Brunch at the East End on Eid:
My day began slowly but then it picked up rapid momentum. As Shahnaz was keen that I see Azra's place before she moves, I hopped on the No. 15 bus and rode all the way through the East End to Limehouse. No sooner did I reach Commercial Street than it became very evident to me that Muslim immigrant London had something to celebrate. Men (I did not see a single woman) were dressed in their Sunday best--beautiful knee length embroidered anchkans with spotless white skull caps. And then it hit me! Of course, it had to be Eid! When I arrived at the Arbor Square bus-stop, past Aldgate and Mansel Street, Azra came out to meet me and lead me to her home--one of those long alleys full of row housing--what the English called 'terraced housing' and what the American call 'town houses'. Inside, narrow staircases open to multi-purpose rooms with the kitchen usually below ground in the what Americans would call the basement. Shahnaz, who was eagerly awaiting my arrival, fed me a breakfast of eggs and a selection of her superb kebabs which she had made in India and brought along to London with her. They were just scrumptious. With toast, I had myself a truly substantial brunch. It was appropriate, I thought, that I had, unwittingly, tucked into Muslim kebabs on Eid!
Off to City Hall:
Then, we were on a bus again headed to City Hall where we intended to take a tour, if one was available. Two years ago, while on a flight to Norway from London, I had shared aircraft space with a certain Simon Reece who worked in City Hall very closely with Mayor Boris on London's Olympic Planning Committee. Her had told me that City Hall was open to the public--and ever since then, I had hoped to visit it to inspect the visionary work of one of Britain's best-known contemporary architects, Sir Norman Foster, up close and personal.
Arriving at the Monument:
We alighted from the bus at Monument and walked down short Pudding Lane where the Great Fire of London had started in 1666. Right enough, we found a plaque on the wall of a modern-day building announcing the site of the Baker's establishment, run by one Thomas Faryner, where the fire had originated. While taking a picture of the plaque, I took one step behind and realized that I was only a few feet from the Monument itself--an obelisk designed and erected by Sir Christopher Wren to commemorate the great fire. I recalled a nugget of trivia: that the height of the Monument is exactly as tall as the structure is from the spot where the fire began, i.e. some 30o odd feet away. A couple of years ago, when my friend Amy Tobin had visited London from New York, we had climbed the Monument, clicked spectacular views of the city from beneath the great pot of flames at the top and been rewarded for our pains with a certificate to state that we had climbed it! It had been one of our little exciting adventures.
On to London Bridge:
Without spending too much time on pictures, we crossed London Bridge (a newer one as the original bridge from the famous song 'London Bridge is Falling Down' had burned down in the fire) to the Southbank, took a flight of stairs leading to the Embankment past a very spiffy contemporary glass sheathed building and arrived at City Hall--its unmistakable rounded profile reminds one of a collapsed pudding bowl. Foster's work is increasingly evident around London. His most notorious work to date is probably 'Wobbly Bridge"--the Millennium Bridge that connects St. Paul's Cathedral with the Tate Modern--which actually wobbled dangerously the day it was inaugurated and needed to be closed down for a couple of years until the glitch was sorted!
Well, City Hall was just amazing. The security guard just inside the revolving door put us through the inspection paces and told us that the building could be visited on a self-guided tour. He suggested we walk up the spiral ramp to the second floor,then take the elevator down to the basement. Following his instructions, we almost gave ourselves a crick in the neck as we read. line by line, Nigerian Booker Prize winning poet Ben Okri's poem "Lines in Potentis" that were seen along the left wall--the right sports glass panes that offer changing views of the city to which Okri offers a memorable tribute in his lines. Foster's visionary genius is plainly evident--both in the conception that gave the building birth and its execution. Strategically located on the bank of the Thames, it offers stirring views with every turn--one minute you are gazing at HMS Belfast moored on the river, the next you are taken by imposing Tower Bridge and then again, you see the newest addition to the city's skyline, The Shard, only a few meters away. The idea reminded me very much of the dome atop the Parliament Building in Berlin, also Foster's handiwork. You climb up a similar spiral ramp there and see yourself in endless recurring mirrors on the opposite side.
When we got to the second floor of City Hall, we were at the Council Chamber used by Boris and his boys and I could imagine all the planning for the coming Olympics that is continuing to take place here. Unfortunately, it was being redecorated as great blue tarpaulin sheets covered most of the seats and the floor. In accordance with instructions, we then took the elevator to the ground floor and alighted on foot one more floor down the ramp which continued to the basement to offer a close view of a satellite image of the city of London reproduced upon a 'carpet' on which you can actually walk. It was just fantastic. We identified the O2 first--as the Millennium Dome is called--perched precariously on a sharp bend in the river, the Thames Barrier and then, on the other side, the London Eye and all the other landmarks of this incredible city: Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, St. Paul's Cathedral--and, of course, the places in which I have lived at different times. For a geography buff such as I am, it is the kind of item that could keep one enthralled all day. We took any number of pictures from different angles and in various corners of the city before hightailing it off to our next adventure. City Hall was truly a revelation and made for a superb morning. We were so glad we went.
Across Tower Bridge to the National Gallery:
Leaving the Embankment via the opposite bank, we walked along beautiful Tower Bridge with its twin Victorian towers and its vistas of the many buildings comprising the Tower of London. Since it was a beautifully clear day, we were able to take several pictures of what I call London's layered architecture--from the medieval Tower to the 18th century memorial on Tower Hill just beyond it to Sir Norman Foster's Swiss Re building just beyond that--a building known affectionate as the Gherkin although I have heard Americans refer to it as the Cigar Building!
