Part One: Mind the Gap
After forty-five minutes on the airport shuttle, ten hours in the air, forty-five minutes in a bus followed by two-and-a-half hours on the train, I’d finally reached my destination: Great Malvern, Herefordshire County, England. Waiting for me was my long-time friend, Jan, who is celebrating her ninetieth birthday. As the train slowed, I donned my backpack, slung my laptop bag over my shoulder, and wheeled my suitcase to the end of the car, where I waited for the exit door to open.
“How do you get the door to open?” I called back to the nearly empty car. A young woman who’d been sitting across from me quickly rose from her seat and ran to the door. By the time she reached me, the train had begun rolling again. She whipped out her phone to consult the train schedule.
“The next stop is Colwall. You can get off there and wait for the next northbound train back to Great Malvern. They won’t charge you,” she assured me. The train pulled up to Colwall, which offered nothing more than a small shelter, like you find at city bus stops. There was no one around.
“Will you be alright?” she asked with concern. I assured her I would be. I was not at all sure as I stepped into the rainy, English countryside. An electronic sign promised the northbound train would arrive in thirty-five minutes. Before long, a weathered, older-looking man showed up.
“This [bleeping] weather, you can’t do [bleep]!” he exclaimed. He continued to complain about the “[bleeping] rain.”
“Where I live, we welcome the rain,” I said brightly.
“Where’sat?” he asked.
“Western United States,” I answered.
“Oh, well,” he shrugged dismissively.
He’d recently retired from farming, I learned: “Seventy years old, and I decided fifty-three years o’ it was enough,” he said. He was headed south to Hereford for the afternoon, he said. Might as well, because in “this [bleeping] weather, you can’t do [bleep]!” he repeated.
The train to Hereford arrived.
“Nice to meetcha,” he grumbled in farewell.
It was my first conversation with a Brit since landing in England hours earlier. I missed the customs officer from my last trip who asked me why I didn’t visit more often. Going through customs is all automated now. You slide your passport through a scanner that simultaneously takes your photo. Ticket sellers at the bus and train stations don’t have time or inclination to chat amidst the throng of passengers. I would’ve struck up a conversation with the young woman on the train, but she’d been concentrating on her phone the entire time.
Finally I boarded the northbound train and planted myself next to the door. Back at Great Malvern, I pushed the exit button with fierce determination.
“MIND THE GAP,” the traveler is consistently warned. This time the door opened and I stepped across the “gap,” a space of thin air between the train and concrete landing. Minding the gap, I’d arrived at last at my destination.
Part Two: All Aboard? Not Quite
“These trains get funnier looking all the time,” the bus driver mused for the benefit of his passengers. I’d planned on boarding a train that morning, heading to London after a wondrous if rainy week in the Cotswolds.
Did Great Malvern Station have it in for me, I wondered. Earlier in the week I couldn’t get off the train there, and now I couldn’t get on. Instead, a line-up of motor coaches awaited at the station. The Great Western Railway was taking advantage of a Sunday morning lull to do track repair. I’d be riding a bus as far as Evesham, where I’d transfer to the train.
I settled in a front seat to take advantage of the panoramic view through the windshield. That put me in conversational proximity with the driver, who was genial in a John Cleese sort of way. At each stop he’d cheerfully welcome passengers aboard, then as the bus started rolling again, he’d get on the intercom: “Captain speaking. Seatbelts are provided for your safety, not comfort. If you choose not to use one and are caught, the fine is a hundred quid.”
His driving style was skilled yet casual. He needed only his right hand to guide the massive coach around even the sharpest corners while his left tapped the steering wheel, matching the rhythms of music playing softly on his radio.
When he learned I was from the United States, he said, “I guess this is the question all Americans get asked—is Trump good or bad?”
“Is Brexit good or bad?” I responded. I’d meant the question rhetorically but he replied, “I guess they are pretty much the same,” and launched into his assessment of Brexit.
