Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Pepys and Pelicans

Up betimes, and after an hour spent composing, I travelled to Westminster to meet the heavily pregnant Raily, her son (my godson) Will and Sam, the composer. I thought it would be interesting to spend a day milling around the places Pepys was haunting 350 years ago. Secretly I was hoping we might catch a glimpse of his ghost, rushing along Whitehall, but sadly this wasn't to be.

We started the day in Westminster Hall. A little treat I’d organised with the Sergeant at Arms in the Houses of Parliament. What an astonishing building it is, and how sad that it’s no longer accessible for members of the public. The hammerbeam roof is a feat of engineering which seems more Victorian than Plantagenet! I stood for a while on the steps looking across the giant empty space, at the beams of dusty wintry light hitting the cold stone floor, trying to imagine the hall filled to the rafters with noise, stalls and shops; orange and pamphlet sellers, musicians wandering to and fro. Almost impossible to comprehend in the whispered silence of 2010.

My godson, Will, was incredibly well behaved, and took an interest in every statue, plaque and piece of stained glass. At just 4 years old, and probably more through luck, he managed to date the building to within 100 years, which impressed me and the passing policewoman beyond words.

More excitingly our visit didn't cost us a penny. Something I’m sure Dear Sam would have approved of mightily, having done his accounts 350 years ago today to discover he was only worth a disappointing 40l. What he might have disapproved of, however, was the high level of security in the building, which had moved on considerably from when I worked there as a tour guide in the 1990s. The countless checks were somewhat intimidating, but I suppose a necessary evil, and indeed, the policemen very kindly allowed Will to sit and watch the bags passing through the X-ray machine. Apparently, a highlight of his day.

350 years ago, Pepys was walking in St James' Park, a deer park in those days. He was there until it got dark, accompanied by the wonderfully nicknamed Monsieur L’Impertinent. 350 years later, we were doing the same thing, stopping off briefly at Horseguard’s Parade to glance towards the back of Downing Street, the area where Pepys’ Axe Yard home had been situated.

I presented Wills with the recorder I’d bought him for Christmas and he sat on a bench and played us a little tune; well, more of a selection of screeches and whistles which I’m not sure would have sounded better had he been able to play the instrument. Afterwards we asked him what his improvised composition was called and he replied; "A Tune of Maids", which felt joyously appropriate. I imagined Nell Gwyn in her smock sleeves and bodice hopping about with the pelicans. Wills certainly has a way with words, and for such a young lad is really enjoying the concept of language, much encouraged by his parents, both of whom are historians. He’s recently become obsessed with old English myths and legends and was recently put into the naughty corner at playschool for telling an irritating classmate that he was going to “cut him to the bone”. Wonderful!

After lunch in Covent Garden, we went to the Portrait Gallery and I was thrilled to see the faces of, amongst others, General Monck, that rakish John Evelyn, the oleaginous Charles 2nd and a flurry of his mistresses including pretty witty Nell, resplendent in her theatre makeup and Pepys’ pin-up, the lady Castlemayne, looking every bit the epitome of womanhood.

And then there he was. Lower on the wall than I’d expected. Watery eyed and staring smugly, his hand grasping a copy of Beauty Retire, which was curiously painted in G minor instead of D minor like the version I have. Pepys obviously had a freakishly high singing voice! I found the experience very moving and stared at him for some time, wondering what he’d make of all this madness.

It was Pepys-the-turncoat who signed off the diary entry on 17th February 1660. He ended the day in a bar, toasting the health of Charles II. The King who was today sharing a wall in the National Portrait Gallery with that lowly clerk.

...Walking with the pelicans in St James' Park.

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