Riding a Routemaster Bus:
A No 15 bus was conveniently waiting for us at Tower Hill--and get this...it happened to be one of the few vintage Routemaster buses that are still plying on London's streets. We sprinted for it, made it to the top deck and were reminded of the double decker buses we used to ride in Bombay as kids--alas, they have disappeared, I am told, into the annals of British colonial history in the city of my birth. So, it was lovely to be able to ride a bus that was designed in 1954 long before I was born!
Touring the National Gallery:
We alighted at the last stop--Charing Cross--the monument all spiffed up in time for the Olympics and rid of centuries-worth of dirt, soot and grime. Across the street to the National Gallery we went because, of course, it would be unthinkable for me to come to London and not go to one of my favorite places in the city. A special lecture tour on 'Food and Feasting' had just begun and we joined the tour guide Steven Brent as he shepherded us along to a few paintings with food as its main theme. It was inevitable perhaps that he should lead us to Carravaggio's stirring Supper at Emmaus with its basket of fruit perched precariously on the edge of the table! We went on to the final work in William Hogarth's series Marriage a la Mode and then on to Gaugain's still lives to inspect his rendition of exotic fruit in Tahiti. There were a couple of other paintings he showed us, but they now slip my mind.
We took a break at the Cafe downstairs for tea and sustenance--I opted for Coffee and Walnut Cake--and then we were off again, ready to take the next Highlights Tour which was also given by Brent. Assembling in the Sainsbury Wing, we followed the troop through his commentary on a handful of paintings. The ones I can remember now are: The Wilton Dyptych, Sandro Botticelli's Venus and Mars, Veronese's Meeting of Alexander the Great with the Family of Darius, A portrait by Hogarth of Three Royal Children, and Renoir's beautiful canvas entitled The Umbrellas. Brent's commentary was enlightening and as a tour guide myself, I always look for tips I can glean from others who do work similar to mine.
We spent the next hour as I led Shahnaz and Azra on a tour of some of the museum's highlights starting from my favorite gallery that presents the work of almost-unknown Renaissance artist Carlo Crivelli and from there to my favorite work in the museum, Pieter de Hooch's Courtyard of a House in Delft. I showed them Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, The Arnolfini Marriage by Jan Van Eyck, the Vermeers in the National's collection, Rogier van der Weyden's Magdalen Reading, Seurat's Bathers at Asnieres, Paolo Uccello's Battle of San Romano, Hans Hemling's Tritypch on The Adoration of the Magi, the room featuring works by Peter Paul Reubens, George Stubb's horse Whistlejacket, Turner's The Fighting Temeraire and Constable's The Haywain. I could easily spend the entire day at the National but having arrived at 1. 00 pm, we thought it was time to leave at 5. 45 pm as the Museum would soon be closing for the day. We'd had a fabulous afternoon and I shall try to return to the museum one more time before I leave.
At the Theater Royal Haymarket:
Then, because we were only steps away from the Theater Royal Haymarket, I decided to nip into the Box Office to find out if tickets were available for the evening's performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest which stars none other than one of Britain's greatest living actors Ralph Fiennes as Prospero. I had few hopes as I know it is a sell out, but I also know from experience that there is no harm in trying for a seat! When we were informed that there were either 60 pound seats or 15 pound seats offering "restricted views that obliterated half the stage", Shahnaz opted out saying that she did not want to spend 60 pounds and did not intend to pass the evening unable to see half the action on stage. I agreed with her and decided to forgo the thrill. Instead, we hopped on to another bus to head homeward.
Except that I hopped off at Aldwych, took another bus along Kingsway to Holborn and went food shopping to Sainsbury for my supply of goodies to take back to the States--HP brown sauce, Marmite, Three Fruits marmalade, Frank Cooper's Oxford Marmalade and loads of Ainsley Harriot's powdered soups! I also picked up sandwich ingredients for my own meals out here--Gorgonzola cheese, cold cuts, piri-piri flavored hummous, walnut bread, hazelnut yogurt. Yummy! Back home at Amen Court, I made myself a hearty sandwich for dinner, packed it up and decided then and there to return to Piccadilly to buy a restricted view ticket for the show. The opportunity of seeing Fiennes in the flesh was just too hard to miss and so off I went to Haymarket.
Seeing Ralph Fiennes in the Flesh:
How delighted I was when the clerk at the Box Office recognized me from my visit earlier in the evening and discovering that I wanted a single ticket decided to sell me a 60 pound Royal Circle ticket for just 20! Needless to say, I grabbed it, thanked him profusely and then spent a stirring evening in the theater making delightful discoveries. For not just was Fiennes at his thespian best but I recognized so many other well-known British stage and screen stars: Nicholas Lyndhurst (Only Fools and Horses) played Trinculo and Julian Wadham played Antonio, usurping Duke of Milan. It was a lovely evening made more marvelous by beautifully executed set design and costuming--Ariel's final song "Where the Bee sucks..." was lyrical perfection and the Epithalamion scene featuring Juno and the other goddesses was brilliant.
I took the bus back at 10. 30, was home at 10. 45 and was thrilled to bits with myself that I had, on impulse, decided to take the plunge and acqueise to buy not-so-good seats for, in the end, I had an excellent spot and a superb theatrical experience for practically no money at all!