Tag Archive | Borough Market

Meeting London Friends–Old and New, Harrods Sale Shopping, Borough Market and East End Street Art Tour

Thursday, June 29, 207:

London—Doing This and That and Meeting Old Friends at Every Turn.

            Another dawn saw us rise to greet another dry day. A quick call during breakfast with my old friend from Bombay, Firdaus, who also happens to be visiting London at this time, meant that our morning plans were sorted. But first things first.  We had shopping to do and Harrods was the pace to go! Yes, Harrods! Not that we can afford their astronomical prices in normal times. But during their sales, I have managed to pick up really great bargains and I wished to try my luck. My usual buys from Harrods in the past have been candles, soaps and body lotions—and this time too, I hoped to get a few lucky goodies.


Sale Shopping at Harrods:

            We took a bus to Knightsbridge from right outside our digs and sailed away into the store almost as soon as it opened. A few inquiries led us to the departments where I had hoped to find the items I had in mind. But I drew a blank.  There was nothing I could find this time. However, I was delighted to show Shahnaz the tourist attractions that the store affords: the memorial to Dodi Al-Fayed and Diana in the basement which comprise life-sized sculptures of the two of them, portrait pictures and a diamond ring that some believe was an engagement ring (although most people doubt the veracity of this claim). I also marched Shahnaz through the appetizing Food Halls where I go, not so much to buy, as to ogle at the displays and to marvel at the ceramic vignettes and Victorian tiles on the wall. The 19th century décor in these rooms never fails to thrill me and Shahnaz was equally enthralled.

Of course, you cannot get to Harrods Food Halls and not buy something to eat. I chose the most scrumptious-looking almond croissant that was gigantic in size and thickly sprinkled with flaked toasted almonds and icing sugar. Shahnaz got a more Oriental meal consisting of spring rolls. I had my treat wrapped carefully and hoped to find a nice place where I could sit down and really enjoy it as almond croissants are one of my very favorite things in the world to eat.

Tube to South Bank to meet Firdaus:

            With little time to spare, we hurried off to meet our friend Firdaus at Vinopolis on the South Bank of the Thames as that was where he intended to be this morning. We got off far too early and ended up taking a bus to get to the Thames bank from where we walked briskly past the National Theater, the Tate Gallery, the Globe Theater, etc.

Borough Market, George Inn and Lunching on Roast Hog Sandwiches:

Eventually, we met up with Firdaus at the ruins of Winchester Cathedral which was once occupied by the horribly corrupt bishops of Winchester. Firdaus and I had a fond reunion—we go back more than thirty years to our first stint in Oxford. He happened to be with a friend named Kamal, a lovely Parsi lady also visiting from Bombay. It was not long before we wound our way to Borough Market which none of them had seen and, before you know it, we were scouring the stalls and being tempted by the many tasters laid out for our sampling pleasure. From sweet nectarines and white peaches to jams and preserves, from cheese to olive oil, from smoked mackerel pate to olives, from sourdough bread to brownies–we were simply plied with every treat and goodie you could imagine. As we were both carrying lunch, I did not intend to buy any at the market. But Shahnaz was as tempted by the offerings as were Firdaus and Kamal who decided to buy the roast hog sandwiches that were served in ciabatta bread with rocket and apple sauce. Before that, we had taken a slight detour to the George Inn so that I could show Shahnaz the last of the old galleried coaching inns in London (now managed by the National Trust)—which is still a fine hostelry. But they chose to eat at Borough Market—so we turned back.

It turns out that Kamal is a very small eater. She merely took two bites of her sandwich and passed the whole thing to me. And thus it turned out that I left my almond croissant untouched and feasted on her lunch instead! And quite good it was too! The market was buzzing. The recent London Bridge shooting which had led to the closure of the market seems to have happened far in the past—so quickly has the area bounced back. Shahnaz was simply delighted that I brought her to this place and simply could not get over the variety of eats and the generosity of the vendors. Overall, we had a lovely reunion. It was such a pleasure to see Firdaus again and to meet Kamal.  I suggested that they should not miss a visit to adjoining Southwark Cathedral, the oldest church in the city. And I was glad to see them take my advice as we parted company.

Tube to Aldgate East to Whitechapel Gallery for East End Street Art Tour:

            Shahnaz and I then hurried off to the Borough Tube station to catch a train that would take us to Aldgate East in the East End of London for the next item on our agenda: another Free guided tour of the Street Art and Graffiti of the East End. Our meeting point was outside Whitechapel Gallery on Whitechapel Road and we were astonished to find a huge crowd of young people surrounding our guide who happened to be from Vancouver, Canada, and had a distinct Canadian accent.

The tour wound its way through the East End taking in all the street art that has flourished in this area ever since the king pin of street artists Banksy made the area his base. On this tour too, I learned a lot about the artists and their intentions. This tour was more up my alley than the alternative music tour we had taken yesterday. We learned about paste-ups and other forms of protest for basically that is what street art is all about. By the end of it, I have to admit that I found I could not relate to any of it and did not find it appealing at all. In fact, I cannot tell the difference between street art and graffiti and for the most part, I think of these efforts as defacement of public property and a very ugly, unaesthetic use of space! The most striking items I found were those of the black women done by an artist called Drelph. And that was it.

By the time the tour which lasted almost two hours had wound its way into Brick Lane and the mosque there, Shahnaz and I were drooping with fatigue. It was time for us to pull out of it, for sure.

Dark Sugars on Brick Lane for hot chocolate and truffles:

            It took no arm-twisting at all to get us into a coffee shop we passed called Dark Sugars where the aroma of chocolate wafting out of the place was much too enticing. And so it as that we armed ourselves with Hazelnut Praline Hot Chocolate and free sample orange caramel truffles that were being distributed at the cashier and sank down to enjoy our treat. Finally I had the chance to sink my teeth into my almond croissant—I had waited ages to enjoy it and I have to say that it tasted like manna from heaven. Fortified well with our sustenance, we found our way back to the Tube station.

Short Detours in the East End—Spitalfields Market and Christ Church, Spitalfields:

Attempting to make our way back to the Tube station, we made a few detours as I wanted to introduce Shahnaz to Spitalfields Market, one of the most colorful in the city. She loved its antiquity as well as its interesting wares—vintage jewelry, vintage silverware. But there was no time to waste as we had to return home quickly to change and get ready for our dinner appointment. En route, we also stopped to admire the handiwork of architect Nicholas Hawksmoor at Christ Church, Spitalfields. As the best-known pupil of Sir Christopher Wren, Hawksmoor has built some fine London churches but this one with its towering Doric pillars that support an arched portico is a particular favorite of mine. Needless to say, Shahnaz loved it too.

Dinner with Cynthia and Aidan

            Our day ended in Chelsea with my friend Cynthia who had invited the two of us over to her place for dinner. Sadly, her husband Bishop Michael had another engagement, but we were very pleased to find their son, Aidan, at home. He joined us for dinner and conversation before nipping off for a walk with a friend.

It is always a great joy to see Cynthia whom I refer to as my ‘sister’ in London.  She had cooked us a lovely meal: rice with chicken curry, steamed broccoli and carrots and garlic naan For desert, we had fresh strawberries with vanilla ice-cream. Such a tasty meal—made more special by the affection with which Cynthia cooked our meal and the warmth of her hospitality.

We did not stay long at Cynthia’s as we’d had a very long day. We found a bus really quickly that took us directly back to our lodgings from Chelsea and it was there that we bedded down very quickly for the night.

Until tomorrow, cheerio.

Stereotypical Saturday (Borough Market, Portobello Road), More Art and Company for Supper


All of London seemed one with me–project-wise–today. The city is simply HEAVING with visitors–everywhere I go, I am being jostled; every sound I hear is on a foreign tongue. The collapse of the pound sterling, post-Brexit, doubtless has something to do with the crowds. Still, I am not complaining. Being alone, most times I still get my front seat on the top deck of red buses!

