Synchronicity at the V & A

We’ll allow the fates to decide what we see, to allow our experiences to be a series of synchronous events.

On our last day in London, we decide that what we want more than anything is a dose of city life. We realize with a shock that we haven’t been to the Victoria & Albert Museum since our first trip to London in 1976. We’ve changed a lot since then, and so has the V & A.

The Victoria and Albert Museum (photo from website)

The V & A is a learning museum, originally dedicated to improving British industry by educating designers, manufacturers and consumers in art and science. That’s an ethos that still runs through the museum’s collection of over 2 million artifacts. One of the 10 largest museums in the world, the V & A is a constant source of inspiration. It’s a museum that you can spend a lifetime revisiting. This is the first of what I hope will be many revisits.

We don’t have a lot of time, so we decide not to plan. We’ll allow the fates to decide what we see, to allow our experiences to be a series of synchronous events. (I’ve just looked up the word synchronous and found that one of its meanings has to do with Astronomy: “making or denoting an orbit around the earth or another celestial body in which one revolution is completed in the period taken for the body to rotate about its axis.” This is a perfect metaphor. It takes time for an experience to turn and manifest itself within my thoughts. In the orbit, I can see the experience from all sides. But I digress…)

In the vast and somewhat overwhelming V & A, it seemed that with each corner I turned, with each new room I entered, I saw an object or a piece of art that felt like it was put there just for me. Something that reminded me of what I care about, about what matters to me. Something that showed me facets of myself and helped me remember and recognize the “person I take myself to be.”

Original Music and the Mirror score

We started our V & A ramble at the show “Re:Imagining Musicals.” Among the trove of records, playbills, sets, costumes, and curios, I saw an original handwritten score for “The Music and the Mirror,” from A Chorus Line, a musical that I saw in its first Broadway production. As with all aspiring actors, that song, in particular, was the anthem I sang as I headed off to theatre school. The manuscript was complete with changes made by both the composer and lyricist (Yes, the changed line “Let me wake up…” is better than “Let me awake…”) I was off on my journey.

Musicals segued into the museum’s theatre and performance collection. Sir Laurence Olivier’s iconic costume for Henry V is here, beside Vivien Leigh’s Cleopatra. Fred Astaire’s tails for Top Hat keep company with Charlie Chaplin’s tramp hat and cane.

Costumes worn by Sir Laurence Olivier in Henry V and Vivien Leigh in Cleopatra
Costume worn by Fred Astaire in Top Hat

Full of emotion, with songs in my heart, I do a soft shoe out of the exhibit into the next room ––a collection of paintings donated by Constantine Alexander Ionides –– and come face to face with “The Day Dream,” a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. When I was in my twenties, I went through a huge Pre-Raphaelite phase, and this was a favourite.

The Day Dream, by Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, at the V & A

Rossetti was also a poet and often calligraphed a verse on the frame of his paintings. The poem on The Day Dream ends with:

She dreams; till now on her forgotten book

Drops the forgotten blossom from her hand.

Dante Gabrielle Rossetti

A young woman is quietly sketching the painting. My heart aches with love for her youth, and for her devotion to art. I am that dreamer again.

I meander. There is so much to see but I don’t want to choose. On this, our last day in London, I want to be surprised. And so I am. When I stumble upon the Cast Court, I almost collapse. There is a full-size plaster cast of the Trajan column, commissioned by Napoleon. I’m knocked sideways by memory.

Cast reproduction of the Trajan Column (in two parts)

In 1990, I travelled to Rome to study Roman lettering. The lettering on the Trajan column is the pinnacle for anyone’s study of the form. Completed in 114 CE, these letters are considered the perfection of letter design and creation. When I was in Rome, we climbed scaffolding to get up close. The column was being restored, and we washed the inscription lovingly before making rubbings to take home. It was an act of devotion.

Lettering on the Trajan Column, originally carved 114 CE (reproduction)

Seeing it again brought back all of the passion I felt at the time. It was as though the person who I used to be walked into the room to hold me, remind me. My heart aches with love for that young woman, and her devotion to art, too.

