A stranger in London
January 25, 2010
I was asked to enter the home of a stranger.
I had crossed Kensington Gardens with the intention of wandering around south of there in search of English Heritage blue plaques, specifically those that designated the former residences of literary figures. I was beginning to become frustrated after an hour of looking to no avail. At one point, a Royal Service postman was paces ahead of me so I considered enlisting his help, but before I could pull out the London A to Z (pronounced Zed), the postman had zoomed too far ahead of me so that I reconsidered disrupting him while he busily worked. I then decided to wander the streets within the confines of 3D on the map, hoping to happen upon one of the literary plaques in the area.
Passing the church for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me that Kensington Church Walk might be inside the church’s property. I ducked down a path next to the church that led to another path, and finally I spotted a blue plaque: Ezra Pound’s. I shot a few photographs of the plaque. As I walked around the corner of the building, I saw a woman poke her head up from inside the building, and the next thing I knew, she was inviting me in to her home and I was accepting the invitation without hesitation.
I was in her dining room, and she asked, “Do you want any tea or coffee?” immediately followed by “But who are you exactly?” After brief introductions, Christine walked into the adjoining kitchen as I rifled through my bag’s contents in her dining room.
As she heated the water for tea, she asked me to guess her age, which I realized that she realized was difficult, given her liveliness. No, not 72, which, in all honesty, was a little younger than I thought she was, but I try to be polite. She is 87 years old, which she told me before showing me the coffee mugs to choose and revealing her own mug’s significance (the bird on its external surround reminded her of a friendly-enough-to-eat-out-of-a-hand bird that her daughter who lived in Australia had nicknamed Eric).
After telling me that she had lived there since 1986, she told me that I could sit anywhere in the living room—except the green chair. As I walked ahead, leaving her in the kitchen, I passed through the dining room, which was connected to a room of plants (a person looking through one of the kitchen’s window could see the plants there). The dining room and the living room walls were covered with African masks and oil-painted portraits in front of William Morris wallpaper (the mug I chose matched the wallpaper). Christine’s collections sitting in windowsills, shelves, and the piano included more plants and numerous feathers. I snapped a few photos before she joined me in the living room.
She showed me a picture of Ezra Pound (a view from the side; his hair looked thick and full). She began telling me the story of the day the home was designated an English Heritage site. She allowed me to capture it on video, though I had my digital camera initially turned sideways and a few seconds into it I turned it rightways, but it was a strange result. Regardless, she said:
“When the plaque was attached to the house for the first time, there was almost an opening ceremony. Quite a crowd of people. It was English Heritage that organized it, and they invited, you know, a lot of people who all came around to look at it and see it being unveiled. There was a red velvet curtain over it. The lady who pulled the string was his daughter. Now that is the one who gave me that picture because that was given to her on this occasion. We were all invited to go around to the town hall, which is a long that way, and there, we were given a reception. We were each given a glass of wine to begin with, and then she and I were both given enormous bunches of flowers. And, after that, they gave her that portrait, which has vanished—oh, it’s right there. And after it was over, and we were coming home, she to her place and I to mine, you know, she handed that to me, and she said she thought that it would be good and he would approve of him being kept permanently in the house where he lived. He lived on the floor above. That was his room.”
Then she handed me a scrapbook with its first pages devoted to Ezra Pound and the plaque ceremony. Ezra Pound’s daughter looked to be around the same age as Christine, and there were, in fact, red velvet curtains, though they were smaller than I expected; they weren’t much taller than the plaque.
After perusing the scrapbook, she pulled another book out. I began taping.
She said, “Ancient Music. Now I don’t know if you learned when you were young a song called . . .” and then she proceeded to sing:
Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu. . . .
Christine said, “And so it goes on, you see, and this is his version of that poem, and it’s called ‘Ancient Music,’ and it says:
Winter is icumin in,
Lhude sing goddamn!
Raineth drop and staineth slop
And how the wind doth ram
Skiddth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damn you, sing goddamn.
Goddamn, goddamn, tis why I am goddamn,
So gainst the winter’s balm.
Sing goddamn, sing goddamn, DAMN!
Christine emphatically said the last “DAMN,” which caused us both to laugh.
I asked about her interest in music because she seemed to enjoy music and, in fact, broke out in song occasionally (earlier in the kitchen she had sung). She admitted that her short-term memory wasn’t as good as it once was, and sometimes pieces of conversation sparked her memory of a tune.
I also asked about the feathers in her home, and she said that peacocks once roamed Holland Street nearby but now lived behind the walls of a private residence.
On my way out, Christine relayed a tale about a time when she traveled all the way down to the bottom of a mine in Australia—her husband had been a civil service worker—and at the bottom, it was so humid and heavy that they all hovered around a fan. She told me that she had traveled much in her lifetime and had had a good, full life so now she didn’t mind sitting back and reminiscing.
Also, she explained that she had altered the interior of the building. She had worked at home as a psychotherapist (she briefly mentioned the silver method of mind control). She had separated her living space from her working space by constructing an interior wall past the stairs so patients could go directly upstairs to her. My eyes traveled up the stairs as she said that it was there, on the second floor, that Pound had lived.
She invited me to visit her again sometime.