“It’s stupid,” he began, declaring it wouldn’t help anyone. No one was willing to listen to people who knew anything, he continued. The problem, he declared, is that “this generation” (his own, presumably) has never had to suffer.
“You mean like the World War II generation did?” I asked.
“Exactly,” he answered.
Later, on my fifth day in London, I gave up hoping that the bronchial cough I’d been fighting for two weeks was going to cure itself. I was in a National Health Service waiting room, where twenty or so people sat quietly, like me, waiting to see a physician. In front of us was a giant TV screen, showing a news broadcast with volume off. Dialogue captions crawled across the screen. As I watched, the announcers were revealing the three finalists in the race for prime minister.
Somehow I’d managed to visit England at a time of political vortex, arriving the week following President Trump’s visit and amidst the chaos of an election. Or seeming chaos. The consensus seems to be that Boris Johnson has a lock on the prime minister’s spot. I looked around the room to measure reactions to the latest news, and there were none. Most people were either consulting their phones or staring into blank space.
What if no one cares?
Part Three: The Play’s The Thing
When you take a seat on a plane, train, or bus, you expect to travel a set number of miles in a specific amount of time. When you take a seat in a theater for a live stage performance, you can anticipate an infinite journey across time and space.
I signed up for a week-long, Road Scholar tour featuring London theater. I knew I’d see six plays in as many days but I didn’t know which ones. Formerly known as Elder Hostel, Road Scholar specializes in educational travel for seniors. The tour included lectures and other adventures during the day and a play each evening. It was a satisfying mix: some Shakespeare, some contemporary, some comedy, and plenty of soul-searing drama.
Live theater is all about being “in the moment.” Many, if not all of the plays spoke to what’s going on in our world today: especially politics and the #MeToo movement. The week began with “Bitter Wheat,” billed as a farce but in reality a disturbing commentary on the Harvey Weinstein scandal. The main attraction was the chance to see the brilliant actor, John Malkovich, live on stage. The play was still in previews, and as we watched, David Mamet—its celebrated author—stood directly behind us, more or less breathing down our necks. Many in our group who disliked the play were joined by newspaper reviewers a few days later, after it officially opened. Some of the reviews were more scathingly clever (like this one) than the play itself.
Politics can unite and divide. Both the U.S. and England are experiencing a profoundly divisive political era, which, playwrights would remind us, is nothing new. More than a century ago Henrik Ibsen wrote “Rosmersholm,” a dark drama enmeshed in political differences, with suicide and incest added for flavor. During England’s Thatcher era (when Conservative Margaret Thatcher became England’s first woman prime minister), Caryl Churchill wrote “Top Girls,” an examination of the severe cost to women who aspire to power—and not just political power. Our seats in those theaters were comfortable enough, but the message? Not so much.
Sometimes the setting itself—even the audience—can have as much a role in the play as leading characters. The Old Globe is a modern recreation of Shakespeare’s theater, allowing us to experience the bawdy hilarity of his era while watching “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Action was not confined to the stage, but spread into the “pit,” where the rabble of Shakespeare’s day would’ve been standing. And drinking. And brawling.
Agatha Christie’s venerable mystery, “Witness for the Prosecution,” was performed in the opulent council chambers of County Hall, once the seat of local government. The play—a murder trial— is lightweight entertainment, but the setting gave it the somber depth a murder trial deserves.
My favorite—the show I want all the world to see—was “Come From Away,” a musical about, of all things, 9/11. After the attack, thirty-eight planes were ordered to land in the small Canadian town of Gander. The tightly choreographed musical is based on the true experiences of those small-town citizens and the seven thousand stranded visitors they hosted. It sugar-coats nothing but depicts the full spectrum of human behavior, from prejudice to compassion, from hostility to charity.
Six evenings. Six plays. Sunday I would board the plane taking me from London to Seattle, a journey of mere miles.
Part Four: London Then and Now
Recommended reading for travelers to London is Peter Ackroyd’s “London: The Biography.” My Kindle reader tells me I’m only 15 percent of the way through the book, but that’s okay. In a week’s time I probably experienced less than 1.5 percent of this enigmatic, energetic city.
