Wednesday, July 17, 2013

London for Walkers: Central and Ethnic (Piccadilly and Brixton)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013:

Exploring Central and Ethnic London:

Live and Learn. If that’s what Life is all about, I am glad I learned about “Ten at Ten”. For I was at the Noel Coward Theater at 9.3 0 am (having woken at 6.00 am, done some editing work on my computer, washed, dressed, attended Mass at 8.00 am at St. Paul’s, breakfasted and taken the Tube to Leicestter Square). There were about 15 early birds in the queue ahead of me to pick up Ten Pound “Day” Tickets—and the wait turned out to be longer than expected as the Box Office only opened at 10. 30 am; but the final reward was sweet for I snagged a ticket to see Daniel (Harry Potter) Radcliffe in The Cripple of Innishmaan for 10 pounds. I mean where could I possibly see world-class drama for $15 in The Big Apple? Not even Off  Off  Off  Broadway! Thrilled with my buy, I took the Tube again to Piccadilly Circle to begin a Walking Tour of Piccadilly and St. James. And by the way, by the time I reached the end of the day, I had walked 14,600 steps or 6.8 miles (a record even for me).

In the Court of St. James at Piccadilly:
            The reason why each of these DK Eye Witness Walks is taking me two and even three installments to complete is because there are too many distractions everywhere to cause me to get side-tracked. I began at Piccadilly Circus (as recommended) at the Sculpture of Eros that dominates the crazy traffic circle that, at the best of times, is always choked with tourists and, in the night, is a gaudy, vivid, ever-changing neon show of lights. In the daytime, it is less lurid but just as crazy. Crossing towards Air Street whose giant arches have been recommended as architectural features to note in City Secrets London, I chanced upon the Nespresso flagship store on Regent Street—so I could not resist going in to find out about their seriously upscale coffee. What I did find were freshly-brewed samples doled out at a Tasting Table in tiny Alice In Wonderland glass cups complete with biscuits! I requested a Mocha Macchiato—and how good it tasted although hot--I could have done better with an iced coffee on a morning that was already sizzling. But just across the street, Whittards was doling out White Chocolate Milk Shake samples, so very welcome on a gruesomely hot morning.
            Across the street, I entered Piccadilly and turned into Jermyn Street to peruse the colorful old windows of male clothiers—there were shoe makers and shirt makers and every sort of shop a man might consider entering to outfit himself adequately for a corporate career in London.
      I could not resist entering Waterstone's at Piccadilly, a book store that City Secrets London recommends every one should visit. It is a wonderfully huge space--it was once the location of Simpson's, the famed restaurant that has moved close to the Savoy Hotel and is now called Simpsons-In-The-Strand. I browsed through the London travel book section and was alwasy astounded by the new ones that come out each year. Downstairs in the basement cafe, I was able to retrieve email through the free wifi and upstairs, after I  took the lift (with its Smarties-like buttons to the fifth floor), I entered the famed bar--with its rooftop views over London. Alas, too much construction in recent years has all but obligterated the views of the spires of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben; but it is still a fairly decent space in which to pass an hour or two with a cocktail and a fine companion. 
           Then I was entering the lovely church yard of St. James’—the exquisite church that Christopher Wren picked out as his own best work in London. Its spire stands like a sentinel in the midst of Mammon’s world—for Piccadilly boasts some of the smartest store fronts with merchandize in which only the heavily-walleted can indulge. I ought to have gone straight inside; but, as I explained, London presents distractions at every turn and since I am here for a month (and not just a day as I was while on our Baltic Cruise), I can afford to linger. So, I set the grand stores behind and poked about in the impromptu market that springs up frequently in front of the church entrance featuring everything from London pub signs and football insignia to vintage cufflinks, ear-rinks and porcelain bric a brac. Thankfully nothing caught my fancy, so I moved on.   
            Inside St. James’ Church I stepped, into the cool interiors punctuated by the work of one of my favorite 18th century artisans, the lyrically named Grindling Gibbons—I have become adroit at recognizing his work at all the prestigious venues: Hampton Court, for instance, where a three-year old boy once enthusiastically described his work as “Rich Carvings, Daddy, Rich Carvings”. At St. James’ Church, Gibbons’ work is evident in two very different media: in wood (his forte) behind the altar where a thick skein of fruits, flowers, bows and garlands are an exuberant example of his vision (and above the grand organ where twin angels sit brooding over the congregation) and in stone: the Baptismal font at which no less a luminary than William Blake was baptized, is in stone featuring a circular frieze of Adam and Eve.
          Unfortunately, I missed the free concert that would be beginning in half an hour (piano and vocals--I would have loved it), and people had already begun to take their places in front of the grand piano placed at the altar; but I had a lunch date with my colleague and friend and I did not want  to keep her waiting.
            With half an hour on my hands, I popped inside Fortnum and Mason, purveyor of fine British food and drink. It is a place with a long and antiquated history having been founded in the 1700s by one of the footmen of Queen Anne—what an enterprising fellow! It is the best place in the world to buy typically English food such as lemon curd and Major Grey’s piquant mango chutney, crispy shortbread fingers, teas from around the planet and confections such as Turkish Delight. Over the years, I have bought a fair share of unusual trinkets that are regular conversation pieces chez Almeida: cheese markers, individual mug tea strainers that look like top hats, tea infusers in the shape of houses, tea cozies featuring the twin clock logos of the shop. I covet, right now, a little silver plated tea scoop with which to transfer loose tea leaves into the infuser and perhaps I shall pick up one before I leave. At any rate, I was there on a mission: to find some gifts for the many hosts who have so willingly and generously lent me their lodgings for my London stay. Since I was arriving in London from a long cruise, I could not carry gifts for them from the US—so F&M will fit the bill. I browsed around, long and hard, and came up with a bunch of nice buys. The nice assistant at the counter told me that they do not have a Waiting Service Area like John Lewis but he would make an exception and stash my stuff for a couple of hours. I was very grateful.         
            Then off I went to Green Park station to take the Victoria line to Brixton to meet my colleague Ifeona.

