“London goes beyond any boundary or convention. It contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London.”
– PETER ACKROYD, London: The Biograph
Welcome to London on Day 12 of the Blogging A to Z April Challenge. I spent a week in London in August, 1992 while I was “backpacking through Europe” (but mostly based in Heidelberg). Clearly, I don’t know much about London at all. Moreover, I have absolutely pathetic map-reading skills. So, even if I knew the place, I’d still get us lost.
Yet, forging ahead under the stressful demands of the A-Z Challenge, I still had to come up with the goods. So, for awhile there, I was longing for the foolhardiness of youth, where you can know absolutely nothing about a subject, and yet still present yourself as a fully-fledged expert.
So, rather than taking you on an actual tour of London, I decided to focus on what London meant as a cultural epicentre for generations of Australians who went there to get their big break. These included the likes of Dame Edna, the Unmentionable, Clive James and Germaine Greer. It also included my grandmother, concert pianist Eunice Gardiner, who was awarded a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, and became part of this cultural exodus.
Eunice Gardiner was born on the 24th February, 1918. At the age of 16, she won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. However, the scholarship didn’t include her living expenses. An enthusiastic fundraising effort was launched, led by Lady Gordon and supported by pianist Frank Hutchens. These efforts culminated in a Testimonial Concert at the Sydney Town Hall on the 6th June, 1935 where she performed Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata and works by Liszt. There was never any question of Eunice travelling to London alone. Indeed, her father said he’d “rather throw her to the sharks in Sydney Harbour”. So, on the 3rd December, 1935 she set off with her mother on board the Esperance Bay. Four months later, her father died of a heart attack back in Australia, giving some idea of the incredible personal sacrifices performers and their families made to pursue their careers in London. You couldn’t have a foot in both camps.It was all or nothing, and for many that also included their sanity and their very soul.
Eunice and her mother lived in London for around four years. During this time she performed for the Queen (who we know as the Queen Mother), her hands appeared in the movie Black Eyes and she also had a regular spot performing on BBC TV which came to an abrupt end, when the BBC shut down as soon as war was declared (humph sounds a bit too familiar during this coronacrisis!!)
Press coverage of her time in London on her return reported:
“The highlight of her tour occurred when she played before Queen Elizabeth at a private reception at the home of Lord and Lady Howard de Walden; the function was arranged by Miss Macdonald of the Isles for students and Empire visitors. Miss Gardiner said the Queen was extremely charming , and complimented her on her playing and choice of music. Broadcasting, televising and film work have also come within Miss Gar-diner’s ambit. Miss Gardiner’s film experience was a strange one, as she did not appear on the screen, and her name was not even mentioned. She .provided the music for Mary Maguire in a film entitled Black Eyes, in which Mary, who was supposed to be learning the piano, was playing badly at first, and a three-minute shot was taken of Miss Gardiner’s hands as she played. At first she found she was not playing badly enough for the part ! In the same film she also provided music which the music master was ostensibly playing. In London. Miss Gardiner, said, the midday concerts arranged by Myra Hess at the National Gallery were extremely popular, and only one shilling was charged. Miss Gardiner played at one of these concerts only the day before she left England.” 1.
Eunice and her mother returned to Sydney on the 23rd March, 1940 partly to escape the war, but also because Eunice was under contract to the A.B.C. for three months, and would be touring Australia with the famed English conductor, Sir Thomas Beeeham.
When my grandmother returned to Australia, I doubt she had any idea of just how long it was going to take to get back to London. Indeed, a full decade had passed. Although she’d planned to go to London in 1948 on her way home from a 12 month stint in New York, a bout of appendicitis and consequent surgery, destroyed those plans.
Of course, there were regrets. London was LONDON.
Eunice returned to London in April 1951 as a music critic for Australian Consolidated Press, and she was one of only two Australian journalists covering the opening of the Festival of Britain. She was away for three months, and I should also point out that at this point of time, she was married with four children and her mother back home in Australia. I clearly remember her telling me when she was well into her 80’s, how much she loved being spoiled over there. She specifically mentioned having a doorman to open the door for her at the hotel, which clearly didn’t happen as mum back home. As much as she loved her children, she was incredibly driven by her love of music, her career as a pianist and was never one to simply be absorbed by osmosis into domesticity. She ultimately ended up with seven children, and these tensions stayed with her for life, and possibly even beyond the scope of her failing memory. It was never an easy balance.
By comparison, my trip to London seems rather trite. I was only there for a week, and I was only doing touristy things. So, my time in London lacks the gravitas of my time in Paris, which still resonates almost thirty years later.
In recent years, for me London has become associated with my long-term blogging friend, Geoff Le Pard. I’ve thorough enjoyed his tours of London mostly with Dog. He would clearly do a much better job of guiding you around London. Indeed, a few years ago, we were looking at doing a joint blogging tour of London, after I found an old letter in a London guidebook. I’ve been thinking with the current travel bans, we should resurrect this project and see how far we can take it. After all, it is a rather quirky story of an Australian and an Englishman who’ve never met retracing the footsteps of a mysterious Australian tourist who visited London back in the 1960’s or thereabouts.
Above: Photos Geoff Le Pard.
Anyway, I thought I’d share a few links to Geoff’s posts. Firstly, Geoff and Dog went on their Thames Bridge Walk, from Putney to Tower Bridge. I also love his posts covering London’s street art and thought you might enjoy: Street Art in Shoreditch.
There’s much more of London on Geoff’s blog. However, I’ll have to leave you to it. Daylight is rapidly fading and it’s been a few days since I’ve been on a walk. With all this social isolation, I’ve been going a bit stir crazy as soon as the typing stops.
Have you ever been to London and have something to share? Or, perhaps you call London home. I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
- Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), Thursday 21 March 1940, page 4