Travel Planning and Brekkie: 
I am now awaking about 6. 30 am–getting back to routine and defeating jetlag, clearly. It was the perfect time to plan and book my travel to Scotland in September. My invitation to speak at a conference at the University of Edinburgh being confirmed and accommodation being arranged for me in the capital of Scotland, all that was left was booking my transportation there and back.
National Express coach lines have good deals but the one I snagged with much glee was on Megabus. My first time ever traveling with the cheerful fat boy I see plastered on double decker coaches all over the place means that I will be on the red eye from Victoria to Waverly Coach station in Edinburgh for just 3. 50 pounds! How’s that for a steal? I shall be carrying my down pillow and popping in a pill for a whole night’s sleep en route.
From Edinburgh, since it is only 90 minutes away, I shall be riding a National Express coach to Glasgow–for just 48 hours. My only aim is to see the Burrell (Art) Collection at Pollock Park as Llew and I had missed it the last time we were in Glasgow when a Council strike has kept all museums and art galleries closed. Oh, and eating scones at the Willow Tea Room on Sauchihall Street (which remain the best scones I have ever eaten–soft as a cloud, they melt like snow on your tongue).
My journey back to London will be on National Express again–the red eye from Glasgow will see me back into the city. With booking done, all I need to do now is find accommodation for one night in Glasgow. The only annoyance was that Mastercard refused to put my charges through although I had informed them that I’d be traveling for 6 months–I had to call them to confirm intended payments before I was quite done. Would have been well and truly irritating if it were not for the fact that I feel secure about the red flags flying in the faces of some monitors somewhere that keep my account safe. Thanks Mastercard!
It was time for breakfast and I ate a lovely almond croissant and a cup of coffee knowing that I’d soon be eating again–for right after showering, I dressed and left for Borough Market–Saturdays are one of the rare days each week that artisinal food purveyors arrive there with their trucks and their produce to sell their foods through the offering of what the British all ‘samplers’. So I took the 25 Bus to Bank, admired Sir John Soane’s grand Bank of England Building on Threadneedle Street right opposite the London Stock Exchange Building, before I crossed Southwark Bridge on foot and arrived on the South Bank. The Thames looked a ghastly murky brown as it swirled along exposed sand banks. You can have a day at the sea-side on its banks.

Tasting My Way Through Borough Market:
Borough Market on the South Bank has grown enormously since I first went there about 30 years ago. At that time, there were a few stalls and some desultory salesmen and most buyers were from the trade, sourcing fine foods for their hostelries.
Not any more. The secret is obviously out. Everyone who is anyone gets to Borough Market on a Saturday morning and at 11. 30 am, the place was simply jumping. Elbowing my way through the mobs, I passed by stalls selling food–the more exotic, the better. I saw vast trays of curries from Ethiopia and Malaysia before I got to the salesmen with the small farm-produced foods. By the time a half hour had passed, I had tasted fruit butters, jams, marmalades, blasamic vinegars with fig and olive oils with truffle flavors, candied cashew nuts and candied peanuts, Greek bakhlava, pistachio Turkish delight, home-made granola (mine is infinitely better–even if I say so myself!), a multitude of cheeses, lots of charcuterie, brownies and cookies and even a salted caramel pie. It was like having lunch on my feet. Feeling fairly stuffed, I walked towards Southward Cathedral (the church with the stained glass window dedicated to the characters of the Bard’s plays since he often worshiped there), paid a visit in there and left via London Bridge. I hopped on to a 17 bus that sailed along (top deck, front and center, of course) and hopped off at Holborn Circus.

Off to Portobello Road for some Antiquing:
My aim was to get on the Central Line Tube to Notting Hill to browse for antiques and kitsch at the Saturday Antiques Market. The Tube took me there in 12 minutes, I followed the crowds down Pembroke Gardens that lead to Portobello Road, browsed in my favorite vintage jewelry shop there before I found the street vendors.
And once again I was struck by the differences–then and now. Thirty years ago, there was a very good chance you would get treasures on this street for most of the dealers were genuine: when they were not selling to the trade at Bermondsey Antiques Market at dawn, they set up their stalls at Portobello Road. I will never forget the delight with which I spied my Japanese umbrella stand–a fabulous Imari find–and the manner in which I carried it across the Atlantic where it still graces my front vestibule.
Not any more. Today’s stalls carry all manner of reproductions: silver plated tea sets, mismatched silverware, bone china mugs and plates, kitschy London souvenirs (magnets, pub signs). Plus there are flea market wares: leather bags from Florence, tweeds from Scotland, jewelery from Tibet–that sort of thing. I reached out for a small toast rack and she wanted 12 pounds for it. I had bought one from a tag sale in Connecticut for 25 cents! It is simply amazing how things have changed. As for the crowds, they were here too–by the thousand. Clearly not really interested in antiquing at all–just doing what their guide books tell them to do on a sunny Saturday in London.

Finding the Book Shop from the film Notting Hill:
Before leaving Portobello Road this time, I decided to make a concerted effort to find the book shop that was a integral of the film Notting Hill, starring Hugh Grnat (who owned the book shop) and Julia Roberts. Rumor had it that the shop was closed, that it was a private residence, etc. etc. I asked around and a vendor knew exactly where to send me: Blenheim Crescent (towards the end of the Portobello Antiques stalls). Make a left and in the middle of that block is the book shop. It is still a book shop, not a private residence, but it is not a travel book shop any more: it is a general book shop simply called The Notting Hill Book Shop–ah, banking on tourist traffic from the film no doubt. Inside I found one small indication of its film connections: it shows a card with the film’s poster in black and white on it. I took pictures intending to tweet them to the film’s director Richard Curtis and his wife Emma Freud–who recently became friends of mine. As soon as I have a free minute, I will…
Sorely disappointed about the general lack of sophistication about today’s ‘antiquers’, I entered a bus going towards Oxford Circus with the idea of taking the Bakerloo Line to Charing Cross to the National Gallery so that I could finish up seeing the items in the 19th century Wing that are on the audio guide. The bus offered a tour of Paddington–so I took in the sights: the 19th century railway station, the 19th century St. Mary’s Hospital from where Alexander Fleming gave the world penicillin. Finally, we got to Trafalgar Square bathed in sunshine and crawling, simply crawling, with crowds.  There is simply no escaping them in London right now.

Back at the National Gallery:
I escaped gratefully into the National Gallery, procured my audio guide and stool and was off in the main galleries (also mobbed) to see some of its main highlights–the Gainsboroughs and Canalettos, Turners and Constables, the Van Goghs and Cezannes. I have to admit, somewhat guiltily, that I sat down on  a sofa to contemplate George Stubb’s Whistlejacket–the magnificent portrait of a horse–when I actually dozed off and had a ten minute nap! Clearly, erratic sleep patterns are getting the better of me…but then if one has to snooze off, I cannot think of anything better than a brown leather Chesterfield sofa in a great museum on which to catch a few zzzs!
When I was done at almost 6 pm, I treated myself to a slice of Coffee Walnut Cake in the cafe and was off on the Tube back home. Mission Accomplished. If and when I get back to the National again, it will be to look at paintings of my own choosing. The audio guide, by the way, is wonderful and it is a treat to be educated by some of the museum’s best curators.

Dinner Chez Moi:
Back home, I caught up with email, put my feet up for a bit and then readied myself for dinner. My landlords N and C are expected tonight between 8 and 9 pm and when I suggested we have supper together–they gladly agreed. Which meant that I had to cook it, of course! I had planned to make Mary Berry’s Malay Chicken Rice–very simple and very delicious it sounded too. So off I went, improvising with her basic recipe when I discovered that the rice I had in the house was arborio (and not Jasmine or Basmati). Oh well…what happened, therefore, was that the Rice became a risotto. The dish was tasty–a fine Italian-Indian fusion (as my chicken had been marinated in yogurt and spices) and it was far more edible that you would imagine. With a salad of lettuce, pears, blue cheese, onion, cranberries and nuts with a balsamic dressing, it turned out to be a good meal. Toast crostini with mushroom pate had been my starter and Sainsbury’s marvelous tiramisu was my dessert. What a fine meal indeed! And who says I cannot whip up a meal in a jiffy with ingredients on hand in a pantry or frig???
We had a very nice evening and then it was time to say Goodnight as we called it a day. I watched a bit of a Swedish detective show on BBC I-player called Beck, but fell asleep watching it–so what’s new? At about midnight, I switched off the night…
Until tomorrow, cheerio…

Towers, Gallows, Churches, Markets–Another Fascinating Walk

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I am sorry to have to spend so much time analyzing the vagaries of my sleep patterns, but they never cease to amaze me. Throughout the winter, when most folks tend to sleep in, I was awaking at the crack of dawn–even before dawn had cracked, in most days, i.e. at 4 and 5 and 6 am! Now, when summer is almost upon us and light appears in the eastern night sky before 5am, I sleep curled up like a baby until 7 and 8 am!!! This is the weirdest thing and I have never in my life experienced anything like it. Much as I am delighted that I am finally sleeping long and well, I am also sorry to lose the several productive hours I had at my PC in bed long before the rest of the world stirred.

