Escape with Joan: Letter #7 from London

Escape with Joan: Letter #7 from London

Two events occurred in my life yesterday–both so earth-shattering it’s hard to choose between the two as the lead in this letter.
So here are the two “headlines” in the order they happened:

JOAN WALKS AMONG THE STONES AT STONEHENGE
and
JOAN READS HER FIRST RAYMOND CHANDLER NOVEL

I’ve attached a photo, and no, it hasn’t been photoshopped. That is me standing between two upright stones at Stonehenge, my hands a hairsbreadth from–but not touching–two of the stones.

Every so often, the British Heritage Trust at Stonehenge allows groups to walk in amongst (but not touch!) the stones at sunrise. Yesterday, I was privileged to be one of a group of 32 who had that experience (which required buying a tiny British flag alarm clock so I could get up at 4:00 a.m. for the journey from London to Stonehenge). It was exhilarating to be allowed to get close enough to see where someone etched his presence in the stone in 1814, or to see where water has worn away holes in the stone, or to see the “blue stones” within the circle concealed by the larger stones without, or the moss growing on the stones right up close or to stand directly beneath one of the stone lentils. Most visitors are required to remain on a sidewalk perhaps three or four car lengths from the stones. We were the only folks there (aside from a single security guard), and the circle is large enough for me to have been there with no one else in sight. It was a feeling of sheer joy–cold and windy bliss, to be sure–to be there as the sun rose in a bright blue sky.

It’s a “fun fact” that until 1962, the stones were located on someone’s private property, and that in the early 20th century they were sold privately several times (the latest time, along with the surrounding farmland, for about 9000 pounds). Eventually, the site at Stonehenge was sold to the British Heritage Trust, and has become a favorite tourist attraction. I just happened to see one of those History Channel specials on Stonehenge the day before I went there, so it made it all the more special to be somewhere with such very ancient (pre-Pyramids) history.

Okay, having said all that, I had an equally earth-shattering moment late last night when I picked up my first Raymond Chandler novel featuring his Private Eye, Philip Marlowe. I’m sleeping on the third floor, and the book I wanted to read (which I bought the first week I was here), was a trade-paperback-size copy of Karin Slaughter‘s Broken. However, I didn’t feel like going up and down three flights (62 stairs) to retrieve it–or my Kindle, which has another 50 or so books on it, including Meg Gardiner‘s Evan Delaney novels, which I’m racing through with great enjoyment. So I took a look through my hostess’s third-floor bookshelves.

My friend Liz writes literary fiction and like most writers I know, she reads voraciously and owns hundreds (maybe thousands?) of books. Among my choices upstairs were: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (saw the movie), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (saw the movie), Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (skipped the movie), Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephant’s (listened to–and loved–the audio book), and Elizabeth Gilbert’s sequel to Eat, Pray, Love titled Committed (already read it). Also available were authors I’d never heard including Taichi Yaneda, Mohamed Hanif and Czeslaw Milosz (who must have as much trouble getting his named pronounced correctly when people ask for one of his books as one of my favorite California authors, John Lescroart. I dare you to try to pronounce it. Okay, it’s LESS-KWAH).

Liz’s copy of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Good-bye has a foreward by Jeffrey Deaver, where he talks about the language Chandler uses. Jeffrey quotes the first sentence of the book, which for any of you writers out there says a great deal about Chandler’s felicity with words: “The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one.”

For me, it’s a case of love at the first paragrah. It’s the same exhilaration I felt reading my first Pat Conroy novel, Prince of Tides. These guys know how to put words together. I feel vindicated when I see Chandler using sentence fragments (which pervade my books), rather than writing everything neat and tidy with a subject and a verb. His descriptions of people (see above) tell a great deal without necessarily giving you occupation, hair and eye color and body build. I will enjoy reading Chandler for fun. More importantly, I will learn more how to be a better writer from Chandler.

I leave for the States in two days, and with any luck, Hurricane Irene will have come and gone by then. My heart goes out to those of you dealing with the devastation of high winds and too much rain. I hope you stay safe or escape Irene entirely.

It’s been consistently rainy and cold this past week, although we managed to get only patchy showers yesterday, when I also had a chance to visit Oxford University. I visited the dining hall at Christ Church College that was the inspiration for the dining hall in the Harry Potter books and movie. Also saw the stonemason’s Z in the cobbles that were supposedly an inspiration for Harry Potter’s scar. Visiting Christ Church, one of the colleges (among 32 or so) at Oxford University made me wish I’d gone there, but the reality is, the stone walls make everything even colder than England normally is. Still, think of how much history Christ Church holds!

