"A foggy day, in London Town
Had me looowww, got me dooownn . . . "
- Billie Holliday


September 17, 2000

So, the thing I can't stop thinking about London is—everybody's going to have an English accent! Will that be cool, or what? I am scribbling in this damned notebook again, while walking down another airplane aisle, boarding, again.

<broken goddamn record>
Ali called, while I was on CalTrain to the airport—to wish me "happy London." I wished her "happy wedding" (someone else's, mercifully; she's to be a bridesmaid).
</broken goddamn record>

I think it might be time to bite the bullet and switch careers to crappily-paid, but world-traversing, travel writer. (Yeah, like it's as easy as simply deciding to . . .). I just can't any longer seem to get on the road out of town without my pen quite literally leaping from my bag and taking off on its own private literary journey—my plans for the trip be damned. I'm just right out of the decision-making process. And who bears the weight of the prolix monkey on my back? You, gentle reader. You.

Good news: BUSINESS CLASS. (I actually walked right by my row; I'm unused to even reading the row numbers this soon.)

Bad news: I may have to do some WORK when I get there.

They're passing out menus, with three courses on them. And I'm kind of getting lost in this seat, shuffling pillows, blankets, and complimentary bags of God only; screwing around with the power lumbar supports; etc.

Nice view of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, on takeoff. Last month I was privileged—if almost physically destroyed—to ride up Mt. Tam with my friend Allison. Allison, an avowed casual cyclist, did this 50 miler with 8000 ft. of climbing, without complaint or grimace. Probably needless to say, she is BAD.

Now, circling over the Golden Gate Bridge. My tour for Allison promised "the Golden Gate Bridge from every angle"—Ft. point, looking up at the bottom, riding across it, looking down on it from Marin Headlands—but I've never before seen it from almost directly above. Also, I get a nice topographical map (scale—1:1) of the "Conzelman Loop" in Marin, which I would have ridden with my friends Joe and Laura, had we not been beaten back by a freak cloud bank, come pouring in over the hills into the Bay, with blasting winds, freezing cold, and 150 ft. visibility. Instead, we rode through Sausalito to Tiberon, where we did damage to pizza and beer until the ferry came to take us back to the City. (A big numb finger to Joe and Laura!)

A fab New Yorker piece asserts that the "great genius of the New Yorker" lies in the physical empathy that allows them to navigate the "collective consciousness" of an intersection. It details how everyone is playing a role (pedestrian, cyclist, roller blader), and it is deeply important that no one play against character, because scores of people are making minute trajectory decisions, based on a calculus of how everyone else is likely to move. I was going to excerpt it here, but it's another casuality to the seatback pocket.

My fave New Yorker, sister Erin, has relocated to Vienna for the year, to study psychology in the home of Freud and Jung, as well as to go jogging by castles (and other such fairy tale activities). There's still an outside chance I'll get to see her on this trip, as Munich is on the list of places I might get forwarded to from London (as my indenture holders try to maximize the return on their investment of sending me over, mainly by inflicting me on various customers, partners, conferences, etc.). I figure if I get as close as Munich, I'm going to Vienna. So there.

Put down my NYer and opened up W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. Mine is a volume from 1933, in cool black binding and imprint, which I picked up at Freedonia Books (motto: "Books? We have them.") in Seattle—June before last. It's such a cool-looking volume that I preferred to leave it out on the table, rather than read it and put it on the shelf. However, Erin recently read it and was deeply affected, and urged me to use it for something other than decor. Much of the story takes place in London, which is why I'm lugging this 750-pager across the Atlantic. Also, I have found two 4-leaf clovers pressed in its pages—they might have been there for 65 years. I do wonder who left them for me.

Wake up in the middle of the night, as I often do, throat dry and eyes half-glued shut. Tried to get motivated to hit the head for some water—when I see a glass of water has been laid out for me (and every passenger) by the flight attendents, as we slept. Later, got, essentially, breakfast in bed. Here's what I know: International business class rules.

Landing. Can't believe I'm going to set foot on English soil. I consider this a great, overdue, exploration of cultural heritage. This is where we (the U.S.) came from (more or less).

Yep, the weather sucks. I have all these awful, ridiculous prejudices, like—How could people get inspired to build a whole, huge city where the weather's so bad? It seems like before you undertook the construction of something like, oh, LONDON, you'd first find a nice place to put it. Where you didn't have to get up under cold and overcast skies all the time.