At any rate, I awoke at 7 today, read Potter for an hour, called my parents in Bombay and spent almost an hour on the phone catching up with them about so many things, then sat to blog about my day yesterday. This took me a good part of the morning and it was about 11. 30 when I got out of bed!!! Since it was too late for breakfast, I fixed myself a brunch (toasted parma ham and blue cheese sandwich with some good coffee) and got back to my PC right after that to call my cousin Blossom in Madras. That chat when on for ages, then emailing back and forth with Chriselle in the States (after a long chat with Llew in the morning–we’re all about her wedding plans right now) and I found that it was about 4 pm when I finished all the things I wanted to do–most of which involved scheduling my projects for the next few weeks.

With time running out and my return to the States becoming imminent with every passing day, I feel pressured into completing all the items on my To-Do List as well as making time for my library research and for drafting the lecture that I have been invited to give to the international graduate students at Oxford in the middle of July! So you can imagine that I am beginning to feel as if I should make every second count–as if I haven’t been doing that for the past one year already!

The end result is that I have almost given up the idea of doing the Homes and Gardens Tour that I had intended as I find that most of the places I want to visit are way out of the public transport tracks and would take me ages to reach if I used the National Express coach services. Instead, I have decided to try and see just a couple of the gardens that can be reached by local train lines from London (such as Sissinghurst and Wisley Royal Garden) and to see the estates and mansions that lie sprinkled along the Thames. When I am in Oxford, during the third week of this month, I shall find it easier to reach places in the Cotswolds and in Wiltshire and at that time, I can try to see Blenheim Palace, Kelmscott Manor and the Hidcote Manor Gardens. So major changes in plans for me mean that next week I ought to be able to spend a whole week at the British Library with documents that will aid my understanding of negotiations that were carried out between the officials of the departing British Raj and the representatives of the Anglo-Indian Association.

I am, in a way, relieved that I have modified my plans. Everyone thought I was idiotic to aim at so ambitious an itinerary and I can now see why. At any rate, with so many wonderful places to cover that are so much closer to London, it makes no sense to be spending long hours in coaches, stuck in traffic when I would rather be out on my two feet exploring the country. So with those alterations in my plans all set, I could take a shower, dress and go off to cover one more self-guided walk in my book–this one entitled “Wanderings and Wizards”.

Wanderings and Wizards Walk:
There was much more than wanderings and wizards on this walk which turned out to be a sampler of sorts for it offered everything that the city of London has been known legendarily to possess–marvelous Wren churches, spooky graveyards, teeny-tiny tucked-away gardens, dim alleyways, atmospheric pubs and even a gigantic Victorian market–Leadenhall, so-called because its roof was made of lead and glass in the 19th century.

So, let’s begin at the beginning: I started off at Tower Hill (took another old Routemaster 15 bus there–I will never tire of the thrill of riding in these relics from a past era) and arrived at the Tower Hill Underground Station from where I walked across Trinity Square Gardens to arrive at the Memorial to the members of the Merchant Marine Corps who gave up their lives for their country–and then to a far older monument–the Memorial to the many men and women who were beheaded from 1381 to 1747.

The Tower of London is right across the busy road and I could only imagine what the last minutes of these poor ill-fated individuals might have been like as they made the journey from their prison cells in the Tower to this spot. Beheadings and hangings were public spectacle in those awful days and people gathered in vast numbers to take in these gruesome scenes. It was in 1747 that the last person (80-year old Lord Lovatt) was beheaded–thank God for little mercies! The monument is a poignant reminder of the injustice that so many of them faced in their last few years (individuals such as Sir Thomas More, for instance, who died fighting for their beliefs, their faith and their ideals, as heroes not as cowards).

When one considers the circumstances in which they died, it is curious (and I do not see the humor) in a pub across the street that is named The Hung, Drawn and Quartered!–but this is British humor, I guess. This pub stands right opposite the Church of All Hallows By-The-Tower (where I attended a recent Sunday Eucharist service) from which Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist who recorded the details of the Great Fire of London of 1566, watched the city turn into a bonfire–a scene of great desolation. There is a bust to his memory in a small garden in Seething Lane opposite the church.

Just a few steps away is the churchyard of St. Olav’s with its eerie stone gate that has three skulls and crossbones adorning its pediment. Apparently, these were designed to keep body snatchers away for it was not unusual for thieves to dig up fresh bodies right after they had been buried–these were sold to hospitals that needed them for the instruction of their student doctors as part of anatomy lessons. Inside, I found St. Olav’s to be equally spooky and I took a quick tour of the place before dashing out again. Somehow, with all the ghostly tales that I am reading as part of these tours, I feel rather uneasy in spaces that have not another soul in sight. I do not want my own brush with any of London’s ghosts and spectres, if I can help it.

Past St. Olav’s, the tour took me to very narrow alleys and unlit lanes that must have been the breeding ground for thieves in the not-too-distant past. They were reminiscent of the novels of Dickens and it was only when I was back on the main thoroughfares that I felt comfortable again. Office-goers were hurrying homeward though it was only 4. 45 and I soon realized that with the newspapers reporting a strike by Tube staff starting this evening, they were eager to get home before they found themselves stranded.

I pressed on, however, arriving at the splendid entrance to Leadenhall Market, a truly magnificent piece of Victorian architecture. It is a trifle reminiscent of Borough Market and Spitalfields but its fresh coat of paint makes it seem somehow much more striking. Whether this face lift is owed to its use by Hollywood producers of the Harry Potter films or not, I do not know, but the location was the setting for the scenes in Diagon Alley and there is actually a shop front in vivid blue that was the entrance of The Leaky Cauldron pub in the film. I enjoyed pottering (if you will forgive the pun!) around the market and its many shops that appeared like cubby-holes in the wall.

Right past this antiquated building is another that stands in peculiar contrast to it–the building that houses Lloyd’s, the British insurance firm. Only its building is like an industrial factory what with its steel facade, its glass elevators that ply along the exterior and its pipes that run the length and breadth of the structure. It reminded me very much of the building that houses the Centre Georges Pompidour in Paris, the location of the city’s collection of Modern Art. As anyone who has been reading this blog regularly knows, this form of Modernism is not my cup of tea at all and I was glad to leave the premises, though I rather marvelled at its design.

That was when I arrived at a series of churches, one after the other, that stood in small patches of green studded with ancient grave stones. There was the Church of St. Peter Upon Cornhill and then the Church of St. Michael. I have, by now, seen so many churches on these walks, that I have pretty much entered and perused all of the work of Christopher Wren that exhibits his attempts to rebuild the main houses of Christian worship in the center of the city after the Great Fire.

By the time I arrived at Bank Underground Station, commuters looked deeply harried and I could see why. Trains had already stopped running and I abandoned my intentions of getting to the National Theater to try to exchange some tickets that I am currently holding. Instead I did the sensible thing and hopped into the first 25 bus I saw that got me safely back home where I spent the rest of the evening writing this blog, fixing and eating my dinner (Chicken Kiev with soup and toast with chocolate mousse for dessert), making transport inquiries online for my intended trip to Highgate and Hampstead tomorrow and reading some more Potter before I retired for the day.