Even though I’ve read only as far as the 1500s, it’s enough. In London, the more things change, the more they stay the same. By 1580, the city was growing so fast and had become so overcrowded that Queen Elizabeth I issued a proclamation that more or less demanded, “Stop!” It didn’t work, nor have any of her successors managed to stem the tide.
Ackroyd writes: “The truth is that the growth of London could not, and cannot, be controlled.” Consequently, the most stunning aspect of the London skyline in 2019 is the vast number of construction cranes at work. Even Big Ben, also known as Elizabeth’s Tower, is hidden behind scaffolding for a refurbishment that is, of course, taking longer and costing more than expected. Although I walked right past Big Ben, I can’t claim to have seen it.
In addition to sky-high construction, the city is working on infrastructure repair. On the sidewalk directly in front of my hotel was a pit revealing aged pipes. Similar pits appeared at intervals up and down the street, each surrounded by steel fencing to keep pedestrians from falling in.
In what seemed a random pattern, traffic lanes were blocked off for street repair. The result was congestion that would stupefy even the most intrepid Seattle driver. Once again, nothing new.
“The state of traffic … was a source of constant complaint in the sixteenth century, as it has become for each generation,” writes Ackroyd. John Stow, born in 1525 and a chronicler of his times, complained: “the number of cars, drays, carts and coaches, more than hath been accustomed, the streets and lanes being straitened, must needs be dangerous, as daily experience proveth …”
Modern London pedestrians tend to throw caution to the winds, frequently ignoring traffic lights and crosswalks. One afternoon I happened on the scene of an accident. A bus had hit a jaywalking pedestrian. I have no idea how badly the pedestrian was hurt, but seeing the cracked windshield on the bus was chilling.
The good news is that there’s no gridlock because there’s no grid. The meandering streets and byways were never systematically laid out. They were created to make connections and serve purposes that no longer exist. In Ackroyd’s words, it’s a “bewildering network.”
Our hotel provided free maps, and I’m a pretty good map reader, but this one confounded me.
“[T]he mapping of London represents an attempt to understand the chaos and thereby to mitigate it; it is an attempt to know the unknowable,” warns Ackroyd.
Nonetheless, when our group took a two-and-half-mile walking tour (much better than being stalled in traffic on a bus), one of the women was determined to mark the route on her map. All along the way—Trafalgar Square, China Town, Big Ben, Parliament, the Thames—she concentrated on her map. At one point she walked up beside me and asked, “What was going on at that gate back there? Why did everyone stop?”
“No. 10 Downing Street,” I answered.
She wheeled around and flew back to the gate for a look, her map still in hand.
Part Five: Tour de Force
You sit down to dinner on a Sunday evening with twenty-or-so strangers. A week later—after sharing meals, dramas, comedies, discussions and surprises—you say goodbye to these new friends, and you feel sad.
“Sounds like summer camp!” my step-daughter, Kerrie, exclaimed. She’d just picked me up from the airport shuttle, and I was describing my day. It began with poignant farewells in London, followed by a ten-hour flight to Sea-Tac. I too had thought of the summer camp analogy, but I don’t remember any of the kids at camp being as scintillating as the members of my Road Scholar London theater tour. At that introductory dinner, one of the men was telling me about the Florida retirement community where he lives.
“Is it a diversified population?” I asked.
“About as diversified as the people in this room,” he smiled.
I looked around. We were all white, over fifty, seemingly middle class (or upper-middle), more women than men, from all across the United States plus one Canadian. Pretty much who you’d expect to turn out for a gig like this: intellectually curious with the financial resources to feed that curiosity. In other words, privileged. We were reminded of that privilege all week by the homeless who slept on the sidewalk outside our hotel.