And so somehow, the afternoon at the V & A has become a metaphor for everything I had hoped the trip would be. It’s been a time to be with friends and family, and a time to discover new places. But importantly, it’s been a time to reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. It’s been a liminal space, a transitional moment, where I have been turning in my own revolution, while revolving around the themes in my life.

I don’t know what is coming next. But I am ready to find out.

We say goodbye to the city, head back to the Southbank and home.

Our footsteps disappear with the tide.

We’ve come here to stand at the edge of Lewis…

The impetus behind our trip to Scotland is Tim’s heritage. While I have some Scottish ancestry, it is several generations back and frankly, it is a not part of my family that I have a connection to. But Tim’s maternal grandmother was born in Scotland, on the Isle of Lewis. According to Tim’s sisters and multiple English cousins, Nanny Hodgson née Mackenzie was delightful, with a wicked sense of humour. Unfortunately, he left England when he was too young to have a memory of her.

While tracing ancestry doesn’t particularly interest either of us, we love having an excuse to travel. And I must admit there is something poetic about going to an island that has the same name as me.

Lewis is a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride across the Minch, the strait between Lewis and the mainland. It’s a journey into a different world, a world of crofts, peat, weaving and deep Presbyterian beliefs. Sheep and long-haired Hebridean cattle dot the fields. The Sabbath is observed and the “We Free,” The Free Church of Scotland, has a solid base. It’s a country within a country. The Hebrides are as different to Edinburgh as Nunavut is to Toronto.


We land in Stornoway, the capital and main town on the island where Tim’s great grandparents lived and where his grandmother was born in 1884. Although their actual house no longer exists, the streets of Stornoway look much as they would have in the nineteenth century. The signs are all in Gaelic. The people are friendly, if guarded. We get a sense of the peace of this small port town.

From Stornoway we head across Lewis, over miles of peat fields, to the other side of the island to see the standing stones of Calanais. High atop rocky hills overlooking Loch Ròg, this arrangement of stones is 5,000 years old, older than Stonehenge. Rows of stones radiate from a central burial mound (added about 500 years after the initial stones were set) and are arranged in a shape that has been likened to a Celtic Cross. Apparently, the site was used for worship and ceremony for over 1500 years. The stones’ placement seems to have astral significance –– there is a lunar phenomenon that occurs there every 18.6 years.

Standing Stones at Calanais

You can’t help but be impressed by the humanity behind this structure. The stones have a majesty to them. A permanence that speaks to a commitment to a place. People who built these standing stones did not leave these hills, let alone this island.

Tim walking along the “avenue”

Visiting in February, we get the full Hebridean experience. The rain and wind pick up as we weave in and out of these monoliths. Thankfully, there is a Visitor Centre with hot coffee and cream teas to round out the experience and give us a chance to dry off. A bit.

We head south into the rocky hills, climbing through clouds toward Harris, which is not a different island but a separate region, with a very different landscape. Remote roads become even smaller as we turn onto a single lane track that ends in a small car park beside dunes. Only slightly deterred by rain, we walk over the dunes and stop dead.

We cross the dunes to the beach at Luskentyre

Luskentyre Beach is listed as one of the largest beaches in the UK – surely it is one of the largest in the world. We have miles and miles and miles of sand to ourselves, dotted only with seaweed from the tide. Apparently in the summer, it is used as a stand-in for advertisements for the Caribbean. It’s that kind of vast, isolated, stunningly beautiful beach.

Tim and I on Luskentyre Beach

We’ve come here to stand at the edge of Lewis, to contemplate the distance to the next body of land –– North America. As settlers, our ancestors crossed this divide at some point, for better or for worse. In creating new lives for themselves, they changed the history of the world. And no matter what I think about tracing ancestry, I can’t deny this connection. Just as I can’t deny my historical role as a settler.

We perform a small family ceremony, letting the wind blow our thoughts offshore and the rain seep into our clothes. I dance my gratitude for this place, for our tenacious forebearers, and for our common humanity.

We head back to Stornoway to dry out with a wee dram.

Our footprints will vanish with the next tide.

A Desirable Residence

There’s nothing like a cold, damp, blustery day to make you long for a cozy, warm shelter.

