Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 6, 2011

Make Yourself at Home — in London!

And listen to the resonance of human history…

During the flight to Heathrow, I begin hearing voices.

Now before you banish me to a cyber Bedlam, let me assure you that the voices I was hearing were not urging me to raise the siege of Orléans or any such folly; they were actually aural memories.

Like the olfactory kind, aural memory is a Proustian-like mechanism that can bring back a rush of sensations and sentiments. What do you feel when you hear “

And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be. For though they may be parted there is still a chance that they will see. There will be an answer, let it be?”

And I am told that long-term memory is the most enduring. In this regard, London is one of the greatest memory banks of human civilization on the planet. In London, you hear history and culture harmonizing with the sweetest sounds the English language can produce.

But back to my voices. The Air Canada flight is barely airborne when I hear my dear friend Margaret, whom I first met in London during my callow youth, singing with me a song from that oh so English 1960s stage musical Salad Days.

When I start looking behind me And begin reviewing my past, I’ll remind you to remind me We said we wouldn’t look back.

But we do anyway.

And then in her intimate golden tones Cleo Laine — the best singer in the world — invites me to accompany her through the streets of London.

Have you seen the old man In the closed down market Kicking up the papers with his worn out shoes In his eyes you see no pride And held loosely at his side Yesterday’s paper, telling yesterday’s news.

So how can you tell me you’re lonely And say for you that the sun don’t shine Let me take you by the hand And lead you through the streets of London I’ll show you something To make you change your mind.

Then somewhere mid Atlantic a profusion of other sounds and voices resurfaces, each crisscrossing the other like swallows: the sonorous perfect vowels of Charles (Jeremy Irons) revisiting Brideshead; Eliza’s plaintiff “I’m a good girl I am”; Jean Simmons and Hermione Gingold singing Sondheim’s “Isn’t it rich, Aren’t we a pair, Me here at last on the ground, You in mid-air. Send in the clowns.”; the one and only Gretchen Wyler in a West End version of Sweet Charity enticing me, the big spender and a man of distinction, to spend a little time with her; even Mrs. Bridges and Mr. Hudson put in an appearance exhorting their downstairs staff to perform their duties well and thus help maintain a social system carefully constructed over the centuries (which by the way is still part of the “cultural industry” that visitors to London enjoy).

And as part of my personal inflight entertainment system, other voices well up — either recorded, half-remembered, or re-told: Dame Vera Lynn’s ever hopeful bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover; the king who gave up everything for the woman he loved; that great blood, sweat, and tears oration. And then Miss Townsend’s grade three class celebrating the coronation of the (former) Princess Elizabeth as we sang in earnest child voices

God Save our Gracious Queen. Long Live our Noble Queen. God save the Queen.

The latter was in 1953.

I even hear again the fictional voices of Anita Brookner’s complex yet very English characters — excellent women primarily — speaking in the most mannerly fashion about lives of constrained emotion and sparkling intellect.

“The greed for books was still with her, although sharing them with others was not as pleasant as taking them to the table and reading through her meals.” (A Start in Life)

This is London calling.

Leisurely London

My wife and I have come back to London — after too long an absence — and we have designed for ourselves a 10-day itinerary of quality time — just in London and outlying area; and we have made all arrangements via the Internet. We settle in, having chosen Bloomsbury (Russell Square) not only for the literary associations but also for very practical reasons. It is a favourite part of London, within walking distance to the West End and many of the historic highlights of this great international city; an area with lots of genuinely local restaurants; is on the Piccadilly line which takes us direct to our hotel from Heathrow in just under 50 minutes; and because at the core of Bloomsbury is the British Museum — surely the greatest and most engaging repository of human achievement on the planet.

Ten days in London. Taking our time, revisiting old monumental friends, no rush or sense of urgency that we must see this or do that before we leave. Time to stroll through blooming London. (It’s spring.) And this time, we plan to delve a little deeper into some of the often overlooked treasures of London. Just live it as if this were our city. And quite frankly, that is exactly how London and Londoners still make you feel.

So, let me take you by the hand and share with you just a few of the wonderful sights, sounds, and experiences we re-discovered in London, one of the least lonely places on the planet.

