Category Archives: London

Julius Caesar and me

JULIUS CAESAR AND ME

In my last blog post (“Marlon, Tony, and Cyd,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2022/10/26/marlon-tony-and-cyd/), I noted Marlon Brando’s performance in the 1954 film version of Shakepeare’s Julius Caesar, a film that had a tremendous impact on a very young version of me.  As I recall, I saw it with classmates at my junior high school, which declared a special day at the movies for some reason.  I always wanted to see it performed live.

Years later, that finally happened.

In May 1972, my husband Marv and I took our long-delayed honeymoon. We’d married one year earlier in LA, but we weren’t able to take off more than a weekend (spent in beautiful Santa Barbara) until we arrived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1971.  We found life in AA somewhat restricting, and we began to ponder trips outside of Michigan and my hometown of Chicago. 

Our first foray took us to the tropical paradise of Nassau on a bargain charter trip from the U. of M. that we thoroughly relished.  But we hungered for more.  We soon aimed at the fabled cities of London, Paris, Florence, and Rome, and decided to visit them in our upcoming three-week vacation/honeymoon.

We landed in our first city, London, in early May.  We reveled in the British history and literature that leaped out at us:  Touring Charles Dickens’s home; making the essential trip to the Tower of London; viewing the paintings at the National Gallery…. 

We were also theater buffs, and we made sure to get tickets for plays on the London stage.  I remember our first night in London.  Even though we sat in the first row of the theater where Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing appeared, Marv had such vicious jet lag that he fell asleep and missed The Whole Thing. We loved the musical version of Canterbury Tales (which never seemed to be offered in any US city we ever lived in) and we roared at Robert Morley’s antics in his hilarious comedy in the West End. 

But one thing was missing.  We weren’t able to get tickets at any theater offering the plays of William Shakespeare. Whatever may have been playing was sold out or otherwise unavailable.

We racked our brains trying to solve this problem.  Suddenly an idea popped into mine.  We’d briefly shopped in the famed Harrod’s department store, mostly to see the place, and I thought I’d seen an advert for its travel service.  So we made our way back to Harrod’s and, sure enough, we discovered that its travel service offered a bus tour that encompassed an overnight stay in Stratford-upon-Avon and included two tickets to the Shakespeare play being performed on the date we’d arrive.  Voila! 

We immediately signed up for the tour, which also would make brief stops in a few other places:  Oxford, Blenheim Palace, and a town called Leamington Spa.  The only hitch was that we had to cancel the rest of our stay in our Sloane Square hotel and scramble to find another spot when we returned to London.  But Shakespeare was worth it.

Early the next morning we took off on our bus tour.  We discovered that our tour included theater tickets for a performance of Julius CaesarDestiny?

Soon we arrived at our first stop:  Oxford and its world-recognized university.  After viewing the university from our bus, we briefly walked around the campus.  I recall strolling around Christ Church College and noting its elegant architecture. 

Whenever I watch “Inspector Morse” on PBS, the crime drama starring John Thaw as Oxford police detective Morse, I’m always reminded of our brief stop at Oxford. The prizewinning series was produced from 1987 to 2000 and occasionally still pops up on PBS-TV channels.  The setting for each episode is invariably Oxford and nearby locations. 

Christ Church College has even more recently loomed into public view. Decades after our visit, Christ Church College has become famous because a number of campus locations were used as settings in the Harry Potter films.

Next we headed for our most desired stop:  Stratford-upon-Avon.  We found ourselves booked at the city’s White Swan Inn.  This historic inn, first used as an inn as far back as 1560, struck us immediately as a classic example of Tudor architecture, with a half-timbered exterior typical of that era.  When we checked in, we discovered that its framework of wooden beams extended into our bedroom, creating a memorable place to lay our heads during our stay in Stratford.

At the hotel’s restaurant, we shared dinner with our fellow tour-mates.  One other American couple shared our last name, and we chatted happily with them and others.  But we hardly noticed the food because we were eagerly anticipating our evening at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, an eight-minute walk away.

Excitedly, we arrived at the theater and took our seats, located not far behind the first row.  The other Alexanders were seated a couple of rows behind us.  The program listed the cast and included only one semi-familiar name.  Corin Redgrave, presumably the son of notable British actor Michael Redgrave (and notable British actress Rachel Kempson) and brother of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, would play the part of Octavius Caesar.

The play began!  Marv and I knew the plot well, having seen the 1954 film more than once.  We certainly had no problem watching the violent murder of Julius Caesar by Brutus and the others.  But during that scene, we could hear cries of anguish coming from the other Alexanders.  At intermission, they exited, loudly declaring how unhappy they were.

I was astonished by their reaction to a brilliant performance of one of Shakespeare’s classic plays.  What exactly did they expect?  Much of Shakespeare is loaded with acts of violence and death.  Were they expecting one of the comedies?  If so, I was torn between feeling sorry for them and laughing at their foolishness. They’d probably been excited about seeing Shakespeare in Stratford, and they’d shelled out some of their pricey tourist budget to be there.  But they were apparently not very knowledgeable about the Bard or they’d have had an inkling of what could be on the stage that night.

I lost further respect for our fellow theater-goers when I overheard a woman (with a pronounced British accent) mutter, “Corin Redgrave.  Isn’t she Vanessa’s sister?”  Marv and I were both aware of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, two women who’d already played prominent film roles.  So even though we weren’t entirely sure who Corin Redgrave was, we could easily tell from the program that he played a male role, and he would therefore be Vanessa’s brother, not another sister.  We Americans seemed to know a lot more about the British theater than the locals did.

Although we didn’t recognize the names of any of the other actors at the time, I’ve been able to find (on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website) the names of the members of the cast that night.  I discovered that we saw a number of outstanding British actors who later achieved great fame. They included Patrick Stewart (as Cassius), John Wood (as Brutus), Richard Johnson (as Mark Antony), Margaret Tyzack (as Portia), and Tim Pigott-Smith.  Further, the director that night was the much acclaimed Trevor Nunn.  No wonder we were thrilled to witness this extraordinary performance.