At Sand, on the Applecross peninsula, there is a huge rock with large overhang on the lee side. On a blowy February morning, it offers protection from the winds that drive across the Inner Sound of this North Western shore.

But it is hard to imagine this place as your “des rez,” as real estate people call it –– your desirable residence.

Yet habitation on the site has been dated to over 7500 years ago, when a collection of about 50 people lived here. The nomads would have had fish and shellfish in abundance, as well as birds and bird eggs, wild boar and deer. Archaeologists have found a dump of shells (a midden), tools made from antlers, and “pot boilers” –– large stones that were heated in a fired and dropped into a pot to cook food.

I’m relieved to know they had something warm to eat on days like today.

I walk down to the water’s edge. At low tide, rivulets of salt water stream back to the sea across a huge expanse of red sand. At the sea’s edge I can just make out something in the water. I watch and shapes form. There are heads bobbing off shore! More and more pop just above the waves and I realize it is a “bob” of seals, about 50 of them. Clearly they have found their own version of a “des rez,” filled with an ample supply of fish.

For my part, I’m relived to know that for us twenty-first century Homo Sapiens there is a cozy warm shelter further up the road. We tuck into the Applecross Inn for a local pint and some of the best Scottish Salmon I’ve ever had.

We’ve come a long way in 7500 years.

This moment

The Southbank is my heart’s connection to London

You might be heading to Royal Festival Hall, The National Theatre, The British Film Institute, Foyles Bookstore, the booksellers under the bridge, the Oxo Craft artisan studios, The Globe Theatre or the Tate Modern. Or perhaps all of them. You stroll with families, tourists, lovers, skateboarders, school children, people selling The Big Issue, savvy City workers, and people for whom the arts are essential. Below you ferries, barges and various boats navigate the tides.

The last time we were on the Southbank was December 2019. We walked in the frosty, winter night, picking up goodies in the Christmas Market, sipping hot mulled wine. It was festive, all twinkle and lights.

Little did we know how the world would change three months later.

I hadn’t realized how deeply I had missed this world and how a small part of me, the part that locked itself up for months and only navigated the world through a Zoom screen, thought it was gone forever. The world had shrunk to a tiny safe place, the island of our house, and my imagination had shrunk with it.

Now, in 2023, as we left Waterloo Station I started to cry. There were people. Everywhere. All of the same cast of characters I left here over three years ago. It is all still here. The world had stopped but started again.

I was overwhelmed with the joy of being there. Sitting over a bowl of spicy Ramen soup at Wagamamas seemed magical, impossible. Walking across Waterloo Bridge, twilight lights reflecting in the incoming tide, was like walking into one of humanity’s great stories. This is what humans are capable of. For all of the good and bad. This is inspiring.

Crossing Waterloo Bridge

We wound our way through Covent Garden and Soho toward the Garrick Theatre, built in 1899. This, too, seemed extraordinary. It’s something that used to be normal, commonplace even, yet now feels like a privilege and delight.

At the Garrick Theatre

At the Garrick, we saw the remarkable Orlando, a moving and important adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel. A play about London over four centuries, about gender, about society, about desire, hope, despair, and love.

At the end of the play, Orlando is asked what she loves. It is a hard question for her to answer, but she finally answers:

“This! … I love this place –– this … city… This beautiful, glittering moment, which falls out of the sky like a steel-blue feather! Oh, watch it as it falls –– watch it turning and twisting like a slow-falling arrow –– an arrow that cleaves the air –– so beautifully!”

from Orlando, adapted by Neil Bartlett

This. I love this moment.

Codebreaking and a sense of awe.

It’s said that the codebreakers of Bletchley shortened the war by two years.

Bletchley Park. It is the stuff of legends. The codebreaking headquarters that changed the course of the Second World War. A place so secret that husbands and wives didn’t know of each other’s involvement. A place of mystery and of tremendous excitement. A place where imagination and scientific minds met to solve life and death problems.

The Mansion

The British Government bought the Bletchley Park estate in Buckinghamshire in 1939 to house the Government Code and Cypher School (Actually, Admiral Hugh Sinclair, head of the Secret Intelligence Service, seems to have bought it privately to get the whole thing running –– or perhaps because he saw a good real estate deal. But that’s another story…) Initially, a small group of people, chosen for their skills with languages and numbers, were hired to work there. They were told to sign the Official Secrets Act before they were given any information. They had no idea what they were hired to do.

