Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Rambling Along Birdcage Walk and Vintage Pinter

Monday, July 15, 2013

It seems I simply have to catch up with sleep—after two inexplicable wake-ups (one at 3. 00 am), I slept till 7. 30 am which is a virtual London lie-in record for me. This meant that I missed the 8.00 am Mass but sleep did me a world of good and my periodic drowsiness was history.
I worked steadily for two hours reviewing comments from my editors and re-drafting my proposal when I stopped for breakfast (muesli with Greek style honey yoghurt), then decided to take a chance and get the “10 at 10” tickets that the sales assistant at Trafalgar Studios told me was easily available. I hopped into the Tube, got off at Charing Cross and was lucky to get the last remaining 10 pound ticket for The Hot House—Harold Pinter’s tragi-comedy set in a mental institution in the 1950s. For me, the star attraction was Simon Russel Beale whom Stephen Fry calls one of the most brilliant British actors of our time. How thrilled I was to make my dream come true. Since this is theater in the round, my stage-side seats would be terrific, I knew, and in the States, I could never dream of seeing Broadway drama for $15! Forget it!
It was time to take advantage of another glorious day in T’Smoke. Although it is hot, there is zero humidity in the air so I am rarely uncomfortable. Armed with a bottle of water, sunglasses and a baseball cap, I feel ready to conquer the streets. My aim was to finish the sights around Westminster and Whitehall recommended by DK Eye Witness Guides, but I was also keeping my eye on the recommendations of City Secrets London.

Sculpture of Charles I at Trafalgar:
Being that I was at Trafalgar Square, it made sense to scrutinize the statue of King Charles I who is routinely overshadowed by the towering presence of Nelson on his pedestal just behind. Yet, Charlie is the oldest fixture in that space, having been installed on his mount—the work of Hubert Le Seuer—in 1633. The sculpture predates Trafalgar Square itself by 150 years although it was not installed at this location until 1675 “having been sold under Cromwell to a brazier who, with a shrew eye to later financial advantage, buried it until the Restoration although he was instructed to destroy it”. He gazes down Whitehall which would have been the route he took to his execution in 1649 at the Banqueting Hall which he constructed in honor or his father, James I. Once a year, on January 30 at 11.00 am, a wreath-laying ceremony occurs to commemorate his ill-fated end. 
A Peep into London’s Oldest Wine Bar:
            It was time to make a detour into Villiers Street sandwiched between The Strand and the Embankment. Touted by many as the most Dickensian watering hole in the city, it simply demands a look-see—Gordon’s Wine Bar. And what a fantastic place it turned out to be! At any minute you expect Fagin to emerge from its shadows in the basement with its low-hung arches resembling a medieval cathedral crypt. Dark, smoke-streaked walls—the result of a forest of candles stuck into wine bottles—crammed with 1950’s memorabilia (suddenly made so much more significant after the Diamond Jubilee), also moth-stained and sepia-ed with time, add to the overall atmosphere of this place. No room here for light, for space, for improvement—as the present “gastro pubs” boast. This is Victorian olde-world at its most authentic. For those wishing to breathe in unpolluted, non-alcoholic air, there is a café that borders the Embankment Gardens at the back. Don’t be fooled by the nondescript exterior—although it too is profoundly aged—but take the challenge and descend the narrow, dark and dinghy stairs and enter into an era that fairly bristles with history. Be assured that Kipling who lived in the same building (today known as Kipling House) would have been a regular as well as Kenneth Clarke who came with his entire crew after filming portions of Civilization at the National and stood quietly, drink in hand, in the corner, drowning the day’s stresses away. Gordon’s serves your traditional pub grub (read Roast Beef with all the trimmings) but most patrons come in to drink in—both the spirits and the spirit of centuries past.

