Monday, July 09, 2007

London: Day Two

On our second day in London my wife and I slept all the way in till 8 a.m. Bleary-eyed I climbed into a shower the size of a roomy coffin, inside of which I was assaulted by both cold tile and a frigid and clingy shower curtain that wrapped itself around me at the slightest provocation. It was like that every morning we were in London. It wasn't the kind of shower in which one lingers.

The first appointment we had that day -- a true British tea service at the British Museum -- wasn't until 3:30 that afternoon, so we had all morning and most of the afternoon to kill. We decided to head towards Knightsbridge to see the famous Harrod's department store. My wife was adamant that we visit Harrod's during our trip, even though I had no particular enthusiasm for it (which is not to say there was ever a chance we weren't going). I figured that once we finished looking at all the high-dollar clothes and perfume and jewelry, we'd get on with the day. But after we stepped inside and I saw for myself how Harrod's differs from all the department stores I've been in, I wasn't in a hurry to leave.

Covering 4.5 acres on 5 massive floors, Harrod's is 158 years old and generally considered one of the premier shopping destination in London. Harrod's prides itself on the notion that you can buy anything you can dream up inside; a stroll through its 5 floors are proof that their motto, "Everything for Everybody Everywhere" is absolutely true. Back in the day, Harrod's embalmed Sigmund Freud, sent herring across the ocean to Alfred Hitchcock, sold an elephant to Ronald Reagan, and once called Oscar Wilde one of its best customers. Harrod's has changed hands a lot of times over its history but is now in the hands of the Fayed family, who've spent buckets of cash to restore Harrod's from its eighties dinge to its former glory. Not necessarily to replicate what it may have looked like in the past, but to make it the destination department store it once was. Model-pretty men and women populate the handbag and cosmetic counters. Clean-cut men in snug uniform suits scan the floor for would-be shoplifters. A bank of escalators called "the Egytian Escalator", decked out like a secret burial chamber for some Egyptian pharaoh, moves shoppers from floor to floor. The Fayeds spent $600 million to build the escalator passage and the surrounding decor and the space is fantastic, more amusement park than department store. Yes, there's a full-bore Waterstone's bookstore inside, a nearly Toys R' Us-sized toy store, all the clothes, pianos, furniture, household appliances and sporting goods you could want, but for me the "grocery store" part of Harrod's is where you truly see Harrod's's dedication to creating a sense of wonder.

In the room marked 'Meats', glass cases lined the walls, each featuring ruler-straight lines of beef, chicken, pork, lamb, duck or pheasant all ready to drop into the frying pan. Protruding from the wall was a fully-functional sushi bar, complete with full-time sushi chef and top-quality fish. The produce, located in an adjacent room, was of farmers' market quality. I looked but couldn't find a bit of rot or wilt anywhere. In the candy and chocolate room was a long line of glass cases stocked full of every conceivable form of marzipan. Everything in the grocery area of Harrod's was displayed and presented in such a way as to visually overwhelm, and it did that very well. Also, the place runs like a clock. Periodically, uniformed employees appeared holding trays filled with just the right number of items to replace what's depleted. Not surprisingly the prices were as sky-high as the quality, more in line with Whole Foods than Kroger, but high prices don't deter some of England's wealthier folks (and London's got lots of them). In one of the grocery rooms I saw an old man sitting in front of a desk while a well-dressed woman in her mid-twenties supervised other workers who were gathering the old man's groceries in cloth bags. The old man was having a spot of tea while all of this was going on. I'm thinking London is probably a very nice place in which to be very very rich. Having had an aristocracy in place for longer than nearly any other part of the world, merchants in London know how to cater to wealth. Anyway. After the craziness of the grocery section of Harrod's, the other four floors were amazing but still anticlimactic. But needless to say I was happy the wife put Harrod's on the itinerary.