Theatrical London

When Will Shakespeare wrote:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages….,

as always he hit upon a universal theme that it seems to me explains an awful lot about human behaviour; our carefully choreographed social, political, and religious rituals, our patterned speech, our costuming. I should point out however that this speech from As You Like It ends on a rather gloomy note; sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

But perhaps it is that deep sense of our mortality that makes the play the thing. And in seemingly immortal London, drama (or melodrama) is everywhere. Now mind you, they’ve had centuries to practise the craft and a lot of good material to act out. And whether you are just walking the streets of London or sitting in rapt silence in one of its legendary theatres, you see a great deal of human theatre. And if you are a digital camera aficionado, you can capture some wonderful moments of raw London theatre everywhere you look.

A 10-day visit to London gives you ample opportunity to experience what is still some of the best drama being produced today. We begin with Hecuba, starring Vanessa Redgrave, member of one of the most illustrious theatre families in the world. Now you might think that spending your evening watching classical Greek drama is a bit heavy-duty, but let me tell you, no one embodies theatre as knowledge more than Vanessa, or the Royal Shakespearean Company, or Euripides. Be advised that this is no light-hearted comedy; it’s a play about endless revenge, an escalating conflict that makes everyone suffer terribly, except perhaps the audience. And in the Company’s not-really-so-subtle way, there is a contemporary lesson here. London is a political capital and international stage in more ways than one.

But if you really want to appreciate why London theatre is so special, do visit St. Paul’s Church, the “actor’s church.” It is as much a memorial-museum as church. It will also give you a real sense of “being there.”

As for musical theatre, what the West End has always excelled at, have I got a play for you! Remember the amazing success of the film Billy Elliot; a funny, poignant, and coherent portrait of one of the worst times in Britain during Maggie Thatcher’s reign? Well it’s back. This time as as a smashing new musical production. Lee Hall, author of the screenplay, has written the book and the music is by Sir Elton John! Talk about theatre! Talk about a good time out. But a word to the wise to any actors or wannabe actors; this production is another lesson in why you had better be really good if you are going to act alongside very talented kids. As the English say in that quietly enthusiastic way of theirs, the play is “brilliant.”

London Walks and Shakespeare’s London

Living as a local (as much as possible) means that you have the opportunity to explore the city a little more in depth. A good way to do this is to make use of the London Walks program. This excellent service is like being guided through the city by someone who really knows its nooks and crannies as well as its many centuries of history and culture. In fact, the guides who lead you are experts in their fields whether it be Shakespeare’s London, the Docklands, Old Westminster, The London of Oscar Wilde, The Beatles “In My Life” Walk, or any number of other walks available.

We were very fortunate to have a superb guide, Emily Richards, who is an actor herself with considerable Shakespearean experience. Charming, passionate, committed to creating a keen awareness of the Bard and his times, Emily took a small group of us under her wing and showed us a part of London that is very special to her. This was a very interactive experience as well, not the “On your left is something or other blah blah” type of guided tour. It was, thanks to Emily, a tour de force.

To listen to her commentary and dramatic reading, click on the PLAY button below

We learned a lot from Emily about London in general but also about the London of Shakespeare’s time. We learned for example that London in Shakespeare’s time was a nation emerging out of centuries of turmoil, a clamouring stinking, polluted city with slimy alleyways, scavengers — both human and animal — rotting corpses in the streets and assigned perfunctorily to the Thames, next to the prisoners chained on the banks dreading the next and inevitable tide. And there were hawkers of all kinds everywhere. (Emily has a great delivery when she role plays a wench crying “What lack you Sirs?”) Water in the city in Shakespeare’s time was undrinkable; hence a strong ale was what kept the masses hydrated morning, noon, and night. It was a brutal existence.

And to this city came a stage-struck young man, the “sweet swan of Avon, ” a recorder of life who changed the course of human literature and human thought.

But why don’t I let you hear a seven-minute excerpt from the two-hour walk Emily took us on. Click on the link in the right-hand column.

Whimsical London

London is a city of visual and archival caprice. When you come here for a slightly extended stay, and once you have paid your respects to great and glorious old friends (St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, The Houses of Parliament, to mention just a few) you can then slip in and out of parts of London’s where other treasures not always on the “tourist route” are to be found. Here are some favourites.

