Category: Uncategorized

LONDON CALLING – Thursday, 21 February 2019

I slept like a baby log. Fuck if I didn’t need it. I pad around for a bit, shower, pull on my rank dungarees, and go to the street for caffeine. The pastries in the case must be eschewed, but the coffee’s just fine. Ali’s a long time rallying. She’s suffering from one spectacular sleep deficit. I putter electronically, as is my wont. Eventually, we’re able to consult with one another and decide to visit the British Museum, the one big hole in our itinerary. It’s a straight shot up Drury Lane, which means we can stop for a real breakfast at our ‘regular’ coffee shop. Poached eggs on toast with streaky bacon.

The great glass canopy over the courtyard surrounding the circular former Main Reading Room of the British Library makes for a breathtaking entrance to the vastness of the Museum. This time we plump for a two-pound map to guide us to the greatest hits, like the Marbles of Elgin. They’re pretty easy to find and, truthfully, not that impressive as marbles go, lots of torsi pieces and one endless frieze of horse legs. As we’re leaving, a random bust by the door catches our eye, a handsome gent with personality, not just an expression. We stop to exchange pleasantries. In a nearby chamber of fragments, a gaggle of four young women dressed as Hogwarts coeds, complete with robes and ties, giggle self-consciously at who-the-fuck-knows-what proving there’s no statute of limitations on douche-baggery.

Alice and I gravitate to the Ancient and Medieval Britain rooms where Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, and Celtic treasures abound; hoards of silver and gold discovered in fields and mounds mostly by amateurs. Made from walrus ivory by medieval Nordic folk, the goggle-eyed Lewis Chessmen delight us, but the bog-pickled mummy dude, not so much. For two tired people, we sure can while away the hours among the artifacts. In the gift shop (yeah, again), I buy Ali a silk scarf. In another gift shop, we find the individual chessmen for sale. Ali buys a berserker (a knight, I guess) and I get a print of a Japanese frog.

Did I mention my well-traveled and stinky blue jeans? With gusto, I toss them into the washing machine, delighted at the thought of a transatlantic flight in clean pants. I separate my dirty lights from my dirty darks and chuck them in as well. As an experienced launderer, I check the dryer filter for impacted lint only to discover a fibrous accumulation the size and color of a squirrel. Begone! When the wash cycle completes, however, I find my Jockey shorts, undershirts, and socks have all turned a delicate shade of robin’s egg blue. Time for a fucking meal. But I have NO PANTS! Yeah, you do; those too-long dress pants. Suck it up, dude. Be not caring.

Great Indian meal tonight! Great Thai place the night before! Each restaurant on either side of the front door to our flat. Pie easy. Tomorrow, we fly.

LONDON CALLING – *Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Ali is still crook this morning. She coughed all night long. I make the call and send Kif and Joss off to Heathrow. Joss has work Thursday night. I hope the threatened snow in NYC proves to be alarmist and bogus. Alice and I will stay for a day or two until this fucking cough of hers abates some. 

I have many feelings – irritation, confusion, compassion, exhaustion, relief. The logistics implicit in this turn of events are sort of daunting. For example, I don’t feel I can cancel the other two tickets before Kif and Joss are airborne for fear of inadvertently cancelling all four of them. But, what good is trying to cancel tickets for a flight that’s already taken off? Oh, fuck me. Anyway, I feel constrained from doing anything. Joss texts when they board, so I book a flat down on The Strand for two nights. Changing plane tickets via website, however, proves just too intimidating for antediluvian me. And, jesus, is there no working telephone number for Delta Airlines in the United Fucking Kingdom? Nice airline. It quickly becomes apparent that rebooking will require a schlep to Heathrow. We temporarily ditch our luggage in a room off the office at Number Four Broad Court and head off to Covent Garden Station.

It is a miracle of common sense that the Piccadilly Line goes right to Terminal Three at Heathrow. Seats on the train are at a premium until we’ve passed Victoria (Station) and South Kensington (V&A and Nat. Histo.). The Delta customer service guy looks askance, but changes our tickets with little fuss. Just include the penalty ‘cause we suck. Pfeh. We’re now booked on the 10:30am flight on Friday, Feb 22. Let’s get the fuck outta here. On the train back to the city there’s an abundance of seats. We smile as two little boys read all the advertising copy aloud to each other. And to our constant amusement, at every stop a computerized female voice announces that this is the train to Cockfosters. 

