At the end of August, 1968, I travelled to London to attend a course for repetiteurs at the London Opera Centre - repetiteurs are a combination of rehearsal pianist, vocal coach, and sometimes conductor. I'd spent the previous two years travelling round New Zealand with the NZ Opera Company and the NZ Opera Quartet, and a professor at the University here suggested I audition for the LOC.
I've been typing up the letters I sent home to my mother, Pat Crowl, from the UK, from 1968 to 1972. For the most part I’m copying them as writ, unless there are things that can do with correcting, and I’ll explain where necessary. I’ve occasionally added in paragraph breaks. I cringe a bit at times at some of the things I say, but I was only 23, fairly naive, and had only travelled previously to Australia. New Zealand at that time was still fairly provincial in its own way, and going to London was a considerable culture-shock.
I left Dunedin for Christchurch on the 29th August, 1968, travelled to Sydney, stayed overnight at the Canberra Oriental Private Hotel, 223 Victoria St, Kings Cross. Left for Rome on the 30th Aug via Jakarta, Singapore, Bangkok and Bahrain. Arrived in Rome on the 31st August and stayed at the Athena Hotel, via Pasquali 3. Left Rome for London on the 2nd Sept, and stayed initially at the Overseas Visitors Club, 180 Earl’s Court Rd,SW5.
First Letter - the letters were all written on aerograms, which allowed only three smallish pages of communication, and were all typewritten apart from the occasional handwritten note.
4th Sept, 68. c/- O.V.C.
Dear old mother, no offence intended, of course, purely affection! Hope you are feeling happy again, and have got over this latest departure. I must confess that in Rome, on the Sunday morning it rather got to me too, and every time I looked in the mirror, I got all miserable, and burst in tears. Not quite sure whether it was the shock of seeing myself there or what, but I wasn’t too bright for a wee while either. Still, haven’t felt like that since, and hope you’re all right too. I did absolutely nothing in Sydney, so I won’t go into any detail about it, except to say that I had breakfast with three boys from Otago Boys High School, who were over there with a group, doing Aussie. It’s a terribly small world. I thought I’d escape that sort of thing here, but, apart from Mike and Kevin [my two best friends, who’d already been in London for some months] turning up at the airport (after a frantic day trying to decide just where I was arriving – there are three airports, and I couldn’t send them a telegram to either of them because it was Aug. Bank Holiday the day I arrived – the 2nd of Sept! – and both of them had given me public addresses to contact them at.) the first person we saw at the OVC was Don McPate, [no idea who this guy was anymore] and then yesterday, while waffling around London with Mike, and Kate Tither [Mike’s older sister, also called Kathleen, or Kathy] we ran into Neville Baird, who’d been at the music school [in Dunedin] one year, and then Anne Murphy and Pat B[ryant] in NZ House – and this in a city of eight million people! [Anne and Pat were on their Big OE; I’d gone to school with Pat and her twin brother. Anne was later headmistress at St Francis Xavier Primary School for a number of years, including the time when some of my children were there.]
The flight from Syd. To Rome was endless, and got to be a terrible drag after a while – there was just nothing to do, and they kept feeding us all the time. When we stopped off at Singapore, I went into the Gents and a little boy turned on the taps to wash my hands, and handed me a towel – I wasn’t sure whether I [was] supposed to tip him, but another guy hadn't so I didn’t. Then in Bangkok, I went in again, and the same thing happened. But as I was walking out, one of the two boys there stops me and sez: Something for me? So I dived into me pocket and brought out an Aussie 5c, and he had the cheek to go Ooooh, in a very disapproving voice! Embarrassing to say the least. [I also had my first experience, in Bahrain, I think, of toilets that consisted of a hole in the floor. I decided to wait until I got back on the plane!]
|Hotel Athena as it is today|
In Rome, it was cool, after all the tropical stopovers, and I was so tired I went straight to bed. That is, when I finally found my hotel. The taxi-drivers were quite convinced there was no such place, and only after a heated Italian discussion did one of them consent to take me to the street to have a look (and then he charged me twice as much as the bloke who took me back [to the airport] on Monday). First we found we were in the wrong street, and then he backed down a little and stopped outside 3. This, as far as I could see was merely another apartment building, but I got out, and the door porter smiled and said, piano, piano, when I showed him the reservation. I thought as he was pointing upstairs that he thought I wanted an apartment room, but [he] was saying on the first floor, as I eventually realised! He took me up however, and ushered me into the Hotel, which was only on the one floor. The night clerk there (whom I later got on quite well with, though he could speak as much English as I can Italian) showed me round to a double room, with a balcony! And which looked fairly presentable, and so I flopped into bed.
