Monday, July 20, 2015

Final Day in London: Museums, Theater, Slap-Up Dinner

Saturday, July 18, 2015: London
Fitting Final Features Into Our Last Full Day in London:

            And so it dawned! Our sad final day in London because all great things must come to an end. We awoke to finish up packing and dividing the weight we had acquired into the four suitcases we are allowed between the two of us by our airline. A quick breakfast of coffee and cereal in order to help us finish our supplies in the fridge, saw us shower and dress and leave. The first item on our agenda was getting to the Savoy Theater in the Strand in the West End to pick up day tickets to see Gypsy.

 Off to Pick Up Tickets for Gypsy:

            We resolved to get out of the flat in Holborn by 9. 30 am in order to be at the theater at 10.00 am when day tickets are distributed for most London plays at a considerable discount and much cheaper than rates at the TKTS stand at Leicester Square. A brisk walk to Fleet Street to jump into the No. 15 Routemaster …and within minutes we were outside the Savoy Hotel that has recently undergone a massive renovation. Just outside is the Savoy Theater and it was to its Box office that we were headed. We got there at 9. 50 am and had a 10 minute wait with about 6 folks ahead of us in the queue.

            It is hard to believe that with the huge number of items on our program on this visit, we had not yet been to the theater. And with the vast number of offerings around plus the fact that we had not pre-booked, making a choice was easy. I thought a musical would be far better than pure drama—more entertaining, more of a range of talent on display. Neither one of us had seen Gypsy before—a saga about the entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee set on the West coast of America. What sold me on the show as the presence of British thespian Imelda Staunton whom I have seen on the screen (Vera Drake) and on the stage before in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloan at the Trafalgar Studios a couple of years ago in London. In my humble opinion, she has the caliber of a Judi Dench or a Maggie Smith and it is only the lack of a truly breakout show so far that has not catapulted her into international stardom.  I was certain that a show that headlined this actress could never be anything other than outstanding. Besides, the show had Peter Davison in a lead role too—he is the darling Tristan of the TV series All Creatures Great and Small and in more recent years, we have seen him on TV in The Last Detective.  Two great stars. How could we go wrong? When we snagged two tickets, ten minutes later, at the bargain price of 25 pounds each for 70 pound seats, our joy knew no bounds.

In Search of Oscar:

            With tickets under our belt for the 2. 30 pm matinee show, we had the time to saunter across The Strand to the National Portrait Gallery. But before we arrived there, I had another small mission to accomplish. Our friend Barbara and our hostess for our stay in London had set me a challenge: she expected me to go out and find the bench/chaise longue/sarcophagus (depending on how you want to look at it) of 19th century playwright and dandy Oscar Wilde which was somewhere on Adelaide Street. When she explained to me where I would find it, I knew exactly where to look.

And five minutes later, we came upon it on a side street just behind the Church of St. Martin-In-The-Fields. We took our pictures with Oscar who is sculpted in rather gruesome vein to allow varied interpretation: he could be emerging from his own coffin to enter into conversation with anyone who would care to share cerebral space with him—a convenient bench, as it were, is attached to his bust to enable just such an objective.  Llew did the honors—taking pictures of me facing Mr. Wilde for the sculpture is entitled “In Conversation with Oscar Wilde”. That done, we headed off.

Mission Well Accomplished! Barbara would receive a tweeted version of one of the pix as soon as wifi connections permitted.

 Re-Visiting Members of the Bloomsbury Group at the National Portrait Gallery:

            Ever since I finished reading Priya Parmar’s excellent book Vanessa And Her Sister, I had a little secret item on my Wish List for my next visit to London. Her book had caught me up so profoundly with the lives of the members of the Bloomsbury Group that I had resolved to visit the home at No. 51 Gordon Square where the famous Thursday Evening meetings were held for several years by the sisters, Virginia and Vanessa Stevens—later Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. Close friends who happened to share intellectual interests that included literature, art, biography, history and economics, their interconnections were cemented by their marriages and intimate relationships with each other—some heterosexual, many gay. I had visited the 20th century galleries at the National Portrait Gallery before but since we had not found the time to get to Gordon Square on this visit, I was keen to re-visit these figures through the portraits that were produced of them by their own friends.

