You know how it is, when you’re deciding whether or not to go to London, which would be a great trip except for it taking so much effort and you’re in a funk that makes “effort” so very tiring even thinking about it, so you take a walk into the village with your Top Cat to discuss the possibilities and in the back of your mind you’re thinking, OK, Universe, Now’s the time to give me some kind of sign, and then you’re walking down Main Street and your Top Cat goes, Hey look over there, and you think, Well, That could be a Sign . . .
. . . but you’re still in a shitty mood about having to do all the packing and thinking and doing that it takes to “do” a trip to London, so you taunt the Universe with the challenge OK, I’ll off to London if I find a Blue Jay feather. And not just any blue Jay feather. I want a tail feather, you got that? and so you stroll all the way around the village and start to make your way back home when something on the ground catches your eye. . .
and yeah, it’s a Blue Jay feather . . .
. . . and yeah, it’s a tail feather. Sure, it’s a ratty, skanky, Blue Jay tail feather left over from the last time a lawn mower ran over it, but still: The Universe has spoken and the message is clear.
I’m going to London.
Immediately behind that message is another message, which is that the Universe, She doesn’t like it when I make Her double-down on the giving of the signs. That Blue Jay feather is without doubt the plug–ugliest one I’ve ever found. But there you are. That’s my Going-To-London feather!
This story truly happened on a walk I told you about in my post of July 22, when this is what I was wearing:
Well, obviously, I couldn’t be wearing that kind of schmatta in London:
Weird thing is, this was a bright, warm day.
That’s me in my ever-faithful black cashmere sweater draped over my shoulder (the one I took with me when I went on Le Road Trip, 10 years ago, back when this sweater was only 15 years old). But my new purchases especially for Going to London include: a better-fitting sheer long sleeved shirt to pull over a black tank top; a pair of sturdy but very comfy Michael Kors leggings; Michael Kors black suede loafers; and a slim little shoulder bag to carry my To Do List in.
Top Cat took this picture of me on our second day in London, as we walked across London Bridge towards that doofus-looking fat skyscraper in the background (known locally as the Walkie-Talkie building) to take our reservation for lunch at Darwin’s Brasserie on the 36th floor, above what is called The Sky Garden:
From which one has incredible views of The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, City Hall, HMS Belfast — etc:
I haven’t been to London in 14 years, way back in 2002, so this Walkie-Talkie building is new to me, along with The Shard (the pointy thing seen below). . .
. . . the Cheesegrater and The Gherkin:
But I am getting ahead of myself here.
The reason this whole “Go To London” thing came up is because my little sister was spending a Summer term at Oxford, studying for part of her LLM degree, and she had the idea that it would be fun to, at the end of her term, all get together in London! When she first mentioned it, I was pretty busy, moping all day and being miserable about not having a book to write seeing as I have the kind of personality that wallows in self-pity. So it took me a while to change my focus and get on board with this “having fun” concept. (Thanks, Universe, for all your help!)
Then I had to convince Top Cat to come too. That done, I spent about 10 days happily doing what I do best — plan. For London I came up with a 4-page To Do List:
I like To Do Lists. In a travel context, they become my outline for a fabulous treasure hunt. Top Cat and I were in London for 5 days: I am going to give you a day-by-day run down on our To Do List which, no brag just fact, is a perfect blend of tourist sights and insider secrets.
Arrive Heathrow at 8:45 AM. Discover that there is nothing to fear from the scrum of Immigration and Baggage claim; we are out of the airport and on the Piccadilly tube by 9:30. Take tube directly to Earl’s Court. Drop bags off at the Garden View Hotel on the delightfully green and calm Neverns Square:
Next, seek victuals. Find a cute, tiny caff on Earl’s Court Road. Order the local delicacy.
Beans and egg on toast — I am home, baby!
Walk (because you’ve misjudged the distance) towards The Chelsea Physic Garden, by way of the surprisingly semi-abandoned Brompton Cemetery. . .
. . . 39 acres (16 ha) of very pleasantly weird scenic decay, used by a scant number of local joggers, dog walkers, and meanderers as a way to escape far, far from the madding crowd:
We wind our way along the Thames on the elegant Cheyne Walk, which is where former New York City Michael Bloomberg has his London pied a terre (he bought the historic mansion that used to belong to the novelist George Eliot):
And then past the house boats and the Battersea Bridge so beloved (and painted) by James Whistler:
Small point of fact: The wooden bridge that Whistler painted was knocked down in 1885 and re-built to look nothing like Whistler’s quasi-Japonesque half-moon transverse, but still. . . we were walking in the footsteps of Whistler’s Mother’s Son!
