There’s a fascinating tool available on the internet. It’s called Google Earth and you can download it (free!) at http://earth.google.com.
Google Earth is a graphical database of the world’s geography. You begin by looking at the world as if you're in outer space, then by typing in addresses or postal codes and hitting enter, you fly from space and zoom into a satellite photograph of whatever neighbourhood you’ve selected. The beauty of Google Earth is that you can look north or south, east or west, tilt and rotate the 3D view to see the terrain and buildings changing your vantage point from bird’s eye to almost as if you were on the ground or driving around the streets.
I began by zooming around London.
I can’t stop thinking of London.
Even before Thursday’s deadly explosions in the underground at three separate locations and the subsequent bombing of the double decker bus near Tavistock Square, London has been on my mind.
It always is more or less, after all, it’s my favourite city in the world and the scene of many, many deeply meaningful memories. Memories that include people I love beyond all measure, people who are lost to me forever. No one lost in this latest hideous terrorist attack, but lost all the same, though those places and the remembrances they almost physically contain are still there.
So I zoom in by Google Earth to the place in London I remember most vividly, though not most recently, to Albert Court, directly behind the Royal Albert Hall in SW7, my family’s home for a couple of years in the early seventies.
Albert Court was built in the 1890’s by order of Queen Victoria purportedly to house the lesser members of the Royal Court – the dukes and duchesses, lords and ladies, earls and countesses and viscounts and their similarly titled ilk who would live in white-trimmed red brick splendour adrift on a virtual sea of buildings and statues and stone likenesses of her beloved husband the Prince Consort Albert, originally Prince of Saxe Coburg-Gotha and eternal possessor of her broken widow’s heart.
Besides the domed concert hall, eponymous flats and statuary in the immediate vicinity, right across the street you can find the Albert Memorial tucked (hardly) away in Kensington Gardens. It’s Albert-palooza in that part of the city – just minutes away from the Victoria and Albert Museum, just steps away from Prince Consort Road.
It’s gorgeous is what it is, and we were lucky enough to live there for a few years – and all I can wish now is that teenagers were more deeply capable of appreciation, less apt to accept every extraordinary occurrence and opportunity as no more than their due. Might as well expect Her Late Royal Highness’s favoured pugs to fly, or for Queen Victoria herself to lift her voluminous black skirts and dance the Watusi down Exhibition Road.
My father was an international banker – the top man in the International Division for the Toronto Dominion Bank. A story in and of himself (high school drop-out to bank president, PLUS he taught Frank Sinatra how to sing and Fred Astaire to dance – amazing when you think they would have had to travel all the way from Hollywood to Winnipeg for instruction, and dad still in diapers too!) he had already taken us from Montreal to Toronto to the Bahamas to England (living in Sevenoaks, a small town outside London) then back to Toronto, before returning to London for a second go ‘round in the financial capital of the world.
It remains true to this day, so far as I can tell, that only the oil rich and the bankers can afford to live in luxury in London/Paris/New York, and that was certainly how we achieved our address in SW7. Though I think he made a fair wage as VP of the TD, the real dough was in the non-taxable assets we chalked up by living abroad. Home, cars, schools, expenses – all were covered by the bank. He may have paid for a tooth pick every now and then, though probably not for the dinner that occassioned its use, but if there was a way to legally expense an item or find the tax situation most beneficial to his circumstances, you can be absolutely sure (take it to the bank-style) that he would find it.
(He was dead honest – would have considered cheating on his taxes on par with armed robbery – but I understand it was some of his creative, though entirely legal interpretations of certain tax shelters that were the reason for widespread changes in those laws in years to follow.)
I didn’t know anything of banks – I just knew we lived in a palace.
Albert Court is enormous and shares the crenellated styling and wedding-cakey architecture of the nearby Albert Hall. With a wide stone ballustraded entrance approached from an extraordinary centre courtyard, the ‘mansion flats’ were eye-poppingly luxurious. Our flat (reached by extravagantly outfitted bird cage elevator complete with velvet upholstered couch) was on the second floor and covered well over 4000 square feet. From the red carpeted entrance hall, to my brother’s bedroom at the furthest end of the farthest hall, was a good three minute walk from the front door. Clearly designed for the servanted set, the kitchen was almost as far away from the dining room, which was located next to the 41 foot long living room (reception room) whose balcony overlooked the Artist’s Entrance of the Albert Hall. (We did see Frank Sinatra exit once – with neither tip of hat, nor acknowledgment to his teacher. Typical!)
The flat was on three levels – my sister had the below-stairs suite originally designated for the maid; I coveted her little apartment with a fervour heretofore reserved for ponies and bras – and was built on the two upper levels around a central well within the building, thereby providing windows with natural light for rooms located on the inside of the flat. Even if those windows only looked upon the bedroom windows of the neighbouring neighbours.
(Thought there was virtually no to-ing and fro-ing between the flats in the well, it was across the airshaft where I met neighbour Tatum O’Neil,living temporarily in London with her father while he was shooting Barry Lyndon, just shortly after she won the Academy Award for Paper Moon. The O’Neil’s are another story for another time – a time when I’ve brushed up on current slander laws and libel statutes. Interesting story though…)
All too quickly we became accustomed and even blasé living in the style of the privileged. And when I say ‘we’, I mean my brother and sister and I; my mum remained resolutely thrilled to bits. My dad just worked.
I was much more impressed with the homes of some of my schoolmates – an intriguing group of strangers I met while attending The Dwight Franklin International School, a warehouse for the children of foreign nationals. A potential breeding ground for further spoilage and elevated self-opinions, but interestingly, actually, a safe place for the disenfranchised and shy to reach out and make contact with others similarly inclined. Or disinclined. Depending.
And that’s part two of this particular zoom-in from outer space: another dot on the map of London – a location reached by going underground (not accessible from Google Earth) traveling from South Kensington on the Piccadilly Line to Leicester Square (three stops short of Russell Square, four short of King’s Cross) then changing to the Northern Line, traveling all the way up to Mornington Crescent, then a hop, skip and a doddle (plus a cigarette – Silk Cut – shared with one or two friends) from the tube station to the converted Workingman’s College which taught working class adults at night and the children of business class gypsies during the day.
Dwight Franklin: the pairing of two American high schools to create a foreign specialty school that combined all the easiest elements of the British curriculum with the least taxing courses within the American version. Result: holiday for two years!
More later… if you’re so inclined…