            When I told Llew of my mission, he was game to accompany me—and we set off straight for the first floor to the galleries that deal with Britain around the period of World War I. There they were—all my favorite writers (E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey) and there were their portraits by their own friends (Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Dora Carrington). Re-visiting this gallery gave us the opportunity to examine other portraits from the period and I was pleasantly surprised to come upon a sculpted bust of Nehru by Jacob Epstein—not the most complimentary representation but it was a master sculptor’s work.

            On the lower floor, I led Llew to the controversial portrait of Katherine Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, by Paul Elmsley that has drawn so much flak for the aged, grey-faced, almost ugly woman he has depicted. Llew was not impressed. We also looked at Bhupen Khakar’s portrait of Salman Rushdie and some new photographic portraits of the Queen taken at her Diamond Jubilee. Finally, we ended our visit by examining a selection of portraits of National Portrait Gallery’s Director Roy Strong who has donned costumes and had his pictures taken in depictions of famous paintings. When we had seen enough, we used the rest rooms and then raced off again.

 A Highlights Tour of the National Gallery:

      No marks for guessing where we were next headed! How can I possibly leave London without going to the National Gallery and saying Hello to all my favorite friends? It is simply a no-brainer. Since it was nearing 11. 30 am, it made sense to take the hour-long Highlights Tour that starts from the Sainsbury Wing of the Museum. It gave me a few minutes to browse in the gift shop before joining a group of about 15 people to listen to the docent introduce himself and begin his tour. Llew and I took the elevator to the second floor where most tours begin and for the next one hour, we gave ourselves up entire to the expertise of the guide who took us chronologically through the following paintings:

1.      Carlo Crivelli: The Annunication with St. Emidius (1486). I discovered the talent and work of Crivelli at the National Gallery several years ago and have been enchanted by him ever since. A Venetian Renaissance artist, he was banished by the Establishment for apparent homosexual leanings. Hence, his work remains practically unknown and certainly unseen even in Italy. The National Gallery has an outstanding collection of his canvases, each more stunning than the next, for the multiplicity of symbols, the plethora of detail and the astounding realism that he brings to his subjects. I adore his work and was absolutely delighted that Llew got a chance to see one of his works as well.

2.      History of the Wohl Room (Gallery 9—1911). The guide used this splendidly decorated central room in the Museum to tell us a bit about the history of the National Gallery and its acquisitions.   

3.      Joachim Beuckelaer: The Four Elements—Earth (1560s, Antwerp). In a round room in the Museum, four works by Beuckelaer find a perfect permanent place. I have also always adored these Flemish paintings for their realism and abundance of detail. They represent the four elements by providing still lifes of items associated with them. For example, Earth is a representation of fruit and vegetable in all their appetizing detail; Air is a reproduction of birds and game fowl;  Fire is a representation of meat that is cooked through the use of fire before being consumed; and Water takes us into the deep—to the abundance of finned life that provides sustenance at our tables. The guide focused on Earth and only drew the attention of the audience to the other three paintings at the end of his commentary. I wished he had done so sooner as visitors could well have looked at them too as the room is very compact and could easily encourage comparison.

4.      Anthony Van Dyke: Lord John Stuart and His Brother Lord Bernard Stuart (About 1638). This lovely double portrait presents the sons of Charles I—the Heir standing slightly taller than his brother, the Spare! Both brothers fought on the Royalist side in the Civil War and were killed. We had seen a smaller version of a double portrait of them at Highclere Castle, two days previously. Not just renowned for his mastery of portraiture, Van Dyke being a Flemish artist was also neutral in his portrayal of English royalty.

5.      Anthony Van Dyke: Portrait of Charles I. Just besides the portrait of his sons is the famous huge equestrian one of Charles I himself also by Van Dyke—again, a similar one is in the Dining Room at Highclere Castle and we had admired it only very recently.

