The D&O Diary is on assignment in the British Isles this week, with the first stop on the itinerary in London. The London sojourn represented a return engagement to a familiar and favorite place, both for myself and for my 18 year-old son, who accompanied me.
Because we have seen most of the major tourist landmarks on prior visits, for this trip we planned only to visit new places and try to try stay off the beaten path. The glorious weather that greeted us on arrival almost immediately set our plans aside, however. With sun streaming down and temperatures in the 70s, we were drawn to St. James Park, in part because at the time of my son’s prior visit, the park’s lake was drained for maintenance. From there, it was on to Green Park and then Hyde Park.
London is universally known as an impressive, diverse, vibrant place, but it is not always thought of as a beautiful city. On a sunny spring day with the spring flowers in bloom and flowering trees in blossom, the city is stunning. In defiance of all expectation about London weather, we enjoyed several remarkable days of warm sunshine. We later learned that the weather set records in many places in Britain.
If London can sometimes be beautiful, it is always cosmopolitan. One of the things I enjoy most about the city it its rich diversity. While riding the elevator in the Covent Gardens tube station, my son and I counted nine different languages among the thirty or so people in the elevator. But if it is sometimes beautiful and always cosmopolitan, it is first and foremost a city. It is a crowded, bustling city full of all types, some of them not entirely attractive.
Take, for example, the red-faced man decked out in full Chelsea football team regalia, whom we saw outside of the Tube station near our hotel. Even though it was only 11:00 am and more than an hour before the scheduled start of the football game, he was completely pissed, and when we saw him, two Bobbies (both fully a foot taller than he) had him backed into a corner, with their hands on his chest. He was shouting at them, “Yeah? Well what the f—k are you going to do about it, then? What the f—k are you going to do about it? Eh?” Sadly, I believe that Chelsea was required to play its game that day without this enthusiastic fellow in his usual seat.
Immersion in an urban environment like London can involve many of these kinds of experiences. We were walking down Charing Cross Road, and a woman behind us shouted (and I mean shouted), “Where the hell are we going?” A man, presumably her husband, replied, “Trafalgar Square.” She answered, “Why the f—k are we going there? There’s nothing in Trafalgar Square.” The man replied, “These lads have never seen the four f—king lions in Trafalgar Square, and these lads need to see the four f—king lions in Trafalgar Square.”
There are indeed four lions in Trafalgar Square, at the base of the Nelson Monument, but at least on the occasions when I have been there, the lions have not been engaged in any particularly noteworthy activities. There is also a large digital clock near the steps to the National Gallery that is displaying a countdown to the summer Olympics. Even though the games begin in July, the clock was the only active reference to the Olympics we noticed.
In addition to the Olympics, this year is Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee, celebrating her 60 years on the throne. We did see quite a few banners and posters commemorating this event. We also saw on television the speech she delivered to Parliament earlier in the week. The queen will be 86 in April but she did a fine job with her speech, reminding her audience that during her reign there have been twelve different prime ministers (a line that for some reason drew a nervous laugh). The Beatles were right, “Her Majesty is a pretty nice girl,” but it is not true that “she doesn’t have a lot to say.”
Upon waking to a sunny and warm morning, we declared Saturday to be Market Day. We first went to the Portobello Market in Notting Hill. The market is really more of a street festival, with food and street musicians and, on a warm spring morning, crowds of people. The market winds along gentrified streets lined with blossoming trees and vendors selling seemingly endless supplies of such indispensable items as buttons, boxing gloves, pocket watches, antique sewing machines, gas masks, and vintage computers. In addition to treasures such as these, there was also some other stuff that was kind of junky.
After a time, we retreated to a pub for refreshment and sustenance. Our waiter, who was named Nikita, is from Moscow and is in London studying business at the London Metropolitan University. His English was perfect (he said that his mother teaches English). Fortified after a chicken and mushroom pie, and braced with the benefit of a pint of Fuller’s London Pride, and feeling beneficence and equanimity toward our fellow man, we made our way to our next stop on our Saturday market tour.
Camden Market in Camden Town is a very different affair than the Portobello Market. If the Portobello Market is a festival, then the Camden Market is a carnival, or perhaps a bazaar (or maybe even a bizarre, if the word can properly be used in this way). At the Camden Market, you can buy all of the tee shirts, tattoos and body piercings you would ever need. Personally, my own needs in the tattoo and body piercing departments are fulfilled at the current count of zero as to both. But there are many people whose requirements along these lines are seemingly unlimited. There are certainly possibilities of both types available in Camden Town that I had not previously encountered.
After a short distance, the market street intersects the Regent’s Canal, at Camden Lock. It is very much of a working canal, and while we were watching, a long narrow barge negotiated the lock. On a warm spring afternoon, the banks of the canal were lined with youths sunning themselves and displaying their multifarious tattoos and body piercings at what they believed to be their best advantage. They were talking, eating, playing guitars, drinking beer, and also engaging in sundry other activities that that I do believe are still illegal, even in London. The footpath along the canal affords an unusual perspective on parts of the city that are not usually on tourist itineraries. I would have been happy to explore the canal footpath for miles, but after a time we were both footsore and even a little sunburned. (And what an amazing thing that is, to be sunburned in London in March.)