This was my first tour experience. Most of our group were Road Scholar veterans with tales of adventures world-wide. Novice that I was, I knew no tour is any better than the person who leads it. Our leader, Dave, was a master of logistics. He adeptly adjusted to the unexpected—which occurred frequently. He was perpetually good-humored in that understated, British-sort-of-way. He got vexed only when hired coach drivers were late or lost or both. Even then, Dave would comment in wry fashion, “They always say they’re ten minutes away. Doesn’t mean anything.”
One of the tour veterans told me that groups either bond or they don’t. I don’t know that our group bonded as a whole, yet there was one individual, Terry, who wove us together in a silent web of caring. I suspect she didn’t know she was doing it.
Terry’s mobility is seriously challenged by the unfortunate combination of an automobile accident and cancer treatments. She depends on a walker but can go short distances with only a cane. When I met her Sunday night I couldn’t imagine how she would manage getting on and off buses, in and out of theaters. She did it all unselfconsciously, with a lovely smile. There was almost always someone from the group at her side to assist—never an assigned role but something that came naturally on a casual, rotating basis.
When we took our two-and-a-half-mile walking trip through London, I was amazed that Terry opted to go along. She gamely navigated cobblestones and curbs, happily snapping photos along the way. When I returned home, I emailed her asking permission to use her photo. That’s when I learned that she’s a respected academician who studies organizational development, specializing in “performances of all kinds.”
I’d gone to London to watch performances on stage. Turned out, the most meaningful performances were of the everyday sort, presented by people I got to know in just one week and will, sad to say, never see again.
Part Final: Is That Actuarily or Actual?
The day after I flew back from England, I met with my financial advisor. He informed me that actuarily I should plan to live to age ninety-three. I’m having a hard enough time wrapping my head around the fact that I turned seventy-five last month. I couldn’t imagine being ninety-plus until I remembered the reason I went to England in the first place. It was to celebrate my friend Jan’s ninetieth birthday.
Jan makes ninety look like an enticing adventure. She and I have been friends for fifty years, meeting when we both lived on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. She moved to England about the same time I moved to the Okanogan in eastern Washington. We’ve managed, from time to time, to arrange joint birthday celebrations—revolving around mine in May or hers in June. A few years back, she suggested to me that when we reached the ages of seventy-five and ninety respectively, it would be reason enough for me to fly to England. It was.
After I finally managed to debark from the train at Great Malvern, I was happy to settle into Jan’s tiny Chevy. I knew from past experience that we’d be traveling England’s rural roadways at a good clip. Jan, wearing tight leather driving gloves, adroitly manages clutch and gearshift as she maneuvers twists and turns among the hedgerows. She says she always wanted to compete in the Grand Prix as a grandmother. Walking is a challenge for her; she uses a cane to steady her balance. But get her behind the wheel, and she combines the reaction speed of a teen-ager with the maturity of ninety.
We toured the countryside as we celebrated throughout the week—high tea at an elegant hotel, family time with her granddaughter and daughter-in-law in homey pubs, and a culminating event involving nineteen of us in a hotel private dining room.
“Tell me about the women who will be there,” I suggested to Jan earlier in the week. One by one she briefed me about her friends so that when we finally gathered, I could fully appreciate this wondrous roomful of women. Each was accomplished in her own way, representing the arts, education, spirituality, environmentalism, family nurturing, and global efforts toward world peace and justice. One woman, buxomly built, simply dressed, told of a global conference she’d just attended in Italy. Despite the world’s dismaying problems, there are people finding a way forward, she promised, offering her bywords: “Stubborn optimism.”
At Jan’s request we totaled up our ages: some thirteen hundred years of combined experience and wisdom. You could almost feel the walls of that dining room vibrate with the intensity of women who’d grown into their power. We sat at three tables in a triangular arrangement, so that everyone could see and talk with everyone else. Three birthday cakes held thirty candles each. Jan ended the celebration by reading from the finale of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” My favorite lines are:
“We shall not cease from exploration
“And the end of all our exploring
“Will be to arrive where we started
“And know the place for the first time.”
When I returned home, a birthday card from Jan awaited me.
“You will always be any age you wish,” she’d written. So much for actuaries.