London calling

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Well, my first day in London. Arrived last night after a 13 hour flight from Signapore with a 7 hour time shift so upgraded my room (I always forget how small London hotel trooms can be) and went to bed. Despite extensive use of Vicks First Defence, I had contracted a cold on one of the eight flights in the last ten days but managed to get 9 hours sleep and was up and about, ready to go by 10.00 (known as the middle of the day at 42 Mozeley Avenue).

I had booked in to the Charing Cross Hotel because of its location. Trains to virtually everywhere and near to galleries, theatre, shops etc and to anyone who lived in Plumstead the centre of London, if not the Universe. Ann and I spent a few pleasant, exhausted, post-shopping afternoons in the bar at this hotel, which is a slightly old fashioned hideaway type place. The hotel is the original hotel from when the railway station was built in 1865 so I was a bit worried that it might be rather Victorian inside but there’s a nice room overlooking the Strand with a view over to the church at St Martin’s in the Field which is covered in scaffolding, the ENO , the National Gallery and the edge of Trafalgar Square.

When I went out of the front door my automatic pilot heads me straight over to Charing Cross Road and up to Tottenham Court Road. To some people, this is not London at its best but for Ann and I it is what London is about. Old and New, flash and dilapidated, bookshops, theatres, galleries, cafes and restaurants. Everything looks very similar to three years ago though the cafes have often changed their name, the theatres their plays (though not the Mousetrap, which has been around nearly as long as me [55 years – the play, not me] and Blood Brothers which I remember opening but has now been on stage for 20 years). Les Miserables has left the Palace to be replaced by Monty Python’s Spamalot (“Sets the musical back several hundred years” says the marketing blurb). Busy, noisy but London.

Get on to Tottenham Court Road which is even more the technology fantasy land at one end, and the house decorator’s dream world at the other. I’m on my way to get a Reader’s Card for the British Library which is based at St Pancras. I used to use their Reading Room when it was based at the British Museum: the gorgeous old circular room (which you can still visit) where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital. The new building is huge and red brick, rather sparse and austere and it wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. It took over twenty years to design and build. It turns out to be great place. There’s a nice ‘courtyard’ where you can sit and eat and drink and discuss your work. There’s even a shop. The delay in building worked to it’s advantage as it is technologically state of the art and very efficient and after ten minutes I emerge with a reader’s card with my photograph on it. One of the ironies of the British Library is that much of its stuff is stored at Woolwich, so in the old days I used to travel from Woolwich to the Library to be told I would have to wait six hours before the materials came from Woolwich! Now, of course, you just book it online in advance. very soon I’m told it will be all digitalised so I won’t even have to go there.

Having got that far, go to look at St Pancras Station, one of my favourite buildings. A huge neo-gothic fantasy with turrets, arches, colored bricks. It was almost knocked down in the 20th century as the British took their revenge on the Victorians but fortunately survived though was derelict for a long time. Like Charing Cross it has a hotel (well it used to have) but this is now being refurbished as 66 luxury apartments (“including a 10m pounds penthouse) and a 244 bedroom five star hotel to be opened in 2009. So I know where I’m staying next time. While I’m there I go on to look at Kings Cross which was being regenerated last time I visited. It still is. It has always been one of the more depressing parts of London and the station is the railway equivalent of Los Angeles airport (Ann and I were once attacked there by rampaging Old Age Pensioners – sorry Senior Citizens). It’s still dismal though you can see there will be changes.

Then I start to head back to the hotel but decide to cut through Bloomsbury. This is an area with some deadly modern architecture, but as you go along you keep finding outbreaks of Georgian and Victorian London. It’s also a combination of Council Housing and big houses and Victorian working class housing that has been gentrified. Every so often you get quiet shaded green squares where people are sitting out and having their luch and then round the cornera noisy traffic jams. It’s all very interesting. By now I have remembered just how many pubs there are in London and find myself asking the question I always used to ask – how come all these people (who aren’t tourists) are sitting outside drinking at two o’clock in the afternoon?! As always in Bloomsbury, I manage to get lost and visit Tavistock Square twice, but eventually find my way back towards Tottenham Court Road. I pass nostalgically by what used to be the much lamented Dillon’s Bookstore – the ultimate academic bookshop where you could even find my book! It’s now part of the Waterstone’s chain (there were even demonstrations when that happened). So that I can despair of modern progress I go inside, only to find that nothing has changed, except my book’s not there and there is a Costa’s Coffee Bar. Have a drink there (having been to a Costas in both Shanghai and Signapore) and it leads to a further outbreak of nostalgia – where’s my double shot flat white?!!) Somewhere in London some Kiwis have opened a coffee shop called Flat White, so I must track it down.

As I go along I’m looking for shopping and theatre opportunities. As always the musical rains, but there is a Jeeny Seagrove/Anthony Andrews play (must be early 20th century) and a political satire with Richard Wilson. So I’ll find something. Just to reassure Ann – there’s no Tom Stoppard.

Arrive back at Charing Cross but can’t resist a final revisit – Victoria Gardens down by the embankment, another Ann and Rob hideaway. A small peaceful little garden where people just go to sit, or walk through as they avoid the Strand. Our friend Ed used to be the Head gardener for Westminster Council, who run this garden so it brings back pleasant memories. I go to the cafe and read the London newspapers, and also feed the sparrows who clearly remember me. The newspapers provide some insights into London as it is. The headlines are “Tycoon defends Sex Slur” and “George Michael: I am ashamed”, so not much has changed there. I find out that the Royal Festival Hall is being reopened this weekend after a 115m pounds refurbishment. Many Londoners don’t like the building but I’ve always thought it was one of the best examples of post-war architecture and so will go over and see it. Howver thay are having an open weekend to celebrate (including a silent disco – ? -) so it will be packed. I think I’ll wait until next week. Amongst the other attractions this weekend are the World Naked Bike Ride which will have 1000 participants. One of the great things about London is not just the things you can go to, but the things you can’t or wouldn’t want to. I learn that iPods are now being fitted into the lapels of Marks and Spencers suits (“for men too busy, or too lazy to get out their iPods”) and Ann Summers – the sex shop – are selling something called the iGasm – don’t ask!

Return to the hotel rather weary and worn out but as an induction to London a nice reminder. Tomorrow head South to Plumstead and Lee Green to see Ed & Jan and the leharnes.

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