Afterwards we took the Tube from the Knightsbridge station to Piccadilly and window shopped to kill some time before our afternoon tea. For those of you who read this now-sporadically updated blog, you know I like me some books. Not so much to read, but mostly to buy and put on my shelf and gaze at and feel smart. So you might imagine my joy to find not just one, but two 6-story bookstores on this road and just a few blocks from one another. I've never been to New York, which I'd imagine would compete for this title, but London is by far the most obviously literate city I've ever been in; these two massive bookstores thriving in such close proximity to one another is evidence of that. The first of these bookstores I went into was another Waterstone's, which is basically the Barnes & Noble of the U.K.. I visited all five stories and saw that one whole level was dedicated to biographies of obscure British celebrities and minor politicians, and another to literary criticism and obscure British poetry. The 6 stories thing didn't seem quite so great after that.

Looking back, I realize I was excited about these bookstores all out of proportion to what was really contained inside, namely a whole lot of very British books. I now understand that the same isolationist prejudice that drives most readers to only pick titles about their own countrymen doing things inside their own country, also helps determine what books I choose to read. If a thoroughly British writer named Sebastian Faulks writes a novel set in 70's London that sends up England during the Thatcher years, it turns out I'm not really too interested. Who knew?

The second 6-story bookstore was a different story (no pun intended). Hatchard's, which opened for business way back in 1797, is the oldest bookstore in London. The interior is done out in dark hardwoods and looks every inch the classic English bookshop, much moreso than the more generic Waterstones. The other thing that distinguished Hatchard's from the Waterstones and WH Smith's I'd been to before, was how many hardcovers were wrapped in a beige fold-in with the word "Signed" printed on the front. According to the Hatchard's catalog, authors come in every other day to do signings. Easily half of the new titles had that tell-tale fold-in, including the British edition of Ian McEwan's latest novel, "On Chesil Beach". This was awesome, but, unfortunately, I had already bought a copy at the Waterstone's at Harrod's. So I bought a signed copy and resolved to head back to Harrod's sometime before we left England to return the first, unsigned copy. By the way, I visited every floor of Hatchard's too.

After that, we headed to the British Museum for our tea. Because the British Museum's main chamber is cavernous, the restaurant, located on the museum's second floor, felt kind of like an open-air cafe. We sat by a bank of windows overlooking a vast library located in the middle of the main chamber, but as it was under renovation, our view was blocked by a black protective screen. The afternoon tea service was good; three finger sandwiches, two scones served with a ton of clotted cream and a ton of jam, and of course the tea, a whole pot of Earl Gray for me. (The wife haqd Chamomile). I don't know tea, so I figured if Earl Gray was good enough for Capt. Picard, it would be good enough for me. And after I put 4 or 5 cubes of sugar in there, it was a lovely beverage. (And here's a picture of me enjoying my Earl Gray.) Afterwards, we walked around the museum for a while, gawking at mummies and obscene fertility sculptures. Now we get back into some pictures. It isn't pretty.

This is me standing beside the British Museum's crown jewel, the famed Rosetta Stone, created in 196 B.C. and discovered by the French in 1799. With a lot of museum pieces, the true value of the piece isn't immediately clear outside of a purely aesthetic perspective. A shard of clay pot that was used in a Sumerian hut, for example, is not obviously valuable to anyone but the anthropologists and archaeologists who specialize in that sort of thing. The Rosetta Stone, however, is accessible to the layperson (like me) as it lets you know why it's important right away. At the top, a passage is written (chiseled really) in Egyptian hieroglyphs, a language that prior to the Rosetta Stone's discovery had not been deciphered. Below the hieroglyphs is the same passage written in demotic Egyptian, and then below both of those is the same passage chiseled in Greek, which was (and is) well-known to scholars. Pretty momentous, eh? Anyway, when we first got to the Rosetta Stone, the whole front of the display-case was crowded with museum-goers taking pictures. Without thinking, I ambled around back where it was less crowded to see what was written on the other side. When I saw only rough rock I felt at first surprised and then kinda stupid. The Rosetta Stone is not, as I'd supposed, like a piece of notebook paper on which you cover both sides with writing.

