A Short Exposure to "Cool Britannia"

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This is the second part of our November vacation. Neither mad nor English, we withstood the weather anyway.

Tuesday, 9 November

After a short midday flight from Cork, we soon found ourselves mired in afternoon London traffic. We finally arrived at our hotel off of Picadilly and set off on a walking tour almost immediately. Big Ben, Westminster, and the 500-foot tall "London Eye" Ferris wheel were all viewed by dinnertime, then we were off to see "The Weir", a play set in, of all places, Ireland. We then had dinner at "Melati" in Great Windmill St., a Malaysian restaurant which became one of my favorites during my business trips to London in 1996 and 1997.

Wednesday, 10 November

Next morning, we got on a Thames boat and went to the Greenwich Observatory. Here, Nora straddles the Prime Meridian, and we got to admire the great telescope:

The day's adventures includes mash and peas at a lovingly preserved turn-of-the-century fast-food place in Greenwich. Then we proceeded back to Central London via the pedestrian tunnel under the Thames, and the Docklands Light Railway. The Canary Wharf development in London's once-decrepit Docklands was at one time the very symbol of Thatcherite arrogance. It pulled its developer, Olympia and York, into bankruptcy in the early 1990's. We then had a fairly tedious clothes-buying trip to the James Peter department store in Sloan Square, and finally a visit to Harrod's. We left there with most of our money still on us. Suddenly it was getting late and we took a real live black cab to the West End. It was time to see the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, presented by the Reduced Shakespeare Company. The gags work only some of the time, but our enjoyment was multiplied by having Nora laughing loudly at the noisy slapstick and obvious puns. Her two weeks of Shakespeare day camp had made her the ideal audience for the "other RSC"! We concluded the evening with a curry at the Balti house across the street from the hotel.

Thursday, 11 November

Today we finally got to the British Museum, featuring, of course, the Egyptian Hall:

After a lunch which involved some extremely mediocre kippers and bottled John Courage Ale, we browsed Atlantis Books and headed back to the hotel. This was also the day I relapsed into Net addiction. While Mary and Nora napped in the hotel, I ducked out and spent 5 quid on connect time and a Red Bull energy drink in a glossy Internet cafe in Soho. I found out that two of my stocks had gone up markedly during the vacation. My spirits duly lifted, I decided to find the sleaziest possible street scene within the remaining minutes of the free time I'd allotted myself. I walked boldly down a tiny alley between where touts were advertising "exotic" dancers. I soon emerged - in Berwick Street, which has market stalls every day, a pharmacy and hair salon on one side. I bought some flowers and walked down the other side, passing first the Islamic Center with its neat rows of worshippers' shoes just visible from the door, then a shabby doorway with a hand-lettered sign describing a "modelling agency", and then a techno/ambient record store.

That evening we took the fiendishly crowded Victoria Line to Brixton; Real London at last! Pattie shops, council houses, not a black cab or a theater in sight! We were on our way to have dinner with my old friend Doug Kime and his new wife.

They met while Doug was working, at local wages, in Malaysia. They're enjoying a brief spell of mid-life retirement. They're fixing up the flat while Wan's work permit sorts out. She's a chef, and he'll go back to computer work "Real Soon Now".


Friday, 12 November

We had a slower start this time, but wound up window shopping in hopelessly stylish Portobello Road. Loyal readers of "Time Out" that we are, we checked out an oh-so-politically ironic design studio and a tongue-in-chic home store across the road. Which is which?

I tired of consumerism, even the hip kind, sooner than Mary did, and retired to the "Portobello Gold" pub for a coffee and listened to French acid jazz while the others browsed. We were right next to "Notting Hill", yes that "Notting Hill", and I was determined to avoid any comic romances involving self-absorbed movie start. After a while, I removed my head from its paper bag, and we went on to the Victoria and Albert museum in South Kensington. Had a fabulous dinner at Wodka, a Polish restaurant with 28 varieties of vodka on the menu. The venison was awesome, as were the cabbage rolls.

Saturday, 13 November

Our last full day in London. We took a double-decker bus out to Hackney to stroll around this heavily immigrant area. Substitute Turkish for Central American, 1999 for 1985, and Hackney for the Mission District here in San Francisco. Err, better not. The week's issue of Time Out, cutely titled "The Race Issue", had recommended Dalston Street in a feature story. We had some shawarma for lunch and bought some supplies in a very ordinary Boots pharmacy, and headed back Most interesting feature? A former mosque. Was it left behind as a burgeoning Islamic community sought a larger space, or was attendance declining as the population assimilates? Nora and I spent the afternoon in the science museum, and Mary bailed to go get her hair done in Berwick Street. We waved at her under the drier, then walked around a little.

Anorak-sia Strikes

I felt painfully un-hip in my expensive Gore-tex "outdoor gear" coat and wished most profoundly that I'd brought my leather jacket along; the clothing factor kept me from entering after hours "clubs", I did not look the part. Nonetheless, I gave myself a little quest, how about finding a DJ tape by Tim Luv Lee? I'd enjoyed his set when I heard him here in San Francisco last fall. At the techno record shop in Berwick St , the guy was very friendly, despite my attire, and maybe because of my eleven-year-old companion, Nora. After flipping through a box of DJ tapes and CD's he concluded that he didn't have such a tape but directed us to another shop that I'd noticed earlier. This second place was all hip-hop, but I asked anyway. It took a couple minutes to catch the guy's eye, and I felt a little like I was trying to get served in a strange bar. This time he didn't know Tim Luv Lee. No surprise, they werent' a techno store. The third store took the cake. As we were on our way around Frith St to choose a restaurant, I doubled back and popped in to just one more hip record store. This time I got total snobbery, "I'm sorry, we don't have DJ tapes here in London like you do in the States." Right.

Here, Nora and I have a final stroll through the "red light" district off Covent Garden.

Mary went to bed about 11, and Nora and I had a nice walk to top off the night. She was still awake and curious to see what I saw in walking around so much. I avoided the seedier businesses in Soho and took her down Regent Street and past a couple of embassies. A few hours later, we were in the cab and off to Heathrow and the flight home. Jet lag? Me? Never! Then how come I got my first moving violation in 21 years the day I got back?