Finalizing the flat booking requires depths of patient fatalism usually reserved for post-apocalyptic survival. We munch on fairly decent pizza, while sending documentation telephonically. Soon, we receive instructions to locate a certain newsstand, give the secret password, and receive the key. The apartment at 148 The Strand is large and white with idiosyncrasies and a washer/dryer. We’re gonna sleep our asses off. 

LONDON CALLING – Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Today, Ali’s crook. Joss’ been restored to perkiness, but poor Alice is now laid low, with congestions of the sinai and a wicked cough. She elects to stay put, as Joss did yesterday. So, the ‘healthy’ three depart for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew via the Underground. No matter where you are, what city, what country, riding the subway offers a glimpse into the real life of the place and its real people. Thank heaven most of these folks will take their kids by the hand at South Kensington and haul them into the Natural History Museum.

The RBG (yes, the RBG) is presenting an Orchid Extravaganza, which, for once, does not cost extra. It’s a strategy to draw people to the Garden during the off-season. Amusement at the Victoria Gate – a scooter park with thirty or so colorful, little kids’ scooters all lined up and waiting. Our path through the Princess of Wales Greenhouse begins in the desert, where orchids are unplentiful, creating an aura of puzzlement. Moving along, the humidity intensifies and suddenly there are cascades and clouds, pillars and pools of orchids in their infinite, rococo variety.

After lunch, the Palm House beckons. It’s an expansive, humid tropical paradise, a 19thcentury spectacle. Palms and cycads everywhere, including one cycad they claim to be the oldest potted plant in … the world. A spiral staircase leads up to the catwalk that allows one to circumnavigate the central part of the greenhouse from above. From that vantage, the tops of the trees fan out against the white-painted iron framework, while outside dormant flower beds and endless allées of green grass hint at the possibility of springtime. 

We leave the atmosphere of the Palm House and strike out overland. Kew was founded by botanical scientists and well-known for its ancient specimen trees. I remember a disastrous wind storm some thirty years ago that took out some of the Gardens’ oldest and most renowned trees. One, The Turner Oak, was completely uprooted. It had been ailing for some time, but to everyone’s surprise, once resettled, developed new vigor. Soil compaction at the root. Old trees now get special attention for this. In leafless winter, the trees are at their most sculptural. The fractal complexity of trunk and bough and branch and twig is breathtaking. One immense tree is the Chestnut-leaved Oak, one of the Gardens’ oldest, having sprung from an acorn of the Caucasus planted in 1846.

Older still is the Pagoda Tree, planted in 1702. It’s striking in that it has developed distinctive horizontality over its three hundred years; the main trunk runs parallel to the ground for 20 meters. Its base has been reinforced by a brick structure and its boughs supported by sturdy metal beams. 

Of sentimental interest to me is Kew’s Wollemi Pine. Ali and I found the one in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia. This tree is one of those ‘living fossils’ like the gingko, having been discovered in the 90s in a hidden valley of the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. London’s Wollemi Pine is statuesque, compared to the ungainly Sydney example. Exiting through the fucking gift shop, I buy Kif a book on Kew. Yay.  

We roll into 6 Broad Court just before five o’clock. Alice is up and about, though coughing and complaining. Our final London meal is at Brasserie Zedel, a spectacular stage set of a brasserie in a vast, underground complex of dining and entertainment.

Packing. Packing, Packing. Sad Face.

LONDON CALLING – Monday, 18 February 2019

Joss barfs on her birthday.

This may be the saddest sentence of a person’s lifetime. Poor Jocelyn. She texts me at 7:30am. “Good morning. Come see me in my room when you are up.” She’s abject and miserable. I help remake her bed with her in it, because she completely mauled it puking all night. I leave her tucked in and go upstairs to make coffee. Ali and Kif appear around nine o’clock and so does Joss. She’s kitten-weak. She shoos us out. “Go without me. I can’t go anywhere.” Sadly, therapeutically, we depart, heading for the Tower of London in the drizzle. This is our first rainy day. 