Seeing Samantha Bond in Stoppard’s Arcadia and Liberty of London

Saturday, June 6, 2009

In keeping with my resolution to always get substantial work done before I goof off, I awoke at 7. 30 am, read some Potter, proofread my blog, caught up with my email, then stopped for a spot of breakfast–make that a whole cup of coffee and some toast with preserves. I am trying to finish up all the odds and ends of food stuff left over from my pantry supplies as I do not want to take any of it back to the States. And time is flying…

Then, it was back to the drawing board for me as I began transcribing an interview I did with Gerry in Wembley. This neighborhood is quiet, quieter than Holborn, if that is at all possible. While Holborn did carry the occasional screech of tyres up to my third floor window even on weekend mornings, I do not hear a squeal here at all–the better to get my work done.

It was while I was hammering away at my PC that the email came–offering me free tickets to see Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. This is a play I had toyed with the idea of seeing for a while–not only do I think Stoppard is quite the most brilliant living playwright in England (I speak here with knowledge of The Real Thing, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and, of course, his unforgettable Oscar Award-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love)–but the play stars Samantha Bond whose performance in Distant Shores I had loved when I saw her play the very feisty wife of a physician (played by Peter Davison) on a PBS channel in the States. So, when the offer of free tickets fell into my lap, I grabbed it. A few calls on my cell phone and I found company–my buddy Rosemary agreed to drop all her scheduled cleaning chores to go with me (I didn’t have to do too much arm-twisting!) and we decided to meet at the Duke of York Theater at 2. 15 pm. This gave me enough time to have a relaxed shower, get back to my transcription, dress, and leave the house at 1. 15 pm to pick up tickets outside Covent Garden at 1. 45 pm.

I have yet to figure out which bus stops are closest to my new roost, which routes they serve and how to make connections–but I am sure all that will be sorted soon. What I did find when I set out was that the entire Smithfield Market area was barricaded. Apparently, there were to be some major bicycle races there in the evening. I did find an odd Number 11 stop by (all buses were re-routed) and hopped off at Covent Garden and, against all my expectations, made it there on time to pick up the tickets.

London is just crawling with tourists right now and the attractions are buzzing with buskers. It is difficult to cut through the crowds and though, at most times, I do enjoy the travel energy associated with these folks (God knows I have enough of it myself!), I have to say it was annoying this afternoon.

However, I did pick up the tickets and a hearty ham and mustard sandwich from M&S Simply Food which I munched en route to the Theater on St. Martin’s Lane which kept the hunger pangs at bay.

Rosemary was waiting for me in the lobby. It wasn’t long before we found our seats and chinwagged until the curtain went up. She had bought a program while awaiting my arrival and I was glad she did. Not only did it have an extraordinary amount of information on the actors, but it was full of notes about the history of landscaping in England as the play is themed around the changing fashions in English garden design from the classical to the naturalism of Lancelot (Capability) Brown to the Picturesque style that followed. Hannah, in the play, speaks of Brown who was influenced by Claude Lorraine (French landscape painter) who was, in turn, influenced by Virgil (Italian medieval poet). She says:

“English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors. The whole thing was brought home in the luggage from the Grand Tour”.

These have to be among the most striking lines in the play and a perfect example of Stoppard’s erudition–and this is only one example. . Of course, those of us who have kept up with the trends beyond the 19th century know that in the 20th, English garden design continued to evolve with Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens collaborating to create the concept of Garden Rooms–a venture in which they were joined by the redoubtable Vita Sackville-West who presented us with her famous White Garden at Sissinghurst.

I know I digress when I say that perhaps it was fitting that I should see this play the very weekend I am beginning to make plans for a week-long tour of the Grand Country Estates and Gardens of England. This is another one of the items on my List of Things To-Do before leaving England and since June is possibly the best month to visit English gardens, I can think of no reason to waste any more time. Besides, my friend Loulou in whose fabulous loft I am currently staying, was just telling me only a few days ago that she has to get her garden ready for a local garden club that is about to visit her estate garden in Suffolk. For she is a dedicated gardener and if her home (whose en suite spare room I am currently occupying while she spends most of her week in Suffolk) is anything to go by, her garden must be ethereal! I can’t wait to take her up on her offer to visit her there and see it for myself. By comparison, I am sure that my Connecticut garden, a tour of which is on my website, must seem like a blooming traffic island!

So there was I familiarising myself with the vocabulary of English landscape design from ‘hermitages’ and ‘hahas’ to ‘gazebos’ and ‘wilderness’ as much as I grappled with the more esoteric aspects of the script that derive from mathematics about which, I have to admit, an abiding ignorance–one of the characters deals with chaos theory and utilizes it to help figure out the grouse population on the estate. Infused into this rather abundant pastiche of allusions are those from literature–from Lord Byron (who is central to the plot) and Lady Caroline Lamb, to Mrs. Radcliff and Robert Southey–so that the creative arts constantly intersect the sciences. Newton is thrown in for good measure as are Euclid and Fermat and Carnot. Stoppard is nothing if not intellectual, so go prepared for a cerebral roller coaster ride in the theater.

After you have stopped gasping at the verbal and conceptual pyrotechnics of this play, you will have a chance to be swept away by the engaging performances especially of Bernard Nightingale (played very energetically by Neil Pearson whom we have all seen in the Bridget Jones films among other things) and Bond herself (who brings to this role the same mixture of sensuality and physicality I had grown to love in Distant Shores). The set design lends itself perfectly to the juxtaposition of two different eras (the early Romantic Age and our own early 21st) and the comings and goings of historic and more contemporary characters who waltz around each other literally and figuratively on the stage. Prepare to be enchanted.

Inside Liberty of London:
When the play was over, we went our separate ways. Having equipped myself with a map and bus guide, I found my way to Liberty of London which is on Great Marlborough Street just off Regent Street but closer to the Oxford Circus (not the Piccadilly) end. And what a building it turned out to be! Just charming! I mean, I had seen pictures of this store and was prepared for a Tudor building. But how cleverly the space inside has been employed. It is simply stunning. I have yet to read up a bit about the history of the building. Is it a genuine Tudor building? Or a Victorian masquerade made in imitation of the Tudor idiom? God knows…and I will find out, I know, soon enough from the garrulous Web. But for the moment, I have to say I was delighted I stepped in.

It really is a London institution and I cannot for the life of me explain why I haven’t been in here before! Why is it that I have always visited Harrods? Why is Selfridges always on my list of stores to sample? Well, better late than never—so I guess I can say Been There, Done That to Liberty to London and tick another item off my List. Needless to say, everything was screamingly pricey, but then what did I expect if not sticker-shock? And this is perhaps the very first store in which I have ever browsed where every possible precaution has been taken against those endowed with sticky fingers. I mean as if the CCTV thing (such a fixture in London) were inadequate, there are locks and long telephone coil-like extensions attached to all the big label items! Watch out Winona!

Nor did I walk out empty handed. Indeed I was presented with some pretty nice samples–Dr. Perricone’s skin care products for face and eye area–the deep penetrating night creams, said to work wonders in two weeks. I’ve seen the good doctor peddle his wares on the box in the States but never have I seen his range in a department store. Well, try them I will. Hopefully something lovely will come out of my gallivanting into Liberty!

I had half a mind to undertake one of my walking tours in the St. Paul’s Cathedral area but then it had turned nippy and I wasn’t adequately dressed (nor did I have the right walking shoes on) for a gad about the graveyards of the East End. I decided to get home instead and finish transcribing my interview as I have another full day ahead of me tomorrow (a Thames-side visit to Osterley House and Park), so I figured I’d better conserve my stamina for the hike that lies ahead.

The area around Smithfield Market had been transformed. Crowds had gathered to cheer the cyclists on and provided me with the opportunity to take a few pictures as the competitors warmed up. I do not believe that this sports meet has a name yet, but the commentator kept raving about the fact that it is becoming more popular each year and poised to take its place soon as one of the capital’s most exciting events. Well, if that ever happens, I will be able to say that I caught the races while the event was still in its infancy. For I did stand around and take it all in and then I continued to stay abreast of what was going on as the commentary floated up to my loft home while I ate my dinner.

Yes, indeed, back home, I ate an early dinner (chicken noodle soup out of a packet and pasta with Chocolate mousse out of a pot) and I returned to my room to continue my transcription. When it was all done, I stopped to brush and floss my teeth, get ready for bed and write this blog.

I’d say it was rather a productive Saturday, wouldn’t you?

