I was in a London cab, on the way from Victoria Station to Bloomsbury. Reports of the temperature in European trains and train stations had not been exaggerated, and London in the early spring brings to mind something that Mark Twain never said: “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.” London spring should not be first encountered wearing a light dress and a sweater. I was exhausted and chilled to the bone.
Then I saw a sign that said “Harley Street,” and I was home. I was, in real life, riding through the city I had inhabited in my bookish dreams since I was ten. Years later, I would read The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, by Helene Hanff, and know that there was at least one other person who had known that feeling. Right then, in 1976, I only knew that the weird little book person who lived behind the model’s face and hid in the talker’s facile charisma, my real self, had taken over completely, and she was home.
When we got to Bloomsbury Street, the cab driver wanted to know the address I was looking for, and I said there wasn’t one. He should just drop me off someplace where there were B&B’s. He did, and I stepped onto the sidewalk, shivering. I looked at ranks of almost identical buildings, each three stories high, topped by dormers and chimneys. At street level, the long row of windows punctuated by the occasional door stood behind an equally long stretch of wrought iron fence. There were small signs, almost plaques, next to most of the doors. I looked down at my feet, standing on the Bloomsbury sidewalk, in direct and undeniable contact with the city and the history I had loved for so long, and I felt the same speechless joy that I had known when I stood in front of my first Rembrandt at the Art Institute.
Then I walked into a place that had a discreet “Vacancy” sign in the window and checked in. When I opened the door of my upstairs room a few minutes later, it was a bit larger than a walk-in closet and just as cold as outside. I remembered from my reading that I would have to feed the heater, so I dragged my sorry, jet-lagged butt back onto the street, looking for a place to change some of the British currency James had made sure I obtained at O’Hare. While I was out, I bought a Cadbury Fruit and Nut bar and something to drink–Orangina, I think. I went back to my room, got the heat started, ate my chocolate and fell asleep.
In the days that followed, I got a jacket and a typewriter at Oxfam. I remember standing in a curtained dressing room for a very long time eavesdropping on my first Cockney conversation. I was enthralled by the complete lack of consonants. They just weren’t there. I couldn’t help wondering why. I mean, what makes a whole group of people decide to do away with three-quarters of the letters in the English alphabet.
Then, I went to the office of the publisher of the British edition of Against Rape, Kegan Paul, to say hello and ask if they could help me find lodgings. I had a fantasy, which at the time felt like a reasonable expectation, that someone might take me out to lunch and tell me how happy they were to be publishing our book. That an administrative assistant would be assigned the task of helping me find my way around London. That someone would be giving a party that night to which I really must come. Or at least that they might help me find a bedsit. Really.
Of course, I never got past the front desk, but the very kind receptionist remembered that she had a friend who had a friend who worked in an office where they managed buildings. I tucked my tail between my legs and headed to said office. They dredged up one bedsitter that I could afford in Ladbroke Grove. It was so tiny that I’m sure it started life as a largish closet and it was furnished with a small single bed and a kind of stand on which stood an electric kettle. The bathroom was across the hall, and I could fill the kettle there, in addition to bathing. My landlady was a comic book artist who had avoided prison on a drug charge when she was judged “too mad to plea,” and she had made it very clear that I was getting nothing but my tiny room for the rent I was paying. I certainly wasn’t going to get a little friendly conversation and a cup of tea.
At any rate, after I settled in, I went to the National Gallery and was struck dumb with awe. Serious awe. They had a whole roomful of Rembrandts, including two self-portraits. Having lived in Chicago and enjoyed the Art Institute, I was accustomed to a high degree of quality, but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer quantity of wonderful paintings and sculpture. In the basement of the museum, there were rooms that looked like the stacks in a library. Partition after partition was covered, practically every inch, with “extra” paintings that were not deemed worthy of the regular exhibit halls.
When I left the museum, I walked down Pall Mall as though it were the Elysian Fields. I went into a kind of arts center and saw a lunchtime theater performance of a lesbian one-act play. I met a very nice woman there named Trudy, and we exchanged phone numbers. Back in my new neighborhood I talked the branch library near my bedsitter into giving me a library card. And then I came down with the swine flu.
