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The Joy Of Blighty

From Isaac Newton to Willy Loman, the Dreher family vacation in England rolls towards its conclusion
The Joy Of Blighty

Hi readers, I apologize for being incommunicado. I went from a no-WiFi situation in Cambridge to one in our Airbnb rental in London that is to WiFi what the Trabant was to automobile excellence. I’m settled down in the flat tonight. The bags are all packed for tomorrow’s journey home. We’re all wo’ slap out from our vacation, which was wonderful, but you know how it is: there comes at time when everybody’s ready to go home and see the dog. I am going to try to post this tonight (if you see it, I will have been successful), but we have a long wait at Heathrow tomorrow — have to be out of the Airbnb earlyish — so I anticipate being able to write at length about some of the things I’ve seen, heard, and done these past few days. For now, I just didn’t want you to think that I’ve dropped off the face of the earth.

[Now I’m writing this on Friday afternoon from a terminal lounge in Heathrow, having completely failed to upload it last night on the Trabant WiFi.]

So. On Wednesday morning, we woke up in Cambridge, had breakfast, then met our old friend Prof. Imre Leader, a Trinity College mathematician, for a tour of the college. I have known Imre since the fall of 1985. He is one of those naturally joyful people around whom it is impossible to be cross, despairing, or un-merry in any way. It’s a grace, really. He loves pure mathematics, Bob Dylan, Othello (the game), and LSU football. And he loves Trinity College, and delighted in showing it to me and my family.

After going through the Great Gate and into the Great Court, I pointed out to my son Matt, who wants to train to be an historian of science, the rooms where Isaac Newton lived. Newton is the greatest of Trinity’s alumni, and his presence is still very much felt. That image above is of a statue in the Trinity chapel. To be so close to where Newton lived and moved and thought is thrilling!

We walked across the well-manicured grass of the Great Court, which we were allowed to do only because we were led by a Fellow. Ha ha, haters!

Imre led us to his office to drop our bags. Along the way, he pointed out a tiny patch of ground next to an office building. Tropical plants were growing there. “Do you know why?” he asked. Microclimate? said Julie. Yes, said Imre, but what’s interesting is how the microclimate was created: a while back, someone wondered if the hot air from the laundry vent on the ground would make it warm enough to grow tropical plants there. They were right! Behold, the Tropical Garden of Trinity College, Cambridge:

We eventually made our way to the dining hall. Here’s a view of High Table:

I ate there once, a decade ago, as the guest of a Fellow. It was so Old World. Everyone rose to say a blessing in Latin, then sat to eat.

Eventually we made our way to the Wren Library, in which photography was forbidden. But what treasures they have there! We saw Newton’s own personal copy of his Principia Mathematica, as well as a pocket ledger in his own handwriting. We saw Wittgenstein’s notebook. We saw an 8th-century copy of St. Paul’s letters. That sort of thing.

Imre walked us over to King’s College Chapel next door for a quick look, and then, on the way back, through Trinity Hall, a Cambridge college that is next door to Trinity College, but is not the same thing. Trinity Hall was Stephen Hawking’s college when he was an undergraduate. As we were leaving, someone approached to ask if I was Rod Dreher. Turns out it was Taym Saleh, a history PhD student and a reader of this blog:

It’s so lovely to meet people like this, and in the unlikeliest places. I introduced Taym to my family (whose photos I never put on the blog, fyi) and to Imre. Then we soldiered on back to Trinity. Here’s Imre with my son Lucas:

After gathering our bags, we just had time for a quick lunch at The Eagle, the 17th-century pub where James Watson and Francis Crick partly worked out the double-helix model of DNA. It was at The Eagle where Crick, on February 28, 1953, arose and told the lunch crowd that he and Watson had “discovered the secret of life.” Here’s a VFYT; yeah, I had the burger, and it was really tasty:

Cambridge, England

On the walk back to the hotel, I pointed out to the children this abominable building, the Cambridge University Centre. What a deranged poverty of imagination architectural Brutalism is! It’s the only form of architecture that makes me angry, really angry. That Cambridge is home to more than a few of these horrible buildings is a scandal. But this is the worst, I think. It looks like a lean-to built by Hillbilly Stalin:

(Avert your gaze)

Another Cambridge friend drove us down to London, where we took up residence in the Airbnb flat in Marylebone. It was a wonderful place; the only problem was the WiFi, which might have been a blessing, actually, in that it compelled me to stay moving. After a short time, we dressed for an evening at the theater. Our friend Wendell Pierce is starring in a massively praised revival of Death Of A Salesman, at the Young Vic. He invited us to come see him portray Willy Loman; this, I think, is the first major production in which the Loman family is black. We were thrilled, of course. For my kids, this was their first experience of professional theater. Can you imagine your introduction to theater being this play, in a London production that has been praised to the skies, starring a great actor who also happens to be a family friend?

God was smiling on our family, that’s for sure. A selfie before the show:

I am going to write something separately about the play when I’m back home, but let me just note here that it is electrifying. I was sitting next to my 19-year-old son Matthew, who whispered into my ear at some point, “I’ve got to go to the theater more. This is incredible!” Julie was sitting elsewhere in the theater with the two others, but in the cab home, they talked and talked and talked about the play, its meaning, and Mr. Wendell’s performance.

