Several years ago I took a last minute flight to London for a long weekend just to clear my head and get away from the intensity of New York for a while. One day I drove to the Cotswold Hills in my rental car without any fixed destination in mind, most likely if I am honest, to challenge the potency of my memories; a faintly remembered forest where I played in childhood, a treacherous fork in a road that scared me going to school, that mossy dry stone wall near my house that I climbed to get conker’s bruising and bloodying my knees, a short cut across a field with the risk of getting my best shoes dirty in the soft mud and where a dairy herd would sometimes block my route with the low lament of their sad voices. Little things in other words. This is a part of the world I knew intimately once as it was learnt the slow way, wandering by bicycle or on foot. It was more than the pull of sentiment, I wanted to know what it felt like again, being too old have film or even many photographs cataloguing every milestone of my youth like children today, instead I’m left with a handful of faded color photographs that I’ve scrutinized but result in a vacancy, an emptiness, so I thought naively that by actually being there and breathing in the damp climate that this stranger, my younger self, would somehow be revealed.
Instead I was left with the predictable melancholy of driving through places changed beyond recognition. Perhaps it was thanks to the toxicity of a spruced up rental car or the creasing resistance of its thudding gearbox above the unpleasant roar of the road I resolved to lose my way; taking roads at random, turning left here, right there without aim. After while when I found myself on a long Roman road the unanticipated thrill of abandonment took over; no connection to place, a joyful certainty that there wasn’t anyone keep tracking of my movements and with all the time in the world to enjoy these foreign landscapes. Passing deeply furrowed fields that had to endure harsh cries of unlovable crows as they blew like black rags, trash in the wind. Pewter clouds were low on the horizon with the dull, but beautifully familiar and comforting promise of rain.
I was taken by surprise to find myself in a large unfamiliar town, houses and stores gathered around and soon pulled me involuntarily into a maze of roundabouts and busy traffic. With no idea where I was, on a whim, still buzzing with the heady feeling of exploration, I found a parking space. Within minutes I was seduced by the siren call of old Tudor alleyways, the luster of surprisingly upmarket stores, restaurants and handsome, self assured Georgian buildings, the pleasant crust of time. It took me by surprise, I must have lived close for years yet it was all new and now it seemed increasingly absurd to stop a passerby to ask its name, surely I told myself, before long I would find a sign or landmark to identify the city. It was a place soaked in history, cobbled stones worn down by millions of footsteps over centuries, paradoxically offering a sense of our inconsequence at the same time producing an instinct of protectiveness, even ownership over it.
I was concerned about getting lost and never finding the car again, already nervous about identifying the bland car amongst hundreds of equally generic ones, so I pulled myself away. On the road again, the light beginning to fade and soft rain, following a tense procession of traffic out of the city until finding a recognizable destination, in this case Oxford, from where I could easily find my way home I searched for clues in the rear view mirror, but all were just “city center”, “parking” “one way” apparently reluctant to reveal its name which to this day remains elusive thus creating a dreamlike quality to the day that has only multiplied over the years. Recently I took to research using Google concluding that was city of Worcester based on the distance and general direction travelled leaving me with a sense of regret that I didn’t visit the Cathedral and see the tomb of King John. Compared to his royal predecessors he was not a particularly remarkable one, more of an administrator than warrior, but he left us with two things; the Magna Carter and a juicy villainous role for B list actors in Robin Hood films.
I’m remembering this trip as this pandemic slouches to its final stages. We continue to socialize in small bubbles and some friendships have blossomed with new intensity during this captivity. I’m struck by nostalgia by some of our conversations, memories of growing up in the countryside where close relationships had greater significance due to their scarcity, we lived far apart and youthful bonds felt more precious. Our idle talk would frequently turn to television as there were just two channels and we all watched the same shows. Something similar happened during Covid for opposite reasons; there are hundreds of choices and we rely on our friends for recommendations, which enhances or diminishes our faith in each other and if this sounds overly censorious, it is. But one show that has universal agreement has been the ongoing serialization of the life of Queen Elizabeth 2 “The Crown”. It is arguably highly fictionalized and does few favors for the current Royal Family. The main outcome from these beautifully acted and composed episodes is the conflict between the need for popularity, a reoccurring theme throughout English history, and presenting to the world what must be the fiction of contentment and stoicism, indifference even, in a time of adverse public opinion. This I guess will be apparent in the next series when Diana dies and the public anger at the lack of compassion shown by the Queen being forced out of hiding in the Palace to view the memorials being placed outside of Buckingham Palace.
I have seen her several times in the course of my life, each time by chance. The first occasion was in a Welsh town where I joined the tail end of a modest crowd, partially inquisitive and partially ironic, to find myself standing on the side of the road when she walked by, diminutive in stature and plastered with a harsh foundation making her look almost dead already to my youthful eyes. This was over forty years ago and she was younger than I am today yet she belonged to not just a different class and wealth bracket but another age and species altogether, existing outside the parameters of history. Then later, when I lived in Windsor, I would walk in the great park in all weathers and see various Royals drive past, always at the wheel themselves, dressed casually, or in their own language “country”, meaning that they were not on official duties and could indulge in Harris tweeds and woolen neck ties. I would usually give a wave and get a reluctant nod or smile back in return for my insouciance, certain that I was breaking all protocols. Diana was a different story, I saw her only once and from a distance getting out of a car, doe-like and awkward on her disproportionately long legs as if they belonged to a different person, one who already only inhabited the world of fashion magazines and television.
English medieval history is a bloody, confusing period and sometimes and when I am engrossed in a book of that period I often think it reads more like a sensational fantasy. Richard was a distasteful character, born on Christmas Eve 1166 and dying fifty years later of dysentery. Abusive to all, particularly women, not unlike most men holding power then, but he took things farther by sleeping with a multitude of “noble” women and propagating scandal. To add to his unpopularity he spent much of his energy seeking ways to find income from his subjects. He signed the Magna Carta presented by the barons largely to pacify them and change the climate of hostility he had created during his reign.
His father, Henry the Second, was more interesting and yet it’s dizzying for a modern reader to attempt to understand and empathize with the lives of medieval kings. Any attempt to make sense of the person, to imagine their lives and beliefs, it’s necessary to put Shakespeare aside, peer through the smoke of Hollywood producer’s cigar’s, and allow yourself to be shaken by reality facts from historians leaving us with unprecedented drama thanks to the scale of ambition, the scope of power and the bloody stakes. There are many remarkable aspects of the life of Henry but the moment I keep coming back to is his discordant relationship with the low born Thomas Beckett, a brilliant man and once close friend who he promoted to Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest religious leader in the country. As soon as Becket had power he turned it against his former friend, the King, and a deathly competition was born. Out of frustration Henry offered to his knights the rhetorical question “who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” ambiguity was lost on these four assassins, probably already drunk when they hacked Beckett to pieces on the font of Canterbury Cathedral. Suddenly Becket was a martyr – public opinion favored the Church and in time Henry had to make penance, publicly wearing a hair shirt on a pilgrimage to his enemy’s tomb in an attempt to appease his subjects and recover their fickle favor again. Of course it is trite to think of Diana as Becket and Elizabeth as Henry but I keep returning to these conflicts between power and vulnerability, popularity and humility, public opinion and private truths. Perhaps it is because we are now showing the world a more studied and contemplative version of ourselves through staged zoom calls and select meetings of friends within our pods, where the Crown became a perfect thought provoking antidote to this lockdown.