Tickets are purchased. We walk right in, bypassing the vacant maze of crowd fencing that anticipates a frightful mob. This is the first hyper-touristy British site we’ve visited. Wandering through turrets of the Tower, we encounter many stories, many lives; it’s been in operation for a thousand years and something serious happened here involving just about every monarch. A fortress, a palace, a prison, a treasure house. The rain is doing its annoying best. That wet wool smell coming from my overcoat seems appropriate. 

A twisty line of damp automatons snakes in front of the Crown Jewels. Getting wetter in order to gawk at bijoux is foolhardy, so we search and search, discovering an even more pointless line to join which eventually manipulates us into a tiny room where we shuffle around a hexagonal photo display of all the ‘famous’ prisoners held in the Tower. It’s still raining when we exit. Crossing the yard, we can’t help but notice a mom having her photo taken by her young daughter dressed as a knight. “You have to hold the phone UP so they don’t see my double chin.” “I didn’t know you had a double chin.”

WAY OUT. There has to be a Way Out! It’s through the gift shop, of course, but first we detour to the gift shop that specializes in souvenirs bearing the raven theme. Six of these birds inhabit the Tower on the pretext that if they leave for any reason, the Tower will fall. Never-fucking-more, I say. I buy a fucking mug after scorning the Beefeater neck pillow constructed so two pink demon faces tuck under one’s chin. We escape, parched and famished. 

Following some excellent curry, the three of us continue to hoof through the mist determined to locate St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s a grand, gray edifice and inside it praises God. We’re too late to attempt the climb to the Whispering Gallery. Thank Fucking Christ. A boys’ choir is warming up, filling the dome with glory. We exit through the crypt. It’s where churches get all mercantile, down there with the dead bodies.

If we cross the Millennium Bridge, we’ll approach the Tate Modern, that hulking what-the-fuck. The Bridge has a striated, metal surface that makes a kick-ass noise when one slides across it. Children love this. The bridge used to wobble, but not anymore. As we stride across the Thames, The rebuilt Globe Theater is visible in its half-timbered, humble majesty. 

This is the upstart Tate, the one with the cutting edge supposedly. The exhibit in the Turbine Hall (one staggering space) is a horrible low-frequency hum that means something meaningful to its creator, but behaves like a profound nuisance to everyone else. We navigate some galleries, for better or worse. The verdict is the Tate Modern is cool. The shops sure are. I am immediately smitten by a lovely, modest, horizontal print by sculptor Martin Boyce. The words, ‘Remembered Skies’, drift across what seems to be a reproduction of two facing pages from JMW Turner’s watercolor notebooks of cloud formations. This will be my souvenir.

When we get back to 6 Broad Court, Joss has rallied. A less-than-24-hour bug or food poisoning or something. The dining consensus is take-out. An attractive ramen joint on Great Queen Street has appeal. Ali is beginning to cough. We call it an early night.

LONDON CALLING – Sunday, 17 February 2019

Okay. Okay. We really ought to take the goddamn Underground while we’re in fucking London. It’s a straight shot from Covent Garden to the V&A, the Victoria & Albert Museum, Britain’s vast treasury of decorative arts and design. Ali’s been touchy since last night and takes some post-Tube comments to heart which results in us splitting up for the day. J&K stay at the V&A, while V&A depart. Ali and I walk for a long time through South Kensington. It’s a gorgeous day, clear blue sky filtered through the winter superstructure of the plane trees. The neighborhood feels decidedly chichi. There are classy, five-story apartment blocks that all carry a plummy name like – Whatsitshire Mansions. Is this wishful thinking, or is the real estate here such a breed apart. We stop for lunch at a corner café and immediately feel better. 