Marv and I stayed till the very end and reveled in the brilliant performances of these talented actors.  We’d happily achieved our goal of seeing Shakespeare in Stratford, performed by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and we’d seen a spectacular new version of Julius Caesar to boot.  Back at the White Swan Inn, we celebrated our thanks-to-Harrod’s coup with a romp in our very feathery English bed, Marv first showing off his manly strength by hanging from one of the overhead wooden beams.

By the way, the White Swan Inn has been renovated and still exists as a hostelry in Stratford, now dubbed the White Swan Hotel.

En route back to London, we made two more stops.  First, we visited historic Bleinheim Palace, where we toured the glorious interior.  The palace has been in the Churchill family since the 1770s (its history is fascinating), and Winston Churchill, who was born and often lived there, is buried just outside the palace grounds.  His grave is accessible to anyone. (You don’t need to visit Blenheim Palace first.)  Five years earlier, I briefly witnessed some of Churchill’s state funeral (the last state funeral before Queen Elizabeth II’s in September 2022) on a small black-and-white TV in the basement of Wyeth Hall during my first year as a student at Harvard Law School.  I was doing my laundry in an adjacent room and, when I glanced at the TV, I was suitably impressed by the pageantry on display in London in January 1965.

The tour’s final stop was a charming tea shop in a town called Leamington Spa. As our group gathered for tea, we learned the history of Leamington Spa, a beautiful but largely unknown town not far from our earlier stops.  (On a trip to countryside England with a friend in 2012, my friend and I met someone working in the Somerset area who confided that she was moving to take a new job in…Leamington Spa!  So, forty years after my visit to its tea shop, I surprisingly heard mention of it again.)

Marv and I returned to Stratford-upon-Avon with our daughters in 1995, in the middle of a jam-packed trip to the U.K. and France [please see “Down and Hot in Paris and London,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2014/11/%5D.  We stayed in nearby Cheltenham, visited other towns in the Cotswolds, and toured some sites in Stratford.  But we weren’t able to see a Shakespeare play together (I think the theatre was closed just then). 

So the time Marv and I were able to spend in Stratford in 1972, and our chance to see the Royal Shakespeare Company give a spectacular performance of Julius Caesar, gleam even more as a glittering memory, still burning brightly.

Hooray for Hollywood! Part II: I Love Your “Funny Face”

I’m continuing to focus on films that have been relevant to my life in some way.

The film I’m focusing on today is “Funny Face,” a 1957 film starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.

I first saw this film at Radio City Music Hall during a memorable trip to Washington DC and NYC, a trip made with my high school classmates, and one that represented the height of excitement in my life at that time.

It wasn’t my first visit to NYC and Radio City.  It also wasn’t my first trip to DC.

My parents had taken my sister and me on a road trip to the East Coast during the summer of 1950, when I was barely conscious and didn’t get a great deal out of it.  I did have a few notable experiences—staying at the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park West (how did we afford that?) and viewing some astounding sites in DC, mostly from a cab Daddy hired to show us around town. The place I remember most was an FBI museum, where I was frightened by a loud demonstration in which a gun was shot at targets to prove how the FBI dealt with crime. (Not a great choice for a young kid.)

Some other memories include our entering a DC restaurant where the tables were covered with pink “reserved” signs, and one sign was magically whisked away when we arrived.  I later learned that the restaurant used this ploy to prevent people of color from eating there.  The staff would refuse to seat them, telling them that all of the tables were reserved.  Even at a tender age, this struck me as wrong, although I was too young to fully understand the ugliness of this blatant form of discrimination, one I’d never encountered when we ate at restaurants in Chicago.

Another vivid memory:  Strolling through Central Park Zoo in NYC, I asked Daddy to buy me a balloon.  Daddy refused.  I didn’t view my request as unreasonable.  Looking around, I saw all those other kids who were holding balloons.  Why couldn’t I have one?  I was too young to grasp reality: My father was in NYC to search for a new job (which never materialized), and our family budget didn’t permit buying an overpriced balloon.  No doubt the balloon vendors catered to far more affluent families than mine.  But I remember crying my eyes out because of the balloon-deprivation, which seemed so unfair to me.

Finally, I remember viewing a film at Radio City.  It was a poor choice for a family film: “The Men,” starring Marlon Brandon as an injured war veteran.  It was a somber film, and the atmosphere was not made any cheerier by the newsreel (ubiquitous in movie theaters then), featuring the brand-new war in Korea, which had just begun in June.  The Rockettes probably did their thing, but I barely noticed them, too disturbed by the sad movie and the scary newsreel.

Fast forward a bunch of years, when I joined my high school classmates on a school-sponsored trip to DC and NYC, during which our group of rowdy teenagers disrupted life for countless locals.  Standing out in my memory is a concert held at the Pan American Union Building, a beautiful Beaux-Arts building in DC, where my silly friends and I began to stare at a mole on the back of a young woman sitting in front of us.  Our adolescent sense of humor led us to start laughing, and once we started, we of course couldn’t stop.  Other concert-goers were probably horrified.  But something else I can’t forget:  The concert included a brilliant rendition of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” a piece I’ve loved ever since.

Moving on to NYC, where we were bused to an odd assortment of sites, we finally arrived at Radio City. The film that night was one of Hollywood’s new blockbusters, “Funny Face.”  Surrounded by my friends, whispering and laughing throughout, I barely focused on the film, certainly not enough to remember it very well.  But when I recently re-watched it on TCM, I found it completely delightful.  (Thanks, TCM, for all of the classic films I’ve watched on your channel.  Please keep showing them!)

In the film, which features a number of Gershwin tunes (including “Funny Face” and “S’wonderful”), Audrey Hepburn stands out as the radiant star she had become, while (in my view) Fred Astaire recedes into the background.

The movie’s storyline focuses on a NYC-based fashion magazine like Vogue, dominated by an aggressive editor played by Kay Thompson (much like the editor played by Meryl Streep years later in “The Devil Wears Prada”).  The editor (Kay) insists on major changes at the magazine and demands that her favored photographer, played by Astaire (Fred), help her effect those changes.  (His character is based on the renowned photographer Richard Avedon.)