The whole thing was a bit of a shock though. I think we imagine that everyone lives exactly like us, and eats the same food, and everything. True, lots of things in Rome were exactly as they are at home (including ads for Firestone Brema!) [I had worked for Firestone for about a year before leaving for the UK] but I really had no conception of the differences. At the beginning I was too nervous to leave my room and get something to eat, and my watch kept stopping with the heat, and it wasn’t until eight that night that I finally bought some oranges and a soft drink. I was dying of thirst but didn’t want to drink the tap water – although it didn’t hurt me in the end - and wasn’t too happy at all. I’d gone for a walk earlier in the day – the hotel was in the middle of the University quarter – but with the combination of the heat, and the lassitude induced by the air trip, I hardly went very far at all. So I slept most of that first day, and finally, so sick of my own company, went out to the desk, where there was a bit of a lounge, and started to read Time. The aforesaid night clerk and I struck up a bi-lingual conversation, and eventually, over a map, and with the aid of a pad and pen, got quite chatty, and sorted out how to get to St Peters and two or three other spots. All this with the aid of considerable mime from him, and furious nods from me – his acting out of the cemetery was a scream! He was a very nice gentle sort of person. Later a Greek came in who could speak a modicum of English, and between the 3 we had a discussion on whether the Vatican should be pulled down and all the gold given the poor or not. (The Greek was Orthodox, we other two Catholics.) Things got so out of control that the Greek was talking Greek to the Italian, and he was talking Italian to me, and we were all somehow understanding. Mad!
Then another Italian came in, joined in the argument and set off a terrific flow of language. They were still going strong when I went to bed. My watch stopped again during the night and so I was late getting up – had breakfast about ten (which didn’t seem to matter) and then went to Mass down the road a little. There was a bride who came in on the dot of 11, but whether she got married or not I never saw nor found out. The Italians treat the Church partly as a social centre, partly as place of worship, partly as a place to show off their clothes, and heaven knows what else. I’ve never seen so much coming and going in all my life. And no one seemed to know when to stand or sit or kneel, so they were all over the place. After that, though I wasn’t feeling too hot (but the weather was) I decided to get away and see San Pietro.
Continues in a second aerogramme....
Part Two. I walked to the Stazione Termini, and caught a 64 Bus, and this took me to the Vatican. But I was in such a daze, from the sun, and my general feeling that I might gone and seen St Joe's at home for all I took in. [St Joseph’s Cathedral in Dunedin.] Every time I looked up my head would spin a bit and when I sat down I thought I’d never get up again. But I did get some impression. It is really fabulous, quite unbelievable, and I saw what the Greek meant when he called it a plain of gold. Not only gold, but marble, stone, everything, stretching in every direction. It’s so massive, that even in a well state, you’d never take it all in. (Michael [Tither] tells me they clean the floors with Vim, which adds a nice homely touch!). I came out, therefore, not long after I’d gone in, but wasn’t going to be beaten and walked around a couple of streets to find the Museum and the Sistine Chapel, but they were closed. This finished me, and I went back to my hotel and slept.
When I got up, the night clerk and a Swiss girl, who was also on reception and had only started that day, were there. She could speak English, and being a most attractive young lady, we had quite a long chat (and some more before I left). She agreed that it took a while to get acclimatised, (I’m not sure how long it was she’d lived there), but reckoned I should have gone in the cooler parts of the day.