Ali and I arrive at The Design Museum in Holland Park. It was founded in 1989 by Terence Conran, he of the wonderfully quirky shop in the Citicorp Building during the wild 80s. The structure is elegant and dramatic, however the collection feels sparse. The Museum appears primarily to act as an educational institution. A special exhibition, however, of the work of Anglo-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye is stirring and profound. Adjaye designed the African-American History and Culture Museum on the Mall in Washington, DC. This exhibit features his designs for monuments, either high cultural venues or commemorations of historical events or personages. We feel that sort of chastened feeling one gets from powerful and original art. We have learned something.

After poking around the gift shop (always) with some success, the two of us head down Holland Park Road to the Leighton House, where Sir Frederick Leighton lived and painted. Leighton was not quite a Pre-Raphaelite, because his training was European and not Royal Academy. Anyway, he built a grand showcase for himself, suitable for man of his pedigree and reputation, adding on to it over and over again for thirty years. This beautiful, elaborate house filled with light and treasures has but one single bedroom (not counting staff). Fred was not a snuggler. We are just in time for the three o’clock tour. There must be thirty-five or forty people waiting for this fucking ‘tour’. The docent is a knowledgeable Scots woman with an abruptly mild sense of humor, but after about an hour our eyes have glazed over and we duck out.

We hail a taxi on Kensington High Street giving the driver our usual address – Royal Opera House, please. Our flat is just a block away down a footpath. I suggest a nearby restaurant for dinner, Barrafina, a tapas joint. It has counter seating so the four of us split up again. Joss & I and Kif & Ali. Now this is the weird part: Joss and I have what will perhaps be our most memorable meal, while Kif and Ali sitting thirty feet away are deeply underwhelmed. “All that meat and seafood, Dad.” No theater tonight. Bed. 

LONDON CALLING – Saturday, 16 February 2019

It’s a half-hour walk through Trafalgar Square and down the east side of St. James Park to the Churchill War Rooms. Along the way, we note eight or so elegant horsemen with horsehair plumes on their helmets mustering before a crowd of onlookers on the vast, pebbled Horse Guards Parade grounds. Our 11am ticket time is fast approaching so we can’t linger. 

In the late 1930s, the War Ministry, anticipating conflict, began the construction of an underground command center in Whitehall below what is now the Treasury Building. It became operational shortly before the Nazi invasion of Poland and subsequent declaration of war. This complex of rooms and the Churchill Museum have only been open to the public since the 80s. 

Everyone gets an audioguide, which is paradoxically helpful and annoying. I dutifully follow the numerical schematic until I become befogged by too much information in the Churchill Museum. Consequently, I turn off the fucking device and wander happy as a cloud through conference rooms, communications rooms, map rooms, and sleeping quarters. It’s terribly claustrophobic, and one can almost smell the awful stink of cigarettes, BO, and petrol exhaust. Even Clementine Churchill had a bedroom in this warren, poor dear. The four of us breathe easier once we’ve resurfaced.  

Our next destination is the Tate Britain, the national repository of British Art. We’re all eager to see the great store of Turners therein. The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey pass by: Westminster Abbey impacted with gawkers and Big Ben encased in a full-body cast. We move along, strolling next the Thames for the first time. Joss leads us, as she’s done brilliantly on most of our forays. 

One of the quirks of British museum-going is that site maps cost an extra pound or two. Somehow, this always feels like an extravagance, so we rarely spring for one, only to dwell in perpetual frustration and regret. In a triumph of aimlessness, we chance upon the Turner rooms, which are organized thematically – Landscape, Seascape, Portraiture, etc. The great, late, radiant Turners are all mixed in. Chronology lets us down again. 

We break down as a foursome, taking our own individual sweet time. Independently we each discover the William Blake rooms, where his spooky, nutty, prosaic, incomprehensible work flummoxes and entertains. A gallery of Henry Moore’s sculpture is a tonic after all this two-dimensional stuff. We retreat to the café for noontime refreshment. There’s a l-o-n-g line and no visible empty tables. Alas, no fucking trays either. Nevertheless, we persevere and ultimately score a table outdoors in the mild overcast. 

