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The Grand Tour

Poster for 'Writing Making Your Mark' exhibition at The British Library

The Writer has not been in Residence in the Cairngorms this week but gallivanting down through the capital cities on a Grand Tour. The Pilgrim has digressed. It all began on Monday in Edinburgh with a day of meetings with the Society of Authors in Scotland team, joined by our SoA CEO (don’t you love acronyms!) and our Development Manager. There’s an exciting new plan ahead for supporting authors in Scotland, so watch this space.

On the way to the meetings I couldn’t resist taking this snap of the Romanes & Paterson tea-room on Princes’ Street. In the summer of 1992, while on the iconic Aussie year-out-round-the-world-trip, I worked as a waitress here for three weeks. Eating discounted cream cakes every day, I bought my first kilt in the shop downstairs and fell deeper in love with this country and my new boyfriend. The kilt no longer fits, but the boyfriend is now husband and Scotland home.

Romanes & Paterson tearoom, Edinburgh

That night I was supposed to be hopping onto the Caledonian Sleeper with him in Kingussie, bound for London, but because of the Edinburgh meetings, thought I would simply join him when the train came through at midnight. Nothing simple about it. The train doesn’t officially take on passengers at that hour, but thanks to the kindness of staff on the train and at Waverley, they spirited me on board at 12.30, gave me a drink and eventually reunited me with hubby when the Inverness carriages were shunted on at 1.45 am!

This wasn’t great for beauty sleep for the Grand Day Out of the following day: a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace. We did grab a snooze at the home of our lovely friends in London, who have strong Cairngorms connections and always look after us well. My role in the SoA was the occasion for the invite to the Palace and the trigger for scouring charity shops and friends’ wardrobes for a hat!

Merryn & Alistair arriving at Garden Party at Buckingham Palace
Thanks to Highland Hospice Charity Shop, Aviemore

Getting off the bus at Hyde Park there was no missing the long queue of other palace-goers in full plumage like a flock of migrating birds, twittering and giggling. The day was gloriously sunny, though as an Aussie brought up in South Asia I can’t concur with the journalist who described the 21 degrees as ‘blistering heat’! We arrived through the grand front entrance and on arrival in the gardens were herded into waiting areas by the Queen’s body guard with their rolled umbrellas, who looked very dapper in top hat and tails but not quite equipped for a security crisis.

 Yeoman of the Guard in Buckingham Palace garden
Love the shoes!

After a long wait, the Yeoman of the Guard appeared, looking like characters from Alice in Wonderland and equally ill-equipped, and after a longer wait, a posse of royals: Her Majesty the Queen, Will & Kate, and a handful of others. (I confess I don’t really know my Eugenies from my Beatrices.) Whoever it was, they were a long way off, so I rapidly decided our chances of royal hob-nobbing were minimal but our chances of snacks without a long queue had never been better, so we broke ranks and headed for the tea tent. Fortunately, we were not pursued by guards of any costume, the tea tent was cool and quiet and the cakes delicious.

Two plates of afternoon tea
Tea for Two!

We wandered around the lake and gardens, posing for and taking photos, smelling flowers and meeting so many interesting people: a senior couple who had been in the Scout movement since childhood, a retired mayor, German embassy staff, two beautiful young South African women studying here. Overall, it proved to be a fun and incredibly friendly event, with hundreds of people milling about the gardens, chatting, laughing, enjoying the military bands, slipping off high heels to go barefoot on the lawns and thoroughly enjoying a small share of royal pageantry. Definitely a Grand Day Out!

Merryn & Alistair in Buckingham Palace Gardens
Had to be there…

The next day, Alistair got the train home and I moved into The British Library for the day – what better refuge for a writer! I started with the wonderful ‘Make Your Mark’ exhibition about the history of writing, which included such treasures as a Mughal painting of the royal scribe working cross-legged on the floor, and then tried to find a place to make my own marks. There are plentiful places provided free to the public, but every table with a socket was occupied so I ended up, in venerable Mughal tradition, on the floor. Just as well I had an Asian upbringing.

Laptop, bag and papers on the floor
Mughal Work Station

Thursday saw me heading to the new offices of the Society of Authors to see progress on the renovation works. Despite builders, dust and construction materials everywhere, the staff seemed remarkably serene. I take my hat off to them for their forbearance through a long and exhausting process, especially our tireless CEO, Nicola Solomon. She joined us for the Management Committee meeting that afternoon that was held at the beautiful premises of the Art Workers Guild.

Builders working on an interior space
Grand Designs
Nicola Solomon and staff at Society of Authors offices
Nicola Solomon (right) and staff at The Society of Authors

After the meeting and a convivial drink with a few others at a local pub, I caught a bus to Sloane Square. At least that’s where I thought I was going, until I realised it was going in the opposite direction. Several bus and tube journeys later (confusion courtesy of Google maps and maybe that pre-dinner wine) I puffed into the Royal Court Theatre just in time to watch White Pearl, a brilliant, darkly funny play about race attitudes among Asians.

Poster for play White Pearl at the Royal Court Theatre, London

Friday morning, eschewing alcohol and apps in favour of breakfast and a paper tube map, I still managed to ride a train in the wrong direction and ended up puffing into Kings Cross station feeling hot and bothered and very ready to get back to the country. Thankfully, I had a seat, a table, a socket and wi-fi, so should have been powering through the work. If only it hadn’t been for the fascinating conversation with the guy beside me who has a law degree but works as a performer singing Motown hits. He talked about his experience of being black in Britain, teaching his daughter to ride a bike and the final hours with his late grand-father.

Two people on the train
Newton Brown of the Soul Kings

I am glad to be home now, but thankful for this busy, colourful week, for each vision and encounter, even the inconvenient ones, for that was where I found kindness. Life is rich and full of treasures, whether in the collections at the British Library or the tunes of a busker, and each person, whether royal or railway staff, holds a world of stories.

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