Friday, July 19, 2013

More St. James, Hard Rock Café ‘Vault’ and Strange Interlude

Thursday, July 18, 2013:


       It was another productive and very exciting day! Oh and really hot too! I was up by 5. 30 am and by 8. 30 am, had already put in three full hours of work at my computer. As I was on a roll, I decided not to go to Mass. Instead, I washed, dressed, breakfasted on my soaked muesli and set out to meet my day.

First item on my agenda was the bus (521 from across the street) to Waterloo Bridge to get to the National Theater. I was keen to see Anne-Marie Duff—an actress I have grown to love ever since I saw her play Elizabeth I in The Virgin Queen. The National does not sell 10 pound tickets---but they do have Day Tickets for 12 pounds and I was delighted to snag one for the 7.00 pm show. Armed with my buy, I took the bus from across the road to Bloomsbury and went directly to my NYU office at Bedford Square.

At NYU at Bedford Square:
        Both weekday porters who happen to know me well and still remember my name—Mo, short for Mohammed and Mark North, were at the desk and how delighted they were to see me! They put me immediately on to my colleague Ruth who came downstairs to meet me and took me to meet Eric, our Associate Director, who joined after my time in London. We spent a little while together. It was so great to see Ruth again especially since there has been a massive change of guard and many new faces have been added to the staff roster at NYU-London. Our program has also expanded exponentially with two new adjoining houses being added to the original premises. Then I went down to the basement Computer Labs to print out some more material for editing in the next few days and about half an hour later, I was off.

Continuing Explorations at St. James’ and Piccadilly:
      Leaving Bedford Square behind me, I walked to Bloomsbury to take a bus to continue my explorations of St. James’ and Piccadilly. I arrived again at the Statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus, went into Nespresso for another reviving espresso and crossed Air Street and Regent Street to get back to Piccadilly where I returned to Fortnum and Mason to pick out a few more of their goodies to give away as gifts as I have already been receiving invitations to dinner from local London friends, who, I know would love some of their specialty foods. I discovered that on the Lower Ground floor, it is possible to stash buys in storage for later retrieval.

      On to Jermyn Street I went. Here, I discovered a specialty fromagier—Paxton and Whitfield is a cheese shop that I have heard great things about from Nigella Lawson’s show and Twitterfeed. Inside, I sampled many of their wares and picked up one of their readymade “Picnic Bags” as I was running out of cheese myself: it contained 2 chunks of English Stilton, 1 nice round of goat cheese and a hunk of Gruyere—nice!

      Then, I was turning into the Duke of Gloucester Street to enter St. James’ Park with its equestrian sculpture of William IV in the center. On another sizzling London day, it was filled with office-goers eating picnic lunches on the lawn. I sat myself down for a bit, then resumed my walking tour in search of the famous London Library. Although entry is strictly for members only (and a very pricey membership it is too of 465 pounds a year), I did get into the Reception area and glanced around before picking up a leaflet outlining the history of the place and its illustrious members over the years. Founded by Thomas Carlyle, it numbers both famous Victorian Charles-es—Darwin and Dickens—among its members as well as Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, Vita Sackville-West. John Betjeman, Kingsley Amis, Tom Stoppard, both Simons—Callow and Schama--and Bruce Chatwin (and this is only a selection) among its members. Stories associated with this library are rife.

      I had no time to linger and off I went towards Green Park to make a detour on to Duke’s Hotel which is the location of the famous Duke’s Bar whose bartender Gilberto once mixed the best martinis in the world (according to City Secrets London). Alas, Gilberto is no longer there but the current bartender permitted me to poke around, admire the signed photograph of Sean Connery (forever associated with James Bond who famously liked his martinins “shaken not stirred” although purists know that maritinis are neither shaken nor stirred!) on the wall. I ate my ham and Stilton sandwich lunch in the shade on lawn chairs provided by the hotel, used their facilities and then off I went again towards St. James’ Street.

       Here, I paused to see two things: The famous wine merchant, the oldest one in the world, called Berry Brothers and Rudd, whose interior is worth a visit for two reasons: it is extremely old-world and atmospheric and it contains a gigantic weighing scale, once used to weigh merchandise but, by the 18th century, used to weigh the area’s well-heeled residents. I was treated to a taste of a fine liqueur called King’s Ginger (it was amazing: plainly gingerly with a hint of lemon and similar to Drambuie) and given several recipe cards contained cocktails on the back. I saw a letter from the offices that owned the Titanic informing the company that the disaster had taken a case of their wine down into the ink-black waters that night. The displays are stirring and any history buff will have a fine time browsing the walls for memorabilia, not to mention a connoisseur of fine wines. I had the time of my life

     Then, following advice in City Secrets London, I entered adjoining Pickering Place, a tiny residential enclave surrounded by black brick buildings and crowned by a large sun dial in the center. It is Dickensian in the extreme and filled with scarlet geraniums spilling from window boxes which was truly lovely.