The Tate is presenting a special exhibit of the work of Edward Burne-Jones, a Pre-Raphaelite master. It costs extra, but we’re game. Like a lot of his Pre-Raphaelite colleagues, he paints the same goddamn broad over and over and always in mythological extremis. There were a few eerie portraits of lovely, individualized young women, but mostly – meh. Before attending to Mr. Burne-Jones, I forgot my phone in the loo. Mild panic. It had been returned to the cloakroom by an honest Brit. I don’t think I’d been in a cloakroom since third grade.

Back at 6 Broad Court, everyone naps while a load of darks spins in the washing machine. Our dinner reservation is at a classic British establishment called Rules. It’s very antlers-and-aquatints in décor and Shepherd’s Pie in menu. Kif and I order cock-a-leekie soup which turns out to chicken broth with chicken, leeks, and prunes. Weird in-name-only. Unhappily, Ali gets mis-gendered (called ‘Sir’) twice. Some turmoil develops, spills into the street, and is resolved. 

Tonight, we have tickets at the Donmar Warehouse for a show called Berberian Sound Studio, a dark ‘comedy’, based on a movie from a few years ago where a dorky sound engineer (from Dorking) tips into insanity while working on an Italian horror movie. The production is ingenious, but the play itself is too fragmentary to truly be interesting. 

LONDON CALLING – Friday, 15 February 2019

Today we are sufficiently motivated to step outside 6 Broad Court for breakfast. There’s a decent coffee shop a ways up Drury Lane. And, no, it is not called The Muffin Man. Eggs, finally. Poached. On Toast.

It’s a long walk to the British Library and we have an eleven o’clock Conservation Studio Tour, so we hail a taxi. We’re instructed to wait by some signage with a blind man and his wife for someone from Conservation to gather us. The tour is subtitled ‘An Audio Tour’, so I imagined we’d be wearing headsets on some self-guided journey through the stacks, but it turns out to be structured to accommodate the visually impaired. Liz and Wendy appear. Liz is put together in slacks and blouse, while Wendy wears a faded red hoodie and blue (possibly denim) trousers.

They escort us into a conference room where Amy, a conservator, demonstrates the steps she has taken to restore a fire-damaged diary of the wife of a British magistrate in India immediately following the rebellion in mid-19thcentury. The burnt edges have been reinforced with a very fine Japanese tissue that’s glued with reversible gelatin to prevent the brittle, charred paper from fragmenting any further. The diarist had also tipped in newspaper clippings and other ephemera into her book, some of which have gone rogue. These oddments have been collected and bound into a supplemental volume. The repair process seems laborious, but apparently can be accomplished relatively quickly by highly adept and efficient experts like Amy and Wendy.

Alice asks many questions. She is feeling the pull of a Masters degree in Library Science. After spending a good half-hour with Amy, we’re taken to visit Gavin, whose skill it is to affix gilt lettering to restored or replaced book covers and spines. He gives a thorough demonstration of his art and quietly bemoans the slow disappearance of formal bookbinding. Gavin is patient and attentive to the blind gentleman who is completely engaged.

Then, Wendy says, “Liz, show them your flag.” Liz is a fabric conservator Besides every book ever published in the United Kingdom, the Library contains countless artifacts. These flags are two almost completely disintegrated silk banners belonging to the East India Company’s London office. They seem beyond saving to me, but Liz has devoted months to their restoration, which will be unveiled with great ceremony next month. 

The British Library is the largest library in the world. Until 1973 it was part of the British Museum. In the center of the building, stands a six-story, free-standing glass tower containing the King’s Library, 65,000 books amassed by George III, its foundational collection. The Library displays its treasures for all to see, in a series of rooms on the first floor. Hundreds of books, documents, maps, and letters make for a fascinating afternoon’s adventure. There’s a copy of the Magna Carta, a First Folio, Beatles lyrics, Handel’s Water Music score, and on and on. We spend more than an hour pouring over the pages. My sneakers have been making their customary farting noise that thrills and embarrasses the girls in equal measure. I lead the group out of the Library, tooting all the way to our next destination – the Grant Museum of Zoology.

