The coffee "freezer" from Coffee Republic provides another fascinating glimpse of London culinary distinction. Also gives me a moment to try and figure out where I am (I took off a bit too vaguely south)and what I want to see and do on my last free day in London. I've ended up in the Marylebone neighborhood, traversing the main drag, Marylebone High St., pretty much by accident. But it is really lovely, all narrow and be-treed and filled with chattering al fresco lunchers. Another endearing thing about this place: everyone I see eatingat 1:30pm on a Sundayis having a pint. And I mean, like, everyone.
I slash back across Oxford St., to take a quick peek at the British Museum. I don't plan on actually going in; I figure I only barely have time for one museum, and I've got a pre-existing recommendation on a different one. Loping up Charing Cross Rd., I've got an internal Morcheeba soundtrack going: "Don't stop, just yet / We've got the world looking in." I don't want to leave!
Or work tomorrow, for that matter . . .
The sign in front of the BM notes "Please give at least 2 pounds, if you can." Ha ha, it's free! I toss two quid in the bucket and dash inI'm gonna see me them Elgin Marbles! And maybe one other thing. Rosetta Stone: check. (Smaller writing than I imagined.) Just sprinting through the West Wing is awingendless stone wall carvings, forbidding statuary, gorgeous Greek sculptures. After the E. Marbles, I'm trying to dash out, but keep getting stopped in my tracks. First, by these towering Assyrian gateways, in the shape of colossal human-headed lions. Then again by a 12-foot head ("Fuck the head!"), from Thebes, circa 1390 BC. Damn. Anyway, this was by a comfortable margin the best 25-minute museum visit I have ever had.
I didn't wake today until noon, by the wayand then with a murderous headache. I spent the latter part of last evening at the Gloucester Arms Pub across the street from my hotel, typing and pounding pints. The main problem was not the volume of beer consumed, but the universal 11pm pub closing time in England. I bet that as many drunken brawls as this rule causes (when all the louts simultaneously pour into the streets, like clockwork, a recognized problem), it also results in a lot of unnecessary hangoverscaused by having to slam your last pint down, 20 seconds after you ordered it, and 10 before they kick you to the curb. (Excuse me, "kerb.")
At any rate, partly due to the late start, I'm beginning to feel a bit frantic. But, it's actually a nice kind of franticbuzzed and adrenalized. Bloomsbury, the neighborhood that borders the BM on the south, is just lovely, with a sumptuous green park (Bloomsbury Square), brownstones, lots of trees, soft lightand a unique literary history: the Bloomsbury Group, of Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, etc.
I head south, cutting over Lincoln's Inn Fields, when disaster strikesthe pen (my adored Pilot "Better Retractable" fine point) briefly goes dead. I'm also about out of juice in the camera. But, there's no time to stop. I blow into the ink cartridge and carry on. Though, I realize I am now trying to walk, navigate by map, take notes, and actually maybe see anything, simultaneously. I skirt the Royal Courts of Justice, a big Victorian Gothic pile of stones. As I approach Temple Church, I begin to hear the bellsbanging madly and enticingly, a glorious cacophony. In front of the churchconstructed in the twelfth century by the Knights Templaris a huge Gladstone statue, and across the street, the Australia House. The bells keep on, and I stagger around this amazing scene for a while, working for perfect shots. It's fabulous.Sometime shortly after that, I shot thisbut have forgotten what it is. Pretty, though, eh?
I emerge down onto the Victoria Embankment (which borders the Thames), and head west toward the BlackFriar, and Millennium, bridges (the latter a footpath, which I later discovered won't open until next year). I cross the BlackFriar and jog over to . . . the Tate Modern.
The TM opened in May of this year, after a massive rennovation of the former Bankside Power Station, on the south bank. Externally, the structure (built in the 30s) consists of a huge, unvarying rectangular block of brickwith a single lofty brick tower jutting from the front center. (It is as distinctive and imposing a profile, at least, as the much-cast image of the SFMOMA.) The interior, consisting preponderantly of lobby, is like . . . a blimp hanger. For oversized blimps. Scads of them. On entering, the mass of space slams into you; the ceiling is distant, and the floor slopes down to the ticket booths. On a split level, over the ticket offices, a 20-ft high spider sculpture lurks. Beyond that, in the distance (and I use that expression thoughtfully), are a tryptich of towering sculpturesliterally towering, as they have spiral staircases which gallery-goers are allowed to mount (but only in ones and twos, as per the artist's instructions). And this . . . this whole huge thing is also free, with donations requested. My Fodor's Guide suggests that this "promises to be one of the world's finest modern art museums."