Their search for a new look for the magazine improbably leads them to a bookstore in Greenwich Village, where Hepburn (Audrey) is the sole salesperson, the owner being off somewhere doing his own thing.  When Kay proposes that Audrey be the new face of her fashion magazine, Audrey—garbed in neutral black and gray– ridicules the whole concept of such a publication (it features, in her words, “silly women in silly dresses”).  But when Kay’s offer includes a trip for her to Paris, Audrey decides to go along with the idea.  She’s always wanted to see Paris!

Kay, Fred, and Audrey arrive in Paris about 15 years before my own first trip there.  But when the film begins to roam through the highlights of the city, I easily recognize the many breathtaking scenes I saw for the first time in 1972, including the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower.  (I’ve luckily returned to Paris many times, and the city and all that it offers still thrill me.)

As a teenager, I had a high regard for “fashion.”  My family’s business–women’s fashion-retailing–probably had something to do with it.  Peer pressure also played a role.  Some of my classmates were obsessed with pricey clothes, like cashmere sweaters with matching skirts, and even though I wasn’t in the same income bracket, their obsession couldn’t help rubbing off on me.  At least a little.  My place in the world just then probably accounts for my somewhat detached view of Audrey as someone who spoofs the fashion industry, at least at first.

Once the story gets underway, “Funny Face” offers a wealth of imaginative episodes.  The writer, Leonard Gershe, whose writing is clever and surprisingly not extremely dated, was Oscar-nominated for best writing, story, and screenplay.  Gershe came up with a whole lot of scenes that highlighted Paris.  A special scene takes place after Audrey goes off on her own, and Fred is sent out to track her down.  He finally finds her in a small café on the Left Bank, where she launches into a stunning dance set to jazz music.  (You may already know that Audrey had a background in dance.  She studied ballet as a teenager in Amsterdam and later studied it in London.  She then began performing in West End musical theater productions and went on to star on Broadway in a non-musical performance of Gigi in 1951.  She reportedly turned down the same role in the 1958 film.)

The jazz dance scene in “Funny Face” became famous a few years ago, when Gap used a portion of it in one of its TV commercials.  (As I recall, Gap was promoting the sort of black pants Audrey danced in.)  A controversy arose during the filming of this scene in “Funny Face.”  Audrey wanted to wear black socks while director Stanley Donen insisted that she wear white ones.  In an interview Donen gave shortly before his death, he explained why. The white socks would highlight her dancing feet while black ones would fade into the background.  Donen succeeded in persuading Audrey to see things his way, and the dance scene is now film history.

Without elaborating on the plot, I’ll point out that Audrey’s storyline has an interesting focus on “empathy,” a concept that has gained a foothold in popular culture in recent years.  (I attribute some of that to Barack Obama’s focus on it, something I picked up on when I first heard him speak to a group of lawyers in Chicago in 2002, when he was still an Illinois state senator.)

Dance highlights in the film include not only Audrey’s jazz dance scene in the Left Bank café but also Fred’s dance scene with an umbrella and a coat lining that transforms into a cape.  The two leads share at least two memorable dance scenes, including the closing scene set in a charming landscape outside a Paris church.

Notably, after Audrey leaves NYC for Paris, she poses all over the City of Light in clothes designed by Givenchy, who became her favorite designer, and whose designs for this film seem timeless.  Also notably, she wears shoes with heels, but they’re invariably very low heels.  These became her favorite style of footwear.  (For some of the “inside Audrey” comments made here, please see my earlier blog post, “Audrey Hepburn and Me,” published on August 14. 2013.)

Finally, the age difference between Audrey and Fred is stark.  She was 28 while he was 58—and looked it.  Despite his agile dancing, he was an unlikely man for her to fall in love with.  But then Hollywood often paired her with much older men.  The all-time creepiest example was Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon.  (You can find my earlier comment on this topic in my 2013 blog post.)

In sum, “Funny Face” is a glorious film, featuring a radiant Audrey Hepburn, a clever storyline, and countless scenes of Paris.  The Gershwin songs and the wonderful dancing, which blend almost seamlessly into the story, lead to a stunning result.  Even though I didn’t fully appreciate it in 1957, the memory of seeing it back then has stayed with me for the past six decades.  Seeing it again made me realize just how “’s’wonderful” it really is.

 

 

 

For Father’s Day: A Coronation to Remember

The U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth has been front and center lately.  Between an awkward state visit by the U.S. president in early June and the colorful celebration of her 93rd birthday a short time later, she has recently occupied a lot of media attention.

But the Queen has a long history in the minds of the American public.  I first heard about her when I was growing up in Chicago and she ascended the throne after the sudden death of her father, King George VI.

The brilliant Netflix TV series, “The Crown” (which I’ve recently caught up with on DVD), has revived my memories of the early tenure of the Queen.  One particular episode in Season I immediately caught my attention.  At the beginning of this episode, “Smoke and Mirrors,” the young Princess Elizabeth helps her father prepare for his coronation in 1937 (following the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII).

The extreme closeness between father and daughter is demonstrably clear.

The story moves on to the preparation for Elizabeth’s own coronation in 1953.  By this time, her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh (dubbed Prince Philip in 1957), has assumed a significant role in her life.  He insists upon orchestrating the coronation itself, choosing to bring “the modern world” into it.

His efforts to “democratize” the ceremony leads to a shocking innovation: televising it.  He proposes that television cameras capture all of the pomp and circumstance in Westminster Abbey.  This move is unthinkable for many who had long served the royal family.  One of the holdovers from the past calls the prospect of televising the coronation an “unconscionable vulgarization.”

But even despite the opposition of Winston Churchill, the Duke finally gets his wife’s approval, and the new queen’s coronation is broadcast on black-and-white TV for all the world to see.

This splendid episode on “The Crown” has special relevance for me.  As I watched the story unfold, I was brought back to June 1954, when a color version of the coronation was showing as a film in a movie theater in Chicago.  For some reason I can’t recall, my father was in charge of me one day.  He decided that we would go together to see the film at the theater in downtown Chicago.

This was a memorable event for me.  I adored my father, but he usually devoted more attention to my older sister than to me.  I was the little sister who, on road trips, was relegated to sitting in the back seat with my mother while my sister sat in the front seat next to Daddy.

It’s not surprising that my father could communicate more readily with my sister, who was two years ahead of me in school.  Although both of us were voracious readers (stunning our local public-library staff by how quickly we zipped through countless books), my sister was probably reading at a somewhat higher level and understood more about the world than I did at that time.

