Monday, May 26th, 2008
The Sights And Sounds Of London Town
Photo by Frank Yang
So it’s a battle between me and the jet lag and the jet lag is winning, so today will be a probably rambling account of the rest of my London jaunt, and back to the good stuff tomorrow. I think. My first, Richard Hawley-powered day in London has already been covered so I’ll start with last Wednesday. Basically, I had vague notions of covering a portion of the city a day and by the end of my trip, have at least set foot in most of the major areas of the city. For I didn’t really have any other plans besides “look around”.
And so the looking began over in Notting Hill, not for any Hugh Grant/Julia Roberts pilgrimage but to visit the Rough Trade store, which I’m sad to say was rather a disappointment. I don’t know what I expected, but certainly something larger or better/more interestingly stocked. Similarly, a walk through the markets of Portobello Road didn’t yield much of interest, but to be fair Wednesday morning isn’t exactly prime market time and I’m not really into antiques… yeah, in hindsight I’m not even sure why I went. Oh well. Thing picked up when I headed east into the West End, meeting places like Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and Covent Garden – these were bustling like I’d hoped and offered some fine people-watching opportunities. As did Trafalgar Square, where I headed next for a visit to the National Gallery and then skirting Westminster (saved for a later day) en route to the wonders of the South Bank. This is one of the areas that’s held up as an example of what can be achieved in the way of civic rejuvenation when discussion of Toronto’s derelict waterfront is raised, and if we could get things to even a fraction of the liveliness that London has… wow. I sort of wanted to wait till sunset before crossing Waterloo Bridge back into the city but that was a few hours off yet and I’d been at it for some nine hours by this point. Time to call it a day.
Having covered a lot of ground on Wednesday, Thursday was a lot less ambitious and leisurely. Started out with a stroll through Hyde Park, including a stop at the disappointingly tasteful Diana Memorial Fountain. I expected something festooned with flowers, teddy bears and gewgaws, not something so elegant. Happily, Harrods more than made up for things in terms of ostentatiousness. Really ridiculously opulent, and telling in the fact that the shirts I looked at didn’t have price tags. If you have to ask, right? I actually did end up spending some money there, though, at the pet department – my cat is getting better gifts than anyone else – and the HMV branch where the accidentally tried to charge me £1010 for a couple Richard Hawley CDs… Accidentally. Yes. From there, it was to the Natural History Museum for some dinosaur and dodo-spotting and a tube over to Westminster to run the mandatory tourist gauntlet of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace. Then, for the evening, a meet-up with the proprietor of London-based blog Amplify This! for drinks and a tour of Camden Town – an area that had taken some disrespect when I was asking around before the trip but which I found a nice respite (relatively speaking) from the unrelenting bustle of Soho.
So that takes us to what, Friday? Friday. Friday I gave Rough Trade another chance at their east end store, the one that was supposed to host a Radiohead in-store back in January (but didn’t). That shop was more impressive than its west end counterpart, both visually and in terms of selection. I also rather liked the mosey up and down Brick Lane, much for the same reasons I liked Camden – though busy, it moved at a much more manageable pace than London proper and I found it easier to actually see things in something resembling detail. Likewise for my next stop of Greenwich, to which I took the pedestrian tunnel under the Thames. It’s a lovely little area that feels completely removed from the city of London and which, of course, features the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian. And yeah, I did the whole “standing one foot in the eastern hemisphere, one foot in the western” thing, but was totally understated and cool about it. Not like the other tourists. After a relatively sedate day, I took the tube back into the city and had all the relaxedness I’d achieved wiped out with a single walk through the bedlam of Charing Cross Road. But on the plus side, I found Denmark Street which, besides its history, is like Disneyland for guitar geeks – even recovering ones like myself. The evening was up in the air after waiting too last minute to get last minute tickets to Spamalot, but I managed to hook up with a friend so wandering around Leicster Square was a perfectly fine way to spend the night.
For the final full day in London, I’d saved the South Bank and The City. Started with the London Eye, which I found as amazing for its engineering as the sights it offered when I was aboard. The Tate Modern was a cool blend of art I liked, art I didn’t understand and seemingly random performance pieces in and around the crowd. Certainly not the National Gallery. It was a long and casual stroll across the South Bank until I crossed back across to the north side of the Thames via the Tower Bridge, alongside the Tower Of London, which ironically is less towering than it is sprawling, but certainly imposing – even without the lions in the moat. Much of The City was deserted on account of it being Saturday, so it was an easy walk to the last “tourist” stop on my list, St. Paul’s Cathedral. By this time it was far too late to get in on a tour so I didn’t get to experience the whispering gallery or check out the view from the dome, but as ginormous churches go, it certainly holds its own. And with nothing really left to do except grab dinner and wind out the day, it was back to Covent Garden to watch the street performers and Piccadilly Circus to watch the neon signs.
And that, in a nutshell, was my past week (I already covered the Dublin leg of things). I absolutely loved London, but being there in all its epic scale and intensity made me appreciate Toronto, and how it manages to generate a great energy without being as head-spinning. Though I’m sure I could adjust and will certainly take every opportunity to visit, I couldn’t imagine living somewhere as perpetually “on” as London is. Or expensive, though I actually bought more CDs in the past week there than I have in the past couple months here. Seriously. It seems that though new releases are marked way up over North American retailers, they deep discount older albums and back catalog a lot faster than here. Nick Cave’s double-disc Lyre Of Orpheus/Abattoir Blues set for £5? Yes, please. And judging from the amount of inventory held, they definitely still love their vinyl in the UK. I’d said that part of the purpose of this trip was to de-mythologize England for myself, to make it a real place rather than this mystical isle from whence so much of my favourite popular culture comes from, and I think I accomplished that but still love the place just as much. Though I should add that I hope to hell that the tube is air conditioned in the Summer.
So after having essentially four plus months of planning work out so nicely, it feels really good to be home now. No more travel on the immediate horizon though I’m starting to contemplate a jaunt somewhere in the Fall. Just warm weather – Toronto seems to have picked up about ten degrees in my absence – and a full slate of shows next month. Bring on the Summer.
Still three days worth of photos to go through, but my Flickr gallery has now got photos from Northern Ireland as well as the first couple days in London.
Update: And I should mention that it didn’t rain once while I was there. A tiny bit of drizzle in Dublin and a little more the morning I left, but otherwise – sunny (or partly sunny) skies. Not a typically British experience at all.