A country of gardeners, England comes colorfully to life in spring, assisted by a climate rainy enough to annually reinvent endless shades of green. Britain’s trademark gentility lives on.
On crowded and steamy stairs at the Piccadilly underground exit, I see a young man in full, if outmoded, punk dress- neon hair aglow- rush up to a young mother holding a sleeping child and dragging a baby buggy behind her. “May I help?” he wonders. “Oh, thanks, I’m fine.” she responds. He bounds past her to the street and I say, “...But it was certainly nice to be asked!” She laughs.
Later, in the trendy Sloane Square neighborhood, I pass a homeless man on the sidewalk. Downwind, I catch that universal homeless smell of many who live on the streets of Boston, Rio, Paris or Tokyo. The absence of bath facilities and clean clothing spawns a global stink. This man, however, carts his belongings in the distinctive pea-green plastic bag of Harrod’s adding a bizarre classiness to his misery.
On Sloane Street, afternoon tea is being served at the Cadogan Hotel, famous as the place where Oscar Wilde was ultimately arrested. We have reservations, or bookings as they are called here, which are “recommended.”
The host is a gentle man with white hair framing a surprisingly youthful face. His voice is as soft as the gray of his suit. He takes our coats and settles us at a small table near an antique breakfront.
“Now, we are about to have High Tea...” he begins, as if it were a question. He pauses inquiringly. A long, uncomfortable silence follows, spiriting me to joke that we shall try to be on our best behavior.
His eyes sparkle. He is reassured that we are not boisterous Yanks who might demand coffee at tea time. He goes on to explain the assortment of teas served at the Cadogan: Earl Gray and Jasmine, Ceylon, Green Tea and many more.
We choose Jasmine and Ceylon: our host nods, bows and disappears.
We chat and wonder about Mr. Wilde’s history with the place. When the teas arrive, the waiter pours each through the silver strainer into our elegant china cups. He indicates a silver pot of hot water we can add to the remains of the leaves to brew additional tea, carefully arranges the sugars (white and natural), cream, red currant jam and clotted cream for the scones on our little table. Finally, he brings a two-tiered serving plate with miniature sandwiches on the lower level, and scones, eclairs and tarts on the upper.
Our host reappears to insure all is perfect. I ask if he will tell us about Mr. Wilde. His smile broadens: he loves to tell the story and adores being asked to do so. “Certainly, Madame, after you have had your tea.”
My friend and I set about the lovely task of eating the goodies accompanied by the very special hot tea. The sandwiches have three fillings- cucumber, egg, and tomatoes, on bread that, of course, has no crust. This is High Tea, after all.
The scones are divine, as are the eclairs and the tarts. We have planned that this tea would actually be our supper before the theater. The paucity of protein and the virtual absence of vegetables or fruits makes us giggle. This is the sort of supper children pray for, lots of sweets and nothing leafy green!
Finally sated and settling into the haze that only too much starch and sugar can provide, we sit back and sip our second pot of tea as our host reappears.
“Now, then, as for Mr. Wilde...” He spends the next half hour clarifying that Oscar Wilde did not live at the Cadogan but was, in fact, arrested there while visiting a friend (NOT the young man of his passion, but another old friend.) People speculate that the police chose this tactic to spare Mr. Wilde’s wife and sons the trauma and embarrassment of an arrest at their home.
We discuss her devotion to her husband, and our host tells us which son married and which did not, and how many children followed. One of Wilde’s grandsons, he says, was just at the Cadogan a week ago, visiting London for the annual Oscar Wilde Dinner.
His tale told, our host smiles and bows again and says he hopes we will return to the Cadogan next time we are in London. Then he is gone.
We walk to the sunderground and jostle to the Old Vic where fellow American Kevin Spacey is Artistic Director. Serene in this city where paparazzi and interviewers don’t care much if he has a girlfriend or not, Spacey is marvelous in onstage. (The program costs £4 (about $6. US). I say that for that price the actor/director ought to autograph it. The usher responds, “He’s such a nice man, you should ask him and he probably will.”)
I look as we leave the theater, but, as I suspect, Spacey isn’t standing in the lobby signing autographs. No matter. This perfect London day is worth more than an autograph; it is a love letter from a very special place.