Top Cat with the Albert Bridge in the background.
Sunny days wreak havoc on photos — too many shadows. But that middle Sphinx was all dolled up so that her boobies had red nipples. BTW, this is a GREEK sphinx; the Egyptian ones were male. See? Any old walk in London is a lesson in history that makes me LOVE LOVE LOVE this city.
Whereupon at last, we arrive at the Chelsea Physic Garden:
I’ve already written about this garden in my book but I’ll have more to say on the matter of gardens that might be getting too big for their own britches — a Vivian Blog exclusive! — in a later post.
For now, jet lag is catching up on us and we head back to Earl’s Court via a walk up the famous King’s Road . . .
Sand. The dog is made of SAND.
. . .which is not quite as swanky as it used to be. We take the tube from Sloane Square back to Earl’s Court and Top Cat naps while I read the Daily Mail on my iPhone until 4. Shower, tidy up, and we’re ready to hit the second half of my Day One To Do List.
Tube to Covent Garden:
My fave tube ad. For OBVIOUS reasons.
Covent Garden is no big deal, but Top Cat had never seen it and we had to pass through it anyway on our way to visit the nearby Hospital Club:
The Hospital Club was founded by Micro-soft co-founder Paul Allen and Dave Stewart of the band Eurythmics in 1996.
The Hospital Club’s raison d’être (it’s true: Dave Stewart speaks French) is to support the creative industries by providing an inspiring environment that actively encourages its members to create, connect, and collaborate. Its private, by-invitation-only membership includes designers, writers, creative entrepreneurs, performers, producers, musicians, and film makers.
I had recently read Dave Stewart’s autobiography, called Sweet Dreams Are Made of This, about his immensely exuberant, wayward, and successful creative life and he had written rather proudly of this club (which used to be an actual hospital) so I wanted to check out the club’s public gallery to see an exhibit that sounded very promising: Twelve Tall Tales.
12 artists, makers and designers have been selected by guest curator Onkar Kular (never heard of him) to tell stories through an object they have made.
Stories told through objects! This show sounds right up my alley! I love material culture! I used to sell Faberge objects at Christie’s auction house so I know all about the depth and quirkiness of the stories that are embodied in the items that our culture decides to cherish, as well as those they deem unworthy! I am dying to see what context-heavy objects these 12 clever craftspeople have come up with!
First impression: Well, this doesn’t look like fun. Looks more like a high school shop class exhibit.
Uh-oh. “Beyond conventional approaches.” I don’t like the sound of that.
You see, our kind has been telling stories and making stuff for, I don’t know, 6,000 years, and to me, that seems to hint that we have pretty much perfected the object/story format. But this is a curated show at the Hospital Club, so I guess I can’t complain that the artists were forced to come up with the most convoluted, narrative-smashing, lo-fi/hi-brow manner of justifying the space that they take up in this gallery. You know, to make it “unconventional”.
But I’m going to complain. My chief complaint is that, without exception, the objects that were created, specifically to be as sui generis as possible, were all so god awful dumb.
Example, The Politics of Shoes:
This is by Dash MacDonald and the curator, Onkar Kular. They are probably very nice guys. This is not a personal critique, although really, how can it not be?
First of all, I consider this display a cheat. A truly profound object should, and can, stand alone; that is, present itself in splendid isolation to let the viewer decipher it herself. But this object — those red shoes — has too much support material scattered around it, to much context”, to serve as clues as to its creator’s intent, clues which include a George Bush mask, a 1907 pamphlet by H. G. Wells called The Misery of Boots, and a video of the artist, dressed up like a medieval shoemaker making these shoes, intercut with scenes from the social unrest of the 1930s. All this surrounding clutter only points out how weak and/or didactic the object is, that it needs so much mediation from its creator. Also, the stuff is unattractively arranged. Also, the shoes are stupid.
What makes this show even more disappointing was that it was co-sponsored by The Crafts Council, the national development agency for contemporary craft in the United Kingdom. It was the participation of The Crafts Council that made the show a must on my To Do List, but The Crafts Council of 2016 is a totally different creature than what it was when I first fell in love with it in 1985, when it was housed in a spiffy set of rooms on Pall Mall and had a gallery and a shop and a nifty showcase of the fabulously hand-made crafts of its members.