Speaking of b-class, I even get a special fast-track passport-control/customs path. I guess that figures, going from the 2nd most class-conscious nation to the 1st. (Well, maybe India's worse . . .) Speaking of which, I still can't quite get my mind around this British notion of class. I mean, in England, if you're born into a middle-class family, and go to university, but go on to make 10 million pounds, cure cancer, and singlehandedly win the cold war . . . you're still middle class. It's like an aura, or 8th chakra, or something, affixed at birth—and stuck for life. At least in the States we have class based on something nice and tangible—your bank balance.

Allow me to recommend the Heathrow Express; it not only gets you to Paddington Station in 15 minutes—but they're playing the new Morcheeba single. Whoah, scratch that—they're actually playing the new Morcheeba video, on a monitor at the end of the car.

I will NOT stop and get a frappuccino in my first hour in London—despite immediately passing a Starbucks, not to mention an add for their frappuccinos on a bus stop.

As I start out for Trafalgar Square, all spry and a'gigglin', I see a clock and realize that it is 6AM PST (ie MyT). Luckily, I got down to 4 hours sleep/night this last week, endeavoring to get this God-blighted demo I'm showing to work. This means my body has given up fixed notions of what time it is.

I'm staying just south of Regent's Park—well north of the city center—so I trek south on Baker St., then make a left on Oxford. (First I stop and get a coffee "chiller" from a local cafe. And it's a totally different experience—characteristically English—as blended, iced coffee beverages go. All local flavour. Really.)

So, there is approximately 1 cubic ass-load of Internet cafes per square mile here. I'd probably be more able to delight in this fact—such a contrast to recent trips—if I hadn't happened to lug along a 700MHz P3 laptop, with internal 56kbps moden, and local Earthlink dial-in numbers.

Well, my Universal Theory of City-ness is holding, so far. Specifically, for you new readers, the theory states that all cities have much more in common, than they have apart. All urban metropoli are crowded, and loud, and trafficky, and dirty (to a greater or lesser extent). I.e., every new city you go to will seem much more like all the other cities you've been to, than it will seem like a brand new thing. By the time I hit Oxford Circus (aptly named!) I am sick of crowds. Albeit with me, it doesn't take much . . . However, also, disappointingly, I'm hearing as many foreign languages as English accents. ! By Piccadilly Circus, I also have a blister.

Leicester Square actually kind of reminds me of the zocalo in, shit, what was that one refuge of a town Sara and I ducked into during our flight from Mexico? I forget. But it's like that. Except more crowded. And with more exuberant improv street theatre conducted by gay, blonde, black Frenchmen in spandex.

I seem now to wander into a bit of a genuine theatre (yes, I can spell it that way now) district. ART is playing, and I see the first 15-foot statue I've ever seen of an actor. ("Henry Irving — ACTOR".)

Trafalgar Square: The very first thing I see is a statue of Geo. Washington, sent to the people of Great Britain by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The inscription at the bottom of Nelson's columns reads, "England expects every man to do his duty." (I'd crack about women being off the hook, if that weren't so facile.) A first sighting of a bit of blue sky! Ever since I was personally up in it! It just barely justifies donning my "Get the fuck back, I am Evil Incarnate" Costa del Mar EL-11 "Eliminator" prescription shades. And, anyway, I shouldn't complain. Last June, when I visited Seattle, it started raining on my 2nd day (of 7), and never stopped; and I rather liked that place.

All of the crosswalks, by the by, include helpful instructions on not getting run over, printed "LOOK LEFT" or "LOOK RIGHT" inscriptions on the pavement. This is especially nice for bozos who are walking while scribbling madly into little notebooks, looking straight down. Plus, with all of the traffic coming from the wrong direction . . .

The freneticism, and the tourist mob, both thin out markedly as I hit the Mall, and St. James's Park. The trees here are all in rows—this is an orderly country. On the other hand, the EL-11s lasted all of 20 minutes, before it got too cloudy again to wear them. (To be fair, though, they are tinted just as dark as the optician would allow, without me actually signing a waiver.)

Now I wonder if I'm being too hard on London, or at least not effusive enough in my praise. I am much liking it, in my first 3 hours. It may just be that I've been reading Bill Bryson lately, and that really dry, unforgiving tone might have rubbed off.

Now I am by the water, and the waterfowl, in St. James's Park—and both are lovely. Everything is a shade of green—including, oddly pleasingly, the water. This is a nicely lush urban park. Good for strolling, too. Did the English invent strolling? I bet they did.

A woman I pass on a bench is not only speaking in an English accent to her friends/family, but she is saying, "Well, we'll just have to go, and see how we get on, won't we?" which, needless to point out.