6.      Gallery 36—The Main Domed Room. The guide spoke about the elaboration of the interior decoration in this room and although he did not point to any paintings, he did talk about the stature that the National Gallery enjoys internationally and the manner in which it sees its mission to bring an awareness of quality paintings to the world.

7.      William Hogarth: Marriage A La Mode (1743). This series of 6 paintings is almost like a series of cartoons in that Hogarth pokes fun of the custom of marrying for money rather than for love. The guide focused on just one of them but referred to all six in passing and explained Hogarth’s penchant for satire through Art.

8.      Claude Monet: Bathers a La Grenouilliere (1869). The tour ended with a visit to the Impressionist section and a work by Monet in which I learned why the lake in which the bathers are seen taking a dunk is referred to as a frog-pond (La Grenouilliere in French). It turns out that it is a reference to the three women depicted hazily in the paintings and wearing the latest fashion in bathing suits—suits cut daringly to reveal their calves! They were, therefore, thought to resemble frogs—which is why the pool they swam in came to be known as the frog-pond! Hey, live and learn. Each time I take a guided art tour I learn something new—which is why they never fail to fascinate me.

It was a very good and a very satisfying hour indeed. But I simply could not leave the National Gallery without saying Hello to my favorite painting of them all: Courtyard of a House in Delft by Pieter de Hooch. Taking directions from a guard, we found it in Gallery 28 right besides the Vermeers and yet not in the slightest bit eclipsed by it.  But by 12. 30 pm, I was ravenous and ready to eat something urgently. I have realized that ignoring my hunger pangs only leads to a headache and I wanted to avoid that. I, therefore, led Llew down to the Gallery Café for one of my favorite of English treats: a slice of Coffee Walnut Cake. Llew did not wish to eat cake at mid-day and opted to simply watch me relish mine He decided to pick up a more substantial lunch somewhere down the road.

 Off to Flanders Field Memorial Garden:

            There was little time to spare after I had gobbled up my cake—we were meeting one of my former NYU students, Kent, who is now a friend of mine and someone I see almost every time I come to London. Kent, who has worked for Lloyds Bank in London for about five years, is returning to Hongkong to join his father’s business. Hence, he was particularly keen that we should meet this time as it is not certain when we will meet again.

            I chose the Guards Museum on Birdcage Walk for our meeting as I was keen to see the Flanders Field Memorial Garden that adjoins it. It was inaugurated by the Queen last year to coincide with the centenary of the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Somehow I expected it to me much larger and more elaborate than it turned out to be.

Llew and I rushed into the Tube at Charing Cross with the idea of making a connection to the District or Circle Line only to discover that weekend track work had disrupted the service (as it is wont to do). With no time to waste, we hailed a black cab and made it to the venue to find Kent waiting for us. Llew has also heard a lot about Kent from me and was happy to meet him for the first time. We spent the next hour with Kent as we inspected the Garden and took pictures of it. Named for the famous poem, “In Flanders Field the Poppies Blew” by John McCray, it comprises a large disc that has the entire poem engraved around it. This is a poem that every British school kid knows by heart—it is heart breaking and it is especially significant for me as I have followed the Poppy Trail in Picardy, France, and have seen how, to this day, poppies continue to bloom in the fields where trenches were once dug to conceal enemy troops and where an entire generation of young men was lost to the genocide that is warfare.             

We then walked at a leisurely pace to Parliament Square which was just buzzing with tourists on a particularly gorgeous day. It is amazing how towards the end of our stay the weather came through brilliantly for us and made our sauntering memorable. At Whitehall, we jumped into a bus that would sail down The Strand and bring us to the Savoy Theater just in time for a quick bite of lunch before our 2. 30 matinee show of Gypsy. We chose EAT as the most convenient place for pies and a sandwich and throughout this time, we chatted with Kent about his future plans. But by 2. 20, we bid him goodbye and raced across the street to the Savoy Theater.