I zeroed in on this unusual repository because of a guidebook’s tantalizing mention of ‘a jar of eighteen preserved moles’. Who could resist! The Grant Museum houses thousands of zoological specimens, either taxidermied, pickled, skeletal, or on slides. There are some pretty disgusting items, but also glories like the display called – A Collection of Brains. And rarities, too, like a Quagga skeleton (a long-extinct antelope-y creature). This being one of seven in the world.

There isn’t much down-time at 6 Broad Court before we’re off to dinner and the theater. The Southbank beckons. I booked a window table at Skylon (not a Battlestar Galactica-themed restaurant) where we get to watch twilight descend across the Thames. Five minutes away, in the Council Chamber of London County Hall, we have tickets to a production of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. It’s a spectacular room, where for over half a century, London’s local government met and the perfect setting for a twisty courtroom drama such as this. However, the setting cannot compensate for the absence of Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power.

LONDON CALLING – Thursday, 14 February 2019

I don’t have Google Maps on my phone: I have Moron Maps. My children have expanded my deficit awareness. Today’s a sleep-in day. We’re pretty whipped. One of the consequences of sleep-in day is no breakfast; this could set a tone for the conscious part of sleep-in day. 

I’m pretty fucking excited because today we get to tour Sir John Soane’s House on Lincoln’s Inn Fields. When I was a college ‘student’, I spent the month of January 1974 on a London Theater program. We saw 23 plays in 18 days. Because I was free during the daylight hours, I could tag along with Art History nerds on the concurrent London Architecture program. The 45-year-old imprint of Sir John Soane’s House is permanent. It’s one of my go-to daydream locations. Now I’m going to show it to my family. 

The House is the most sophisticated, most intricate, most dazzling example of over-the-top domestic clutter in the known universe. Soane loved his stuff, loved his self, and loved showing off them both. Over time, he combined three town houses into one great, infinitely complex warren of amazement. One surprise after another. Floors and ceilings float, then melt away. Mirrors and skylights play ventriloquist with light. Antiquities cover just about every surface. And on every chair, a teasel.

Soane was an early exemplar of the 18th Century Neo-Classical style of architecture. He rose from the standard humble beginnings to become a Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, an official architect of the Office of Works, and a Knight of the Realm. His supreme achievement was the Bank of England building whose interior of vast domed banking halls was gutted in the 1920s. He also designed the Dulwich Picture Gallery, opened in 1817, the first public art museum in England. His scheme of a series of rooms lit from above by skylights has been the template for gallery design ever since. A wacky side note: When his wife, Eliza, died, he designed her tomb, which subsequently became the model (long after his death) for London’s iconic red phone box. 

We are booked on the noon tour led by a perky guide named Philip whose enthusiasm and knowledge adds a welcome human element to Soane’s astonishing, occasionally wearying, contrivances. How did Sir John get the three-ton alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I into the fucking basement? One is too gobsmacked to ask, but Philip’ll tell you anyway. By the time we step into the sunshine, we’re almost too stunned to realize we’re famished. 

A ‘Belgian’ restaurant provides us with a hearty lunch and we’re ready to search for Charles Dickens’ House. While he lived many places in London, all but this, his first home on Doughty Street, no longer exist. The over-riding theme of this museum is Dickens & Food, a topic on which he could talk endlessly. In fact, his wife, Catherine, wrote a popular cookbook called What Shall We Have for Dinner? Satisfactorily Answered by Numerous Bills of Fare for from Two to Eighteen Persons.

On a personal note: It’s time to wash some of our more grim clothings. Stopping at the superdupermarket on the way back to 6 Broad Court, we stock up on detergents. Now the trick will be finding time to actually do a load of laundry. No big whoop. Dinner’s at a Laotian restaurant. Dining options in London have been cosmopolitan and often excellent. After dinner and before listening to classical piano concert by ‘candlelight’ in St Martin-in-the-Fields, we share a slice of Lemon Drizzle cake in St Martin’s crypt. The ideal combo of spooky and delicious.