In addition to city’s outdoor markets, we also took in a little bit of London’s theater scene. At the recommendation of a family friend, we had purchased tickets for the musical “Matilda,” which is based on the book by Roald Dahl. As we entered the theater, I had deep misgivings when I saw that almost all of the other theatergoers were young mums with little girls in tow. We were, however, pleasantly surprised by what proved to be a delightfully entertaining show. As befits a play about a clever girl, the play was very cleverly staged, with some very intricate and interesting choreography that was all the more impressive because it involved so many little kids. The production aimed to be a crowd-pleaser and I would have to say it was quite successful. All the mums and little girls walked out of the theater singing songs from the show. My son and I were both smiling as we left, too. (I understand the show will be making its way to Broadway in 2013. I predict a decades-long run there.)
On Saturday night, we also went out, but for a very different kind of performance. I had purchased tickets online for a concert at the Church of St. Martin in the Fields, just of Trafalgar Square (near those four, uh, famous lions). It was a candlelight concert, with the London Musical Arts Orchestra performing a program of pieces by Mozart. During the interval, the conductor provided an interesting introduction to Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, which was to be performed in the concert’s second half. During the lecture, several of the musicians walked through the audience, performing pieces from the Symphony to illustrate a point, which had an almost magical effect of connecting the audience with the performers. Because of the coziness of the venue and the relatively small size of the ensemble, the performance felt very direct, almost intimate.
Sunday was a full British day, in a variety of ways. First, we attended the worship service at St. Bride’s Church on Fleet Street. The church occupies the oldest church site in London, and supposedly there has been a church there since the 600s. The church is named for St. Bride of Kildare, and because of its location just off Fleet Street, where newspapers formerly were located before they became extinct, the church is known as the “journalists’ church” (if that is not an inherent conflict in terms). The current structure was designed by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire. The stunning “wedding cake” spire alone is worth a visit. The church was heavily damaged in World War II but it has been beautifully restored. With the sun streaming in the southern windows, the barrel-vaulted sanctuary was warm and comfortable. The church choir was surprisingly good and with the church’s remarkable acoustics, the overall experience was quite uplifting.
Feeling thus inspired and conscious that we needed to do something about it straight away, we made our way down Fleet Street to The Strand, where we went into The George pub, opposite the Royal Courts of Justice, and we both ate a Full English Breakfast and watched Celtic play Rangers in a Scottish Premier League game. The game, which featured five goals and four red cards, was highly entertaining. (Rangers won, 3-2). Fortified with a pint of Sambrooks’s Ale, we returned to the street with feelings of beneficence and equanimity toward our fellow man.
Our next stop entailed a trip to the Royal grocery emporium, Fortnum & Mason, on Piccadilly. Our shopping list included a most particular kind of Ceylon tea which, where were to have neglected to purchase it, we might as well have abandoned the idea of returning home. The store consists of five full floors, with a green grocery in the basements and clothing on the top two floors and luxury items on the foors in between. When I was in London last year, during a massive street protest about government budget cuts, a small group of hooligans smashed the store’s windows and vandalized its façade. There was a long explanation in the newspaper for this seemingly random event, something about the store’s ownership and its payment of taxes. The protesters themselves, whose march I had seen the entire day, were quite serious and their march was generally peaceful. Unfortunately, the actions of a few idiots who somehow thought trashing a grocery story represented a meaningful political act had the effect of trivializing the protest. I am guessing that when it was over, everyone went home and had a cup of tea. Which is certainly what I associate with the store.
In the evening, we went to Porters English Restaurant on Henrietta Street, just off of Covent Garden. We had been there on a prior visit and returned to enjoy the lamb, apricot and mint pie. Over dinner, we tried to figure out how the Chelsea fan we had seen had wound up in such a tangle with the police. I pointed out that Bobbies wear those odd hats, that look like they have a rigid, black plastic condom stuck on top of their heads. That reminded my son of the line from “A League of Their Own,” when Tom Hanks says to the umpire, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like a pen-s with a hat on?” Upon reflection, it s very likely that the Chelsea fan had said something very much like that to the Bobbies.
Our London visit continues with more business-oriented activities on the agenda, and then we move on to other destinations. With time permitting and events warranting, I will provide further updates. (For those who worry about such things, my son drank no alcoholic beverages at any pubs we visited.)
A Barge Picks Camden Lock:
All The Tatoos and Body Piercings You Could Ever Want or Need:
Everything you could ever want or neet — and more, at the Portobello Market:
St. Bride’s Warm and Comfortable Sanctuary:
An Eye on the Thames:
A Perspetive on London From the Regent’s Canal