Actually, it wasn’t the swine flu at all. We just thought it was. That turned out to be a pandemic that never was, but this was some kind of killer flu, like the Asian flu and the Hong Kong flu, and it was no fun to have, especially alone in a strange land. I couldn’t look for help to my landlady, obviously. I knew no one else so after a few days of being unable to move from my bed, I managed to get up every morning and walk the block and a half to a little shopping area nearby. There I got a pint of milk and a hot cross bun, which I put into my string bag. I then went to the library and checked out a book. The first couple of weeks, it was a bound volume of back issues of Punch; I simply couldn’t concentrate on anything more serious. I lay in bed all day, reading and drifting into sleep, then waking and reading and drifting again.
After awhile, I added to my daily diet an egg boiled in my electric kettle and switched to Shakespeare. I read straight through the plays in chronological order, but then it was back to Punch as the flu got worse again. All this time I saw no one but the people at the grocery, the bakery, and the library, and that totaled about fifteen minutes a day. Then, I started not making it out quite every day. I just didn’t have the energy. I got some letters from the states, and they were wonderful.
One day, I got a phone call from Trudy, the young woman I had met at that lunchtime theater performance what seemed to be years before and was actually almost a month past. She was inviting me out for coffee. She must have heard something worrisome in my voice because, when I said I had the flu and couldn’t go out, she informed me she was on her way over. She arrived with black currant syrup, which she poured into hot water and made me drink. I had lost weight and I think I was probably slipping into a dangerous lassitude, but Trudy briskly shook me out of it. I don’t want to be too dramatic about it, but I think it’s possible she saved my life. I managed to enjoy my last two weeks in London considerably more than my first month.
The Tate was undergoing renovation, so I gazed at the pre-Raphaelites to the tune of jackhammers, and I think it may have enhanced the experience. I went to the Portobello Road market and found a couple of Rose Macaulay’s early, popular novels. I also got a great pair of jeans which, on my post-flu figure, were even greater. I went to the National Gallery as many times as I could squeeze in. And on one visit, my life changed.
Each time I went to the museum I looked at different artists, but I always ended up with the Rembrandts. This time, I spent even more time than usual looking at those beautiful faces, which seemed to be filled with such sadness and wisdom. I began to understand that these paintings reflected Rembrandt’s own feelings towards the people in his world, his knowledge of the suffering that is inherent in being human and his profound compassion for every person he painted. Gradually, as I stood there, I began to feel that his compassion was directed towards me, and a band of pain in my chest loosened.
I was in something of a haze as I left the paintings and went down to the lunchroom where I usually had some soup and bread. I moved through the serving line and sat down at a table, my mind still upstairs with the great Dutch painter. I put my tray down on one of the small metal tables and slipped onto a chair and then looked up. The room was filled with Rembrandt’s people. Worn fingers gripped around a mug. Tired eyes in a fleshy face. Cheeks whipped to redness by the spring wind. Cheap clothes looking soft and richly colored. For a matter of minutes, the world was for me as it had been for a man who had lived more than three centuries before. I was actually seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. His compassion was making a motley group of tourists in modern lunchroom beautiful to me.
That’s when I began to understand what art could be. It was a pretty big step forward for someone who proposed to be an artist.
I left London in early April and traveled on a channel boat and a train to Barcelona. I was going to Barcelona for two reasons. It contained the work of the wonderfully eccentric, imaginative architect Antoni Gaudi, and it was really cheap. I knew where I wanted to stay when I got to Barcelona–Las Ramblas, the Gothic quarter. It was by far the most historically and artistically interesting part of the city, the center of dissent. And it was really cheap.
But there was a problem. I wasn’t completely sure it was safe for a woman alone. Now, I wasn’t exactly a scaredy cat, but I had a strong sense of self-survival and I had experienced enough of the darkness of violence towards women in the years just before my journey. So I did the kind of thing some young women did in those days. I picked up a guy on the train.