Sir John Soane’s Museum

The museum consists of three renovated and elegant townhouses on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane was a an architect who also had a passion for collecting; great works of art but also some of the strangest objects (certainly in the context you find them) in London. Almost fanatical as to how his collection should be displayed, especially in the very clever way natural lighting was incorporated into the restorations, Soane’s idiosyncratic legacy to the public includes art, sculpture, furniture, and books. The museum is a tribute to a curious man with a highly curious mind. And because he created this collection for his students and ultimately for the general public, Soane is also an example of artistic altruism.

If you take a virtual tour of the museum here, I think you will get a better understanding of what I mean.

London’s Underground Performing Artists and Continuing Education

London culture is everywhere, not taken for granted, but also assumed to be something that should be in the public domain. Like many such great cities, London is also a major “value-added” city in which a simple journey by foot or on the “Tube” will introduce you to talent and thought-provoking information. I’m sure Londoners don’t realize how much of their city is public education in the best sense of the term.

On our way somewhere on the Millennium Line we are walking through the negotiable labyrinths of the Tube when I hear the strains of Rodrigo’s moving Concierto de Aranjuez being played on a Spanish guitar. It is Richard Stevenson, classical guitarist, from Sutton, Surrey playing for his patrons, the people of London. As I type this, I am listening to one of his graceful pieces which you too can listen to on his website. And you can even email him at richard@richardstevenson.com or purchase one of his CDs from his website. Or, if you are in a position to do so, you might help advance his career in the arts.

Later standing on the Tube platform, I notice a large wall poster facing me titled “Philosophy Works.” It has been put up by the prestigious London School of Economics! It is advertising evening courses in philosophy that will examine how the major philosophies of the East and West can be put into “immediate use.” If you sign up for a course, you will learn how the questions “Who am I? What am I doing here? What am I meant to be doing here? … are not just of passing theoretical interest, but are an effective guide to life and how it can be lived to the full. The result is happiness and freedom from the tiny cage of habitual existence.”

As a contrast to the knicker ads on the walls, the LSE ad is indeed compelling. So sign up now at www.philosophycourse.com and then book your airline ticket.

Enlightening London

London will stimulate your senses, encourage you to walk a lot (comfortable walking shoes, a water bottle, and an umbrella are de rigueur), and it will turn the lights on if you have been feeling a little dim, culturally speaking that is. It goes without saying that London is an embarrassment of riches, and even 10 days will only scratch the surface, but this could become a regular thing, right?

So permit me now to shed my little light on some favourite recent experiences in London that served to remind me that by getting up close and personal with the real royal jewels of London, the human condition will become just a little more illuminated.

The British Library

Like the British Museum, of which it used to be a part, the very modern British Library (nicely situated in Bloomsbury!) is the English language in its most tangible form. The archives here are nothing less than stupendous and the rotating exhibits that frequently bring amazing documents to the public’s attention in the most creative curatorial way are not to be missed. When we were there, an exhibit entitled “The Writer in the Garden” displayed some of the most excellent literature and other materials that was created to evoke gardens and to draw people into them. The garden of course is a universal theme and image. (Remember Adam and Eve?) And it is the kind of universal human notion that gives rise to so much literature and art. In the recent exhibit, the interconnectedness between writers, ideas, and the inspiration that gardens provide is explored at great length. As you look at the exhibits you see how much is revealed in a garden.

The archival print material is priceless but one of my favourite parts of the exhibit were the listening stations where you could hear famous people speaking and reading aloud about gardens. At one station Princess Grace of Monaco could be heard reading in that modulated and graceful voice “The Garden,” a poem by the 17th century English metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell. In some ways, she could have been speaking about her own life.

Another upcoming and unique exhibit was about to open: Hans Christian Andersen. In the bicentenary of his birth a worldwide celebration of his genius was about to take place, part of it at the British Library, and it would focus on Andersen’s impact on Britain. For more information on everything available at this wonderful institution, go to the British Library website.

Such was that happy Garden-state, While Man there walk’d without a Mate: After a Place so pure, and sweet, What other Help could yet be meet! But ’twas beyond a Mortal’s share To wander solitary there: Two Paradises ’twere in one To live in Paradise alone.

How well the skilful Gardner drew Of flow’rs and herbes this Dial new; Where from above the milder Sun Does through a fragrant Zodiack run; And, as it works, th’ industrious Bee Computes its time as well as we. How could such sweet and wholsome Hours Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!

