We arrive in London on a glorious morning (Scout’s honour) with Londoners in a mild state of preparation and celebration, for mild is the human condition Londoners do best. Perhaps it’s the spirit of the Blitz, stiff upper lip and all, as our arrival coincides with the 70th anniversary of VE Day – Victory over Europe and the extirpation of Hitlerism and Nazism. Being married to a Londoner – a Cockney whose father as a child endured the terrifying nights of the Blitz – the timing is serendipitous. Within no time we are motoring down the Mall, a soul-stirring sight for the boulevard is flanked in stereo by rows of fluttering Union Jacks leading to Buckingham Palace. I can’t help but smile as I think of Sydney’s cheerleader Republican in red bandana.
The day we arrive, the local broadsheet features on page 2 a striking photograph of Our Cate, bedecked in a figure-hugging emerald frock and Mona Lisa smile, as she watches an Aboriginal man conduct a smoking ceremony. The caption (provocatively? hilariously?) reads: ‘Going green: Cate Blanchett, the actress, attends the opening ceremony of the Australian pavilion at the Venice Biennale arts exhibition, where a man covered in white paint burnt herbs as a piece of performance art’. White paint? Performance art? I ponder the hashtag outrage in the Twitterverse had the caption been published back home.
London beckons for three reasons, one of which is research for a new book I’m writing. Also, the recently retired Chairman of the Royal Society of St George has invited us to the society’s annual post-AGM dinner, held at Founder’s Hall, Number One Cloth Fair. Full disclosure: the retired chairman is my father-in-law. However. Society dinners are solid occasions, especially for the Londoner who takes his Londonness seriously. Membership of the society insists on the singular aim to bolster an unashamed love of England and all that’s great about her, a concept so out of kilter with the faltering EU across the Channel as to be utterly perfect. Our beautifully embossed pour memoire reminds us that the dress code for the night is dark lounge suits for him (there is no helpful hint for her), and that carriages will arrive at 10pm. The event begins in the courtyard of the Priory Church of St Bartholomew The Great, a flint stone church that withstood the ravages of the Great Fire of London and, only just, the ravages of the cruelly nicknamed Duckface after Hugh Grant ditched her at its altar in Four Weddings And A Funeral.
London is a city of tradition and one of ours is to stay at a quaint family affair known as The Goring, run by the fourth generation Goring, Jeremy. Young (it’s all relative), delightfully eccentric and accidentally handsome, Goring is a hybrid blend of English reserve turbo-charged with Barnum and Bailey, equally at home with royalty (more of that later), celebrity, and the non-entity (us). The Goring is steeped in tradition like a perfectly brewed English Breakfast tea. You leave your boots outside your door for polishing overnight, eat kippers for breakfast, and partake of a witching hour Ballantine’s in the 24-hour bar catering to in-house guests and their guests.
From London we head north to attend the exclusive annual reunion dinner of the 617 Squadron Aircrew Association, better known as the Dambusters Squadron. For those who know their history and more particularly those who don’t, this is the Squadron of daring young airmen who pulled off the most celebrated and ingenious raid over enemy territory in World War II. Of the 132 men who embarked on the death-defying mission to destroy the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams in Germany’s industrial and military heartland of the Ruhr, 56 failed to return. Three were taken prisoners of war; 53 were killed. Today, just two Dambusters survive – both men in their 90s, in Canada and England. Kiwi pilot Les Munro died peacefully this week. Only the marvelously sprightly bomb aimer George ‘Johnny’ Johnson, the last British Dambuster, attends the reunion at the Petwood Hotel, which served as the Officers’ Mess for the squadron in the last two years of the war. Johnson, the unrivalled star of the event, is rascally and flirty, not to mention a vision splendid in black tie with his left chest humbly covered in a swag of medals. I tell him it’s an honour to meet him: he tells me he’s honoured we’ve come from Australia and reminds me never to forget the sacrifices made by the men of Bomber Command, of whom 55,573 died fighting for freedom during the course of the war. I shan’t. Ever.
The Royal Parks are huge tourist attractions and stamped on footpaths at every turn are my two new most favourite words – No Cycling. Sandwich boards also warn cyclists that lunatics in Lycra are not welcome. In the city where Boris Bikes rule, this is a rolled gold snub to pedal power and I make a mental note to send a photograph to the cycle queen of Sydney, Clover Moore.
Speaking of Queens, ours joins us on our last night for a drink at The Goring. Seriously! The hotel has a Royal Warrant and every year for the past eight has hosted the late Queen Mother’s Castle of Mey charity event. My husband immediately spies the familiar visage tootling through the throng at shoulder height. ‘Are you sure it’s her,’ I ask? Harumph. ‘I’ve been licking the back of her head since I was a child. Of course, it’s her.’ And it is. The Queen mingles with guests without fanfare and unlike a Presidential or Prime Ministerial visit, the security is as low key as the Queen is relaxed. This is, after all, England. Once again I think of the red bandana back home and smile.
Sandra Lee is a journalist, and author of 18 Hours and Saving Private Sarbi.