Following a similar pattern, Elizabeth was the older daughter in her family, and if the opening of “Smoke and Mirrors” accurately portrays her relationship with her father, he paid more attention to her and depended more on her than on his younger daughter, Margaret.

As the younger daughter in my family, every hour I could spend with my father when the two of us spent it alone was more memorable than those we also shared with my sister and mother.

That’s why seeing the color film of Elizabeth’s coronation with Daddy became one of my most treasured memories.  Going downtown and plunging into a darkened movie theater in the middle of the day with my father, but no other member of the family, was extraordinary.

When Daddy died later that year, I was staggered by losing him.  As I grew older, it became increasingly clear that our afternoon watching Elizabeth crowned in Westminster Abbey was an afternoon I’d never forget.

As we celebrate Father’s Day this year, I recall once again how lucky I was to have that golden time with him and him alone.

 

Pockets!

Women’s clothes should all have pockets. 

(A bit later in this post, I’ll explain why.)

I admit it.  I’m a pocket-freak.

When I shop for new pants, I don’t bother buying new pants, no matter how appealing, if they don’t have pockets.  Why?

Because when I formerly bought pants that didn’t have pockets, I discovered over time that I never wore them. They languished forever in a shameful pile of unworn clothes.

It became clear that I liked the benefits of wearing pants with pockets.  Why then would I buy new pants without pockets when those I already had were languishing unworn?

Result:  I simply don’t buy no-pocket pants anymore

Most jeans have pockets, often multiple pockets, and I like wearing them for that reason, among others.  (Please see “They’re My Blue Jeans, and I’ll Wear Them If I Want To,” published in this blog in May 2017.)

Most jackets, but not all, have pockets.  Why not?  They all need pockets.  How useful is a jacket if it doesn’t have even one pocket to stash your stuff?

Dresses and skirts should also have pockets.  Maybe an occasional event, like a fancy gala, seems to require a form-fitting dress that doesn’t have pockets.  But how many women actually go to galas like that?  Looking back over my lifetime of clothes-wearing, I can think of very few occasions when I had to wear a no-pocket dress.  As for skirts, I lump them in the same category as pants.  Unless you feel compelled for some bizarre reason to wear a skin-tight pencil skirt, what good is a skirt without pockets?

Cardigan sweaters, like jackets, should also have pockets.  So should robes.  Pajamas. Even nightgowns.  I wear nightgowns, and I relish being able to stick something like a facial tissue into the pocket of my nightgown!   You never know when you’re going to sneeze, right?

Did you ever watch a TV program called “Project Runway?”  It features largely unknown fashion designers competing for approval from judges, primarily high-profile insiders in the fashion industry.  Here’s what I’ve noticed when I’ve watched an occasional episode:  Whenever a competing designer puts pockets in her or his designs, the judges enthusiastically applaud that design.  They clearly recognize the value of pockets and the desire by women to wear clothes that include them.

(By the way, fake pockets are an abomination.  Why do designers think it’s a good idea to put a fake pocket on their designs?  Sewing what looks like a pocket but isn’t a real pocket adds insult to injury.  Either put a real pocket there, or forget the whole thing.  Fake pockets?  Boo!)

Despite the longing for pockets by women like me, it can be challenging to find women’s clothes with pockets.  Why?

Several women writers have speculated about this challenge, generally railing against sexist attitudes that have led to no-pocket clothing for women.

Those who’ve traced the evolution of pockets throughout history discovered that neither men nor women wore clothing with pockets until the 17th century.  Pockets in menswear began appearing in the late 1600s.  But women?  To carry anything, they were forced to wrap a sack with a string worn around their waists and tuck the sack under their petticoats.

These sacks eventually evolved into small purses called reticules that women would carry in their hands.  But reticules were so small that they limited what women could carry.  As the twentieth century loomed, women rebelled.  According to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, dress patterns started to include instructions for sewing pockets into skirts.  And when women began wearing pants, they would finally have pockets.

But things soon switched back to no-pocket pants.  The fashion industry wasn’t a big fan of pockets, insisting on featuring “slimming” designs for women, while men’s clothes still had scads of pockets.  The result has been the rise of bigger and bigger handbags (interestingly, handbags are often called “pocketbooks” on the East Coast).

Enormous handbags create a tremendous burden for women.  Their size and weight can literally weigh a woman down, impeding her ability to move through her busy life the way men can.  (I’ve eschewed bulky handbags, often wearing a backpack instead.  Unfortunately, backpacks are not always appropriate in a particular setting.)

Today, many women are demanding pockets.  Some have advocated pockets with the specific goal of enabling women to carry their iPhones or other cell phones that way.  I’m a pocket-freak, but according to recent scientific research, cell phones emit dangerous radiation, and this kind of radiation exposure is a major risk to your health.  Some experts in the field have therefore advised against keeping a cell phone adjacent to your body.  In December 2017, the California Department of Public Health specifically warned against keeping a cell phone in your pocket.  So, in my view, advocating pockets for that reason is not a good idea.

We need pockets in our clothes for a much more important and fundamental reasonFreedom.

Pockets give women the kind of freedom men have:  The freedom to carry possessions close to their bodies, allowing them to reach for essentials like keys without fumbling through a clumsy handbag.

I propose a boycott on no-pocket clothes.  If enough women boycott no-pocket pants, for example, designers and manufacturers will have to pay attention.  Their new clothing lines will undoubtedly include more pockets.

I hereby pledge not to purchase any clothes without pockets.

Will you join me?

 

 

They’re My Blue Jeans, and I’ll Wear Them If I Want To

What?  I’m supposed to give up wearing jeans because I’m over 52?

I recently came across a preposterous study conducted by CollectPlus, a UK parcel-delivery service, which asked 2,000 Brits this question:  When should people stop wearing jeans?

Answer:  Age 53.

Even the marketing director at CollectPlus was baffled by the results.  Catherine Wolfe told the Daily Mail, “Denim is such a universal material and, with so many different styles available, it’s a timeless look that people of all ages can pull off.”

The newspaper didn’t disclose such relevant details as the age of the participants in the survey.  Who were these people?  How old were they?  Where in the UK did they live?  To make any sense out of this study, we should know details like these.