Well, I had a meal that night, and Italian food is nothing like what we think Italian food is like. First there was a very thick soup, which was quite edible (I mean that not unkindly), but, and this you’ll not believe, smelt more like vomit (!) than anything else I’ve ever seen on a plate! [It was the Parmesan cheese on the soup that gave it its ‘peculiar’ smell.] Got through that, and was given by the very sullen waiter – Nino – a plate of meat, very seasoned, with extremely cooked greens, and a large side plate of tomatoes and lettuce. This wasn’t too bad, and then, treat of it all, pudding, which was two pears (hard) dunked whole in a little bowl of water. Now, to my way of thinking that’s sheer waste of pear, but I ate it. Well, for the first time in quite a wee while, I felt full and happy. Watched TV for a while, but apart from some marvellous puppet mice (complete with moving eyes, ears, whiskers and mouth), I couldn’t make much out of it all. Oh, yes, saw the end of a Flipper episode, and the little boy’s Italian dubbed voice was ten times better than the squeaky one that is his own. (It was ten times sillier in Italian.)
Next morning, since I had a fair while to fill in – the plane was leaving an hour later than I had on the ticket, I decided to go to St Peters again, and see it properly, in the cool. Well, this time I went up the Cupola, which, to save a 100 lire (all of 15c) nearly killed me, because I walked, and it’s to the top of St P., and it’s very high. It’s not just steps, but a revolving type spiral, for ages. However, it was worth it, though my legs have still not recovered!, and the view is out of this world. (Italy has the softest look, country-wise, I’ve ever seen.) Then just to do the deed thoroughly, I went with a group of Germans, and couple of Spaniards, and Italians up to the very top. What a climb! Fabulous view.
By this time it was getting on, but I got back to the hotel, and eventually out to the airport without any bother. The Alitalia airlines aren’t a patch on the ANZ [Air New Zealand] and QANTAS (which seem to be the same). Their service is not the best, the meal was pretty uninteresting, though chicken, and everything looks tatty. [Chicken was still something of a luxury at this time in NZ.] And the pilot, typically the Italian driver, landed with a great bump and squeak. The Itals can never drive at a moderate 30 – they did 60 or 70 past my room all the time, in a narrow street, vaguely two-laned on either side, and even the buses and trucks roared down there. What a job too to remember which side they’re coming at you from when you’re crossing over.
Well, I arrived in London quite safely, and though it took me ages to get the big case (it had arrived earlier after all) – I said to the bloke at the baggage enquiries that I’d been waiting about 15 mins for it to come after the other one had, and he quite cheerfully sez, only 15 minutes? The customs man seemed quite sorry that I had nothing at all to declare, and reckoned I was going to have a pretty quite time! (Ah, England!)
Well, when we arrived at the OVC, Kevin went off to get cleaned up, and Mike and I just sat and talked. They’ve neither of them changed a bit – some different ideas, but the same mannerisms, and everything. Kevin is engaged to the girl I think I told you about, and it looks quite serious. This time, Mike had decided to shout us both to Rigoletto at the new Sadlers Wells theatre (an old one done up) and we sat in the upper circle – the fourth from the ground. Could see though.
The orch was fabulous, but apart from the girl singing Gilda, the cast was uninspiring, and so was the production. I still think the NZ cast was the best I’ve seen in this opera. [I don’t mention the fact that when the baritone singing Rigoletto began one of his arias, which starts with a long note, unaccompanied, he was flat, and when the orchestra came in there was an audible collision.]
We caught the tube there and back and it’s quite an easy system really. Yesterday, Mike and I met in NZ House, and then did a walking tour of a lot of the surrounding are. Covered a tremendous amount really, and gave me quite a look around – Soho (!), Westminster area, St James Park, Covent Garden, and everything in between. [It’s a little ironic of me to put an exclamation mark beside Soho. A year or so later I was working in the middle of it, as a cashier in a blue cinema.] It’s all surprisingly handy to itself, if you see what I mean. We go to Piccadilly Circus from Earls Court, and it all just falls into place from there. And it doesn’t seem that much of a walk, although my feet were killing me by the time Kate and I went to tea. We then went to see a film which since it’s a foreign one won’t go to the suburbs, where it would be cheaper to see. The live theatre here is very cheap if you don’t mind sitting up in the gods. Only a few bob.
My lady who does me room has just been; she doesn’t look like the usual cleaning lady, but she talks like one, with her loves, and no aitches, etc. There was a South African boy in here on the first night, and a Dutchman, but the former has left. It’s not a single room, so it may be cheaper.
Lots of love, Michael.