June 8, 2009:
PS: Did have a chance to read up a bit about the history of Liberty of London and this is what I have found out (Courtesy of The English Home magazine):
Liberty of London was founded by Arthur Lasenby Liberty in 1875. “The creation of a recognisable look for the shop was always a conscious aim of its founder and his most shrewd move was the building of a Tudor shop, which was completed in 1924. This addition meant that the building itself became the shop’s trademark and a symbol of its founding values”.

I would also agree with writer Harriet Paige who says, in the same magazine, that:
” And it is perhaps the buildings themselves–Liberty’s timber-frame structure, Fortnum and Mason’s eccentric time-piece and Harrod’s Edwardian frontage–that has ensured Britain’s great department stores have become true London landmarks”.

I mean, I think this is absolutely true. Other than Macy’s which does have an iconic building all its own on an individual block at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue, none of the New York department stores stand out in any way in terms of their buildings. Each one looks exactly like the other–there is no character, no individuality, indeed no imagination whatsoever that has gone into their making. This is what, I suppose, has always made England so enthralling to me and the States…well, so blah!

Supertour at St. Paul’s Cathedral and Exploring Southwark

Wednesday, May 15, 2009

London slumbered under leaden skies this morning, though, thankfully, the rain stayed at bay. Wearing warm cardigans to ward off the chill, Chriselle and I set off after a cereal and yogurt breakfast to explore St. Paul’s Cathedral. Though I have been there for several services throughout the past 8 months, I hadn’t taken a formal guided tour and was waiting to share that experience either with Llew or Chriselle. So I was very pleased indeed when my new English friend Bishop Michael Colclough, Canon-Pastor at St. Paul’s and his wife Cynthia, offered me a complimentary guided tour anytime I wanted one. With Chriselle currently visiting me, it seemed like the perfect time to take them up on it and we had one fixed for us for 10. 45 am.

We arrived at the Cathedral to find it swarming with visitors–both inside and out. Tour groups, several of whom comprised students from around London and across the Channel, filled the vast nave of the church. At the Visitor’s Desk, I was ushered to the one run by the Friends of St. Paul’s, an organization of Volunteers (mainly women), who are trained to give guided tours. This Supertour took us to parts of the Cathedral not usually open to the public and we felt privileged indeed to take it at our leisure in so special a fashion.

We were told by our guide, Fiona Walker, that it would last an hour and a half and were ushered right away to a side Chapel–dedicated to one of the many formal ‘Orders’ that comprise aristocratic English life. I do not believe that even a lifetime would be adequate in helping me acquire enough knowledge to decipher the complex system that prevails in military and royal circles int this country. What I did admired in this chapel was the royal seat that only the monarch can occupy, the marvelous wooden carvings by the Tudor carver Grindling Gibbons (whose work I can now easily recognize), the many colorful banners and standards and crests and coat of arms that symbolize one’s family history.

We then moved to the massive oak doors in the very front of the church and learned a bit of history at that point including the part played by Sir Christopher Wren in the design and construction of this, perhaps London’s most distinctive landmark. At the door, we also saw how dark the interior looked until the massive cleaning and renovation was carried out through a vast endowment (11 million pounds) granted to the cathedral by the Fleming family, the same one from which was born the James Bond author Ian!

Next we were led into one of the twin towers that looks down Fleet Street and we were quite taken by the beautiful staircase with its small and very low steps and the ironwork that climbs all the way to the very top. These steeples house the bells that toll each hour and produce the marvelous music on important days. I once heard them chime a heart stirring tune on Palm Sunday–was it last year? The entire city seemed to reverberate to the melody produced by those tolling bells. Yes, they do bring to mind John Donne’s stirring lines:

“No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (Meditation XVII)

Interestingly, there is a rather strange looking sculpture of John Donne in the Cathedral–strange because the poet appears all shrouded in a linen sheet and standing on an urn. It was the only object in the entire Cathedral to escape the Great Fire of London in 1566 because it was hit by a falling object and fell straight down into the crypt from where it was rescued when the embers and ashes were being cleared. And he appears in this shroud because Donne had actually worn the garment in which he wished to be buried while he was still alive–perhaps to get the feeling of how he might appear before his Creator at his Resurrection!

Onward we went deeper into the Cathedral, passing by the grand monument to Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, and there we learned a bit more British history. Chriselle is beginning to “connect the dots” as she puts it, in that she is making connections between the guy who inhabited Apsley House and the hero of the Battle of Waterloo! It wasn’t long before we paused under the central dome to admire the Byzantine style mosaics done by Salviati, an Italian, whose work was inspired by the Italian churches. The dome also contains the magnificent paintings done by James Thornhill–yes, the same artist who painted the famous Painted Hall in Greenwich. Chriselle loved the trompe l’oeil quality of the paintings in the dome which appeared as if the inside was covered with columns and pillars. We saw primary school kids lying flat on the floor right under the dome and staring at it–I bet this is something they will always remember. Years from now, when they bring their own kids to the Cathedral they will say, “You know, when I was a little boy, I came to this church on a school field trip and lay down right there on my back and stared up at the dome!”

More detail and more history followed at the memorial to Lord Nelson, considered by many to be England’s greatest hero. The guide went into detail in talking about his relationship with Lady Emma Hamilton and the product of that alliance, a female child, “named”, she said, then paused for effect, “poor thing, Horatia!” Right opposite the Nelson monument is one to Cornwallis and I paused to tell Chriselle that he was the same one who met with a stunning defeat under General George Washington in York when trying to vanquish the rebel colonists in North America. It was probably as a punishment that he was sent off to India where he masterminded the defeat of Tipu Sultan of Mysore at Seringapatnam and, in doing so, somewhat redeemed his fallen image!

Then, we were at the altar, admiring more Grindling Gibbons’ caved choir stalls (each more breathtaking that the next, in oak and beech) and gazing upon the baldachino or altar canopy which looked to me curiously like the Bernini one in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We saw also the ‘Cathedra’ or Seat which the Bishop occupies and which turns a church into a cathedral–it must contain a seat for a Bishop which means that a Bishop must be attached to the permanent clergy at the church.

And then we climbed down into the crypt where we saw more memorials, the most striking being the ones to Wren, Wellesley and Nelson in their striking sarcophagi. Nelson’s, in grand black granite, is particularly striking and I was not surprised to learn that it was, in fact, designed and created to hold the mortal remains of Cardinal Wolsley (pronounced ‘Wool-zy’) who was Henry VIII’s right hand man until he fell out of favor with the King for not bringing him the Papal annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. He was sentenced to death but, mercifully for him, died a natural death before he could be killed. He certainly was not permitted such a grand coffin and, in any case, the possessions of all state prisoners went directly to the Crown–which explains how Henry got his greedy hands on Wolsley’s finest buildings including Hampton Court and Whitehall Palace (of which now only the Banqueting House survives). The sarcophagus lay forgotten somewhere until the body of Nelson arrived from weeks of preservation in brandy–for Nelson really ought to have been given a burial at sea. However, since he was such an extraordinary hero, an exception was made in order to grant him a state burial. His body was preserved in alcohol, brought to London, this sarcophagus was resurrected for the occasion and the nation had a chance to mourn collectively for the death of a great hero who fell on the HMS Victory (now docked in Portsmouth) and whose blood-stained clothes are in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Climbing up to the Dome of St. Paul’s:
When the tour ended, we were told that we should not leave the cathedral without venturing up into the dome. I was doubtful about my ability to undertake such strenuous physical exercise since I am still recovering from plantar fascitis; but with encouragement from Chriselle, I rose to the challenge and off we went. 117 steps later, we were in the Whispering Gallery looking down on to the black and white checkered floors of the vast cavern below us. It was just stupendous! Of course, Chriselle and I had to try out the whispering capabilities of the acoustics of the space and discovered that we could, in fact, hear each other clearly though we stood on opposite sides of the dome. I was reminded very much of the interior of Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence and the magnificent painting on the inside of the dome by Vasari which one can see at very close quarters if you have the energy and stamina to climb the 500 odd steps to that height.