What did the participants reveal?  Almost a quarter of them admitted they haven’t yet found their perfect pair, another 29 percent have given up the quest for that perfect pair, and six percent admitted that they’ve been reduced to tears in the search for it.

Once they’ve found their ideal jeans, however, they hold on to them, and 33 percent say they’ll wear them practically anywhere, including the theater or a dinner party.

Do these devoted jeans-wearers really expect to give up their beloved jeans when they turn 53?  I doubt it.

Although my own go-to pants are slim black fabric-blends, my wardrobe also includes some skinny jeans.  I sported a pair last week during a visit to Yosemite National Park. My semi-washed-out jeans were clearly the best choice for Yosemite.  They protected me from insect bites, spilled food and drink, and potentially hazardous falls onto jagged rocks and other obstacles confronting me during my hikes.  (Luckily, I avoided any mishaps.)  When I hiked alongside Yosemite Falls, one of the park’s spectacular waterfalls, its watery mist hit my clothes, but my jeans’ cotton fabric dried quickly in the mountain air.  And I had pockets galore in which to stash any small items I needed en route.

In short, they were perfect.  Why would I ever want to abandon them?

Here in San Francisco, we treasure the legacy of blue jeans, thanks to Levi Strauss and the jeans empire he and his partner created in 1871 (they patented their design in 1873).  The Levis Strauss Company is still a big presence in the city, and Levi’s descendants are among the Bay Area’s most prominent philanthropists and civic leaders.

You may be surprised to learn that the Levi’s company maintains a vast collection of historic jeans in its San Francisco archives. And to celebrate the 144th birthday of blue jeans this year, Levi’s hosted a bunch of special events around town, including the launch of their first-ever skinny 501s for men and women.

Give up my skinny jeans?  Never.  And I think at least a few other over-50s agree.  Last week, I watched singer-songwriter Paul Simon perform on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  Simon, who’s 75, was wearing a pair of skinny jeans that looked a lot like mine.

Bravo, Paul!  It’s great to see you still singing, still writing new songs to sing, and still wearing skinny jeans.  “Hello darkness, my old friend?”  Well, maybe.  If they’re dark blue skinny jeans, that is.

 

 

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas!  That’s what the Brits say, right?  I’m thinking in Brit-speak right now, thanks to recently immersing myself in the world of Victorian London, and I haven’t shaken it off just yet.

The occasion? I showed up at this year’s Great Dickens Christmas Fair & Victorian Holiday Party, held every year at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.

I’ve always associated the Cow Palace with the Republican convention held there in 1964.  The one where Barry Goldwater gave his famous acceptance speech, including the memorable line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”  I remember watching him say those words on TV while I was at home with a high fever.  The whole experience seemed like a feverish nightmare.  A candidate for the presidency of the United States saying those words!  To a Democratically-inclined young person in 1964, Goldwater’s words were shocking.  (Fast forward to 2016, when much more inflammatory speech was hurled at the nation almost every day by another candidate for the presidency.  One, unlike Goldwater, who got himself elected.)

Back to the Cow Palace.  It’s an indoor arena known as a venue for dog shows, sporting events, rodeos, and gun shows.  The Beatles appeared there twice in the ‘60s (and U2 at a special event in October 2016).  I’d never been there before.  But there I was, along with my two daughters and two granddaughters, entering the world of Dickens’s London.

Dickens was an early favorite of mine.  During my teen years, I read David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and became totally enamored of the characters and plot development in both.  (I also read, or tried to read, A Tale of Two Cities, during sophomore year, thanks to Mr. Hurley.  Every girl in our class, including me, had a major crush on him, the only good-looking under-40 male teacher at our high school.  But the book was a poor choice, even for the best readers among us, because it demanded a knowledge of history we hadn’t yet acquired.  When I returned to it years later, knowing something about the history of that time, I found it quite wonderful.  Still, it was and is very different from any of Dickens’s other works.)

Later I moved on to reading more and more Dickens. Bleak House, an indictment of the law as practiced in Dickens’s London, was a favorite.  I saw Oliver performed on stage and in the movies and saw countless dramatizations of his other stories, including the perennial A Christmas Carol.  The 1982 BBC mini-series of Nicholas Nickleby, starring Roger Rees, was especially memorable.

In short, I was—and am—a Dickens fan.

So off I went to the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, not quite sure what to expect.

What I discovered was a whole world of people who turned out to enjoy dancing, music, and theatrical performances inspired by Dickens and the culture of his time.  At least half, possibly more, were dressed in the Victorian fashions they would have worn when meeting Dickens himself.  Perhaps many of these fair-goers like the theatricality of dressing up this way, pretending to be in a different time and place, no doubt escaping the reality of their everyday lives.

A host of vendors offered Victorian-style clothing and hats; many Victorian-clad fair-goers may have purchased theirs at earlier fairs.  Vendors also sold things like second-hand books (some by Dickens), jewelry, vintage photos, and scented items, along with food and drink.  My granddaughters were taken with the stunning dresses, and their mother bought one for each of them on the condition that they wear them as often as possible.

We headed for a few of the performances, including a charming version of traditional Christmas carols (yes, the singers were in Victorian garb), Irish and Scottish dancing, and a typically-British “music hall” comedy.  An over-18 version began after ours and attracted a lot of people waiting in line outside the music hall as we departed (we had two under-18 girls among us).  Finally, we were treated to Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball, where fair-goers could themselves get on the dance floor and twirl to the music of Victorian London.  Just before we left, a beautifully-costumed Queen Victoria showed up, along with her retinue, to wish us all a Happy Christmas and a Good New Year.

The Dickens Fair was tremendous fun.  And it had a bonus:  it reminded me of two special times in my past.  When my husband-to-be Herb and I first began dating, we discovered that we not only lived in the same apartment building near UCLA (where we were working) but we both were also great fans of Charles Dickens.  (In London years later, Herb and I made a beeline for the only house still standing where Dickens lived and wrote.)

Herb somehow garnered tickets for a live performance at UCLA by the British (specifically Welsh) writer and actor Emlyn Williams.  Best known for his plays Night Must Fall and The Corn is Green (both frequently revived on stage and made into notable films), Williams also worked on screenplays for directors like Alfred Hitchcock and acted himself in a number of films.