In 1985 I was 29 (on my 5th or 6th visit to London), and I moseyed into that exhibition space on Pall Mall by accident. There I discovered a space that was filled with thought-provoking and connoisseurship-level handmade objects in glass, ceramic, textiles, wood, and metal. Most significantly, I discovered the work of fabric artist Janet Bolton. She had one piece on display in the gallery:
This object was called Bird, and it did not have any “support” documents attached to it. This allowed me to establish my own relationship to the object, and I was quite intrigued by it. I got the feeling that this object embodied a very personal iconography and esthetic that I was just on the verge of understanding. There was something delicate and brave about this piece that I wanted to live with. So I bought it.
I asked the young woman (whose name I remember to this day for obvious reasons : Vanessa Swan) who was on duty that day in the Crafts Council gallery about the possibility of my seeing more of Janet Bolton’s stuff. Ms. Swan contacted Ms. Bolton personally. That’s how I got invited to visit Janet Bolton in her home studio the next day:
I bought three of the works that are in this photograph (directly above):
Then Janet Bolton made tea and we sat in her breakfast nook that overlooked the back garden, and watched as the friendly neighborhood red fox obligingly trotted out from amongst the bushes for a wander around the flower beds. I mean, does a visit to a London fabric artist get any better than that?
Like me, Janet Bolton has gotten famous since 1985. Unlike me, she’s actually pretty well known.
As for the Crafts Council, it has undergone several re-iterations since 1985, becoming ever more diminished in the process. It was moved out of its pricey Pall Mall digs in the 1990s and now it exists, as far as I can determine, as just an address in Islington that storehouses stuff and sponsors exhibits similar to Twelve Tall Tales. Which breaks a little tiny bit of my heart.
The reason I have gone into such a lengthy digression is because this is how I experience London: very, very digressively, because almost everything I see and do London links me to an awareness and consideration of my personal history in a way that, for example, Paris does not. This is because I have never lived in London; I’ve only visited it about 20 times over 40 years. This means that my experience of London, as opposed to that of Paris, is not on a continuum. My experience of London is quantum: My visits to London have happened at specific, short-term intervals in my life, so that after 40 years I have a collection of memories of London as so many discreet packets of time, after time, after time, etc.
So, while you and I mosey on from The Hospital Club in Covent Garden towards The Strand, keep in mind that it’s been 14 years since I’ve been in London and my head is whirling with all the quantum memories that such a trip down Memory Lane arouses (for the most part, I will spare you the ruminations). It’s now 6 o’clock on a warm and clear Summer evening on August 17, 2016, and we’re at The Savoy for a martini:
At first I was drinking my martini alone because Top Cat objected to the concept of having a martini at the Savoy. Long story.
But this martini was a MUST on my To Do List while, to someone whose name rhymes with Zop Bat, having a martini at the Savoy seems stupid when martinis are so easy to get AT HOME. Well, too bad: I didn’t want to have to justify having a martini at the Savoy by going into a whole other long story along the lines of The Crafts Council in 1985, so Top Cat and I parted ways (some strong language was involved) and I was fuming until he showed that he was the bigger person and joined me and we bickered until we came to a decision about our future handling of the To Do List, and the cocktails were divine. We came to refer to this as “The Attitude Adjustment Incident.”
We then wander up on Shaftesbury Avenue past the Palace Theater . . .
. . . and through back alleys — it seems that all of London is taking advantage of this delightful break from what has been a cold, wet Summer so far in the British Isles. . .
. . . and we stop in at two casinos in Leicester Square so Top Cat can suss out the poker room action (for later) before we fetch up in a narrow alley called Rose Street for a pint and dinner at Charles Dickens’ favorite pub, The Lamb & Flagg. . .
Then we moseyed to Piccadilly Circus, which neither of us photographed because it was almost 11 o’clock and we were tired and the place was horribly packed with people. We got the tube to Earl’s Court, dragged ourselves to the Garden View Hotel, and called it a day.
Total miles walked: 11.79
Total items ticked off the To Do List: 13
The next morning we pack up again to head for our AirBnB room in swanky Hampstead, on a tiny little mews — our room is above a bakery!
But that’s a story for next week, when we break down the To Do List into things that you can eat and drink.