Then, another 115 steps took up to the Stone Gallery which encircles the outside of the dome and provides views of the rooftops of London. Yes, we saw the river (rather murky on this grey day) and the London Eye and the gilded statue of the Goddess of Justice atop Old Bailey and a host of other landmarks as well as the red brick of the Prudential Assurance Building that is just a block away from my building on High Holborn.

We circumnavigated our way around the dome then made the descent with Chrissie holding on to me all the way down as she felt a little dizzy. Then, because we were right in the area, I suggested a walking tour of the Southwark area instead of trying to get into a bus to Knightsbridge. Chrissie had made drinks and dinner plans with two friends of hers and wanted to get home for a bit of a rest as she has a severe backache when she exerts herself too much physically. I have to be grateful that my own stamina has remained untouched by plantar fascittis and but for the fact that I have to rest more than I used to, I can continue my daily walking routine without interruption.

Exploring Southwark:
So over Wobbly Bridge we went, the breeze feeling very unpleasant around us given the lack of sunshine. Past Shakespeare’s Globe we strolled, arriving under Southwark Bridge where we hastened to the Borough Market as I wanted Chriselle to get a sense of its delicious activity. Alas, it is not open fully on a Wednesday though a few stalls cater to the luncheon needs of the local working populace. We walked quickly on to The George, the city’s only galleried pub, where we took in the quaintness of the Elizabethan space. Then, we returned to Borough Market for a late lunch: a large helping of Thai Green Chicken and Seafood Curry served over steamed rice. It was dished up piping hot and was deliciously spicy and just what the doctor ordered on this rather chilly day.

Inside Southwark Cathedral:
On our way back to the Embankment, we paid a short visit to Southwark Cathedral that dates from 909 AD–in particular to visit the sculpture of Shakespeare and the lovely stained glass window right above it that provides glimpses into his most famous plays. This allowed us to play a little guessing game together before Chriselle made her three wishes–you are permitted three wishes every time you visit a church for the first time (at least that is what my mother told us, many years ago).

We also took in the brightly painted medieval memorial to John Gower and saw the lovely stone carved altar with some gilding on a couple of its statues. This had been under scaffolding when I had visited last March with my friend Amy, so it is great to see the impact that all this refurbishment has on the space. While we were taking pictures at the Shakespeare memorial, a lady came up and told us that there is a charge for taking pictures!!!Can you imagine that? We told her that we were unaware of the policy and she said that we’d have to pay if we took another. Of course, we had finished our visit by that point and were on our way out–but I have to say that I find these rather materialistic policies of these churches not just irritating but rather offensive.

Off to the Tate Modern:
Then, we were walking along the Thames Embankment again, making our way to the Tate Modern where I wanted to show Chrissie two things: the extraordinarily concept that converted the Hydroelectric Power plant into a Modern Art Gallery and the silver installation by Cornelia Parker entitled Thirty Pieces of Silver. She was already far more tired than I was and since modern art is not something that either one of us can truly engage with (though I understand it intellectually), we went directly to the Parker gallery to admire her work. It involved the flattening of about 1000 pieces of silverware under a steam roller. These were then arranged in thirty lots that are suspended from the ceiling on steel wire. The idea is so remarkable that it is worthy of examination for just this reason. Needless to say, Chriselle was quite speechless and didn’t quite know how to react to this…but then that is exactly what Modern Art does to me. I find myself quite lost for words!

We decided to get on the bus and head home as Chriselle badly wanted to rest. I, however, continued on towards Oxford Circus as Marks and Spencer is having a sale on lingerie and I needed to buy my stock before I return to the States. I discovered that my size was not available but if I carried on to their Marble Arch branch, they could take an order from me there. I pressed on, and another bus ride later, I was at the bigger branch placing my order and told to return after May 22 to pick it up. I will be in France at that time but on the day I get back, I can rush off back to Marble Arch to get the discounted price. Along the way, I discovered that Selfridges has been renovated and is now devoid of the scaffolding under which it was shrouded for so many months while it received a deep cleansing in time for its centenary celebrations. There are lights and yellow decorations all over it and I believe the store is worthy of a visit–so I shall try to get there when I find myself under less pressure.

Another bus took me to my office at NYU where I had to do a bit of photocopying before I send off some receipts to New York for reimbursement.

Back home, I found that Chriselle had left the house to meet her friends. This left me time to attend to my email, have my dinner and sit down to write this blog before I got down to grading a few papers and taking a shower before bed.

Celebrating St. George’s Day and the Bard’s Birthday with Loreen.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

London awoke to another spectacular National Day–for April 23, St George’s Day, is the closest the British come to having a National Day–St. George, who killed the dragon, is the patron saint of England!

My day began with a hefty installment of Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix that I am finding rather absorbing. In-between grading more student papers (when they rain in on me, they pour!) and working on an itinerary for Chriselle’s stay with me in early May, I managed to make a call to my parents in Bombay and rushed in for a shower.

For I had an 11.30 am appointment with my friend Loreen at St. James’ Park Tube Station and it is always a production connecting at Bank station where not only is there a name change (Bank becomes Monument), but you are required to get out of the Underground, walk overground for a couple of blocks and go back underground again. This delayed me by 15 minutes but we made contact at 11. 45 and started our walk–yes, another one from my Frommer’s book 24 Great Walks in London. This one is entitled “A Brush with Royalty”.

Loreen could not have lucked out more with the weather for she has had an unbelievable week. I can only hope that Chrissie will have half as decent a week when she gets here. Our walk took us through Royal London–past Buckingham Palace and St. James Palace (which I had never seen before). It was at the Queen’s Chapel (attached to the Court of St. James–don’t you just love the sound of that phrase?) that we realized it was St. George’s Day. There was a Holy Communion service on in the private chapel that is designed by Inigo Jones. Both Loreen and I wanted to get in for a peek but the bobby who stood at the door told us that it had been locked from the inside. We asked if the Queen was in, by any chance. “Can’t be, can she?” he responded. “She’s in Scotland, she is”. A few more affable words were exchanged before we said bye to him and made our way into Marlborough House, Headquarters of the Commonwealth, and approached by a private courtyard one wall of which was covered with fragrant flowering lavender wisteria that just took our breath away. Both Loreen and I are avid gardeners in Connecticut and we exclaimed long and longingly at all the spring flower beds we saw at St. James’ Park where the tulips are currently crying out for attention with their marvelous colors.

Then we were at the chapel in which Princess Diana’s body lay in state–we only caught exterior glimpses of its stained glass windows before we found our way into St. James Square Gardens, a delightful place whose lawns were simply strewn with seated human beings munching on their lunch-time sandwiches. Soft pink petals had carpetted the flower beds from the cherry trees that encircle the focal point of the garden–a sculpture of King William III who died after falling from his horse who reared suddenly when he tripped over a molehill. This brought us to Waterloo Place and the tall column of the Duke of York who gazes benignly over Pall Mall (all festive with dozens of Union Jacks lining it–another sign that St. George was being remember) just across from the entrance to St. James’ Park where we ate our picnic lunch while seated on a bench. We had earlier in the day savored the pleasure of occupying one of the striped green lawn chairs in the same park.

Lunch consumed, we walked across the Horse Guards Parade, wandered through Admiralty Arch and arrived at Whitehall just opposite Inigo Jones’ famous Banqueting House which I suggested to Loreen she should seen. Always game to see something interesting, Loreen agreed. Inside, we watched a film together on the history of the building and its special association with the execution of Charles I while Loreen nipped upstairs to study Peter Paul Reubens’ ceiling painting, I sat and graded a few more papers.

When she reappeared, we looked at the sculpture of poor Charles I on horseback at the end of Whitehall and the beginning of Trafalgar Square, then walked down Northumberland Road to the Embankment Tube Station. We crossed the criss-crossing Hungerford Bridge on foot (a first time for me) to arrive at the South Bank where at the Royal Festival Hall, Loreen’s daughter, Alicia hooked up with us. A short rest later, we walked the length of the South Bank past the Tate Modern and the Globe with the intention of visiting Borough Market which is open on Thursdays. En route, we stopped at the OXO Building (another first time for me), took the elevator to its rooftop restaurant and got some stirring glimpses of the city on a remarkably clear day before we resumed our walk.

