One magical Christmas in 1967 my life was about to be forever changed. I underwent a transformation myself although it did not become permanent. Ten months later in September of 1968 anyone who heard me speak might have believed that I had grown up in South Kensington. Indeed I was such a curiosity to the other nine and ten year old boys and girls it became a source of some embarrassment. I quickly reverted to my natural Southern California drawl.
My father had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the astronomical sum of $5,000. Being a tenured professor, he was also due for a sabbatical. The family had just spent the night near Los Angeles International Airport a few days before Christmas and witnessed the rarest of Southern California snowfalls. Snow had fallen in the beach communities of San Diego, La Jolla and environs and on up the coast, even sifting down onto the desert sands east of the mountains. To my knowledge it was the only time it snowed on the beaches in the last century.
And so we celebrated my ninth Christmas in frosty London town. The windows of the shops and the vast department store displays of toys presented a child’s wonderland to the eye. English dinners in the lower level of the hotel were punctuated with Christmas poppers and readings from Dickens’s, “A Christmas Carol,” as each family member would read a few pages or a chapter.
My sister and I were to complete the school year with the little Cockney children in South Kensington whilst father shared the fruits of his satellite experiment research into the Earth's magnetosphere with the venerable physicists of the Imperial College. Mother had taken us children to Harrod's and Selfridges to buy appropriate clothing for the mild London winter. For the sunnier days she had bought me short wool trousers and tall knee socks. That wouldn't have been so bad, but I had a great bright yellow rain slicker that looked like it had been issued by a fire department.
My first day in Year Four at the Bousfield Primary School I caused quite a stir being the first Yankee to show up that year. My costume didn't help me much either. I was dressed like Edmund, Peter or Eustace Scrubb of the Chronicles of Narnia. The kids at school more resembled miniatures of the rougher types found in, "To Sir with Love." It was the rain slicker, however, that put me over the top. As I struggled to remove it, I remember my wonderfully jolly teacher crying with exuberance, "Smashing!"
It did provide me a wonderful introduction. It was the grandest experiment of my young life. I remember so vividly each child. My Italian friend Giulio who told me about the lakes in Italy. Thomas and Arthur who taught me the finer points of football which we played in the yard every day. The little boy from Helsinki. A boy from Israel who looked like a portrait I had seen in a children’s book entitled, “The Story of Painting.” I’m sure most readers have seen this picture in Janson’s History of Art. I made a true friend in Michael Boyce who lived with his family in a long, narrow flat. The girls were forever skipping rope or playing jacks. And the girls! I was in heaven. The disarmingly coquettish Miranda. The tall Lorraine with her luxurious long tresses. But I only had eyes for Emily. I loved her secretly. By some time in May she had discovered my crush. She made up a game wherein she would catch my eye, smile quite sweetly and then run away into a crowd of girls disappearing completely.
This was London in 1968, when Andrew Lloyd Webber was still a young hipster. It was some swinging times. Heady. Austin Powers stuff. Hippies with bell bottoms and hair down to their waists. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” came out that year. “Hey There Georgie Girl!” Oh how we loved riding the double decker buses to Picadilly Square or Oxford Street. Children usually had to stand up and grab a pole or a strap. I remember one elderly lady who would bang her cane against the floor of the bus whenever the centripetal acceleration caused me to lean in too close to her. Our tube stop was the station at Gloucester Square. We were renting a flat on Ashburn Place. On the tube I surreptitiously studied people’s faces as they were reflected in the bright windows with the dark bricks of the tunnels as background. I recall my astonishment riding deep down into the very bowels of Olde London to reach the lowermost lines that ran through the Brompton Road Station. The quick taxi rides only seemed to cost a few bob or a half crown. Even the money was fun and easy to calculate as one pound sterling equaled $2.40 U.S. So a penny was a penny, a shilling was twelve cents, a half crown was thirty cents. But the pennies were the size of half dollars. I collected as many years as I could find. The oldest bore the likeness of the aged Victoria and was dated 1907. I even found a Scottish silver shilling with King George VI.
I kept a journal, but it had precious few entries. Instead I used it as a sketchbook. I drew marvellous studies of the London hippies who must have been growing their hair since at least 1964. I particularly enjoyed sketching the English cars. The British VW, the Morris Minor. The longitudinal, expansive bonnets of the Bentleys. For some reason I enjoyed drawing the large, upper case “L” appearing in the windows which denoted, “Learner.”
One fine day, we took a bus out to the countryside and I learned that the rural buses were a lovely shade of British Racing Green. I still remember a footpath which travelled through four distinct meadows. The mad colors, fresh grasses and many flowers tug at my memory as I wish to discover such a place again. One of the English astrophysicists lived a train ride outside of London in Reading where I was treated to a sled ride. Even the trains were wondrous with the private compartments of six armchair size seats with fresh linen for the back of your head and a carafe of water by the window. In another enjoyable visit to a house in the country I found endless fascination before bed in reading the madness of, “Punch,” magazine. The English, “New Yorker,” if you will. Antiques were another source of pleasure. I bought copies of, “The Illustrated London Times,” from the 1860s. We visited Spink and Sons where I bought some King George VI farthings and silver threepences, as well as coins from ancient Rome.
The biggest change it made in my life was a superior knowledge of football, or soccer as we call it. It was just beginning to catch on in California in the 1970s. It was an edge that I used to advantage. I loved to play halfback or goalie. As a halfback I had the run of the entire field. I never could dribble with the finesse and control my little chums displayed those ten years ago, but I could move the ball safely down the field and pass it or kick a goal. As a goalie I was fierce. One particularly strong player was barreling down on me undefended. It looked like he had a powerful shot all lined up. I spun around and the ball hit me square in the arse and flew about forty feet.