      I walked on then to St. James’ Palace. Its famous twin-towered Tudor gates were closed and had no guards outside them—they were further up the road. Into Marlborough House I went, once a grand 18th century private mansion, but was told that it was not open to the public—I distinctly remember sauntering inside, a few years ago, with my friend Loreen from Wilton, Connecticut, and admiring the thick skeins of wisteria that festoon its walls and using the loo in what is today the Commonwealth offices. Next door, the Queen’s Chapel, designed by Inigo Jones, was also closed: I have plans to return to it this coming Sunday for 8. 30 am Eucharistic services. A short loop around Spencer House—childhood London home of Princess Dina and now owned by her brother the current Earl Spencer--which I had visited in March with my former student (now a London banker) Kent Lui, brought me to Green Park through which I strolled briefly at the end of a long and humid afternoon which was crammed with sun-bathers.

      St. James’ area is always a joy to peruse: it has history, brilliant architecture, enticing upscale stores (some of my favorites) for unique shopping in an atmosphere in which you are made to feel like a Queen, fine parks, grand hotels—indeed it is London at its most genteel and I have always felt entitled to enjoys its amusements if only for a while.

Off to the ‘Vault’ at the Hard Rock Café:
      One of the things I am doing during my stay this time round is see as many of the Fifty Unusual Museums of London (that I downloaded from the Visit Britain website) as I can. One of them mentioned the Vault at the Hard Rock Café which was in the vicinity—at the end of Piccadilly near Hyde Park. I jumped into a bus going in that direction, got off at the end of the road near the Wellington Arch and walked through crazy traffic circles and the taxis emerging out of The Mall towards the Hard Rock Café.

      It is amazing but despite all our travels, the only Hard Rock Café that I have ever visited and eaten in is in New York. I had never been to the London one—which explains why I had never seen or even heard of The Vault: this is an underground treasury of musical memorabilia associated with the world of rock music. Guided tours are given every 20 minutes and I joined a couple waiting their turn before being taken downstairs at 3.00 pm by a young man.

       We found ourselves in a very well-lit underground cavern (we had taken a flight of narrow stairs to get down there) into a real vault: there were thick and heavy doors through which we went past. The guide explained that these premises once belong to Coutts Bank, bankers to the royal family and that Diana’s wedding dress had once lain in this space for safe-keeping. In 1991, when the bank went out of business, and the Hard Rock Café bought the premises, it inherited the Vault—and, therefore, decided to make a true showpiece of it by acquiring, at auction, items of clothing as well as letters and musical instruments belonging to stars. It is a tiny space but crammed with all sorts of items to thrill music buffs: I spied Bob Dylan’s guitar, Madonna’s bustier (worn at one of her ‘shocking’ concerts) and her credit card (on which her name is given as Madonna Circonne), John Lennon’s army outfit, one of Jimi Hendrix’s many guitars, letters from and to The Temptations and The Beach Boys—and on and on it went. It does not take longer than 15 minutes to poke around as well as see the bevy of photographs outside featuring musical giants who have performed at the Hard Rock Café. I would say that if one is not really interested in buying souvenir merchandise sold by the café, then a visit to this Vault would be fun. I had a good time.

       But I was also ready to get back to F&M to pick up my buys and then hop on to the buses to get home. I needed to rest, and to shower and dress for my evening out and indeed that was exactly what I did—I even managed to fit in a short half hour nap.

Off to the National Theater to see Strange Interlude:
      My evenings at London’s theaters are getting better daily. Tonight I was spellbound by the acting talent of Anne-Marie Duff playing Nina in Eugene O’Neil’s Strange Interlude. Now this is a play I had never seen in performance; indeed it is a play with which I am unfamiliar. And what a brilliant play it turned out to be with such an unusual story and a plot that was so unpredictable because it could go anywhere. I had chosen to see this play because, as one of her long-time admirers, I could not wait to see Duff in the flesh and I was not disappointed. She was simply riveting as Nina and in the support she received from such consummate actors as Charles Edwards who played Good Old Charlie Marsden (he is familiar to fans of Downton Abbey as the married editor to whom Lady Edith is attracted and for whose newspaper she starts to contribute articles), she was superb. Indeed every one of the characters did a grand job and given the fact that I had front row seats (for 12 pounds, did I mention?) which allowed me to watch every single expression on every single actor’s face, I was in Theater Heaven. Not surprisingly, the play has received superlative reviews and I felt privileged to be able to see it for myself.

      I am thrilled by these Day Tickets and hope to pick up one tomorrow for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. On Monday, I shall try for Othello, also at the National but the ticket clerk has warned me to queue really early for that one.

       As it was a very long play, it finished at 10. 30. I was home by 11.00 pm and by the time I had dinner (scrambled eggs, Cumberland sausages, salad), it was almost midnight and I was ready to call it a day. My days seems to be divided nicely between editing work, a walking tour, a museum and a play! In fact, it is London as its most varied and most entertaining. What's not to love???

      Until tomorrow, cheerio!

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