London, Again

It was exciting to be back in the amazing city of London. The last time I had been there was in the winter, mere days before the lockdowns went into effect. Never having been there in summer, I didn’t know if the large crowds I was seeing at my usual haunts were normal for this time of year or a pent-up response to the end of quarantines, social distancing, and masks. Maybe it was the hype from the Queen’s Jubilee, even though those celebrations had already ended. 

Wouldn’t you know it, England was having a heatwave and a drought. No matter. I did not let 90℉ (32℃) temperatures slow me down. For centuries, St. James’s Park has been the place to go to see and be seen, and in all of the world, it is one of my favorite green spaces. When I first got to London, it still had temporary fences, walls, and partitions set up from the Jubilee events, restricting access to the roads and paths, making them feel especially jammed with tourists. The water in the ponds was overgrown with algae, and some of the gardens and lawns looked to be stressed from the lack of rain. But the birds and waterfowl were friendly enough.

Pelicans at St. James's Park
Pelicans in St. James’s Park

On my last night in England, I happened to click on the Health app icon on my iPhone. I had never looked at it before and certainly had not set it up. To my surprise, I discovered that it had been tracking my steps. My first day in London, I had walked more than eight miles, and on the second day I walked more than nine! On average, I had walked five miles a day, and that included some entire days when I was sitting in the reading rooms at the National Archives, doing research for the biography I am writing about a British soldier. 

National Archives
National Archives

There is something extraordinarily energizing about London. My normal routine at home is to get out and walk several days a week, just to stretch my legs, while getting some fresh air and a little exercise. As much as I enjoy walking, after about 20 minutes I have usually had enough. Twenty-minutes in London is barely even a start. The streets in the central city are not laid out on a grid, so I have a tendency to get lost. Then I double down by indulging the urge to see what is beyond a gate, or through an arch, or at the end of a tunnel, or in the middle of a town square. 

One autumn, I was in London for a few days, and I realized that I would not be able to go to the opera performance that I had a ticket for. I went to the Royal Opera House box office to exchange it. The young man who helped me told me that I was in luck. The best seat in the house happened to be available for the night I wanted to attend. He had no idea why it had not been snapped up, because usually the theatre executives would clamor for it when they saw it had not been sold.

The night of the opera, I found myself sitting next to a very elegant older woman, whose companion was a handsome young man. We spoke to each other during the intermission, and she mentioned that she was a season ticket holder. I told her I was visiting and that I loved London. She looked at me like she thought I was crazy. “Why?” she asked. Her question caught me off guard. “Because of all of the parks,” I replied. That really was the first thing that popped into my head, but I got the feeling that I passed a test. She nodded thoughtfully. “Yes,” she said. “I live near Regent’s Park.” 

St. James's Park
St. James’s Park

London, like any big city, has its flaws. But it has the River Thames, the Royal parks, the Palace of Westminster, the Horse Guards, the National Gallery, and innumerable streets and squares and historic buildings that call to me.  Every time I am there, I return to them. Life is what we make of it. A two-and-a-half year pause can never be reclaimed. I was fortunate to be able to go back to a place I longed to see again. Perhaps I am luckier than many.

Theatre Royal Haymarket
Theatre Royal Haymarket

Remembering the Fallen

For the past two years I have been researching and writing about a career soldier who died on foreign soil.  Every day I marvel at his dedication to his King and country, and the sacrifices that he made through his service. And almost every day, I cry a little bit to think that he never returned home to his beloved England and Ireland and never again saw the friends and family he left behind. He was a wealthy man who could have chosen a different path. He did not have a wife to mourn for him. By the time his countrymen at home learned of his death, he had been cold in the ground for six months. I hope someone shed tears for him then. I pray for him now. Our fallen warriors are precious. We are indebted to them. May we be worthy of their sacrifice.

Crying time

London Bound
London bound

One year ago today, on February 27, 2020, I was on a plane bound for London.  There were a few more documents I wanted to review at the National Archives and one book I particularly had to see at the British Library.  Two weeks after I got home, travel was restricted.  As much as I would have liked to return to England, I was very grateful and relieved that I had gone when I did.

Royal Opera House – Curtain Call

In January of 2019, I had been in London doing research for a new historical novel about the world of opera.  It was exciting to stay in Covent Garden and attend a performance of the Royal Opera.  On my last day in town, I indulged a whim to go see a portrait of a British Army officer that I had come across when I was writing my novel, A Moon Garden.  When I saw the painting, I was captivated.  The artist had masterfully captured the essence of a young, confident, strong, and beautiful young man.  

It was difficult to find out anything about this soldier, and I realized that the novel was going to have to wait.  It had become my mission to uncover this man’s story and tell it.  After researching for a year, I began writing.  My pursuit of information was ongoing throughout the year that it took to complete the written chronology of the life of this inspiring man.  When I was nearly finished, I became sad.  As I wrote the last lines, I cried.

A friend recognized my symptoms.  She laughed at me and said, “You did this last time too.”

“When I wrote A Moon Garden?”

“Yes,”

“I cried?”

“You got very emotional.”

I did.  Writing the novel was a psychological journey. The main character was constantly faced with challenges and crises in matters of war, love, family, and community.  As I wrote his story, I felt his worries, his joys, his internal conflicts.  I would listen to arias while working at my desk and suddenly find myself weeping.  But that was separate from what I experienced when I finished writing the book. A different kind of sadness enveloped me.

While I felt the thrill of accomplishment, I also had a sense of loss.  After spending over a year researching and writing about my fictional characters, I had a strong attachment to them.  Although I was glad at last to be able to share the story with my readers, it was an adjustment to let go and change my priorities.  That is how I feel now about this soldier.  For two years, I was singularly absorbed in connecting with him, discovering who he was, what he did, where he went, how he thought, why he made his choices. It is a relief to know that his story is closer to being known. 

For a few minutes, I indulged in some crying time.  The mood has passed.  I still have work to do.


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An odd old book

Buying books is one of the pleasures of doing research.  Of course I use digital resources, and visit libraries and archives, but sometimes there is a book that I want to hold in my hands and refer to over and over again.  As I delved into the history of colonial America and Georgian England for background to my novel A Moon Garden, my personal library expanded a bit.  The social, industrial, and geo-political transformations of the late 18th century intrigue me, and I am currently writing the biography of a British general who lived and died during this time. My quest for books about this period continues.

Recently I acquired The Story of the London Parks by Jacob Larwood.  It was published in London and has no copyright date.  There is, however, a hand-written inscription inside the front endpaper, indicating it was a New Year’s gift to Mrs. Goodings in 1888.

It’s a beautiful book, which includes several illustrations, including some in color.  It is in remarkably good shape, thanks to the fact that it has never been read.  This is apparent, because the pages must have been printed two-up or four-up, and they were not trimmed. Many of the pages would have to be cut apart in order flip through them.  I prefer to leave the book the way it has been for over 130 years. 

My knowledge of book printing and binding techniques of the 19th century is very limited.  If anyone reading this can provide an explanation, please feel free to leave your comments.

I wonder if Mrs. Goodings’ admirer ever asked her opinion of the book.  What would she have said?

A Moon Garden – Amazon UK