When we encountered Williams in early 1971, he was touring with his one-man show, in which he portrayed Charles Dickens, bearded and outfitted in Victorian attire, reading excerpts from his famous novels.  (Some say he began the whole genre of one-man and one-woman performances. He appeared in New York as early as 1953 and no doubt appeared in London even earlier. Probably best-known to Americans is Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain.)  Herb and I were entranced by Williams’s stellar performance, and I followed it up by giving Herb a new biography of Dickens as his Valentine’s Day gift.  (Not very romantic, but Herb loved it.)

Ten years later, we learned that Williams-as-Dickens would be performing close to our then-home on the North Shore of Chicago.  At the Northlight Theatre production in Evanston, Illinois, we reveled once again in his zestful reading of Dickens’s writing.

The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is perhaps Dickens’s most memorable character.  Let’s remember what Dickens wrote toward the end of A Christmas Carol.  When Scrooge discovered the joy of helping others, “His own heart laughed.”

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I send you this wish:  May you have a laughing heart today, and every day to come.

 

 

Punting on the Cam

The keys to my front door reside on a key ring I bought in Cambridge, England, on a magical day in September 1986.  It’s one of the souvenir key rings you used to find in Britain (and maybe still can, though I didn’t see any during a visit in 2012).  They were fashioned in leather and emblazoned in gold leaf with the name and design of a notable site.

During trips to London and elsewhere in Britain during the 1980s and ‘90s, I acquired a host of these key rings. One of my favorites was a bright red one purchased at Cardiff Castle in Wales in 1995.  I would carry one of them in my purse until the gold design wore off and the leather became so worn that it began to fall apart.

Until recently, I thought I had used every one of these leather key rings.  But recently, in a bag filled with souvenir key rings, I came across the one I bought in Cambridge in 1986.  There it was, in all of its splendor:  Black leather emblazoned with the gold-leaf crest of King’s College, Cambridge.

I began using it right away, and the gold design is already fading.  But my memories of that day in Cambridge will never fade.

My husband Herb had gone off to Germany to attend a math conference while I remained at home with our two young daughters.  But we excitedly planned to rendezvous in London, one of our favorite cities, when his conference was over.

Happily for us, Grandma agreed to stay with our daughters while I traveled to meet Herb, and on a rainy September morning I arrived in London and checked into our Bloomsbury hotel.  Soon I set off in the rain to find theater tickets for that evening, and in Leicester Square I bought half-price tickets for a comedy I knew nothing about, “Lend Me a Tenor.”  Stopping afterwards for tea at Fortnum and Mason’s eased the pain of trekking through the rain.

When Herb and I finally met up, we dined at an Italian restaurant and headed for the theater. “Lend Me a Tenor” was hilarious and set the tone for a wonderful week together.

We covered a lot of ground in London that week, including a visit to Carlyle’s house in Chelsea, a sunny boat trip to Greenwich, viewing notable Brits on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, tramping around Bloomsbury and Hampstead, and lunching with a British lawyer (a law-school friend) at The Temple, an Inn of Court made famous by our favorite TV barrister, Rumpole (of the Bailey), whose chambers were allegedly in The Temple.

Other highlights were our evenings at the theater. Thanks to advice from my sister, who’d just been in London, we ordered tickets before leaving home for the new smash musical, “Les Miserables” (which hadn’t yet hit Broadway). It was worth every penny of the $75 we paid per ticket (a pricey sum in 1986) to see Colm Wilkinson portray Jean Valjean on the stage of the Palace Theatre.  We also loved seeing a fresh interpretation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Barbican and Alan Ayckbourn’s poignant comedy “A Chorus of Disapproval” at the Lyric.  Although “Mutiny!”–a musical based on “Mutiny on the Bounty”–was disappointing, we relished a concert at South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall, where I kept expecting the Queen to enter and unceremoniously plop herself down in one of the hall’s many boxes.

But it was our day trip to Cambridge that was the centerpiece of our week.  On Friday, September 19th, we set out by train from King’s Cross Station and arrived at Cambridge in just over an hour.  We immediately reveled in the array of beautiful sites leaping out at us on the university campus nestled along the Cam River.  Our first stop was Queens’ College and its remarkable Mathematical Bridge.  The college spans both sides of the river (students jokingly refer to the newer half as the “light side” and the older half as the “dark side”), and the world-famous bridge connects the two.  The legend goes that the bridge was designed and built by Cambridge scholar Sir Isaac Newton without the use of nuts or bolts. But in fact it was built with nuts and bolts in 1749, 22 years after Newton died, and rebuilt in 1905.

Our next must-see site was King’s College.  During my college years at Washington University in St. Louis, I learned that Graham Chapel, our strikingly beautiful chapel–built in 1909 and the site of many exhilarating lectures and concerts (in which I often sang)–shared its design with that of King’s College, Cambridge.  So we headed right for it.  (Graham Chapel’s architect never maintained that it was an exact copy but was only partly modeled after King’s College Chapel, which is far larger.)

Entering the huge and impressive Cambridge version, we were suitably awed by its magnificence.  Begun by King Henry VI in 1446, it features the largest “fan vault” in the world and astonishingly beautiful medieval stained glass.  (A fan vault? It’s a Gothic vault in which the ribs are all curved the same and spaced evenly, resembling a fan.)

As we left the chapel, still reeling from all the stunning places we’d just seen, we noticed signs pointing us in the direction of punts available for a ride on the Cam.  The idea of “punting on the Cam”—riding down the river on one of the flat-bottomed boats that have been around since 1902–sounded wonderful.  We didn’t hesitate to pay the fare and immediately seated ourselves in one of the boats.

The river was serene, with only a few other boats floating nearby, and our punter, a charming young man in a straw boater hat, provided intelligent narration as we floated past the campus buildings stretched out along the river.  He propelled the boat by pushing against the river bed with a long pole.  His charm and good looks enhanced our ride enormously.

The boat wasn’t crowded.  An older British couple sat directly across from us, and we chatted amiably about Britain and the United States, finding commonality where we could.

The sun was shining, and the 70-degree temperature was perfect.  Beautiful old trees dotted the riverbanks, providing shade as we floated by, admiring the exquisite college buildings.