The English have very clear eyes.

I drop by the Windsors'. Speaking of whom, we were having a Monday Night Football bash at work last week, and Dennis Miller was color-commentating. On the subject of, I think two brothers switching teams in the NFL (or something), Miller cracked, "We haven't had this much intermingling of blood lines since the House of Plantagenet." Now, this was Monday Night Football; does Miller really think that anyone in America got this joke but me?

They're flying the Union Jack, here at Buckingham Palace—the first one I've seen. Maybe the Kiwi I was dating was right, about Statesiders always flapping their flag in your face.

I loop around the other edge of the Park, past Wellington Barracks (Queen's Guard); black iron fences in front of greenery and brownstone on the right, Park on the left—I could be going north on Central Park East.

###Editor's Note: For those who might, indeed, feel that I have been insufficiently exuberant in my praise of London, I wish to note that, just now, as I emerged into Parliment Square, and the Clock Tower (commonly known by the bell inside, Big Ben) came into view, I actually said, aloud, "Oh, shit . . ."

Okay, whoah, that was funny. I had paused to write the preceding paragraph, then crossed into the Square proper; the full Houses of Parliment (of which the Clock Tower is a part) appeared, and I—totally involuntarily, I swear—muttered, "Holy shit . . ." Must stop these profane ejaculations.###

I snap a couple of the CT, which I don't think are going to capture the scale, and proceed to the water—my first look at the Thames since approach. Stepping out over the stately river, on Westminster Bridge, brings a big smile to my face. I want, with Maugham's protagonist Philip Carey, to hop a penny steamer to Greenwich. But I doubt such are available these days.

My new, developing theory is that cities are almost completely unknowable from afar. You can study all night; buy the guidebooks; view the slides; learn the layout; even pre-immerse in the culture and language. And when you get there, you may as well have beamed in from Mars. Cities are so corporeal, so real and jagged, so there-and-themselves-and-nothing-other, that they just do not lend themselves to imaginative visualization. Once you set foot, all is clear; until then, your every notion of the town is just an arbitrary fever-dream. Go ahead and amuse yourself with it, but don't expect it ever to be realized.

###Ed note: that was probably the best bit, right there, and the rest is a little limp in comparison, so you might decide you want to stop reading now.###

As I head toward Westminster Abbey, Big Ben magisterially chimes. I restrain myself from doing a little Chris Knight doorbell dance.

You know what I'm going to do tonight? I bet you do. I'm going to go to a pub and get a pint, or four.

Westminster Abbey immediately calls to mind Notre Dame—it's both the butresses, and the (nearly inconceivable) scale. You just rarely get to see that much stone in one place—much less sculpted and placed to detailed, dizzying perfection.

Looping back up past 10 Downing St., I wander into the Whitehall Facade of the House of Guards—right in time to witness a changing of the Queen's Life Guard; however, I am unable to bring myself to exercise what my Fodor's Guide calls "London's most frequently exercised photo opportunity."

I work my way back up to the St. James, and Mayfair, neighborhoods—the "very heart of London's West End," its "posh and polished streets" exuding a "palpable sense of being in a great, rich, (once) powerful city." That all may well be; but, in any case, I'm willing to bet I can at least get a pint there.

Okay, now I'm starting to get this down. West End: posh; East End: seedy. Is that right? Also, the West End isn't terribly unlike the Upper West Side. The streets are a little broader (or, at any rate, Pall Mall is). And nothing goes over eight stories, which, come to consider it, is pretty unlike the UWS.

As warranted, I pass the Red Lion Pub, hidden in a narrow alley, and reputedly "West End's Second Oldest License," and just yodeling "traditional"—with woods, red felt, mirrors, crampedness, regulars who look like they've been occupying the same seats for 35 years, 30 malt whiskies, 12 beers on tap, etc. However, I've still got daylight to walk in; might loop back.

Another stock-still, red-suited guard outside St. James Place. This one, though, has got a rifle, with fixed bayonet. Maybe his job is to make sure no one puts a hotel there.

I continue down the alley to spy on the Duke and Duchess of Kent, who live in York House, a huge, hulking, four-story, stone mansion, which is an odd thing to have tucked down an alley.

It's dusk as I hit St. James Square. The interior park is gorgeous—but locked.

Okay, this is incredibly provincial, but I just have to stop and peer into one of the Mercedes parked here—at the right-side driving controls. I'm kind of amazed how completely weird it is—like looking at a face with an upside-down nose. (Almost weirder was that I saw a car with left-side controls, from elsewhere else in Europe, and that looked out of place. You would never see an exception in N. America.)