Browsing Around Brixton:
            I had long known that Brixton was a West Indian stronghold; so what better an escort to show me around the place that a West Indian herself. For my colleague Ifeona who teaches with me at NYU-New York, was born in Jamaica and arrived in London at the age of three. She grew up around Finchley but knows Brixton well from having accompanied her folks on many marketing visits to the area while growing up. Having also done some research on the area and having led her students on a walking tour herself, a few years ago, she was the perfect companion with which to take such a tour. And since I am a sucker for walking tours with a knowledgeable guide, I knew I would enjoy it thoroughly.
Ifeona was waiting for me outside the station when I arrived on the stroke on 1. 30 pm as decided. We started our walk and decided to have lunch upon its conclusion—she, of course, knew the perfect place. We started on the High Street, Brixton Road, where all the major clothing department stores might be found—M&S, Zara, Monsoon, etc. Taking in the splendor of the Victorian buildings that occupy the most strategic spots on the High Street (the Town Hall with its ubiquitous Clock Tower--an important amenity in a time when most people could not afford their own time piece), the “Free Public Library”, the Church--we arrived at the Metropolitan Police Station, scene of so much violence, over the years, between the inhabitants of the area and the police—for Brixton had always been multi-racial, so although race-relations were not much of an issue, encounters with the police always were. Memorials to those killed by the police over the years sit outside the police station around a tree where plastic flowers, candles, poems, etc. have been left to the departed—mostly young black men gunned down in confrontations with the law.
Into a side street we went, past the typical Victorian terraced housing that sprang up like mushrooms to accommodate the then white servants of London’s wealthy neighborhoods—they were double-storied and, after World War II, attracted the black West Indian immigrants who poured in from the Caribbean Islands. Although initially they rented these premises, in course of time, these immigrants bought up these homes—only to sell them by the 1980s when white Britons discovered the proximity of the area to the city center—Brixton is only 20 minutes on the Tube to Piccadilly! In doing so, they moved further into the suburbs and disinherited their children. Today, young blacks could never dream of buying property in Brixton where even the most modest single family homes would cost nothing less than 750,000 pounds.
   On the next road (Effra Road), we passed by a notorious family housing estate—Council owned—that looked almost prison-like to me with its high walls and small windows. Ifeona explained that Councils are trying hard to raze such properties to the ground—which often means displacement of the residents who are driven far away into the suburbs. Cake shops carried custom-made cakes featuring Snow White and her Castle and Cinderella’s glass slipper—an indication perhaps of white fairly-tale dreams?
Further on we went to take in the sight of a gigantic mural on a building wall, Crated in 1981 as a protest against nuclear armament, it is called Nuclear Dreams—it presents London before the construction of the London Eye, so the skyline is different. We pressed on to the corner to what used to be the famed Atlantic Pub—re-named today to the One Star Pub. Atlantic had a better ring to it and more significance for it was the watering hole of the working class who had made their diasporic way to the UK across the Atlantic Ocean. It sits opposite butchers that sell goat meat and grocery stores stocked with spices and herbs that form an essential part of Caribbean cuisine. There were also a few clothing boutiques with the accent on Africa-inspired clothing complete with sequins and strong colors.
We then entered a far more upscale part of the township—sporting million pound plus homes that were better maintained with nicer front gardens and facades. These were always white lodgings, Ifeona explained, and they continue to be. At the end of this short street, we made a right to loop around the high street and return to the Church—once an important congregating point for the community. Then the Rastafarians came along—and I spotted a couple of men in dreadlocks who remain rooted to the area—and the Christian influence diminished.
Our final stop was Brixton Market that once bristled with the West Indian housewife doing her daily shopping for fish and fruit and spices. Today, it is multi-ethnic and we chose to lunch in a creperie—since the owner and the ethos were Martinique—for St. Martin, a former French colony, is also a significant part of the Caribbean. My crepe, filled with Gorgonzola cheese, red peppers and “king prawns” was tasty and Ifeona’s sweet crepe served traditionally with lemon and powdered sugar was just as good. The heat was awful because the humidity had started up too. It was not very comfortable sitting in public spaces that did not even boast a fan! I remember the first purchase I had made from Argos when I had lived in London was a small table fan that I had placed on my bedside table. God knows how I would have survived these days without “aircon” here in Holborn and I wonder what I will do when I move to St. John’s Wood next week if it continues to be this tropical here in London.
Lunch done, Ifeona and I got back on the Tube and returned to the city. I went back to F&M to pick up my heavy bags, Ifeona went off to run her own errands. I entered the beautiful Burlington Arcade en route to peruse the pricey merchandise (cashmere cardigans and stoles, antique and vintage jewelery, Faberge eggs) before I crossed the street and picked up my goodies. Then, fairly weighted down by my purchases, I jumped into the bus just across the road, changed into another at Tottenham Court Road and reached home by 6.00 pm—just enough time to take a quick nap and a shower before I was out of the house again at 7.00 pm.

