The lobby and bar of the Grand Hotel… or is it the Victoria Hotel?
It’s been a busy few days here in London, ever since I came up from Southampton last Thursday. Twenty-four hours after leaving the Queen Mary 2, I settled in to my home base, a studio flat in the Imperial Wharf area of Chelsea (which, according to an English friend of mine, is very “swish”). When I was first shopping for a place to live on AirBnB, I tried to find something near where the girls had stayed in 1922, which were some “digs” in Tavistock Square. Nothing came up for that exact area, so I opted for sunny, modern digs in Chelsea.
Perhaps I should have gone in for something more traditional, or Art Deco – basically something more in keeping with Cornelia’s and Emily’s world. But I think that maybe, subconsciously, I knew I needed for part of this journey to be exclusively my own, and in no way linked to Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Even after the most fun-filled and remarkable days spent with the girls, finding their old haunts and stomping grounds, it’s nice to come home to an apartment that didn’t exist when they were here. Just as it would be with any friends I travel with, at some point I need time and space to myself.
But back to Cornelia and Emily, and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.
In the book, the majority of the girls’ time in London was spent going to dinner and the theatre with Cornelia’s parents. So for my first book-related outing, I happily headed up to the theatre district via the riverbus from Imperial Wharf to Embankment. Once off the boat, it would be just a quick walk up to the West End to my first stop: the half-price theatre ticket booth in Leicester Square. But on my way up there, without intending to, I stumbled into Cornelia’s and Emily’s footsteps. My route to the West End took me up Northumberland Avenue, which I remembered as the street on which the Victoria Hotel (where Otis and Maud Skinner stayed) had once been. I had already done research on the hotel, and knew that it had been at 8 Northumberland Avenue, which was now home to the Grand Hotel. As like most things, the place has changed some since the Skinners stayed there, but the building had withstood the Blitz, and is still a fashionable place to stay. I had a quick look in at the lobby and bar, with their sublime marble floors, walls and columns, and it didn’t take much imagination to picture Otis and Maud, along with the girls, coming through the hotel’s revolving door.
Then it was on to Leicester Square. The queue at the half-price ticket booth was just the right length – short enough to move quickly, and long enough to give me time to decide which show to see. I opted for a musical called “Half a Sixpence”, mainly because the script (known as “the book”) had been written by Julian Fellowes. Being a longtime fan of his, particularly of his “Downton Abbey”, well, I knew I had to see “Half a Sixpence”. What I didn’t know about the musical until I sat down that evening in the theatre is that it is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by H.G. Wells. Now there was some symmetry I never saw coming.
Once I had scored my ticket to the show (at a wonderfully reasonable price – New York theatres please take note of this!), I strolled over to Charing Cross Rd, searching for number 84, which has nothing to do with Our Hearts Were Young and Gay and everything to do with another of my favorite books, the appropriately titled, 84, Charing Cross Road. This story from Helene Hanff is essentially a collection of her twenty-year correspondence with Frank Doel, the chief buyer at Marks & Co booksellers, which at one time was located at 84, Charing Cross Rd.
This famous street was once lined with booksellers of all sorts, and some of those shops still exist today. But, sad to say – in fact, very sad to say – the enchanting antiquarian bookshop where Frank Doel, George Martin, Cecily Farr, Megan Wells and Bill Humphries worked is no longer there. In its place is a McDonald’s.
For lovers of 84, Charing Cross Road – and all books, for that matter – the transformation could not be more crushing. All that remains of Marks and Co is a small brass plaque embedded in the wall, commemorating the bookshop.
After that knife to the heart, I spent a little time browsing through the other bookstores in and around Charing Cross Rd, then had a pre-show drink and dinner at the pub across the street from where “Half a Sixpence” is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre (as in Noel Coward, my buddy from the celebrity portraits gallery on the QM2 – yep, more random symmetry). The show was charming, and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation I had with the two college students who were sitting next to me in the theatre. They were over from the States, visiting Europe for the first time, on a study abroad course in London. Kindred spirits.
A terrific day all around, but it turns out that my favorite part had been those moments of leaving the present and venturing into the past – Cornelia’s and Emily’s, Helene Hanff’s, and even my own, as I walked through Trafalgar Square, glancing over to where a 20-something me had once stood by one of the fountains and been kissed as the sun set.
Of course it’s important to keep moving forward, to keep making memories, to have each new moment count for something. And I hope to come away from this summer with adventures to rival Cornelia’s and Emily’s, or at least my own past.
But one of my initial reasons for wanting to go on this journey was my desire to bring Our Hearts Were Young and Gay to life for myself. To step inside the book, and feel as if I were part of a story that I have long wished was mine.
You know, many modern physicists subscribe to the theory that time is just an illusion. That everything which we differentiate as the past, present and future is, in fact, all happening at precisely the same instant. So it hardly seems far-fetched of me to let the boundaries of time and space blur once in a while, and to look for shadows and outlines of those who are standing in the same spot as myself, only in a different moment in history.
Please, indulge me a little in this. After all, aside from the Butterfly Effect, what harm can a bit of time-traveling really do?
Below: The walk sign at Trafalgar Square features two unisex people holding hands as they walk, which forms a heart; fountain in Trafalgar Square; 84, Charing Cross Road then; and now.