December 29, 2013 – Wintry Wanderings Among Chelsea’s Ghosts: I’ve lived in some historic places over the years — Paris, Greenwich Village, Washington — but it wasn’t until I spent a winter in Chelsea a year ago that I felt as if I were inside a diorama. The ur-Chelsea, I mean: London, not the quarter of Manhattan that provided Joni Mitchell with inspiration for a song and, in the process, Bill and Hillary Clinton with a name for their newborn daughter. For historical voyeurism, London’s Chelsea is hard to beat, especially if you incline to artist-writer types, or as my late friend Christopher Hitchens would put it, ”people of that kidney.”
Note: Please see the outstanding Christmas movie, by Cartier, at the bottom of this post.
Winter, I should add, is an excellent time for dead-celebrity stalking. In spring and summer, London thrums and buzzes like a hive. Pubs spill onto the sidewalk, tourists swarm (those Americans!) and the lush city parks that inspired the spare landscapes of Thomas Gainsborough resemble Woodstock re-enactments. Even residential Chelsea takes on the look of a Davos confab or world’s fair.
Pictured above, the Chelsea Old Church.
Immediately next door to our little rental flat on Embankment Gardens, a sweet little enclave hard by the Thames, was the Chelsea Royal Hospital. In May, it becomes the site of the annual Chelsea Flower Show. As splendid an event as it is, the very acme of the floral monde, I was glad not to have been a collateral part of it. The empty winter streets, brisk but never too-cold air, and golden afternoon sun made for superb and invigorating perambulations.
We were in London because my wife was studying for an advanced medical degree in tropical medicine. Every morning she would bravely tootle off in the dark to catch her bus and the Tube. I was a stay-at-home spouse, banging away at a novel, and feeling rather inadequate to the task, given the density of illustrious literary figures that once lived around the corner.
Pictured above, “Chelsea pensioners” at the Royal Hospital (above picture and below narrative).
We often glimpsed the “Chelsea pensioners,” old men in scarlet tunics and military decorations. (Some female pensioners also live there.) There you’d be, in the checkout line at the Tesco with an armful of lurid London tabloids and your liter of milk, and suddenly you’d notice one of them behind you, bent with age, chest clinking with medals won at D-Day, perhaps, or Operation Market Garden. As an exercise in humility, this is hard to top.
If you search online, you’ll find dozens more Chelsea residents, including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (something to do with music); Eric Clapton; Agatha Christie; Ava Gardner — well, it’s endless. There are some fun sub-themes, such as the two famous fictional spies who lived there: John le Carré’s George Smiley and Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
Pictured above, Mark Twain is among the luminaries who have called Chelsea home.
Pictured above, a residential street off the King’s Road.
Pictured above, a map of Chelsea, London.
I usually don’t include advertising in my posts – mine or someone else’s. However, Cartier did such an outstanding job of capturing winter in Paris I include this short YouTube video (1 minute and 25 seconds).
(Credits – Photos by Andrew Testa, Narrative by Christopher Buckley for the New York Times and Cartier Video).
The Master of Disaster