As I exit the Square, a very slim black man with long dreads and an indeterminate foreign accent asks me, "Quickest way to Piccadilly Circus?" I quickdraw my Fodor's Guide, and we both laugh, and plot his route from the map.

Hmm, here's another Red Lion Pub. This one doesn't make any obvious claims to age; but it does have a sizeable crowd standing and drinking on the street in front. (A pleasant-looking practice that is not allowed w/U.S. license laws. Except in New Orleans, of course, of which I'm immediately reminded by two chaps drinking and leaning on an Evening Standard paper box.) I find myself lingering here, and I realize it is because this is the first crowd of people I've encountered who are not all tourists. Real Londoners—in their natural setting (drinking). I'm intrigued.

I can't pass by it without noting the Paxton & Whitfield Shop—"Cheesemongers since 1797." I could probably name 20 U.S. cities where you would get shot for calling someone a "cheesemonger." But, mostly this neighborhood is "men's accessories" stores: scads of cufflinks, ties, vests, hats, custom shirts, grooming sets, etc.

I am finding that the execrable American impulse to be suspicious/nervous of young, black men on the street instantly evaporates when they begin speaking in English accents. My, my.

I see that my path is leading back toward my hotel, so I circle back around to the Red Lion (][). This is so great, I'm in a public house! The epicenter of English life! Albeit, I can't get service, which is why I'm writing this. Okay, here comes a pint of Burton Ale.

So, I cheekily introduce myself to a group of three just outside the door—black man, black woman, indeterminately Asian/Filipino woman. (Official line: "Hello, I know no one for 4000 miles in any direction"—okay, this is a slight fudge, I know one person, she's about 15 miles south of here—"please talk to me.") This works well enough, and so the four of us discuss a bit of this, a bit of that. The indeterminant (though definately beautiful) woman wants to go to Miami. The man sensibly wants to see New York. We agree that everyone's top two should by NYC and London. Unfortunately, they all leave 10 minutes later, which is why I'm talking to you now, rather than anyone actually in my presence. The next group over is discussing football now; I don't know if I can brave that.

Oh, right—the point I wanted to make originally—they appear not to have (or, at any rate, be aware of) race here. There's perfect racial mingling, in my admittedly small sample.

Anyway, I'm all out of cheek for the moment, so I finish my pint and exit, north up Bond St. As I perambulate, I take a moment to familiarize myself with the coins I've been accumulating. The pound coin is unmistakeable, all thickness and heft. However, the 10p coin is about twice the area of the 20p coin.

After I've seen plenty of the conspicuous consumption available for the hardcore shopper on Bond St., I turn onto Grovesnor St. And, I do believe the Grovesnor Arms Pub is calling to me.

In its warm embrace, I meet Simon and Leigh. These two are young, bright-eyed, well-spoken, 24-year-olds, she aspriring to fashion design, he to web design. Only after 20 minutes or so do I learn that they are not merely brother and sister—but two of triplets. Their third half (so to speak) has spent the last year tramping around (Asia to Pacific Rim to Australasia to Hawaii and back). These two seem to get along very well, and have the very endearing trait of assuring me that my incoming 30th birthday is hardly a big deal. ("Thirty's not old!") The three of us discuss travel, and careers, and the States, and England, and values, and sibling relationships, and I leave very much thinking that these two are fine people. I'm sad that I'll never see them again, except by the wildest chance.

Deeply embarrassingly, I enter the ink-dark Grosvenor Square with the express purpose of taking a surreptitious piss (which, of course I should have thought to do before leaving Grosvenor Arms, but didn't). When I turn from my chosen tree, I behold just about the last thing in the world I expected to see at that moment: the Stars & Stripes, flying high and well lit at the north end of the Square. My next, and surely last, pilgrimmage of the night: the U.S. Embassy.

As I make my way up the stairs, a random guy appears from the Square, asking, "'Scuse me, mate—was that you in the square? With the light? Pretty spooky, you know." He is no doubt referring to my keychain mini-maglight, which I was using to scribble the last paragraph. "Hope I didn't frighten you," I carefully answer. "Not me. Frightened her," he said, pointing to a woman behind him. "Well," I say, somewhat bemusedly, "tell her I'm harmless."

And I am; or maybe just charmed by this place. The last 10 hours have been deeply happy ones. Tomorrow morning: the Tate Modern.

CHEERS - Michael

part 2 ->