This is a big lion-looking thing carved out of stone.

I don't really know what to say about this photo. I don't know whom the bust is based on, I'm not even sure if he's Greek, but forget him -- I look like a complete idiot, so I thought I'd include it for a laugh. Or perhaps a stony, disappointed silence. (By the way, the wife has asked me to state that I hiked up my pants for the sake of the photo, and that this is not how I normally dress. I thought this went without saying, but she would rather be safe than sorry.)

After strolling the British Museum and the surrounding neighborhood, we made our way, Tube-wise, towards the West End's Theater District. (I'm not sure if 'Theater District' ought to be capitalized, but I'm doing it anyway.) We had tickets for the 7:30 show of the musical version of "Lord of the Rings" at the Theater Royal Drury Lane. But first: some fish and chips.

It had been nearly 24 hours since I'd last eaten some fried cod and french fries, so we had to address this problem immediately. As the wife had read a travel guide at the Harrod's Waterstones listing the the best fish and chips places in London, she remembered that one of them, a place called Rock 'N Sole, was within walking distance of our theater. We took a place outside on one of six big picnic tables set up on the sidewalk. We joined a lawyerly-looking fellow of, perhaps, Indian descent, and when he left, our food arrived and so did two American girls of roughly college age who sat down beside us. When my wife and I weren't talking, we couldn't help but overhear the two girls blab about a friend of theirs who was making really bad relationship choices. I got the sense that they were in some sorority in America. My wife, who's better at eavesdropping than I am, got a totally different story from their conversation, which just means I've probably got some kind of hearing loss going. In addition to the fish and chips (which were very good), I also had the "mushy peas", which according to the travel books is a traditional English way to eat fish and chips. I was game, so I tried them. Very salty. My palette is pretty unsophisticated, but I couldn't really see how the mushy peas complement either the fish or the chips. Old habits die hard in England, I guess.

And then we were off to the theater. The Theater Royal Drury Lane is a very old theater and was, for a time, considered the most important theater in the world. Oscar Wilde premiered two plays here back in the 1890's. A big plaque on the wall in the lobby of the theater hints at the theater's rich history from when it was first opened after a fire in 1674 and designed by the famed architect Christopher Wren, through all of the owner/creative directors in the theater's multi-century history, all the way to its current owner, "Phantom of the Opera" writer-composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. (Though the plaque made no mention of how many times the theater burned down over the years and was completely rebuilt -- guess it makes it all seem a little less antique.)

"The Lord of the Rings" musical opened for a while in Toronto to mixed reviews. Critics said its running time (3 1/2 hours) was too long, there were too many characters and the songs weren't catchy enough. So they closed the show, reworked it to bring it down to 3 hours, cut a few of the characters and tried to punch up the songs so people might have something to hum on the way out of the theater, and then opened it back up in London on May 9th of this year. The show is a major production. The producers (one of whom is listed as Saul Zaentz, though I doubt he had much to do with it) spent 16 million dollars (or 8 million pounds) to stage the thing, and to my unpracticed eye, the money's all up there on-stage. The whole proscenium is covered in a tangle of leafless tree branches, as well as a few of the balcony seats and a good bit of the ceiling. While the theater fills up, the actors who play the hobbits come out onto the stage to loiter in character, meaning smug and happy. One of the hobbits, maybe it was Pip, sees a firefly (an LED light flicking at the end of a thin hard wire) and the whole gang of hobbits goes crazy for it and work together to capture it. There was a lot of short British actors crawling over theatergoers and improv-ing goofy, slightly embarrassing dialog in the aisle beside us. The whole process is goofy and self-conscious, but overall pretty fun to watch. When the hobbits catch the last of four or five of the LED fireflies, the theater is full, and the lights go out and the production begins.