Seeing Daniel (Harry Potter) Radcliffe  at the West End:
            One of the great things that Michael Grandage Productions has been doing in recent years is bring really great British stars of stage and screen on the theater floor each year in a season of plays that are top-class. Over the years, I have seen Jude Law, Dame Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Kevin McNally, etc. on stage in his productions. Today, I was going to see one of the hottest stars of our times—Daniel Radcliffe who has made a successful transition to stage after his phenomenal success in the Harry Potter films, to see The Cripple of Inishmann. I hadn’t heard much about it or found the time to read the reviews—but it was enough for me to know that Radcliffe was in it to try to get a seat.
            And what a great theatrical experience it was! Set in Ireland in the mid-1950s, the play by Martin McDonaugh and directed by Grandage produced some fine acting, not least from Radcliffe himself who played the lead character. Supported by actors of whom I had never heard but who clearly have acting chops, he did a marvelous job keeping the audience riveted to his sad story of physical deformity and sexual challenge. The Aran Islands, so wonderfully popularized by J.M. Synge, were the setting again for the intrigues that the colorful people who populate these parts get themselves into when a film-crew come calling from Hollywood looking for local extras for the movie. “Cripple Billy” does not allow his physical afflictions to limit his filmic aspirations—and therein lies a tale. His ‘Aunties’ and other incidental characters bring much humor and pathos to the plot and for the two hours that I was in the theater, I was just thrilled, despite the heat that got nearly unbearable at times.
            The play finished exactly at 10. 00 am and I was home at 10. 20 (on the Tube). Since I have run out of quiche, I decided to cook scrambled eggs and Cumberland sausages for dinner—and having made a lot of them, I will have the same thing for dinner for the next couple of days!—the travails of living alone, I guess.       
            By midnight, I had glanced at my email and was ready for bed after what had been another sizzling but very fulfilling day. Tomorrow, I shall try to snag “Ten At Ten Tickets” for Strange Interlude at the National Theater starring Anne-Marie Duff, one of my favorite British actresses (and wife of the super sexy James McAvoy!)
Until tomorrow, cheerio!  

1 comment:

robert c said...

sounds like a full day! when i studied abroad i would line up early outside the royal shakespeare theatre for discounted tickets.