London Calling: Keep Left Against the Rail to the Way-Out

Loose Leaves column, 1st published Sunday 17 December 2000 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben Pollock

Copyright 2000 Donrey Media Group

LONDON — If it’s true you can’t really know a city in just a week’s visit, then you probably cannot fully describe it in 1,500 words. Here goes.

Wednesday, Nov. 22

My wife has been here since Nov. 5, as a computer analyst for a multinational corporation.

I get to her hotel about noon. After a lunch, we shop on nearby Finchley Road. I would buy tea for home at the modern Waitrose supermarket there but all is sold in the States: Twinings, reliable; PG Tips, bitter; Jackson’s, boring; and Tetley drawstring, hearty, at Wal-Mart.

With her coaching, I succeed in beating jet lag by staying awake until after dinner.

During the afternoon — evening might as well begin at 4 because that’s when it gets dark — I had to remind myself not to walk into cars, which here barrel down at you on the left.

It’s better, however, to look both ways at any crosswalk in case it is for a one-way street. You must really twist around, 210 degrees or so. Though the city is flat, the streets are rarely straight.

Most cars, as well as trucks and vans, are tiny, in models never seen in the States. Gasoline is about four times as expensive.

Thursday, Nov. 23

Thanksgiving is not celebrated here; it’s a regular work day. Some folks here, though, tell us they are thankful — that the U.S. no longer is a colony.

We are to take the subway almost everywhere. The London Underground is as clean as a long-established transit system can be. Also, it feels safe. But where’s the trash can for my gum wrapper?

There are almost no trash cans on the street or in the Tube. Finally, a sign says they were removed years ago because of package bombs. Oh.

From the Tube stop we walk to Westminster Abbey, passing Big Ben, which is on one corner of Parliament, itself a grand, huge structure. That old clock tower in pictures seems dismal brown. In person, it is a brighter yellow-brown with gold leaf at the top. Because so few skyscrapers sit in the area, Big Ben remains a stumpy but inspiring landmark, day and night.

We plan to only spend an hour at the ancient Abbey, because we just want to see its Poets Corner. We end up walking reverently through all of the little rooms. Slowly considering the crypts and memorials to Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and other monarchs, prime ministers, military leaders and explorers thrilled the schoolboy in me.

The Corner turns out to be a large room or wing that memorializes not only writers but architects, actors and composer George Frederic Handel. Some are buried under engraved squares of the floor. Others are just memorialized with floor squares, busts or stained glass.

It may sound hopelessly Pop Boy but seeing the recent movies “Elizabeth” and “Mrs. Brown” (about Victoria) made the Abbey worth devoting hours to.

We then walk to the pedestrian part of the Embankment railroad bridge. We crossed the Thames to see the Poetry Library.

This public lending library, on the fifth floor of the new Royal Festival Hall, claims to have two copies of all 20th century poetry books published in the U.K. and many other books in English.

In the open shelves I found three books by University of Arkansas Professor Miller Williams. “Adjusting to the Light” and “Distractions” each had been checked out three times, and “Living on the Surface,” had 10 date stamps.

Afterward we attend a Thanksgiving dinner at a hotel at the Tower Bridge, across from the Tower of London. Christy’s boss hosts the feast for his crew and their bemused British clients. His wife gave the chef her North Carolina family Thanksgiving recipes. The food, view and irony were great.

Friday, Nov. 24

We end up spending the afternoon at the exhibit, “Painting the Century: 101 Portrait Masterpieces 1900-2000” at the National Portrait Gallery.

The museum is just off Trafalgar Square. That overlaps with the Piccadilly Circus neighborhood, which might as well be Covent Garden. Soho is near here, too. Bloomsbury is next door, somehow. It’s all West End.

Whatever you call it, this area is where it’s been at for decades and is it ever groovy, baby.

We shared a pot of tea and milk in the Portrait Gallery’s top-floor cafe. As we left, we heard music. Looking down the three-story atrium, we discovered a recital of a women’s vocal sextet, Aurora Nova. We took the back stairs down to the folding-chair audience.