What’s punting like?  Ideally, it’s a calm, soothing boat ride on a river like the Cam.  Something like riding in a gondola in Venice, except that gondolas are propelled by oars instead of poles. (I rush to add that the gondola I rode in Venice had a much less attractive and charming oarsman.)

An article in the Wall Street Journal in November described recent problems caused by punting’s growing popularity.  Increased congestion in the Cam has led to safety rules and regulations never needed in the past.  According to the Journal, “punt wars” have divided the city of Cambridge, with traditional boats required to follow the new rules while upstart self-hire boats, which have created most of the problems, are not.

But luckily for Herb and me, problems like those didn’t exist in 1986.  Not at all.  Back then, floating along the river with my adored husband by my side was an idyllic experience that has a special place in my memory.

I don’t recall where I bought my leather key ring.  Perhaps in a small shop somewhere in Cambridge.  But no matter where I bought it, it remains a happy reminder of a truly extraordinary day.

 

Down and Hot in Paris and London (with apologies to George Orwell) Part IV

PART IV

My family trip to France and the U.K. in the summer of 1995 found us in the midst of a record-setting heat wave in both countries. Parts I, II, and III of this post have described the challenges of hot-weather travel in cities like Paris that aren’t usually very hot.

In Part IV, I pick up the story in London, another city traditionally unaccustomed to hot weather.

Our daytime touring in London began to resemble a tour of hot exotic climes. When we passed by Trafalgar Square, we saw crowds surrounding the pools beneath Lord Nelson’s column, trying to cool off. Dozens of children frolicked in the pools of water as though they were neighborhood wading pools in Chicago.

Sadly, our attempt to tour the wondrous contents of the British Museum was a distinct failure. As we slowly meandered through the rooms devoted to ancient Egypt, pushing our way through the sweaty crowd, I could have sworn we were in a suffocating museum in Egypt itself. I almost envied the mummies in their amazingly-well-preserved cases. Maybe it was cooler in there? We’d planned to stay all morning, but we left after barely an hour.

Another project that went down the tubes was our plan to escort our daughters into a couple of London pubs, where they could soak up the very British atmosphere along with a pint or two of ale. But our attempts to go pub-crawling went nowhere. Every time we entered a pub, it was unbearably hot and filled with cigarette smoke. All the outside tables were already taken, so we couldn’t quaff any ale that way either. So long, London pub-crawl.

The London buses continued to be insanely hot. Their windows opened for about three inches at the very top, where the breeze barely did any good–when there was a breeze. The Tube was somewhat better, although one newspaper headline read “100 DEGREES F IN THE TUBE,” so at times it must have been blazing hot down there, too.

I’d given up wearing makeup by this time–my lipstick kept melting–and I let my hair go “au naturel.” Why not? We no longer cared how we looked, to each other or to anyone else. So if my hair was inordinately frizzy, and my face sans makeup looked less than gorgeous, who cared?

When I checked my money belt, which I wore at my waist, it was–not surprisingly–damp. But I was surprised that the moisture around my waist had permeated the belt’s contents. I had the world’s dampest traveler’s checks!

Meanwhile, our supply of clean clothes was dwindling, and things were becoming desperate. We’d hoped to find a nearby laundromat but never did, and we’d begun to resort to hand-washing. My small supply of Woolite was nearly gone, so we headed to a supermarket for a substitute. There I found Fairy Liquid, a liquid soap I’d read about in books by English women novelists. I felt just like an English housewife of the 1950s as I poured Fairy Liquid into the tiny bathroom sink on Gower Street and plunged our dirty duds into the suds. (The Fairy Liquid label said “By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen.” Do you suppose the Queen uses it to wash her undies, too?)

On our last day in London, we left the city and traveled to the leafy green suburb of Hampstead, hoping to find a relatively cool and sylvan spot. There, in the midst of a large wooded park, is Kenwood House, a stunning historic house surrounding a spectacular art collection. Admission was free, and the staff were some of the friendliest people we met anywhere in England. A lovely respite from London’s crowds and heat, Kenwood House was a genuine treat.

For our last night in London, we bought tickets to the 100th-anniversary production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Old Vic. The theatre advertised itself as being air-conditioned, and in truth, it wasn’t all that bad inside. Viewing “Earnest,” I was almost comfortable in a long, loose-fitting cotton skirt (hence unconcerned about the potential itchiness of the seat’s upholstery). But my heart went out to the actors, dressed in the heavy satins and laces of Victorian finery. They had to be sweltering under the hot lights.

As we left the Old Vic, we felt a cool breeze for the first time in four days. The terrible heat was breaking–but not soon enough for us.

It was warm–but not hot–the next morning as we set off for Wales and the Cotswolds in a rented Vauxhall. As Herb met the challenge of right-hand drive with aplomb, we rambled around in comfort before leaving for home. Cardiff, Cheltenham, the tiny town of Bibury, Stratford-on-Avon—they were all reasonably cool. But after spending four unforgettable days in London dripping in sweat–from Westminster Abbey to Knightsbridge, from the Temple to Shaftsbury Avenue—we had a whole new outlook on summertime travel.

In retrospect, we had a terrific time together. We shared boundless adventures and rafts of laughs, creating memories to last a lifetime. But when we returned home, I asked myself: Would I plan another trip to England or France anytime soon?

Of course. I knew I would.

But would I plan it in “high season”? Not bloody likely. Give me London in March or April, when it rains a little nearly every day, and traveler’s checks get damp from rain instead of tummy-sweat. Or give me Paris in May, when the hint of sun is just enough to warm me up after a long gray winter.

“High season” in Paris or London? No thanks. “High season” sounded too much like “high temperatures” to ever tempt me again.

EPILOGUE

The four of us returned to France for over two weeks in May 1997. The weather was warm but not hot, and the trip—from Paris to Beaune, from Aix-en-Provence to Lyons–was blissful. Sadly, we were never able to take another European trip as a foursome, making the memories of those two fun-filled family trips even more precious.

Down and Hot in Paris and London (with apologies to George Orwell) Part III

PART III

During the summer of 1995, my family and I traveled to France and the U.K. during a record-setting heat wave in Northern Europe. In Parts I and II of this post, I’ve described some of the challenges of our overheated stay in Paris and elsewhere in France.