Saying Hello to Embankment Heroes:
            A long-ish walk down the Embankment (opposite the Thames side) brought me within hand-shaking distance of a number of British war heroes, statesmen and colonialists—all remembered in cast metal on lofty pedestals and surrounded by the seasonal splendor of flowers: sunflowers, begonias, day lilies. I recognized Bartle Frere after whom Frere Road in Bombay is named. There is William Tynedale who translated the Greek Bible into English and was executed for his pains. There is a monument to the Chindis, a World War II regiment based largely in Burma, with an appropriate lion symbolizing the ferocity of the regiment. It is a pity that most people choose to walk along the river and these wonderful symbols of British history are largely ignored.
Leaving the tourist chaos of Parliament Square behind me, I turned onto Birdcage Walk—lovely name and I pause to wonder about its origins as most “funny” names in the UK carry an appropriately funny story. It borders St. James’ Park—its leafiest, shadiest portion, thanks to the massive plane trees that make it a bosky place.   

Rambling Down Birdcage Walk:
            First stop, Queen Anne’s Gate. I can hear the booming of the last of the Changing of the Guard on Pall Mall as I enter this wonderfully 18th century enclave, complete with its granite statue of Queen Anne whose haughty gaze sweeps the residences. They have elaborate canopied entrances, some in stucco, others wooden. Historical worthies lived here—from Prime Minister Palmerston to philosopher like Haldane.
            From here, it is a short hop to St. James’ Park Tube Station which is built into the building known as 55 Broadway—it reminds me of Bush House at Aldwych in its grey solidity. The building is remarkable for its Jacob Epstein sculptures that punctuate it at regular intervals. All you have to do is raise your head upwards to take in the marvels of one of the 20th century’s most famed sculptors. Inside the station, Art Deco elements are evident in the light fixtures. One of these days, I shall find the time to take in the art and sculpture of the Tube stations—it will be like a Progressive Museum Tour, no doubt.
            Circling the building, I arrive at Caxton Street, home to the Blewcoat School that was founded in 1707 as a charity school to teach pupils how to :read, write, cast accounts and the catechism”. It remained a school until 1939—indicated by the blue-coated pupil sculpted high on its entrance just below the ubiquitous clock—became an army store during World War II (every place in the country was requisitioned during the war), was bought by the National Trust in 1954 and used as their gift shop until recently. Alas, today it stands wan and forlorn, disused and empty. No doubt some savvy entrepreneur will soon come calling to initiate yet another Java Stop in these hallowed, red brick premises.
            The Guards Museum, back on Birdcage Walk, was next on my agenda: although I did not have the time to enter the Museum, I did pay my respects at the attached chapel with its moth-eaten standards flying from flag-poles along the sides and its stunning gold mosaic altar in Byzantine style. The Horse Guards are so revered that they have their own house of worship where Sunday choral services take place routinely and a gift shop that sells toy soldiers in virtually every avatar.
            By this time, I had reached St. James’ Court and spying a different sort of standard flying from it—that of the Taj Group of Hotels—I could not resist exploring it. I have a long family association with the Taj as my brother once worked for the group and a special affection for it as someone who has often used its excellent hotels. I have also learned from long and frequent travels that five-star hotels make great comfort stops as their lobby restrooms can often be used by the public. I needed a sit-down rather badly and air-conditioning in the lobby made it particularly welcome on another toasty day. The bonus was wifi which I used to check email and re-check the number of my doctor at the Holborn Medical Center. Attempts to call and make an appointment based on the number I had stored, drew a blank. Armed with the new number, I tried to make an appointment with little success for my sulphur allergy which has flared up again in an itchy, uncomfortable rash. Though I faced initial frustration, I have to say that the Triage Doctor called me back within the hour and gave me an appointment for that very afternoon at 2. 20 pm. It would mean making changes in my plans, but I conceded. Who knows when they would be able to fit me in next if I dithered?
            I found the time to sit under the shade of the above-mentioned plane trees and munch my ox tongue sandwiches in the company of other office-goers who were drawn irresistibly to sunshine and shade provided by the Park where Henry VIII had once hunted lustily. My sandwiches were made more delicious by my picnic environment, but much as I would have liked to linger, I had a doctor’s appointment to keep.
            So off I went on the Tube from St. James’ Park station to Lamb’s Conduit Street at Holborn, sorry to discover that my regular doctor is no more with the practice but equally delighted to discover that his place had been taken by an American doctor—one John Roegner, originally from Michigan, who knew the names of all my American medication and could work with me to combat the allergy. After a very companionable chat and an examination, I left with a prescription for a local cream to be applied twice a day and instructions to return to see him again, should it not work. My faith in the NHS was reinstated and I was grateful for the speedy service. The pharmacy next-door provided the medication which I purchased quite reasonably and returned to my plans for the day.