There were 185 people working at Bletchley in 1939. By 1945, there were almost 9,000. Three quarters of those people were women. Yet the existence of Bletchley remained a secret until 1974. Even to this day, people who worked there won’t tell you what they did.

Now, it’s a heritage national museum. Exhibits lead you through the daily processes from message reception to codebreaking and translation. Messages weren’t intercepted here – it was far too dangerous to have a radio station at Bletchley. But a team of thousands of couriers arrived day and night at the gates, bringing morse code radio messages that had been intercepted by operators throughout the country. In fact, our tour guide’s father had been one of those bicycle couriers, delivering coded messages to Bletchley.

Tim at the main gate where couriers arrived.

After the Bletchley codebreakers and translators received the message and decoded it, they needed to re-package it to make it seem as though it came from British spies. This way, the Germans wouldn’t find out about Bletchley. In fact, few people in the British government knew. It was this level of secrecy that made it a success. Something almost impossible to imagine in the age of Twitter.


We were shown how the German Enigma machines worked to encode their messages, and how the people at Bletchley went about decoding them. By May 1945, they’d broken 21,971 Enigma messages! That was only possible because Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman designed the Bombe machine to speed things up. It ticks and whirs in Hut 11A. The Colossus, the world’s first large-scale electronic digital computer, was also invented and built at Bletchley.

The Bombe Machine

Tim and I have done our fair share of research into WW2, but our visit to Bletchley brought our reading into reality. It’s hard not to be moved and impressed by the scale and vision of this operation. It is a place filled with personal stories and with triumphs of dedication. People knew that they were saving lives, and they threw themselves into it, working night and day for five long years. It’s a story of human ingenuity that led us to a feeling of awe.

“The work here at Bletchley Park … was utterly fundamental to the survival of Britain. I’m not actually sure that I can think of very many other places where I could say something as unequivocal as that. This is sacred ground.”

Richard Holmes, Military Historian

Rambling Along

It’s a pace we’re perfectly happy to adopt.

We’re in Stony Stratford for a couple of days to visit family and ramble about. It’s a village outside of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire that used to be an important stopping off point for coaches travelling between London and northern England. Stony Stratford was, we’re told, primarily a high street of inns. It has some fabulous history to it, perhaps most excitingly as the place from which Richard III abducted one of the two young princes, the uncrowned Edward V, at the Rose and Crown Inn in 1483. Although the Rose and Crown is no longer an inn, several others remain ­–– The Cock, The Bull (from which we apparently get the phrase Cock and Bull) and The Old George.

Tim in front of the former Rose & Crown

Behind the high street lies the River Ouse, with lovely, twisting Riverwalks. It’s easy to imagine Ratty’s “bijou riverside residence” tucked here.

The pasture lands beyond the river led us on a path to the nearby hamlet of Passenham, which consists of a Rectory, Manor, former Mill and St. Guthlac’s Church, mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles of 921 AD. We’ve been assured by our B & B host Jim that the church is still haunted. “No, really, it IS!” Jim runs the best B & B we’ve ever stayed at. Fabulously comfortable, with lovely big full English breakfasts, Telford House on its own is worth the visit to Stony Stratford. Jim’s been running the B & B for over 40 years, and his enthusiasm is infections. “I love my job!” At 82, he’s an inspiration.

St. Guthlac’s Church and churchyard in Passenham

Time doesn’t exactly stand still here –– we ate a marvellous Indian meal in a converted 17th century chapel, with exquisite, tiled floors (the fabulous Calcutta Basserie.) But time doesn’t move quickly. Our three-hour ramble beside the slow-moving Ouse and across the pasture fields needed to be followed by a pub lunch and a pint of local ale (Razorback) at the 400-year-old Old George.

The dining area has sunk below ground. We sat in the front window and watched people’s ankles.

It’s a pace we’re perfectly happy to adopt.