We soon arrived at Southwark passing by the Clink Prison, the replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde and Southwark Cathedral before we entered the market only to find it closing for the day. There were none of the crowds or the variety of foods to be found when business is in full swing. Still, they got a taste (literally!) of the place, for the vendors were still dishing out a few samplers.

Then, because we all craved a cup of tea, I led them to The George Inn, London’s only “galleried” inn where Pandemonium reigned. Indeed, we saw young men dressed as knights, sporting the red and white colors of the flag of St. George and downing pints faster than you could say “By George”. Celebrations had begun in earnest and the ale was flowing. We ordered ourselves three pots of tea and a platter of cheese and nibbled and sipped as we watched the antics of the crowd that got rowdier with every passing half hour!

It was not long before we decided to move towards “Wobbly” Bridge where I had planned to part company with them. It was then that we realized that April 23 is also supposedly the Brithday of the Bard, a day that heralded the opening of a new Season at the Globe Theater. A quartet of Elizabethan musicians guarding the gates stuck up their instruments as a couple of girls went around making balloon animals for the kids. Yes, Romeo and Juliet will see its first performance tonight–a play I hope to see soon.

We stood around and took in the fun for a while before I bid Loreen and Alicia goodbye–they were headed to a program of Mendelsohn at the Royal Festival Hall. Wobbly Bridge teemed with tourists as I arrived at St. Paul’s Cathedral from where I walked back home. It was time for me to finish up the last bits of grading and while I ate a few scotch eggs, I continued with that task.

Then, it was time to look at my email, write this blog and transcribe some of the interviews that I have taped over the past week.

A Self-Indulgent Saturday in London

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sometimes staying around in London on a Saturday can be an adventure in itself. When Stephanie called me early this morning to say that she needed to keep her weekend travel-free to sort out her stuff after her move last weekend to Richmond, I understood right away. I tend to be rather anal about settling down and feeling organized after a move, so I figured, she needed the time and space. I could use a weekend in London anyway to catch up with my own chores and do bit of independent sightseeing.

So over a high-carb breakfast (Waitrose’s cranberry loaf with pumpkin seeds and a variety of spreads–praline from Le Pain Quotidien, Nutella, grapefruit marmalade from Harrods and Lurpak butter), I stretched out on the couch with loads of coffee and had a leisurely and very late meal.

Then, it was Chore-Time! I pulled out the vacuum cleaner from my broom cupboard in the hall, got out my Bounty and started sweeping and scrubbing and polishing and dusting and generally having a great time while up to my elbows in warm suds. Within an hour, my kitchen was polished, my bathroom was spic and span, my toilet was sparkling, and my bedroom was dust-free. I felt fabulous.

Then, I set out for Holborn Library as I finished Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire early this morning and was ready to start the next one. I had to return it though to the library from where I had borrowed it and I also wanted to pick up some travel books on Italy so I can photocopy the pages I need to carry with me on my trip on Tuesday. I usually photocopy just the pages I need on each of my trips as these books are so heavy and with the budget airlines severely restricting baggage allowance, this is the only way to go. I found the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Italy and another on Northern Italy and over the weekend, I shall read up and flag the pages I need to photocopy at NYU on Monday.

Then I went on a food shopping spree to Waitrose which is a ten minute walk away from the library at the Brunswick Center. I was amazed at the number of people out in the courtyard where food was being sold by vendors–it was a sort of Borough Market with everything being sold–from chorizos in rolls, cheesecake, nuts and dried fruit, cupcakes, roast pork sandwiches, falafel. You name it, you could buy it–and there were many generous samples (or ‘tasters’ as they call them here) being dished out too.

I, however, went into Waitrose for some scones and clotted cream. After having returned from Cornwall, I have developed a taste for cream teas and thought I would have one instead of my lunch today–I know, I know, I am being wicked and dreadfully self-indulgent, but I promise I will return to sensible eating soon. I am going to Italy next week and I know what the food is like out there. So perhaps I can pig out for the next few days and return from Italy with a new resolution to watch my weight again!

But for the moment, it is time to feast…so I bought some good Stilton with Ginger (my favorite cheese), a walnut loaf from Paris’ Poilane (sold in select stores here in London), some fresh ravioli (as I have a sudden craving for pasta) and an absolutely fabulous-looking Black Forest Gateau! I also bought a number of packaged soups as I had run out of those–I do enjoy a hot cup of soup with my dinner and over the winter I have tried Waitrose’s packeted soups–this time, however, I thought I would try Knorr.

Back home, I had my cream tea (Oh, Happy Day!) and my gateau with a lovely pot of Darjeeling tea. Imagine!!! England has made a tea drinker of me, I have to say, except that I have it very light with lemon and honey. I can’t even express how much of a pick-me-up this is proving to be. In my even lovelier Tea for Two Paragon China Tea Set, I sat and sipped slowly and decided that today would be a day for big time pampering and lots of little luxuries.

Then, when I had cleared up and put everything away, I had a long chat with Llew. I am also in the process of finding accommodation for us in B&Bs in Rome and Istanbul and I remembered that his cousin, a nun named Sr. Rosie, had spent many years in a convent in Rome. I wondered if she knew a convent that gave out pensione accommodation and if she would be able to organize an audience for us with the Pope! I told Llew to try to organize that with her and he agreed. It will indeed make our visit to Rome very special if we can meet the Holy Father.

And then, it was time for me to go out and do another one of my walks. It was such a mild and pleasant afternoon and the weather beckoned insistently. I took the pages I had photocopied from the DK Eye Witness Guide to London that outlined a walk around Smithfield Market (which is right behind my street in Holborn) and by 4. 45 pm I was off.

It turned out to be such a great walk. I had actually explored most of this area about three years ago with my friend Bina Ullal when she had come from her place in Harrow to meet me in London and spend a day with me. The walk took me to the famous Victorian Smithfield meat market which at one time sold live cattle and poultry; but today, thankfully, sells only cuts of meat. It is busiest early in the morning when the city’s butchers get there to select their stock for the day. Right around the lanes radiating from this gigantic building which occupies three city blocks are a number of taverns and pubs and eateries that serve enormous breakfasts with ale to the butchers who are ravenous by mid-morning. I was amazed how many restaurants are to be found in these little lanes–apart from the pubs offering good old-fashioned British food, there were very fancy French restaurants with haute cuisine on their menus and extensive wine lists.

Then, I found myself in lovely Charterhouse Square, a very old part of the city–once a monastery, it is a hospital today. Its cloisters and quiet courtyard still stand but I wasn’t able to go in and explore as guided tours are given only between April and August. I will have to wait for another month, I guess. Meanwhile, the walls of the building are deeply evocative of its history and the entire square reeks of age.

Turning around a corner, I arrived at Cloth Street, which derived its name from a medieval Cloth Fair that was held here annually right up to the Jacobean Age. In fact, it was this noisy fair that inspired Ben Jonson to pen his famous play about this event. This entire area is just fabulous–it contained narrow lanes, some of which have their original medieval buildings just oozing charm and character and medieval architectural details. Numbers 41 and 42 are two of those old preserved buildings and at Number 43, the Poet Laureate John Betjeman lived for many years (in what looks like a very tiny flat indeed).

I am a bit surprised how many references I have recently come across to Betjeman–first it was Padstow in Cornwall where he lies buried; then it was Rules Restaurant at Covent Garden which he frequented and which he endorsed and now it was his home at Number 43 Cloth Street. There is a blue plaque to mark this location as well as a restaurant called, appropriately enough, Betjamans where he is well remembered. I can just imagine how thrilled Betjeman would have been to live in such a historic part of London knowing his great passion for old architectural gems. He is responsible for saving St. Pancras Station from the demolisher’s hammer and has written many books on the old Norman churches of England. I often wish I had the chance to meet him. I think we would have had such an interesting conversation for we seem to share such a love for the same things–Nature, old churches, poetry, Oxford. Well, I guess, I have to be content that I did meet his wife, Lady Penelope Chetwode, once, a long time ago.