Meeting A Friend at the Tate Britain:
            This involved returning home to pick up my field glasses for the play in the evening before nipping into the Tube again. This time my destination was the Tate Britain to see the Turners in the Clore Collection with my friend Murali Menon, a fellow art-lover and blogger. A short walk from Pimlico brought me to the Millbank Embankment where Murali was awaiting my arrival at the main entrance. We sat down to cups of tea in the noisy Manton Café first for a lively chinwag when I discovered that Murali, an IT guy, might help me fix the glitch on my blog that was making the inputting of text impossible. He offered to come over to the Holborn flat to take a look and thrilled with his suggestion, I jumped up, rushed off to look at the Turners—only to discover that they demanded more than just a cursory glance. I would need to return for a more leisurely look.
            But first things first: within twenty minutes, Murali and I were heading back on the Tube, speeding to Holborn, where within minutes, he figured out that simply changing my browser might enable me to solve the problem. And indeed it did! From Internet Explorer to Mozilla Firefox I went and hey presto! My blog is now alive and running—as you can see. Murali’s efforts were rewarded by a chilled lemonade and a slice of lemon sponge roll cake. We had to alter our plans to meet at the Tate again—but it was so worthwhile. Ten minutes later, Murali left and I was able to take a shower and get dressed for my evening out at the theater.

The Hot House at Trafalgar Studios:
            I have seen a lot of drama over the years at the Trafalgar Studios—a small, intimate, amphitheater-like space that I dearly love. Arriving on the Tube at 7. 25 pm, I took my place behind the stage and was so close to the actors that my field glasses were completely unnecessary. I could not have snagged better seats if I had paid a small fortune for them! And what a show it was! This is vintage Harold Pinter—in a play he had abandoned for a long while before returning to direct it himself in the 1980s and to play the lead role of Colonel Root (superbly performed by Simon Russel Beale). This is dark comedy at its most explosive for the setting is the controversial mental health institutes that were run by totalitarian regimes specifically to use electric shock therapy to silence dissidents. It was shocking, it was brutal, it was fearsome and it was hilarious—all at the same time. Brilliant (and I do not use this word just because I am in the UK) performances, superb playwriting, excellent direction combined to make this scintillating at every turn. I loved every second—and the bonus was the chance to see British stars of film and TV in the flesh. I had gone to see Beale but on stage, I found Indira Varma (with whom I have recently become familiar in her role as Luther’s wife in the Idris Alba crime drama), a much slimmed down Harry Melling (who plays Harry Potter’s fat cousin Dudley in all the films of the series) and Christopher Timothy (James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small) whom I have loved for years. What a treat it was and how determined I am now to get as many 10 pound tickets as I possibly cam for all the stage dramas I wish to see. Thank you Jamie Lloyd for directing such a satisfying production.
            Twilight had fallen over Trafalgar Square when I emerged from the theater and I had half a mind to jump on a bus and get out there to see the monuments illuminated---but it had been a long day and I needed to review a chapter that has a strict deadline. So I resisted temptation and went back home for dinner (quiche, salad, cherries) and in very little time, I was off to bed.
            Until tomorrow, cheerio!                    

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