Mr. Wendell, by the way, burst out of the stage doors, took a photo with us, and as we prepared to say goodbye, he said, “You hungry?” Then he led us across the street to have dinner. He wouldn’t let us treat him, either. He said, “You’re family. Mama wouldn’t like it if I let family come all this way from Louisiana to see me onstage, and me not buy you dinner.” The kids were so, so thrilled by all this. An older gentleman having dinner at a table near us came over with his party on the way out, and identified himself as the manager of an A-list Hollywood director. He complimented Wendell at length on the performance, and said he would reach out to the director to tell him how much he had enjoyed the play. The kids were goggle-eyed. The manager leaned over and said to them, “You’re very lucky” — meaning to be friends with a man as talented as Wendell.

Which was stating the obvious, but it was good for them to hear it.

Like I said, we talked about the play all the way back to our flat in the taxi. By the time we got home, I realized that Wendell Pierce and his cast mates had lit a fire inside my children. They now see what live theater can do — and only live theater can do — and are hungry for more. I would not be surprised if this turns out to be the most lasting legacy of this vacation in England.

Anyway, look, if you’re headed to London, and you can manage to get tickets to Death Of A Salesman, don’t you dare miss it. It’s moving over to the West End in October, and will be there through January 4. Tickets are on sale now. 

We didn’t get home till well after midnight, and we were all glowing. Julie and I made the call that we wouldn’t get up early the next morning and drive ourselves like crazy people to go see this and that. Before leaving home for England, we had imagined that we would spend our one full day in London going to the British Museum, and then down to Westminster Abbey. But we were late to rise, and decided to take it easy. We had a leisurely breakfast at the Marylebone outpost of a Danish bakery chain called Ole & Steen. Their scones are glorious, and so are the seeded rye buns, which you can get with salty Danish butter and cheese:

Marylebone, London, England

After breakfast, we ambled over to the local outpost of Daunt Books, an independent London bookstore that specializes in travel books. According to its Wikipedia page, a former London banker named James Daunt bought the old Edwardian bookshop and revived it. What’s unique about this store — at least the Marylebone one; I don’t know about the others — is that it’s organized by country. So, if you’re interested in books about, say, Germany, you can find both fiction and non-fiction titles in that section.

I was interested in finding titles related to the experiences of Eastern Europeans under Communism. There was so much! I talked to a sales clerk, who was — steady yourself, reader — knowledgeable about and conversant in the literature of the former Soviet bloc. (Turns out she also attends Holy Trinity Brompton.) I can’t remember the last time I shopped at a bookstore and had that kind of conversation with a clerk. It was like walking into a tailor and ordering a bespoke suit, or something. Here’s a look at Daunt Books’s interior from the first floor:

I didn’t want to leave. My daughter Nora and I bought so many books that they gave us a free Daunt Books canvas bag, which Nora now treats as others would regard an Hermès birkin. As we were checking out, I was talking with Jack, behind the counter, about the demise of bookstores. I lamented that even Barnes & Noble looks like it’s going into the rock-bottom remainder stack, given that a hedge fund is buying it.

“Well, this might actually be good news for Barnes & Noble,” said Jack. He explained that Waterstones, a dying bookstore chain in Britain, had been bought by the same hedge fund, who handed over management to none other than James Daunt, the founder of that brilliant little bookstore in Marylebone. Daunt turned around Waterstones, and now, the hedge fund will be turning over B&N to Daunt’s leadership. 

This is fantastic news! If B&N can go from being a blandoid tchotchke emporium to having a selection of titles that might actually surprise and bewitch you, like the Daunt store in Marylebone does, well, we readers are in for good times ahead. Thanks, Jack!


After Daunt, we walked over to the British Museum, where the kids were especially interested in seeing Egyptian artifacts and Greek statuary. One great and unanticipated benefit of having children who are classically educated is that they kept telling their father to slow down, to let them linger over the Greek stuff. I took a photo of Nora in front of the Elgin Marbles, and at her request, e-mailed it on the spot to the headmaster of her school.

It would not have been kind to the kids to have stayed in the museum all day, given that they wanted to do some shopping, so we spent much of the afternoon doing exactly that, ending up at Fortnum & Mason’s down by Piccadilly. (Now that I’m sitting in a Heathrow departure lounge, I regret not buying the Welsh rarebit — which is not, alas, available in the airport Fortnum’s.)

We were home early-ish, but happy to be, because we were all tired. I went to the nearest grocery store to buy bread, cheese, and cold cuts for dinner. I tried to book a car to take us to Heathrow — for a family of five, it was more cost-effective to do that than go to Paddington to take the Heathrow Express — but it turns out that there were none available, anywhere. Royal Ascot is upon London, and it’s hopeless to try to book a car. Fortunately, Uber was able to accommodate us. That settled, we packed at leisure, then went to bed happy.

Julie and I woke up early and headed to breakfast at Ole & Steen, so I could buy some rolls to bring home. The Uber driver came on time, and off we went to the airport. In about an hour, we will board the flight home to New Orleans.

As I’ve said, I will have a lot to blog about from this trip — about religion, culture, conservatism, and the like — and I will probably start rolling those posts out over the weekend. At this farewell to England, I want simply to express how grateful we all are for the many, many kindnesses shown to us by English friends, old and new alike, and by English people. We Americans have so much to be thankful for in the life and history of this wonderful country, Great Britain. Given the reading and television habits of my family, English culture is even more a part of our lives than it otherwise would be. It was such a feast to be here with my children, and to introduce them directly to the joys of Blighty (and some of her pains, too). Thanks, old girl. May there always be a You.



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