After ten days in France, we departed for England on a posh air-conditioned ferry from Cherbourg, hoping to find cooler climes on the scepter’d isle. But the moment we disembarked in Portsmouth, our hearts sank. If anything, the air felt warmer and even more humid.

Our taxi driver dropped us and our bags unceremoniously at the train station (I don’t think he liked my remarks about the Royal Family). With no baggage carts anywhere, we dragged our bags to the ancient lift. We waited and waited and, finally fearing that we’d miss our train, we abandoned the idea of taking the lift and schlepped our bags up the flight of stairs to the track-level (it took two trips for each of us). At least the train itself was high-speed and air-conditioned.

At Waterloo Station we climbed into a black London cab and sped on our way to Gower Street in Bloomsbury. Our room was much like that in Paris–one large room with the same assortment of beds, and an enormous screenless window that was sure to be a beacon for the mosquitoes then plaguing London. (I actually read about them in The Times.)

But mosquitoes were not on our minds as we set out to see London on foot that afternoon. We’d sat for five hours on the ferry and another hour and a half on the train. We were raring to go, weren’t we?

The heat assaulted us as we walked hopefully up Gower Street toward Covent Garden and points east. Herb and I wanted Meredith and Leslie to see the Temple, home of their favorite TV lawyer, Horace Rumpole (of PBS’s Rumpole of the Bailey), and we set out in that direction, stopping at Covent Garden and other sites en route. But even at the Temple, on the Thames River embankment, the air felt like a heavy blanket.

A centuries-old Inn of Court, the Temple was in the midst of an ambitious renovation project. Forced to pick our way through the construction equipment and loose building materials strewn in our path, we found the Temple a massive disappointment, hardly worth the long walk in the sun. We crawled back to our hotel, stopping only for a high-carb spaghetti dinner before we collapsed in our beds on Gower Street.

The next day, we resolved to see as much of London as we could despite the oppressive heat. (That day turned out to be the hottest day of London’s summer–93 degrees.) We decided to take a city bus that meandered from Gower Street to Kensington. I’d be an unofficial tour-bus guide, telling our daughters about the sights of London with which Herb and I were already familiar. The bus was hot, and its seat cushions covered with itchy upholstery, but we’d set out fairly early so we didn’t yet mind terribly much.

The bus cut a wide swath through many of the city’s most interesting sights, and I proceeded to act as tour guide till we disembarked near Kensington Gardens, where we began walking back towards Piccadilly Square.

Things got sticky right away. As we passed Royal Albert Hall, we grabbed ice cream bars from a sidewalk vendor and kept going, in the shade wherever possible. Soon we hit the Knightsbridge shopping area and headed for Harrod’s. The massive department store was packed with people, and no wonder. It was air-conditioned. Hordes of women were lined up to use the restrooms. The “luxury ladies’ room” cost one pound per “lady” (then about $1.70) so we spent five minutes searching for one that didn’t cost anything. (It turned out to be adjacent to the book section, where huge stacks of signed copies of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography languished on a table.) We toured the impressive Food Hall and whizzed through some other departments, leaving without buying anything but grateful to have cooled off while we were there.

Across the street, at the non-air-conditioned Scotch House, we were nearly the only customers insane enough to even contemplate woolens on a 90-plus-degree-day. Meredith was hoping to get a warm woolen cap for winter, but surrounded by heaps of wooly wear for sale, we couldn’t find exactly what she wanted.

We kept walking past Knightsbridge towards Piccadilly. The grass in beautiful St. James’s Park was dry and brown, not the lush green lawn Herb and I had seen on previous trips. We stopped to rest on a shady park bench for a while, stunned to encounter Londoners who were deliberately sunning themselves. Some had even stretched out on portable lawn chairs, supplied by the park, in the sunniest spots available. Were they crazy, or what?

We forced ourselves to walk a few blocks more, heading for lunch at the Fountain Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason. En route, we peered into the elegant Ritz Hotel lobby. It was eerily deserted, no one lined up for “high tea” at the Palm Court tearoom. The uniformed doormen, wearing long heavy wool overcoats, looked absolutely miserable.

When we finally staggered into Fortnum & Mason and read the prices on the menu, we nearly swooned, but too hot and exhausted to go anywhere else, we decided to stay. We couldn’t face going elsewhere without some rest and sustenance, so we paid top dollar for skimpy salads and F&M’s famous milkshakes. At least the apricot milkshakes were worth it–almost.

After our overpriced lunch, we pushed on to Leicester Square and the half-price theatre-ticket booth. Scanning the board, we narrowed our choice down to a few offerings, then selected “Hot Mikado.” No, we hadn’t gone completely bonkers. The show was one of London’s musical hits that season. Plus, we all loved the original “Mikado,” and the idea of seeing a jazzed-up version in an air-conditioned theatre had great appeal. And so, after more sightseeing and freshening up at our hotel, we walked to the theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue, looking forward to an evening of air-conditioned comfort.

Shock! No air-conditioning! We pinched each other in disbelief. Back home, we’d never heard of a theatre without air-conditioning. Even the humblest movie theatre showing third-run flicks had some sort of air-conditioning. But not this swank theatre! A couple of fans moved the air around a bit, but they couldn’t keep us from sweating through “Hot Mikado.” We loved the show but pitied the performers, whose sweat ran dripping down their faces. After the opening scene, the male chorus even took off their colorful jackets and sang and danced in their shirtsleeves. I didn’t blame them one bit.

The next night we made our way to the Aldwych Theatre to see Tom Stoppard’s latest hit, “Indian Ink.” Again, we were dismayed to discover that this prestigious theatre, showcasing brilliant stars of the London stage, was stifling. The same itchy upholstery found on London buses covered the theatre seats. As the lead in “Indian Ink”–a poet who travels to India in the 1920s–talked about a poem she was writing called “Heat,” I squirmed in my seat, trying to escape the bristly fabric. I was wearing shorts that night–we hadn’t had time to change before arriving at the theatre. Although I’d never imagined that I’d go to a London theatre in shorts, I regretted wearing them only because the itchy seats attacked my bare thighs more ferociously that way.