The Courtauld and Somerset House

The Courtauld Institute of Art and Somerset House are part of a large complex beside the Thames and a perfect place to begin a walk along the Embankment, especially towards Millennium Bridge. Each have collections that allow for a leisurely approach, which of course you can do during an extended stay in London. Also the London Pass (more on that to come) allows you to pop in and out institutions like this when you feel like it. These are not the kind of galleries in which you feel you must do it all.

At the Courtauld, don’t miss poor Van Gogh’s self-portait with his bandaged ear, Degas’s bronze dancers, and the Impressionists.

In keeping with the axiom that London will always surprise you, the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House are decorated to look like the famous St. Petersburg museum and during our visit a somewhat bizarre but beautiful exhibition of Avant-garde Porcelain from Revolutionary Russia was in progress.

These beautiful pieces were produced by the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory during the years following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Many of the designs do suggest a new populist-oriented régime but others also are quite fanciful in their decoration. One of the most curious and perhaps incongruous pieces is a plate with an image of Lenin on it and the inscription in Russian “Our Morality is born of the class struggle of the proletariat.” Come to think of it, Marx did write his Communist Manifesto in the British Reading Room at the British Museum.

And in case you are feeling a little bit “museumed out,” remember that London on your terms is what this is all about. And, in my experience, London museums and galleries are very much on a human scale, almost casual. You never get a sense that these are the reserve of some élite. Like much of London, the preservation and presentation of the city’s artistic and historical treasures are the result of centuries-old common sense. London’s treasures are contextual; they are part of day to day life.

Time for another virtual London Tour? Here are the Courtauld Institute Gallery, The Hermitage Rooms, and Somerset House.

The British Museum

London was the first port of the British Empire and the trading heart of that empire. London has always been the most international of all cities. It is not at all surprising therefore that world treasures ended up here. In its heyday the port of London, full of ships from every corner of the world, looked like a forest – this was a wooded landscape of countless masts. London was the warehouse of the world and as late as 1935, the largest port in the world. It was every bit the centre of cultural trade as it was the tea trade.

After an engrossing day in the British Museum, I recommend dinner in the Court restaurant where you will choose from a subtle cuisine and if you select your table carefully, you can sip your wine while overlooking The Round Reading Room. And while knowing that you are just steps away from some of the greatest treasures in the world, you can also muse quietly on the fact that great scholars, poets, writers, and politicians – Karl Marx, Mohandas Gandhi, Oscar Wilde, Vladimir Lenin, and H.G. Wells — worked at those tables down there figuring out how they would change the world. (For a great read, try David Lodge’s 1965 novel The British Museum Is Falling Down.

Here are a few things I chose to focus on this time at at the British Museum. With the exception of a brief comment, I’ll let the photographs to the right speak for themselves.

The architecture of the new enclosed courtyard does wonderful things with light and shapes. Emily is a volunteer in the British Museum who allows you to actually hold some of the most precious and oldest objects in the collection. Revisiting the glorious but disputed “Elgin Marbles” is always a serene moment. For a chuckle and for good luck I like to visit a stoneware figure of a smiling monk from the Ming Dynasty. The docent nearby looks at me and smiles too when I say, “You’ve come a long way Baby.”

London Moments

Memories are like my voices; they occur randomly and in no linear way. Back home, I am surfing through the ton of digital images I took and reliving some special moments in London.

St Paul’s Cathedral

We pop in to an old favourite after buying our take way lunch at Marks and Spencers. I climb the many steps to the Dome and Whispering Gallery. Down below the choir is rehearsing. The voices of the choir fill the dome with a human presence without which this august structure would be irrelevant. The slow Amen reminds me of the bronze Peace Bell in Hiroshima that, when struck, resonates outward almost endlessly.

Canary Wharf and the Docklands Museum

Modern London at its best. I realize the Prince of Wales is not too fond of this kind of architecture, but it is stunning. Canary Wharf is a London destination in itself. You might think of arriving by boat or by the brilliant new Millennium tube line. And the shining Light Rapid Transit system that serves Canary Wharf is well worth the ride.

Greenwich

A wonderful day’s outing: endless green lawns, galleries, and – dare I say it – a good time is had by all. From the Observatory (yes I did straddle the time zones), a magnificent view of Canary Wharf rising above old London is in itself worth the trip.