LONDON CALLING – Wednesday, 13 February 2019

It turns out the four bedrooms in Flat Number Three at Number Six Broad Court contain four beds that each possess a ‘wrong side’. No one is devoid of grumpiness. Not even two cups of coffee can soothe the savage communal breast of La Famille Hansmann. And, hey, the cardamom buns suck. Nevertheless, we rally and head towards Buckingham Palace with the faint hope of seeing the guard change. Change is Good.

We traverse the muddy paths of St. James Park (or perhaps its companion, Green Park) as faintly audible martial music intimates that The Change is taking place. The closer we get the more obvious it becomes that they are indeed playing the Theme from the Magnificent Seven. I am assuming they’re trying to have fun with their job. The black and gold palace gates are several hundred yards farther off, yet the towering black fur headgears of The Guard bob above the bare heads of the hoi polloi. Suddenly a cohort breaks rank, escapes the palace gates, and heads down the Mall passing obstacle-free right in front of us. It’s like being given a photo opportunity without having to be Ace Reporter.

Sated now, we move laterally toward the Queen’s Gallery where I expect the Royal Art Collection to be. Nope. A small but opulent show about Russian Royalty beckons. Memorable are a most restrained and beautiful Fabergé egg, a full-length portrait of some bored-looking noble dude boasting a startlingly robust endowment, and a string quartet from the London School of Music sawing away. The Gift Shop features all the Buckingham Palace swag you could ever imagine an Anglophile tourist might possibly want, for instance, a tube labeled ‘Handbag Shortbread for Emergencies’ and a corgi-emblazoned sleep mask. God Save the Queen!

Gotta get lunch. There’s peakedness all around. The Laughing Halibut Fish and Chips is a ten-minute walk. Formica tables! Malt vinegar! Mushy peas! Four kinds of fish!

Our customary sightseeing routine consists of a morning thing, then lunch, then an afternoon thing, then nap. It’s after lunch and we’re sort of far afield, so I ask my GPS app to find us a nearby taxi stand. It does and we follow the erratic blue dot, picking up a cab to Handel-and-Hendrix-in-London, two adjoining buildings inhabited by two musical giants two hundred years apart. Handel owned 25 Brook Street, while, for a year in the late 60s, Jimi rented a flat at the top of Number 23. The juxtaposition is delicious. Each dwelling has been restored to its time. I am over the moon. The walls in the Handel house have been painted Historically Accurate Gray. The floors creak and nothing is original, yet in the clear light the place has a certain resonance. Jimi’s flat was decorated, then redecorated for this restoration, by his then-girlfriend. A fringe-y shawl canopy protects a mattress on the floor. A full ashtray sits by the bed. A three-foot tall knitted stuffed animal called Dog Bear lies in a heap next to a bowl of fruit. A stereo and several stacks of LPs line the wall. 

Handel’s operas, oratorios, and instrumental music are some of my dependable playlist favorites and, despite two tabs of Orange Sunshine, my memory of attending Jimi’s Band of Gypsys concert at the Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1970 will never fade,.

This nutty, exhilarating experience buoys us and we’re all game to track down the Faraday Museum housed at the Royal Institution on Albemarle Street. It’s an easy walk along Bond Street, the Fifth Avenue of London. We pass some remarkably decked-out Londoners, carrying off high fashion with crisp brio. The Royal Institution, despite its vague name, is Britain’s premier scientific laboratory. Countless scientific discoveries have been made there and over a dozen Nobel laureates have worked there since its founding in 1799. In the basement, Michael Faraday’s magnetic lab remains as it was in the 1850s. Faraday is a true rock star of science. His fundamental work on electromagnetism provided the basis for the practical application of electricity, the foundation for the modern life we take for granted.

Dinner and theater tonight. I booked us into a fancy restaurant in Somerset House called Spring, and, yes, the meal is lovely. The chef has an eye for ingredients and a light touch. The theater, not so much. Out of pop curiosity I had purchased tickets for the West End rendition of Sam Shepherd’s True West, starring Kit Harrington (Jon Snow). It’s not a good play, here rendered even more turgid by the hard-working actors’ struggle with two hours of combative and self-indulgent American dialogue. 

Note to self – following Google Maps at night is infuriating. Don’t do it.

