Current Affairs, London

Missing London, Tempered by Charlie

I find myself missing London right now, especially with the recent Rebecca Wade spousal abuse story. It’s the kind of story that will completely absorb the media and chattering classes for the next few days, one full of great gossip and delicious ironies. The tabloids will have great fun with it, and while I’m reading along online from afar, it just isn’t the same as being there.

I’m also missing London because tomorrow is Guy Fawkes Day, celebrating the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, an effort of a small band of Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1604, and the subsequent execution of Guy Fawkes (one of the leaders of the plot) and his co-conspirators, as follows:

They would be hanged until half-dead, upon which their genitals would
be cut off and burned in front of them. Still alive, their bowels and
heart would be removed. Finally they would be decapitated and
dismembered; their body parts would be publicly displayed, eaten by the
birds as they decomposed.

The celebration in modern times is a lighter affair. Great bonfires around the country (and throughout London) are lit, and effigies of Guy Fawkes thrown onto the fires. We would amble over to the communal garden adjacent to ours, which hosted a terrific bonfire, served nice mulled wine, and put on a fine fireworks show at the end. It was, in many ways, one of our favorite evenings of the year. My British friends who are Catholic, though, complain that the celebration still makes them shudder.

My hankering after London this week is tempered by the upcoming visit to our town of a high profile Englishman, the Prince of Wales, that weak-chinned, inbred flower whisperer. Some of the coverage of his visit in the American press is encouragingly hostile — I loved the New York Post headline "Frump Tower," referring to Camilla’s sense of style — but too much is fawning and submissive. Just today, in the San Francisco Chronicle, we have some Miss Manners who "cringed" as she watched the protocol gaffes in New York (real people actually deigning to shake the Hand of the Prince!) and who proceeds to give us a very proper lesson on protocol with the Royals, reminding us of the no-talking-unless-talked-to and bowing-curtsying-yes-ma’am genuflections that we are supposed to offer.

As a friend of mine here said as we departed for London almost four years ago: "If you meet the queen, don’t bow or curtsy. We fought a war over that, you know."


London Faves and Raves, Pt. 1

We have just moved back to the States after three years in London.  We were sad to leave London, and before it becomes a too distant memory, I thought I should post a list of favorite places, restaurants, and haunts for friends, family, and other travellers who may stumble across this:

  • The British Museum. This was a favorite rainy-day haunt for us, with something for everyone. Our kids loved the mummies, of course,
  • Maida Vale and Little Venice. We lived on a communal garden at the corner of Clifton Gardens and Randolph Avenue. It’s a great neighborhood, and favorite haunts there include Raouls, Amouls, the Prince Alfred and The Waterway.
  • Sardos. Great, Sardinian-influenced restaurant in Primrose Hill with reasonable prices for London.
  • Uli. A good, fun, reasonable Asian-Chinese restaurant in Notting Hill.
  • The Electric Cinema. There is no better place to see a movie, yes it’s pricey but it’s worth the expense. You can sit with a beer, bottle of wine, and decent food from The Electric restaurant next door.
  • The annual Fall tour of Westminister. Be sure to rub Churchill’s foot going in or out of the House of Commons.
  • The annual late-summer tour of Buckingham Palace. An incredible, beautiful music room, fantastic art, and wonderful gardens in the heart of London.
  • Guy Fawkes. Get yourself to a Guy Fawkes party and ritual burning somewhere. The original Burning Man!
  • The Abingdon. Our favorite gastro-pub in London, and our favorite place for a great, relaxed dinner out with or without the kids. We will  miss the Abingdon more than any other place.

I will add more over time. Plus some favorites from travelling around the world more or less non-stop during the past three years.


London, July 8

Rode the tube yesterday, July 8. After what happened 7/7, I felt it was an obligation.

It was a short ride — from Warwick Ave down the Bakerloo, past Edgeware Road, to Marylebone station for a meeting in the Marylebone area. The train was less crowded than usual. Maybe I was imagining it, or wishing it to be true, but it felt like all of us in London riding the tube yesterday were making our collective point to the perpetrators of the bombings and their sympathisers — a giant "fuck you" just by carrying on life as usual.

I found people making eye contact, nodding, sometimes smiling, and perhaps making their own evaluations about their fellow travellers’ intents. If you are a Londoner, you know that is not normal behavior. And the tube itself greeted you its riders just as it would on any day. No special announcements, no staff eyeing you more intently, no overt security presence, no metals detectors. The normality was oddly reassuring.

The return ride was slightly more interesting. The carriage was more crowded. Two older men were in seats adjacent to me, one with a backpack and folding bicycle at the end of the car. The train stopped at Edgeware Road for about 5 minutes — nothing too unusual on a normal day, but yesterday was not entirely normal. The man with the folding bike went to the door to lean out to hear the station announcements, leaving his backpack on the seat. A woman down the row of seats from me yelled out to him "Oi, don’t leave your fuckin’ bag on the seat!"

It was the first, and only, sign of tension and anxiety I saw during the whole day. It is one of the great, and much remarked on, aspects of this city; it’s ability to stay on its feet, to keep calm, to return resolutely to life’s daily routines.

We could have used a little more of this stoicism in the United States after 9/11. We could use a little more of it now.

Lit, London

Sweet Love Remeber’d

Yesterday (April 23) was the birthday of William Shakespeare. It was also St. George’s day.We chose to commemorate the former by going on the Globe Theatre’s Shakespeare sonnet walk. What a brilliant event, and if you happen to be in London on the Bard’s birthday, this is a must do. Even if you’re not in London on that day, you should consider a special trip. Start planning now, hopefully the Globe will continue this tradition. The day embodied what I love most about London; the love of language, the appreciation of a well-wrought phrase.

We started at Westminster Abbey, with reasonably low expectations and the show was running late. We were to be in the last group to leave (the walk is organized of groups of 12 leaving roughly ever 10-15 minutes between 10am-12:45pm from both Westminster Abbey and Shoreditch), and our group was not ushered in to Poet’s Corner until almost 1:30pm.

Any low or uneven expectations were immediately dashed when Mark Rylance, artistic director of the Globe, greeted us in Poet’s Corner. What a treat. If you get to see Rylance act, in a play or on screen, don’t pass up the chance. For those of you who aren’t in London, and can’t easily see him on the state, rent either Angels and Insects or Intimacy.

Now, here is how the walk works. You are given directions, which take you to places of significance for Shakespeare, his plays, Elizabethan london, or all three. At certain of these areas along the way, twelve in all, you are greeted by an actor who proceeds to recite a Shakespearean sonnet — some famous, some you may have never read or heard before (I’ll post the list tomorrow). But you never quite know when or where the sonneteer will appear, which makes for great suprises, good laughs and fun impromtu theatre along the way. Our walk was made all the better with Rylance and his crew joining us. After each sonneteer finished, Rylance would offer kind words or some story about their relationship, and then would invite the sonneteer to join our merry group. So by the time we got finally to the globe at 4pm, we were a crew of almost 30.

Our stops included the Banqueting House, Middle Temple Inn (where we were able to duck in quickly, between weddings — what a glorious room), Samuel Johnson’s house, and St. Pauls. All in all, so fitting and perfect an event for London, and a great reminder of the reverence for the spoken and written word here in this city.