A Pub in Windsor

The English pub! Good food, good folk, good times. This particular pub is an mini archive in itself; prints, paintings, books, and all kinds of heritage bric brac. And the cats are friendly.

Kew Gardens

Get there from Paddington Station in no time at all. Stroll, feed the peacocks and the ducks, see the orchids, experience a mini-getaway in London. Marianne North. Born 1830. Travelled widely, enduring considerable discomfort to paint flowers in their natural habitat. South Africa. The Seychelles. Chile. U.S. Canada. Java. India. A small gallery of her work (and her life) is a jewel.

Watching Londoners and others

The man with the aging and blind dog. The dog has a small bell attached to his collar that tinkles as he waddles. His owner carries a small bell in his hand which also rings softly. In the crowd, each knows where the other is.

Kensington Park

A swan nesting in the long grass by the Serpentine. Christopher Kapinksi. A young Polish man travelling on his own. Standing in front of the famous Peter Pan statue. I ask him what Peter Pan means to him and he replies in halting English, “Boy, man, dreams, freedom.” I then chat with a Lithuanian dog handler who works for an Iranian businessman who is married to a woman from Utah. The dogs are Danish.

Harrods

One doesn’t drool over the goods at Harrods but it would appear that I appear to be doing just that at the Chocolate Counter. The saleswoman gives me a brief history of chocolate (“an art form in itself and a cultural event”). I also get a free sample. Londoners can be so nice!

The Victoria and Albert Museum

It always makes me laugh. It’s like a giant jumble sale. For some reason, Queen Maud of Norway’s wedding dress draws my attention. She was so tiny.

The Tube

The driver apologizes for being a few seconds late at that last stop. The articulated English voices announcing each upcoming stop and cautioning us to mind the gap are so … polite. London is so civil.

The man who has stood on the Acropolis, And looked down over Attica; or he Who has sailed where picturesque Constantinople is, Or seen Timbuctoo, or hath taken tea In small-eyed China’s crockery-ware metropolis, Or sat amidst the bricks of Nineveh, May not think much of London’s first appearance But ask him what he thinks of it a year hence!

— Lord Byron

How to make yourself at home in London

We recommend that you begin by visiting the Visit London website where you will find all the information you need to narrow down the areas of the city that are of particular interest to you and thus find a home base.

When you’ve made your choice, do some online comparative shopping (as we did) because you will find that you can tailor your accommodation needs to a particular area and budget. Look for special rates; being very competitive, London hotels offer them frequently.

We chose a hotel near Russell Square in Bloomsbury because the rates were very competitive; the location was perfect for us (a short block to the Russell Square Tube Station) and within walking distance of the West End and the Embankment; the amenities were what we wanted (in-room mini-bar, tea and coffee facilities, a modern decor and spacious rooms); and the hotel was located on a quiet square close to some wonderful local restaurants.

The London Pass

For a stay such as ours, The London Pass was indispensable and cost-effective. (Ours included transportation.) The Pass makes all of London one-stop shopping and gives you added cost-saving benefits as well as a pocket London guide that is very well organized and just the right size for carrying.

Local Restaurants and Pubs

There are an increasing number of good quality chain restaurants in London now, but we still prefer the family-run small restaurants where you can have a conversation with the staff. If you are visiting the Bloomsbury area, we can personally recommend the following.

Denise’s

Just around the corner from the British Museum is this intimate French restaurant owned and operated by – you guessed it – Denise. Small, quiet, comfortable and decorated in dark reds with sparkling white tablecloths and large pastoral prints on the walls, Denise’s could be Paris – if it weren’t in London. Denise herself is the kind of welcoming hostess who knows all her regulars (most of the clientele the evening we were there) and if she has time, will sit down and chat a while with you. Once again, you will right at home in London.

The Court Restaurant at the British Museum

As I mentioned above, this is an excellent way to end a day at the Museum. It is also an excellent venue for group functions and corporate events. The space is perfectly integrated into the Museum and has a loftiness and airiness very appropriate to a world class institution.

We also found The Rough Guide to London Restaurants and Insight Guides Eating in London quite useful.

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Responses

  1. Thanks a lot for taking some time in order to create “Make Yourself at Home — in London!
    � The Philosophical Traveller”. Thank you so much again -Madge

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