The book of folly
An American in London's reflections on the Queen's passing

The book of folly
David Feela - 08/24/2023

“The highest form of bliss is living with a certain degree of folly.” – Erasmus. 

Quite a few years ago, we traveled to Malta for a two-week holiday, the same year two Libyan pilots defected and landed their jet fighters there, refusing the Libyan military’s orders to bomb protestors. The next year, we booked a trip to Sicily, only to have Mount Etna erupt in the news with yet another dangerous period of volcanic activity. Last year, deciding to play it safe, we visited the U.K. for an entire month, a country where we could at least speak the language. Seven days after we arrived, the queen died. We were speechless.

The bedsit we leased in Oxford, named Folly Bridge Studio, sat right beside an 1849 building called Folly House. It was a perfect example of an architectural style with expensive ornamental flourishes that serve no practical purpose. And this folly was situated on the 1826 reconstruction site of the historic 1485 Folly Bridge that spanned the Thames River, which thankfully did not collapse during our stay. For the record, I don’t believe in folly. It serves no constructive purpose. But for some reason, folly believes in me.

The queen’s death was a big deal in the U.K. Ending seven decades as the longest-reigning British monarch, her legacy stands, and I can report she must have been loved by her people based on the outpouring of tributes I saw and the crowds of mourners and well-wishers that gathered, even in the streets of Oxford. Succeeded by her eldest son in a very old British game of thrones, Charles already holds his own record: at the age of 73, he is the oldest ascending British monarch in the country’s history.

I never had a chance to meet the queen, but my birth and Elizabeth II’s official coronation both took place in 1953. Pam and I considered traveling to London to participate in the queen’s state funeral, but standing in the street beside the hundreds of thousands of well-wishers, throwing flowers and cheering and clapping would have felt not only chaotic but impersonal. She didn’t attend my baptism, and we didn’t attend her funeral.

We did, however, celebrate the queen’s life by accepting a lunch invitation from an elegant British landlady who had graciously offered to hold a £200 lodging deposit we’d made until we were able to cross the pond and pick it up. She’d received our money before COVID prevented our travel. Lodging in her home was unfortunately not available when we finally could travel in 2022.

She is a beautiful lady and, inspiringly, at the age of 86, still acts as the portal guardian where travelers passing to or through Oxford may stay or leave, all by the appointment of Irene. When we arrived for our lunch, we were invited to sit on her couch. We talked and laughed for half an hour while her personally prepared lunch finished baking, and we felt luxuriously welcomed. Sitting in her upholstered chair across from us, buttoned in her cardigan vest and surrounded by her photos – the faces of so many loved ones we’d never met – she demonstrated how resplendently simple hospitality could be.

Ten years younger than the queen, she had graciously stepped in to welcome us. Somebody had to. This was England after all. A glass of wine? A cup of tea? Then salmon, new potatoes, asparagus and cherry tomatoes bright as the Crown Jewels, with an apple crumble for dessert, topped by a dollop of rich whipped cream. How like Elizabeth, how sweet, this audience with Irene.

Eventually we said our goodbyes at the door, thanking this reigning hostess for inviting us to her home. It proved to be important, a memorable part of our trip that satisfied our appetite for adventure. On the walk across Oxford, back to the room we ultimately leased, we speculated about our canceled holiday – the one we had missed – how our original plans could have been irreparably lost. Of course, most of our visit hadn’t been affected, like touring the museums, hiking along the ancient Thames, taking pictures of buildings where the architecture revealed an antiquity we rarely see in America. We boarded trains that took us to Stratford-on-Avon and Bath, stared into the heavens of stained glass cathedrals, stood silently beside the graves of literary heroes, like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Agatha Christie.

We did most of the things we likely would have done had we arrived in 2021, and except for that one royal revision that tripped up the entire country while they mourned their loss and celebrated the life of their longest-reigning monarch, we might have never understood how the ending of a life can reveal the character of a living nation.

– David Feela

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