"Lord of the Rings" is a good show, but exhausting. At every moment, at least a hundred D&P types are running around backstage to make the spectacle on-stage possible, and there can't be any mistakes. If it isn't a massive Balrog puppet or the 10-foot high Shelob the Spider puppet that have to be perfectly manipulated, than it's the rotating stage that can rise, in sections, to what looked like 12 feet high. Instead of getting wrapped up in the story, I found myself more concerned with whether or not they'd pull the thing off. With a few minor hiccups, they did, but it seemed like a close thing at times. For a musical where the stagecraft was the main attraction, the singing and acting was fine, though the actor who played Gollum did well with an aerobic role.
The standout in "Lord of the Rings" was Laura Michelle Kelly who played the Elf Queen Galadriel. Her performance during the scene when Frodo offers her the One Ring was, in my view, more compelling, more authentic than Cate Blanchett's, which is a big deal as Kelly had no special effects to augment her performance. Even with the jaw-dropping spectacle on display through most of the show, Kelly's vocal performance was the absolute highlight.

As I clearly have no interest in keeping this post brief, I will include this one quibble with the show: Gandalf was way too pissed off at Frodo. I thought part of why the film version of "Fellowship of the Ring" was so successful, was because Peter Jackson got Gandalf exactly right. The wizard can be a stern prick at times, but all the hobbits know he still loves them. He's like Jesus that way. In the musical version of "Lord of the Rings" however, Gandalf is all prick all the time. When Gandalf and Frodo reunite in Rivendell, instead of taking a moment to be happy that Frodo didn't die of his Nazgul sword wound, Gandalf bursts into his room and bellows angrily, "Frodo!" and then berates him for some such thing that wasn't even his fault. I think if they'd gotten Gandalf a little closer to right, they might have had a better show. Just saying.

Some hours later, after we'd been lounging in the hotel for a while, we realized we were still hungry. We walked up Craven Road, past our Tube station, and to the nearest Burger King. (There are a lot of Burger Kings in the U.K.) As the BK guy grabbed our drink cups, my wife asked if we could have an extra cup of ice. He smiled and said, "Ice? You two are Americans?"

That's right. In England, we Americans are famous the Isles over for our love of ice. At that moment, I felt a sudden kinship with not only my left-leaning libtard brethren, but with all 300 million Americans -- even the dumb ones who believe in the Rapture and vote for George W Bush no matter which laws he breaks. At the end of the day, no matter what we believe, we all really freakin' like ice in our drinks. Love it, even. It was a patriotic moment for me.

Anyway, we headed back to the hotel, ate cheeseburgers, watched BBC on the telly, and went to sleep.

Stay tuned for Day Three as soon as I recover from the writing of this post.


harwell said...

Don't take this the wrong way, but that picture of you with your Urkel pants made me laugh WAY too hard for someone simply reading something by themselves.

Nice one.

Captain Mike said...

You had Burger King on Day Two? What kind of a world traveller are you? It took me a whole month (and a massive hangover) before I broke down and got some Mickey D's here in NZ. They do give you ice here, though.

Gretchen said...

I hate ice in my drinks. There's nothing good about diluted flat beverages, and nasty restaurant ice that's full of air bubbles. Does that make me un-American? Probably so.

JudgeHolden said...

Thanks Shawn. The wife actually couldn't talk for a little while after taking that picture because she was laughing too hard. My sister saw it and said, "You're really not afraid to humiliate yourself in public." I guess this is true.

And Mike: not only are you and I not playing in the same league when it comes to world travel, we're not in the same sport. You're LIVING in NZ. I VISITED London for a week. But thanks for rubbing in my general travel-pansiness. ;) Also: Keep up the awesome work on Moranadu, world traveler. The story about your asshole landlord was awesome, though I'm sure it sucked for you.

And Gretchen: I take your point about nasty restaurant ice. Also, I don't think you're un-American, but I do think you are the rule-proving exception to my un-scientific generalization about Americans and ice. Unless you think a preference for ice might be a regional thing, based on general climate?

Gretchen said...

Good theory, but I think it's just me. Bear in mind that I also like saurkraut in my mashed potatoes. Yum!