I am still, technically, hitting and running, though. For one thing, I forgo almost all the accompanying wall texts, upon which I am normally so dependent. Running through the galleries this way is like drowning in art, imagined lives flashing before my eyes, desperate spectacles at the edge of vision. Appropriately, it all results mainly in one vague, incredibly strong, final impression (detailed in a moment.) But here are a few hastily scribbled notes on the details:
While I regret the H&R routine, I must admit that a lot of modern art lends itself to itfor instance, Mondrians can be taken in mightily quickly, if need be. So far, the really crowded rooms have Picassos in them (much like the mob at the Rosetta Stone, or the Mona Lisa, for that matter). Warhol is doing some business as wellprobably the Marilyns and Elvii drawing 'em in. There's a Sol Lewitt, who recently had a monstrous, somewhat overwhelming installation at SFMOMA. (They also left two of his pieces, clean splashes of primary colors, in perfect diagonal lines, permanently overlooking the lobby.) The "Nude/Action/Body" gallery is most crowded. I fight my way through, though the "Transfiguration" section, I regret to note, reminds me of nothing so much as the Hellraiser films. But, it's got the lovers of Rodin's "The Kiss" guarding the entrance; there's an enticement. Speaking of crowds, did I mention how much I love being in a country where people say "sorry" when you bump into them? (I can also really get used to saying "cheers" to everybody all the time.)
Monet's "Water Lillies" is bigger than I'd imagined. (Bigger than any Monet I've seen.) Joseph Beuys, sculptor and founder of the German Green Party, it was who said "Everybody's an artist." (Okay, I'm skimming a few walls.) The ferocious, thick, black-on-white brush strokes of a Franz Kline are visible from a mile away. (I have a Kline print on my bathroom wall; recently I got around to renting Woodie Allen's Manhattan, and there's a scene where Woodie and Diane Keaton are strolling a gallery, and they walk right by the original of the Kline print I have! And I can see the one in the bathroom from where I'm lying; I can see both of them side-by-side, every little linemy print in 2000, and a 1971 moving picture made of a 1959 painting. The shit we do with light and magnetism . . .) Also oddly, there's a photograph, in one gallery, of the Thebes excavation (where they got that head I was looking at an hour earlier).
Happily, one of my very favorite pieces is pictured, along with the accompanying text, here. I think it's an interesting commentary on the transformative power of the artist; and damn funny.
Anywayand here's the vague, strong, overall impressionGod, what an experience just being in this place. It's extremely spectacular; and I can't help but feel privileged, as if I've been let into one of the best destinations on Earth (even if you could go see anything). My personal gallery advisor just continues to knock them out of the park; I go where she directs me. I exit the submlime underworld of the Tate Modern and head East, for Tower Bridge, smiling spontaneously again.
Sticking to the "Thames Walk" (just what it sounds like), I pass by both the original, and the all-new, Globe Theatres. (Yes, that one playwrite's Globe Theatre.) There are a number of restaurants and patios along the way, and I notice that while it is now 6pm on a Sunday, everyone is still having a pint. (Everyone.) I cross back over on London Bridge, which is actually very nondescript, but gives me a first view of Tower Bridgewhich is certainly the handsomest (if not the grandest) bridge I've ever beheld. I continue East (back on the north bank now) toward the Tower of London (at the foot of Tower Bridge). I've pretty much been walking non-stop (except for sleep) since 2pm yesterday, and at this point I'm having to seriously reconsider whether these boots were, in fact, made for walkin'.
The Tower of London is old, and not shaped like a tower at all. I mount Tower Bridge, and stop midway across. The breeze here is like a tonic, and the sun slashes through the low clouds in the southwest, dropping Jacob's Ladders into the South End. I usually like to get a nice final visual image of a placebut here, I think, I am getting a wonderful final feeling. My stomach is aflutter, and my limbs feel lightas if the breeze might bear me away over the water. This sensation is something I would like to take with me."And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it's a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end."
- Pico Iyer (world-beating travel writer)
###Ed. note: Here's another good point to stop reading, if, say, you're busy, or bored, or just want to avoid anticlimax. Downhill from here.###
Back on the south bank again, I stroll through Butler's Wharfonce the "seedy, dingy, and dangerous shadowlands where Dickens killed off Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist," but now a nice little restaurant/gallery district. Strolling west, still on the water, I have no agenda nowexcept to get far enough back to see the Houses of Parliment lit up after dark.
