with various beautiful women). "He's the last guy you would have expected," one quips to the other. Ha ha. And as if that wasn't enough evidence of the yawning gulf between the mores of 1961 and 2008, the great product that the genius chemist comes up with (it's a movie about the advertising industry)is a candy that turns into alcohol in your system so you can get drunk for just ten cents. OK. That movie ended and now it's Doris and Jimmy Stewart in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Probably less food for thought and maybe a little more subtlety. I'll leave it on while I clean the kitchen, something I will get to eventually.

I tested out a new tiny camera that came in the mail today (an Ebay find and more prep for the great Woolfoot journey to the UK in two weeks). This little camera is supposedly for Kid 1, but she may have trouble getting it away from me. Here are a couple of shots of this bright day on the Vermont/Quebec border and the old barn here at the Last House (in extreme close up).

I Got the Suitcase!

I promised an update on the suitcase search that I wrote about here the other day. Et, voila. Several stores and a large swath of the internet were scouted before I decided to part with $59.99 at TJ Maxx in South Burlington. Here is my brand new 24-inch Swissgear Roller Bag. Long may she roll.

Another Camera Test and More Woolfoot Art Collection

Here's a little bit of folk art I picked up at the Degre Auction House a few months back (see the auction house link on the right - one of my favorite haunts). I wanted to see how our wee new camera would perform indoors and on the close-up setting. This old edifice was called "the Federal Building" by the Auction House. I bought it because it passed the, "it-called-to-me" test, which is the only test I apply (not being willing to apply the "can-I-afford-it" test that is the main thing I should be considering). I still really like it. Some old Vermonter worked hard on it, although I doubt it came out just like he or she wanted. My daughter added Hello Kitty to the front step. Now, I think that is a Duchamp touch that makes this into modern art. I guess I would be willing to part with it for the right price. ;-)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Inner Literary Critic Unleashed - Again!

Oliver Goldsmith

I have been driving around Vermont today; a windy, unsettled sort of April Fools Day. "So what?" you say. "Isn't that what you do everyday?" I agree, my trip to Burlington in search of a piece of new luggage is not exactly stop-the-presses material. Exciting to me as the prospect of a new roller bag is (and I spent a long, happy time looking around for one today, without actually buying one)- I also had in the car the audiobook version of The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith. This made me want to stay in the car for as long as possible and this is what I have come to blog about. (I'll keep you posted on the bag search too since no doubt you will find it hard to sleep until you know whether I bought one).

Another of my recent enthusiasms (there are so many!) was for the audio version of The House of Mirth. When I got to the end of the last disk, the announcer observed that if I liked The House of Mirth, I might also like The Vicar of Wakefield. I guess old English majors are a reasonably predictable if small market niche. So, off to the Stowe Library it was and, happily, there it was.

I had heard of OG in my English major days but never read anything by him. I now have Wikipedia-level of knowledge about his life. Anglo-Irish, son of a C of E clergyman, born about 1730 in Ireland, Trinity College graduate, gambler, writer of throw-away junk and a few great works. One of his major claims to fame is that he was an intimate of Samuel Johnson. Listening to this book (and reading it a bit too, more on that in a minute) I can understand why the Great and Towering Samuel Johnson, most learned, most clever, &c. &c. would enjoy the company of OG. He was clearly something rare and amusing. Another thing I learned is that he is buried in Temple Church in London. More joy of the internet. Temple Church, I have just now discovered, has a great choir. I love choral music. Perhaps Kid 1 and I will get to a service during the great UK tour of April 2008, now approaching rapidly (roller bag required), But I digress. The Vicar of Wakefield is not accessible to readers who would once have been called "dull." Big words, arcane phrasing etc. But it is so wise and funny ... I was laughing my way up I89, all alone in my car, like a madwoman.

I discovered just now in my Googling research that the book is available, in its entirety, on-line at Project Gutenberg. (Link on the right). For your reading pleasure, I will reproduce here one funny scene that I heard today in the car. Some scene setting: The Vicar of Wakefield is the paterfamilias of a large family that was once rich but which has lost its fortune (no fault of theirs). The Vicar takes a religious view of this decline and urges his young family to do the same and accept their lot of a modest life in the country. His wife and two maturing daughters persist, however, in their efforts to move back up in the world. In this little scene the family is visiting with a neighbor at a kind of Georgian barbecue. Two grand ladies, who might be in need of cultured young ladies to serve as their paid companions - a situation devoutly to be wished by the two daughters - arrive unexpectedly at the barbecue, where various games and diversions have been going on all afternoon. The Vicar is the narrator:

last of all, they sate down to hunt the slipper. As every person
may not be acquainted with this primaeval pastime, it may be
necessary to observe, that the company at this play themselves in
a ring upon the ground, all, except one who stands in the middle,
whose business it is to catch a shoe, which the company shove
about under their hams from one to another, something like a
weaver's shuttle. As it is impossible, in this case, for the lady
who is up to face all the company at once, the great beauty of
the play lies in hitting her a thump with the heel of the shoe on
that side least capable of making a defence. It was in this
manner that my eldest daughter was hemmed in, and thumped about,
all blowzed, in spirits, and bawling for fair play, fair play,
with a voice that might deafen a ballad singer, when confusion on
confusion, who should enter the room but our two great
acquaintances from town, Lady Blarney and Miss Carolina Wilelmina
Amelia Skeggs! Description would but beggar, therefore it is
unnecessary to describe this new mortification. Death! To be seen
by ladies of such high breeding in such vulgar attitudes! Nothing
better could ensue from such a vulgar play of Mr Flamborough's [the host]
proposing. We seemed stuck to the ground for some time, as if
actually petrified with amazement.

The reader of my audiobook is, I think, the same actor who played Rumpole in all those Rumpole at the Bailey TV shows. OG's text hardly needs any improvement but this good actor added something in perfect-pitch with the writing. So, I hope you also find it funny. Happy April Fools Day.