Truth and Serendipity

“History is most often written from a distance, and rarely from the viewpoint of those who endured it.” Chris Killi

The National Portrait Gallery is one of my favourite places to visit in London. It is a gallery of humanity, of how we see ourselves and understand each other. If you have never been to the Portrait Gallery, you may think of it as a stuffy place that shows paintings commissioned by stuffy people to show off their status. I know I did. But The Portrait Gallery is filled with images of people from all walks of life. When done well, these portraits reveal inner lives, truths, and sensibilities.  Whenever I come to London, it is top on my list of places to go.

So I was broken-hearted to learn that it is closed for renovation until June 2023. However, I resolved that this was a good excuse to discover something new.

The Photographer’s Gallery is not far from The Portrait Gallery. I’m passionate about photography, especially black and white. My father was a photographer in the 1950s and I have spent much of the last two years pouring over his portraits of people and places in New York. The protagonist in my next book, Focus. Click. Wind, is an aspiring photographer. Yet I have never gone to The Photographer’s Gallery in London.

When I turned down Ramillies street, I was greeted by the sight of thousands of people, queuing. Were there really that many people lined up to go to photography exhibits? I cursed myself for not buying a ticket online and began to turn away. But I found it hard to believe that so many people had come out to see “Chris Killip: A Retrospective.” So I ventured on a bit further and saw the sign for the gallery with no line up out front.

a small fraction of the people queuing outside the Photographer’s Gallery

Inside, it was calm. People were enjoying Sunday morning coffee and cakes. “What’s going on out there?” I asked as I bought my ticket. “Auditions,” a young man smiled. I thought briefly about how years ago I would have eagerly joined that line up. And I thought about how much happier I was to be doing what I was doing.

I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of the Manx photographer Chris Killip (1946 – 2020.) He is known as the chronicler of the “English De-industrial Revolution,” and his photographs that show the stories of those who, in his words, had history “done to them” –– the men, women and children who lived in North Yorkshire, Northumbria, Tyneside and other harsh rural landscapes in the 1970s and 80s.

“History is most often written from a distance, and rarely from the viewpoint of those who endured it.”

Chris Killip

Killip spent years with people he photographed, and their trust in him is evidenced by the honesty of these pictures. They allowed him to access inner truths. These are profoundly moving portraits of isolated communities devastated by change.

I came away from the exhibit changed and deeply grateful for the ease and good fortune of my life. And for the serendipity that led me to discover a new Portrait Gallery.

Time or Tide

Travel is the domain of the imagination, and when you arrive it is as though your imagination has taken concrete shape around you.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
T.S. Eliot

The miracle of travel is something I don’t want to take as commonplace ever again. It is miraculous. In a relatively short amount of time I have journeyed to another world, a world both foreign and familiar.

Because of the impossibility of travel during the pandemic, it feels as though I have slipped into a place that only existed in my imagination for the past three years. Travel is the domain of the imagination, and when you arrive it is as though your imagination has taken concrete shape around you. I’ve read enough quantum theory this year to know that this is probably true, but this is the first time it feels true.

What I’ve found in this new world, whether it has sprung from my imagination or not, is that we have been on parallel paths for these past three years. We share commonalities of our experiences in a way that we’ve never done before. Different sides of the planet, with different political forces, yet we’ve been experiencing the same trauma. It’s made me feel closer than ever with family and friends as we share our experiences, our losses, our scars, our small victories. Our histories, which previously had been different, are now the same.

No doubt it is a unique moment. This will pass. But I don’t want to ever take for granted the good fortune that has allowed me to be here, experiencing the rawness of the pandemic experience. The shared humanity on the streets is the legacy of our survival.

And so we celebrate. We arrived in time for a double birthday party for Bryan and me, shared with Robbie Burns. A Burns night complete with Haggis, neeps and tatties, (turnips and potatoes), and Cranachan (an amazing dessert of toasted oats, whipping cream, raspberries and a glug of whisky). We don’t party as if there is no tomorrow, but because there was yesterday.

I feel as though the needle on the record skipped. I am birthday years older. But I’ve picked up the needle and placed it down again carefully, ready to start again.

Nae man can tether time or tide.
Robert Burns

Throwing ourselves to the fates

We did a lot of soul searching before deciding to go on an overseas trip.