LONDON CALLING – Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Oh, No! Consciousness! The price of sleeping poorly in a cold, cold room. The electrical failure appears to be both ongoing and include everything that’s not an overhead lightbulb – heating, fridge, electric teapot. I guess I have to ask for help. Meekly, resentfully, I pull on yesterday’s travel garb and present my dilemma to the desk clerk at the hotel next door where we picked up our keys. He encourages me to locate the fuse box or circuit breaker. “It’s up there somewhere on the left,” says our clerk, airily flapping his hand. With baleful tone, I promise to return should my attempt at problem-solving prove unsuccessful.

Without much trouble, the circuit-breaker is found and tripped. The fridge turns over, beeping and flashing, cryogenic cyborg that it is. Electronics can now be charged, ensuring that we will not get lost, GPS-wise. I brew a French-press pot of coffee. I love stimulants. The croissants we bought at Maison Bertaux are colossal. Stupendous, even. The girls appear at the appointed time – 9am. Breakfast is merry; sleep be damned. Semi-ambivalently, we marshal our energy and wander off to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. 

The riches there very nearly overwhelm this guy. Being Europe, there’s a surfeit of transcendent work by artists not much represented in the US, like Raphael. The first marvel is the Wilton Diptych, a late-medieval painting from the 1400s representing Richard the Second kneeling before Mary and Baby Jesus and their backup singers, the Blue Disgruntled Angels. Other unforgettable paintings: The Arnolfini Portraitby Jan van Eyck that depicts a tender, somber couple standing in a bedroom. It has been long-suggested that the woman is pregnant, but she may just be holding the bulk of her voluminous green skirt in front of her. Her husband, it has been noted, bears an unfortunate resemblance to Vlad von Putin. Diego Velazquez’s The Rokeby Venus is a gorgeous 17thCentury nude. Her back is to the viewer as she gazes into a mirror that in turn shows her face to the onlooker. Her hips are keenly observed. Very sexy for being complicated and very old. The focal point down a long series of rooms is George Stubbs’, Whistlejacket, a magnificent, life-size portrait of a rearing, thoroughbred stallion painted on a neutral background. A mesmerizing Turner called Rain, Steam, and Speedis wild, all brush strokes and atmosphere. According to the card, a ‘hare’ is theoretically visible not getting run over by a locomotive.* 

There’s much more to puzzle at, for example, what we’ve come to call, ‘The Pickle Painting’. In art history it’s known as The Annunciation with Saint Emidius by Carlo Crivelli. However, the large pickle in the foreground adds an element of What-The-Fuck to what was merely a hideous painting of the Virgin Mary being zapped by a golden laser beam while a saint with a Lego metropolis in his lap looked on. Adding confusion to the hogwash symbolism, a pale apple appears next to the giant pickle. Oh, and let us not forget The Dream of Saint Josephpainted by a French dude depicting Joseph’s swoon upon realizing that he’s been cuckolded by God. 

We lunch in the Gallery’s lovely cafeteria, then trundle gamely off. Behind the National Gallery lies the National Portrait Gallery, a long, illustrated meander through British history, from kings and queens to celebs known and unknown. 

Broad Court naptime. At four o’clock the mission is to search the neighborhood for less enormous croissants. Fabrique in Covent Garden yields cinnamon buns AND cardamom buns. Hey! Now let’s find Foyle’s; it’s the London bookstore of record. Alice leads the way: she’s the epic reader of the family. We separate, but soon we regroup, book-in-hand or, in Ali’s case, pile-in-arms. I buy a way-posthumous authorized biography of the current Queen’s grandmum, Queen Mary, who was evidently a piece of fucking work. Blurbs call it ‘hilarious’. On our amble through Covent Garden and Soho, we had passed a restaurant near the Donmar Warehouse called Flesh and Buns. Inexorably, we are drawn back. A most excellent Asian fusion meal, though the buns, as always, are odd. Window shopping, then home. An early night.

*Among the 18thcentury paintings housed in The National Gallery is one that really resonates for Joss and me, a large, scientific tableau called, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright. In 1999, the two of us saw a most excellent play, a mystery about medical ethics, based on it.