Finally, we visited Windsor Castle, which is the best-preserved castle I’ve seen here in England. It’s apparently the queen’s favorite of her three homes (Buckingham Palace and Holyrood Castle in Scotland being the other two), but it’s right in the flight path of Heathrow these days. I walked on the tomb of Henry VIII, which is in the chapel at Windsor Castle, along with the tombs of many other kings and queens, including Queen Elizabeth II’s mother and father. I wouldn’t want a lot of people traispsing around my homes all summer, but I appreciate the queen’s willingness to share all that history with those of us curious enough to want to see it. I recommend visiting the staterooms–for the art, the amazing collections of china (all but one of the collections is used in state dinners; that one has too much lead content), and the numerous precious-stone-encrusted swords and other weapons and armor.

This past week, I also saw Pedro Almodovar’s latest movie, The Skin I Live In. It’s not for everybody. Be sure to read a review before you go, so you know how very dark–and twisted–this movie is. I found it riveting. My mind just doesn’t go in that direction, and by the time I discovered what I was watching, I’d already seen it. It’s how I felt when I read the first chapter of my first Karin Slaughter book–probably why she’s so popular in England, which loves horror novels. Karin writes very dark, and in that first book she relates a crime more vicious–and depraved–than anything I could ever imagine. It was too late to “unread” it when I realized I didn’t want to know that sort of depravity existed. Of course, as you see above, I’m still reading Karin Slaughter. What can I say? She writes a great “unputdownable” book!

This was a busy week for me, since it’s my last before I head home. I wanted to attend afternoon tea at one of the old hotels in town–Claridge’s was my goal–and ended up at The Ritz on Friday instead. I invited my friends from Tottenham (we met two years ago in the Wimbledon queue, and yes, you really are in line long enough to make lifelong friends) and we were required to dress up (ties for men, no jeans or tennis shoes) and had our choice of teas, sandwiches and cakes. I ate my first cucumber sandwich (duh, full of thinly sliced cucumbers), and an assortment of petit fours, ending, of course, with clotted cream, strawberry jam (jelly in Britain is their name for Jell-O), and scones (think of Bisquick biscuits with or without raisins).

Oh, yes, and I can’t forget, I found those marshmallow treats I liked so much from the Barbican. They’re called Tunnock’s Tea Cakes and I found them at Morrisson’s grocery. I recommend them wholeheartedly. The marshmallow melts in your mouth!

I haven’t even mentioned my trip to the hospital on Tuesday. I’m rarely sick, but Tuesday morning I woke up with vertigo and felt nauseated. Since I have the long flight home coming up, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t sick with something serious. My friend Humphrey sent me to a “private” hospital (Bupa Cromwell Hospital) where I saw a GP (general practitioner) who greeted me in his office/examining room at 10:30 a.m. dressed in a suit and tie with cufflinks (!). He recommended that I get a brain scan, but to do that, I had to check in to the hospital. The GP walked me over to the hospital, filled the prescription for the nausea medication himself, gave me a shot to stop the nausea immediately, checked me into the hospital, and made the appointment for the MRI (scheduled at 1:30 p.m.). When was the last time your doctor did all that for you? I ate lunch in the doctor’s restaurant in the basement of the hospital before I checked in (some of the best duck–crisp skin–I’ve had!), then checked into my room. I was required to put a sheet across my legs “so I would be decent” on the wheelchair ride down to the MRI–since there are so many people of different faiths in the hospital. I had tea at 4:00 p.m. at the hospital (tea & a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie), and dinner (poached chicken with rice: this is the whitest, blandest meal you will ever see).

Long and short–my brain is “perfect” (which doesn’t explain why I have so much trouble finding the right word when I want it while writing), and with any luck, the inner ear viral infection that’s causing my vertigo will pass quickly. I never actually saw the neurologist who reviewed the MRI film, but he spoke to me on the phone. I was released from the hospital at 8 p.m. without seeing another doctor. The nurse took me to a window on the 3rd floor (one of the doctor’s offices) to point me in the right direction for the nearby Earl’s Court underground station, and I left the hospital (no wheelchair necesssary to leave the premesis) and walked to the Underground and was home in bed by 9:00 p.m. I’m feeling fine, by the way. Obviously, since I spent 12 hours yesterday seeing Stonehenge, Oxford and Windsor Castle.

I need to spend the day packing–I brought too many clothes and bought too many souvenirs–to make sure I can get everything in my luggage. I’m grateful Irene missed Florida and am look forward to seeing many of you soon.

Cheers (common British greeting meaning so long or see you later),

Joan