Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Postcard from London (1)

Sunday, 26th February 2006

‘Sir, when a man is tired of London he is tired of life,
for there is in London all that life can afford.’

Samuel Johnson
James Boswell Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) 20th September 1777

Thus it was that, within one hour of having arrived in this great city, we were walking across Kensington Gardens towards Kensington Palace, eager to be adding even more pieces of experience to the vast jigsaw which is London. Despite having been born on its outskirts in Kent and having lived in several of its boroughs during five undergraduate years at the Charing Cross Hospital, London still excites the mind with its myriad of sights, sounds and smells. Once again we were having a ‘quick fix’, as we laughingly call such sojourns. Dr Johnson was absolutely right.

Across Kensington Gardens, the wind blew with a piercing ferocity; a reminder that, although the Magnolia back in Lincolnshire was gallantly pushing out its buds, snow was forecast and true spring had yet to arrive. The cold, however, could not erase in one’s mind, the image of that vast carpet of flowers which had lain across this very path, as the nation mourned as one following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

I do not think it unkind to liken the Palace to a vast warehouse, such is its plain façade. Perhaps, bearing in mind its more recent historical use, that of housing assorted members of the Royal Family, the analogy is an apt one; a storage facility for the lesser Royals. It does, however, come as a slight visual disappointment, especially knowing that it was designed by that great architect, Sir Christopher Wren.

Many of the old State Apartments, where the likes of George I, William III and Mary II once resided, are open to the public. These particular rooms are of interest, if only for the splendour of the ceiling paintings by William Kent or the wood carvings of Grinling Gibbons. The rest of the rooms on public display have a bareness about them, as though the removal of the possessions of the previous occupants (such as in the former apartment of the late Princess Margaret) has rendered the empty, hollow rooms soulless.

That said, in the entrance hall to Princess Margaret’s apartment is displayed a photograph by Lord Snowdon of his wife dressed in an evening gown. She is standing in the same hall and neither my wife nor I could avoid the temptation to quietly stand on the one particular square of black marble where Margaret had stood for the photograph. No great “touristy show” about it. No loud chatter or flashing photographs; just the quiet absorption of the energy and sense of occasion which radiates from places such as that. How different she must have been then compared to the very ill Princess Margaret we met some years ago at a reception in Westminster Hall, when she could only gallantly smile from the safety of a wheelchair.

The one other attraction, which for many would be the main attraction these days, is the display of dresses once belonging to Diana, Princess of Wales. These are complimented by a unique exhibition of images of the Princess, taken by Mario Testino for Vanity Fair in 1997. To me, they are hauntingly beautiful and I was vividly reminded of the time I met the Princess at the opening of a maternity unit at a hospital in East Yorkshire; her entrancing gaze never to be forgotten.

* * *
The day was seen out in style with dinner with friends at Bentley’s, a fish restaurant of high repute, situated in Swallow Street (just opposite the Wren Church in Piccadilly). It has recently been acquired by Richard Corrigan, who also runs a notable establishment in Soho, called Lindsay House. He has renovated the interior, removing the dark booths from downstairs and lightened and partitioned the room upstairs. But for all the change, it did not disappoint and the food was delicious.

Thus, as Pepys would say, home to bed; in this case, our club in St. James’s.

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