Tim and I did a lot of soul searching before deciding to go on an overseas trip. We know that Covid still haunts us and are taking precautions. But the hardest decision about travel has to do with environmental concerns. It feels irresponsible to take to the skies these days.

We weighed our social responsibility against our need to reconnect with family in England. It’s been over three long years. Children have grown, elders have become elder. The joy of being hugged by friends and family is a powerful magnet.

As I write, we are sitting in the airport lounge. We have balanced some of our guilt by giving a donation to the Guatemala Stove Project, which reduces carbon by building efficient, non-toxic stoves for rural populations in Guatemala –– thus improving the lives of the people who cook over these stoves and reducing carbon in the atmosphere one stove at a time. It isn’t much, but it’s what we can do.

We also decided to spend a lot of time in the UK –– five and a half weeks –– to maximize our visit and reduce our guilt.  If the last three years has taught us anything, it is that we can’t predict what is around the corner. Who knows when we will next have a chance to make a trip like this.

Eleven years ago, we went for a year-long excursion. I was fleeing job burn out, Tim was pining with a deep nostalgia for England, and we both wanted to dig our hearts into European culture. It was a trip that changed us both profoundly as humans and artists. While this journey is much shorter it feels as monumental. Fighting the inertia of the last years has been hard. We’ve sheltered in place and been safe. But now we are stepping out into the wide world again, opening ourselves to the fates. It is exciting, thrilling, and somewhat terrifying.

I look forward to sharing the road with you. And I look forward to the changes in store.

Writing: These Are Not the Words

My new novel These Are Not the Words was officially released in North America on April 5, 2022.

Me with Scatty in our apartment in Stuyvesant Town, circa 1960. Self portrait taken with a timer.

These Are Not the Words is a semi-autobiographical novel.That means there are real people in it who do imaginary things, and imaginary people who do real things. I am not Miranda Billie Taylor, but we share a lot of history.

I started writing the story from a memory. I was taking the Picture Book Intensive at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adults program, and we had been given the prompt to write from an early childhood memory.

What came out was a memory of walking through the living room late at night to get a glass of water. The dark stillness, the flicker of the TV light, the sound of the record, the smell of cigarettes and marijuana are vivid. I was probably about four years old.

Nothing “happens” in that memory, but the assignment was to turn it into a picture book.

Because it was a picture book, the language was spare, evocative, and poetic. It didn’t work as a picture book, but it inspired me to begin writing vignettes, initially as prose poems and then as verse. As I began to drill down, more memories began to bubble up. I found myself writing a novel in verse.

Although I was writing from personal memories, I wrote in third person. I made the character older, and distanced her from me so I could tell, I thought, a larger, more interesting story.

It took a couple of years and many re-writes, but finally I started sending the book out on submission. The reactions were positive –– editors and agents told me that they thought it was beautifully written. (“Heartbreaking and lovely.”) But it wasn’t for their list, it was historical fiction and hard to sell, the character seemed too sophisticated. But one response really stuck out. An editor I respect they said that it felt as though the story was told from the perspective of an adult, not the child. It was verging on nostalgic. Clearly, I wasn’t “in” the story.

Out of frustration, I decided to try to write one chapter in first person. I’m not a big fan of first person and feel it is easily overused. But I chose the first chapter, the one that had started the process, just as a writing exercise. I was totally unconvinced that it would be possible. “I hate writing in first person,” I said to myself.

I remember starting to shake as I re-wrote that first chapter. Suddenly it was real, vibrant and alive. And suddenly it was a bit close for comfort.

I’ll confess to a lot of tears in the months that followed. But being a writer is not about being comfortable.

I created a book trailer for These Are Not the Words. I used some photos that my father took and a recording of Billie Holiday singing Tell Me More, recording it from a vinyl LP that belonged to my parents. I recorded myself reading a chapter of the book and then worked with a technician friend, AL Connors, to bring it all together.

Putting the trailer together was hard. The photos pull me back to those years. The living room is the one where that first memory came from, where I hear Billie, always. It’s the image and the sound that started me writing the book.

I am not Miranda Billie Taylor. But we share a lot of history.

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