The women were singing Benjamin Britten’s 1943 “A Ceremony of Carols.” Toward the end of “Recession,” the six unmiked singers walked to that escalator and got on just as they began repeating “hallelujah,” leaving behind their director Patrick Craig, on harp. At the top, still singing, they disappeared, the sound fading.

The six singers soon reappear, to our hearty applause. Craig explains when he saw that escalator creating a literal recessional was “irresistible.”

After intermission, Aurora Nova sings 1940s swing classics, with Craig on piano, ending with songs that mean so much to wartime Londoners, “White Cliffs of Dover” and “We’ll Meet Again.” The older folks there have tears in their eyes, and so do we.

Any event we attend that night would fog the gallery’s images and the Christmas recital’s glorious chords so we stroll past the neon lights of the West End. We begin a nightly habit of returning to the hotel on the top of a red doubledecker bus to see the city at night, especially holiday lights.

Saturday, Nov. 25

We devote today to the flagship Harrods department store in Knightsbridge. That is in the West End, too. Harrods is old and elegant, on the order of the main locations of Neiman Marcus in Dallas and Marshall Field in Chicago.

We went into Soho, just for pizza. After a long week, this was to be an early, restorative night.

Sunday, Nov. 26

We return to the Embankment Pier to take a narrated cruise down the Thames to Greenwich and the Royal Observatory. That is where the Prime Meridian, separating the Eastern and Western hemispheres, was set.

Also here is the ultimate newspaper promotion. On the pavement outside, along the first few yards of zero degrees longitude, is a scrolling red-on-black digital readout of the day’s headlines of The Times, exhibit sponsor.

A green laser beam shoots out a hole in the main observatory’s 0-longitude gable. We stay past dusk and see this invisible line made visible shooting across the Thames toward London.

Our having seen “Longitude” months ago helped persuade us to see the observatory. This TV movie told how 18th-century clockmaker John Harrison fought bureaucracy and petty politics for decades to invent a succession of spring-loaded clocks to calculate geographic position on boats, which saved countless lives. Here, we see Harrison’s inventions.

We return via Docklands Light Rail to take in West End theater. We wanted British actors, not some Broadway show. That’s what New York is for.

We choose a 90-minute reading of new and classic poetry benefiting the Arvon Foundation, which subsidizes writing classes and retreats.

The host was British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. His voice was nearly as sonorous as the main reader, actor Ralph Fiennes (“The English Patient,” “The End of the Affair”).

Motion reading his own “Serenade,” about a favorite horse accidentally killing its rider, the narrator’s mother, was my favorite. He stumbled once, obviously revising a line on the fly, which was reassuring to this writer. Second favorite was everything Fiennes uttered.

On this day we traveled by foot, boat, taxi, train, subway and bus.

Monday, Nov. 27

We decide skipping the British Museum would be an oversight. Besides, several friends warned us not to miss its Elgin Marbles, reliefs and statues from the Parthenon temple in Greece.

We also examine the Rosetta Stone that translated several ancient languages.

The museum echoed deafeningly from teachers calling to chattering schoolchildren and from translators shouting several languages, not to mention the hammers and drills of the restoration of the famed Reading Room, unfortunately closed a few more days.

We failed to see the entire museum. Deliberately.

The second stop following a promised 10-minute walk that really took 45, was the British Transport Museum. The Underground and buses fascinated us enough to schedule that.

The Transport Museum turned out to be in Covent Garden, next to its famed open market. It was so late we went straight to the Transport’s gift shop.

In the first decades of the 20th century, the city hired Deco and Nouveau artists to illustrate everyday signs (Keep right, Visit Kew Gardens). This being commercial art meant that the gift shop’s reproductions might as well have been original.

Tuesday, Nov. 28

The trip home to Arkansas was blissfully uneventful.

Notes

No restaurant ever rushed us out after a meal. Only one offered free coffee or tea refills. Restaurants did not always have restrooms.

One pound equals $1.50, give or take a few pennies.

Mouse pads are called mouse mats.

Going online as a visitor gets expensive. Use of the many Internet cafes or public library branches that contract with them, however, makes it affordable, about $4 an hour, on their computers.

An exit is labeled as “Way Out.”

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