Wednesday, December 24, 2008

From France to England

Before I left Paris, I had dinner with a former student, Tim Bradford, and his wife Tamara and their two boys Tristan and Dmitri, up near Place Pigalle, where I hadn’t been in many years. The neighborhood keeps the feeling of Paris of former days, before it became so sleek and designerish. Walking to Tim’s place I passed a revue theater called “Madame Arthur,” where drag performances are held, the theater taking its name from an old song the famous belle époque singer Yvette Guibert used to sing. (You may remember posters of her produced by Toulouse-Lautrec.) A lively evening with the Bradfords, catching up on our respective projects. Tim’s at work on a postmodern novel involving deportation of the Jews from the Vélodrome d’Hiver during the Nazi occupation, for which he received a grant two years ago. They’ll stay on until the summer before returning to the States.

I left Paris on the 20th and took the Eurostar to London, spending a night there at James Byrne’s in West Hampstead. He, his partner Sandeep Parmar, and I went out for an Indian meal, as a kind of sendoff for Sandeep who was flying early next morning to see her parents in Boston. News of the blizzard there made us all wonder, though, and I haven't heard how the flight went.

Next morning I caught a train to Newcastle to spend a couple of days there with my friend Paul Attinello, who teaches in the music department at the University of Newcastle. We met many years ago in Los Angeles, when I was visiting at U.C.L.A. American, but cosmopolitan, Paul has taught in Australia and Hong Kong and now for several years in Newcastle. It’s a town I like, based on an earlier visit three years ago when I participated in the Newcastle Festival of Gay and Lesbian Literature. It was during that stay that I went to see Hadrian’s Wall, one of the things that led to the writing of the poem about Hadrian mentioned earlier in this blog.

I enjoyed this second visit, which gave me a chance to hear what Paul is doing. He’s a specialist on the Darmstadt School of music, has written about Mauricio Kagel, and now is working on a book about music and the AIDS epidemic, which promises to be fascinating.

From Newcastle I took the train again to Chesterfield where my friend Vilna Kembery picked me up and drove me to Edensor, the little village attached to Chatsworth. Built in the 19th century according to designs of Joseph Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame), Edensor is a picture-perfect gathering of stone cottages, each different and all appealing. I met Vilna six years ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she was visiting and I was teaching; we’ve been in touch ever since, and no one could be a more cheerful and thoughtful host. This is my third stay in Edensor, and each visit we go over to see the house and its park, incontestably one of England's best. The weather today is bright and unseasonably warm and we had an invigorating walk in the park, kindly invited by Vilna’s great friend Elizabeth Cavendish, whom I met on an earlier visit. Each time we see each other, we speak about John Betjeman, who was her devoted admirer for several decades and wrote poems such as “The Cockney Amorist” with her in mind. I mentioned having seen a photograph of them both in a recent collection of letters written to each other by the Mitford sisters (one of these is her sister-in-law, Deborah, who spearheaded so many changes at Chatsworth and made it fiscally viable). She had heard about the book but hadn’t seen it and said she would look for it. We also spoke about politics, which interests her keenly, and we concurred that the American Presidential election had come as an enormous relief for all of us. I also agree with her that the war in Afghanistan is doomed, and that despite the tragic consequences of abandoning it, we absolutely have to. No foreign power has ever been able to win against the Afghanis in their own rugged terrain. One of the factors that ended the Soviet regime was their own costly and failed effort to conquer Afghanistan. But will the President-elect change his mind on that topic?

Vilna and I are spending quiet days here in Edensor through Christmas, after which I’ll return to London.

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