Watching Gypsy—An Outstanding Musical:

            And what a fantastic three hours followed for us! In every sense of the word, the show was outstanding and Imelda Staunton was simply phenomenal. In what turned out to be a lovely story of the arduous nature of showbiz life, the hopes and dreams of one mother for her brood of kids, her complicated relationship with her agent (played by Davison) and her more complicated relationship with her daughters, June (Gemma Sutton) and Louise (Lara Pulver), the show kept us riveted. Staunton is truly a woman of multiple talents and while I had little doubt about her dramatic powers, her ability to sing and dance the way she did on stage simply blew me away. The house was packed, our seats were fabulous, Llew loved every second of it as much as I did and between the two of us, we were simply thrilled to have seen such a quality show and been so unexpectedly enthralled by it. Since there was only one show we had the time to see on this visit, we were besides ourselves to have caught this one.

Taking the Bus to see The Shard:

     There was one last thing we had to do before we returned home to shower, dress and get ready for our dinner appointment: I was keen to take Llew over to the South Bank so that he could see one of the newest attractions on the London skyline, The Shard. This is the conical tower that juts out into the sky on the South Bank. Viewing the city from its observation deck is a pricey business and we had no intentions of getting up there. However, it was worth jumping off the bus at St. Paul’s, crossing Wobbly Bridge (the Millennium Bridge) and getting closer to the skyscraper. Llew was glad to have done so but did not want to spend any more time on the South Bank. So we simply walked back through Paternoster Square to take a bus to High Holborn that got us there in 15 minutes.

 A Slap-Up Dinner at Simpson’s-On-The-Strand:

            I have wanted to dine at Simpson’s ever since I heard about it through an episode of As Time Goes By on TV. But I also knew that it was a fancy, fine-dining kind of place that called for jackets in the Dining Hall. This meant that I would need to wait for Llew to arrive in London with me to be able to enjoy its offerings.

            Simpsons, it turns out, is also a bit of a London institution. It was originally opened in 1828 as a chess club in Piccadilly (where the Waterstone’s Bookshop is currently located). Since it was thought unwise to disturb chess games while in progress, it was decided to bring roast meats to the tables in silver-domed wheeled trolleys—a tradition that continues to this day.

            I had made a reservation for 7. 30 pm and we arrived just a few minutes after a lovely stroll from home to the restaurant on an evening that was made for walking. Seated at a table for four, we studied the brief menu and came to our decisions. We were taking our hosts Tim and Barbara for dinner and as Llew studied the wine list and chose a bottle of red Cabernet for the table, we made our choices. Barbara had the potted shrimp, Tim the sweetbreads  for starters while Llew and I decided to skip a starter and go directly to the main. With the compliments of the chef,  however, the waiter brought us demi-tasse cups of a chilled gazpacho that was absolutely divine—how thoughtful! Our guests both chose the Dover Sole for their main while Llew went for the Stuffed Pork Tenderloin and I chose the Roast Saddle of Lamb—I, therefore, had the privilege of being served table-side by a master carver who skillfully cut slices off a joint of meat and placed them on my plate together with redcurrant jelly and mint sauce. They came with superbly roasted potatoes and savoy cabbage. Everything was simply scrumptious. We all passed on dessert but ordered cups of coffee instead and with the conversation around the table never flagging for a single moment, we had a truly nice evening with our warm and generous hosts whose company we also thoroughly enjoy.

            It was still lovely outside as we walked through the West End’s theater lights and billboards for the short walk home. All that was left was to bid our hosts goodnight and goodbye as we had a very early start the next morning and would not be disturbing them as we sneaked out of their flat.

            The day had been very full but very exciting and it had ended on the nicest possible note. As always, we were sorry to leave London, but we had crowned an unforgettable safari in Africa with a splendid stay in our favorite city and we were not sorry to be returning home.

            As we finalized our packing, tidied, cleared and cleaned our room and bathroom and undertook the last-minute chores we needed to complete before our departure, we agreed that it was a week superbly spent and that it could not possibly have gone any better.

            Thanks for following me once again on this incredible summer tour of Africa and the UK. Although writing this journal is something I do as much for my own pleasure as or those who read it, I am always aware that you have a busy schedule and that you do me the honor of sharing some part of your day with me as you armchair-travel in my company. For that I am truly grateful.

Until I don my traveling shoes again, I say Cheerio!   

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