The English seem really paired-off to me. I feel like I'm seeing many more young couples than young singles. Then again, one always sees a lot of couples when one is alone. Walking past the Tate again, at dusk, I see that the top of the tower glows purple! Just when you think it couldn't get any cooler. I am now reminded of Maugham's (dandyish, intellectually and artistically vain) character Hayward, who simply asserts: "There are only two things in this world that make life worthwhile: art, and love." Suddenly, I'm thinking I might put aside Taoism (and nihilism) and take up that. I mean, check it out: It's neat. It's persuasive. It's beautiful. And it's got the weight of evidence on its side. I like it.
Shortly after, I pass some guys discussing "validation of the document object model," and I feel comfortedcomforted that this is the first and only technical conversation I've heard here. I kind of feel like people are really living here. Whereas Americans are mainly focused on their optionskeeping them open, enhancing them, vesting in them. Have we taken the American ideal of "limitless possibilities" too literally? (Or have I just been spending too much time in Silicon Valley?)
As night falls, the south bank is now mobbed with drinkers, strollers, a street fair, music. And there's a parade of indeterminate provenance (all I can say is it's loud and involves flashing lights) across the water on the north bank. This is an odd manner of Sunday night. I guess Londoners are not wasting time dreading the (Monday) morn.
I pass under the monster ferris wheel, the London Eye, and take a seat at its base. I'm considering taking a ridetiming the passage of one car, and multiplying, to assess the time commitment involvedwhen I examine the support structure. And I realizeit's only held up on one side! Jesus! Two supports jutting out diagonally at the water's edge, with the wheel stuck on the end! Pardon me, but bugger that.
Photographing the gorgeously lit-up Houses of Parliment across the Thames, in the cool, quiet night, at the foot of Westminster Bridge, is eerily, delightfully reminiscent of photographing lit-up Notre Dame across the Seine (at the foot of I forget which bridge). It is just stellar, and sleepy-smile-inducingly serene. [Images, btw, will be fully supported in Fuchs London-Town Dispatch v1.1.]
I crest the foot of the bridge to cross the street, and standing there on the footpath is a dead ringer for my sister Sara, paused peering at a map. I mean, same build, hair, glasses, and basic visage. I almost wonder if she's thrown things to the wind and flown over to meet me (and resume her explorations of the world).
Big Ben chimes 9pm, so I stop dead on the bridge, throw it to the wind myselfand do the Chris Knight doorbell dance. And it feels goooood.
There are no open container laws here, and no drinking age, resulting in just the right number of very young women walking around with cans of Guiness. London seems darned safe, too. Maybe we should abolish our liquor laws. Or build a clock tower. Or speak with English accents. Or apologize more. Oh, wait, it's outlawing guns, I forgot.
I don't nearly feel like retiring yetmuch less like walking through Trafalgar Square, which is between my current location and my hotelso I head north again, up the Victoria Embankment Thames-side toward Charing Cross Station. This is a great walker's town, as wellendless embankments, and walkways, and pedestrian-only streets. Also, they have gently flashing lights over the "zebra crossings" which admonish motorists to stop and let pedestrians across. On the downside, they do shunt you annoyingly wide to cross intersections, but that's probably for our own good.
I stumble onto the Sherlock Holmes, a pub/restaurant mentioned by color photo in Fodor's. That's fate, if I've ever heard it ring. And I'm an old hand, now: "Pint'a Stella, please." "Yes, of course," agrees the barkeep. I listen in on the lives of a group of five thirty-somethings, two of them married, one gay and involved, two singleslightly sadly, but uncomplainingly, so. They're like the group of friends in Notting Hill (to succumb to the sorry desire to paint all of life in filmic terms). Speaking of which, Leigh, from the night before, asked my about my favorite British films. I was mortified to not be able to think of any. She prompted me with, "Trainspotting, Four Weddings & A Funeral, The Full Monty." "Well," sniffed I, "I would have been really mortified to answer you with those!" She insisted that they were English films, and I could only agree.
Against my will, I am sucked back into T-Square, but do a quick loop and catapault back out (first getting a nice nighttime shot of the arch that is the gateway between the Square and the Mall). But, regrettfully, there's still nothing between me and my hotel that I either haven't seen, or want to see again. So I descend to the Underground. The tube is rattly, but it has personality, and it secrets me faithfully underneath all the circuses.
I go to some meetings.