Tuesday, September 23, 2014

this old house

Our last full day in London was devoted to houses. 

Well, really only one house.  A big house.  But I decided to pad out the essay with a broader topic.  Housing in London.

I have already talked about how expensive housing in southern England can be.  As you know, I almost moved here in 1989 to take a law job with an entertainer.  When I started looking around for accommodations in London, I was amazed that anyone could live here.

I still am.  After we returned from our cruise, we walked over to Shepherd Market for lunch.  On a street corner, a notice was posted advertising a 5 bedroom home for rent.

Admittedly, we were in the middle of Mayfair -- as was the house.  But, it is hard for me to wrap my head around paying the equivalent of almost $5,000 (US) for a rental.  Terrace or not. 

In one year, my rent would be more than what I am paying for my four bedroom house in Barra de Navidad.  Of course, it would still be in Barra de Navidad, and not in London.

There were several other houses on offer, but no prices were listed.  Where the price should have been, the notices read: "Price on application."  I think that translates into American English as: "If you have to ask the price, you cannot afford it."

Patti pointed out a number of young men in Selfridges who were looking at shoes with £1,200 price tags, about $2,000 (US), were all wearing similar shoes.  They were not merely browsing.  I suspect they (or their families) were the people who live in such digs.

The rentals in the less elegant area of Marylebone are closer to my price range.  But they would still be a stretch.

Interested in a 3-bedroom?  Furnished, mind you.  A bit cramped.  I can give it to you at £1,350.  A week, that is.  By now, you can probably do your own conversions, but that is about $2,200 (US).  A week.  Slightly more than the cost of a pair of Italian-made shoes.

Or, if you really want to economize, perhaps you would like to settle for a two-bedroom flat.  Once again, it comes furnished.  For the incredibly reasonable price of £825.  

Yes, it is the weekly rate, but $1,400 (US) a week is a bargain for an American.  Well, maybe if you are comparing apartments with the lower east side of Manhattan.

Because estate agents are a crafty lot, they have posted several homes that are a bit "out of the area."  It may be difficult to see the prices, but they run from £350,000,000 to £5,8000,000.

I won't even bother converting them.  They are all in Monaco, one of the world's most expensive housing markets.  Either the estate agents are posting these prices to make £3,000 a week look like low-cost housing -- or they simply know their market: people who will rent expensive houses in Mayfair are the type of people who buy incredibly expensive houses in Monaco.

Well, I am not part of that crowd.  My type of accommodation is posted at the top of this essay.

It is my room at the Green Park Hilton.  When I walked in, I swear the bed was still warm from the Little Sisters of the Poor nun who vacated her cell to make room for me.

Small though it is (and it made me nostalgic for my cruise ship cabin), it had everything I needed for these four days in London.

And that brings me to the central topic of this essay.

When I lived here in the 1970s, the only way that an ordinary bloke could get inside Buckingham Palace was to scale the walls.*  And several did.  It was the private residence and office of the monarch -- and has been since Queen Victoria moved in in 1837 to hatch her brood.

That changed in 1993.  In an attempt to raise funds for the repair of the palace, the Queen opened the palace for the 60 summer days the royal family spends on holiday at Balmoral in Scotland.

Traditionalists were appalled.  The palace was one of the few places where the royal family could wall itself off from the hoi polloi.

It has turned out to be a public relations home run.  The Queen stumbled badly with her initial response to the death of the former princess Diana.  That snafu tied with several other minor royal scandals had many British talking about turfing out the whole Windsor lot and turning the sceptered isle into a republic.

To walk through the palace with the Queen's subjects (and hordes of shorts-clad tourists) is to witness a political miracle.

Certainly, all of the glitz and pageantry is there.  Everything that makes the magic of monarchy work. 

And, of course, there is the history.  To walk through the state rooms open to the public is to feel the patina of two centuries of empire.  Even after the empire is dead and gone.

But that was not the miracle.  The Windsors are a wily lot.  To hide their German roots, they filled their palaces with references to their Stuart lineage -- and jettisoned their very Germanic family name.

That is child's play compared to what you can now see in the palace.  The place is filled with photographs of royal children.  Four rooms are dedicated to films and museum displays of what it is like to be a royal child.  To be just like every other child -- just a lot better.**

In the throne room, British grannies crowd around three photographs of various generations of Windsors.  Bony, arthritic fingers point out faces from the royal past and present while completely ignoring the art and furniture of royal power.

American presidents could probably learn a thing or two from Betty and Phil.  I suspect many an American visitor to Washington, DC wishes that tumbrels could be filled with occupants of the White House -- past and present. 

Not so in this old house.  I suspect that plenty of Scots, even after last week's big battle, feels a personal kinship to the queen who has more than a bit of Scot blood.  That is because she is probably the sole symbol that holds the English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish together in their United Kingdom.

The Queen (and this house) are more than a mere tourist attraction (though the palace does have a heavy scent of Disney about it).  They are a symbol of what holds four diverse nations together in one state.

Twenty years ago, I would not have bet a dollar on the British monarchy surviving another decade.  And now?  If this visit is any gauge, the royal house that William I brought across the channel in 1066 may outlast the American republic.


* -- During an extended reserve duty tour, I was fortunate enough to join some embassy staff in attending one of the Queen's garden parties.  I have almost no independent memory of the event.  I suspect my republican sentiments clouded my memory.
** -- I apologize that I cannot share any photographs of the rooms, furniture, and. most importantly, art collection in the palace.  It is another of those no-camera experiences that are becoming far too common.  But you can see all of that on online.  Here is one example.

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