Next I was skirting the area around the wonderful ancient church of St. Bartholomew (which gave Jonson’s play its name) with its unique black and white checked design, its round tower and its quiet courtyard garden. I noticed that Sunday services are held at 9 am with Communion and I have decided that in keeping with my resolution to visit a new historic church every Sunday when I am in London, I will go to the service at this one tomorrow. I am so excited to be in a church that Ben Jonson and Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, no doubt, knew well. It has one of the best preserved medieval church interiors in the country and I can’t wait to see the inside of it. I also remember vaguely that one of the wedding scenes in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral was shot in here, but that I cannot confirm.

Then, I was out on the street again making my way towards Newgate where I saw the Old Bailey up close and personal and took pictures of the gilded statue of the Goddess of Justice atop the dome holding her scales forward. I cannot believe how close I live to all these masterpieces of architecture and all these landmarks of the city. I am truly blessed to be within a stone’s throw of all these renowned monuments. I had always dreamed of living in London and the fact that I have been posted here for a year and have access to all these marvels proves to me that the works of the Lord are unique and complete and that, as the Bible says, He “gives not in a measure but in its fullness”. Indeed, when the Lord gives, he gives in bountiful abundance and I often feel as if His blessings upon me this year have been beyond generous; and for that I feel truly humbled and profoundly grateful. And it is amazing how this truth comes home to me in the strangest of ways–like when I am gazing at a church that Ben Jonson might have prayed in or glancing at a monument that crowns the Old Bailey!

Next, I was entering the garden of St. Sepulcre-without-Newgate–I have noted before that these ancient churches have the oddest names–most incorporating their geographical location in them! This one –the Church of the Sepulcre–was outside the New Gate–hence its name!!! This is the church that is referred to in the rhyme Oranges and Lemons in the lines:

“Oranges and lemons” say the Bells of St. Clement’s
“You owe me five farthings” say the Bells of St. Martin’s
“When will you pay me?” say the Bells of Old Bailey
“When I grow rich” say the Bells of Shoreditch
“When will that be?” say the Bells of Stepney
“I do not know” say the Great Bells of Bow
Here comes a Candle to light you to Bed
Here comes a Chopper to Chop off your Head
Chip chop chip chop – the Last Man’s Dead.”

I have reproduced the rhyme here so I can read up the sinister references to all the public beheadings that took place in London in days gone by. It seems that the rhyme refers to these killings and they were often recited by children who seemed to take delight in the fact that so many heads rolled in those ruthless days!

At any rate, I walked a little bit further down Holborn Viaduct up to the tower of Christ Church which is the only intact thing that remains of Wren’s masterpiece–the nave of the church that was destroyed in a fire has been converted into a pretty garden that will, no doubt, come into its own in the next few months as spring advances into summer.

I came home to check email and catch up with more chores–I had to make backup CDs for all my pictures. And then I decided to spend the evening cooking myself some fresh ravioli and having a nice dinner and a glass of cider while watching a movie–Where Angels Fear to Tread based on the novel by E.M. Forster (which I had not read) and which featured Helen Mirren, Helena Bonham-Carter and Rupert Graves. Shot entirely on location in Italy (which made it significant since I will be there on Tuesday) and England, it was such a sad story that had me completely absorbed. Lovely Victorian costumes and sets (in the vein of the films of Merchant-Ivory) and marvelous cinematography had me enthralled. That’s what I love about Love Films.com–it is a matter of serendipity for you have no idea what they will mail you. To have ended my lazy day with a Forster film was bliss indeed!

It did turn out to be a perfectly indulgent Saturday for me but one I know I will remember for a long time. I have no regrets that I did not do a day trip today. I have done enough traveling in the last few weeks and it felt good to stay at home and have an unforgettable day–a staycation of sorts!

Just Another Soggy Sunday!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Winter has arrived with a vengeance. It is cold and it is soggy. And that’s the thing about English rain…it’s never really a proper downpour. It’s always just a light spritz, a gentle drizzle, sometimes just the finest spray! Like Hawaii, in many ways, except that in Hawaii that spray lasts precisely five minutes and then the sun–and the rainbows!–come out again and the day goes on as if that shower had never happened at all.

Here, the spray continues all day–just enough to ensure that your umbrella is raised and the streets are wet and the populace stays indoors sipping hot chocolate, or, in this season that’s merry and bright, hot mulled wine. Yes, that’s a very English thing indeed and all weekend long I’ve been seeing hot mulled wine offered everywhere at 3 pounds a glass–from Borough Market to Covent Garden, jaded shoppers are sipping these potent potations in a Dickensian tradition that lives on in the 21 st century. Oh, and also hot roasted chestnuts have been appearing on carts everywhere in keeping with the carol,
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”

Thanks to my resolution to attend Mass each Sunday in a different historic church in London, I resisted the temptation to go to the 9 am service at my parish church,St. Etheldreda’s, and instead kept myself busy till about 11 am. I had Breakfast in Bed–uuummmm!–hot toasted buttered croissants (I have developed such a love for Lurpak) and steaming coffee. Now that’s Sunday comfort food for you! I hammered out my November newsletter, then did my exercises and showered and at 11 .30 am, I was out of the house and in a bus and headed to Church. I decided to go to Berkeley (pronounced Barkley in this country, in the same way that Derby is Darby, I suppose) Square to attend the 12. 30 mass at Immaculate Conception Church.This is usually referred to as ‘Farm Church’ as it is on Farm Street in Mayfair and sits at one end of Mount Street Gardens (the same one in which KGB spies left secret notes for each other in the slats on the many benches that pepper the pathways).

As I said before, it was cold and it was soggy, so I was surprised to see how packed the church was. It’s Gothic interior is quite breathtaking with its high ceiling and tons of decorative details including Byzantine mosaics, innumerable carvings around the altar and pulpit, paintings on the walls). It turned out that the congregation was composed largely of ‘pilgrims’, devotees of the Jesuit martyr St. Edmund Campion. They’d been on the road since September, having started out at Oxford where Campion was a student at St. John’s College, and making their way to London where he was condemned to death by hanging for converting to Catholicism, joining the Jesuits and preaching secretly when his ministry began. His Feast Day is celebrated on December 1 (Chriselle’s Birthday) which is why the pilgrimage ended today in London where he was martyred.

Of course, I obtained all this information from the web only after I got home and decided to read up on him. While his name sounded familiar to me, I could not quite place him. I remember now that he is revered in Oxford and that might have been where I first heard his name. I also realize how dangerous it might have been to continue to profess allegiance to the Vatican in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Campion lived and preached and ministered to Catholics while in hiding and while being continually hounded. He was finally exposed by a spy, taken to the Tower where at his Trial, he presented a stirring defence of his faith, but was condemned to Death. He was hung, drawn and quartered in 1581 and was canonized a saint in 1980.

I was surprised to see that the congregation comprised multiple ethnicities. Of course, the majority were white English but I saw South Asians, East Asians and Blacks among the pilgrims. Fr. Hugh Duffy, S.J. said Mass and preached a sermon that was inspiring and particularly designed for his faithful congregation of pilgrims. I realized that he was a Scotsman when he referred, at one point, to St. Andrew, who, he said, was “the patron saint of the greatest country in the world”. This drew a hearty laugh from the congregation and I became aware, once again, of the healthy Anglo-Scots rivalry that continues to exist all over the British Isles. I sat for a few minutes, in the aftermath of the terrible terrorist attacks on Bombay, thinking that perhaps a reunification of Pakistan and India might be the solution to the continued bitterness that shrouds relations between these two countries. Perhaps if they are united politically, once again, the rivalry can continue, but on a more humorous level and without the threat of war or terrorism marring such a union. But perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on my part.

Back on the bus, I spoke to Llew and our Canadian guests who were at breakfast in Southport preparing for their long drive back to Toronto. I had intended to stay on the bus to Old Spitalfields Antiques Market but the weather strongly deterred me. Instead, I got off at my home stop and treated myself to a huge Italian lunch as I was starving by the time mass ended. I had mushroom soup for starters, garlic bread with cannelloni and salad (all courtesy of Sainsburys) and lemon tart for dessert. Then, replete with my large meal, I caught up on email correspondence and felt drowsy enough to take a short nap.

At 5 pm, I left my flat again, got on the bus and joined the throng of holiday shoppers at Oxford Street. At Marks and Spencer, I found some presents to take back home to India–prices are rapidly coming down and with the dollar so strong again, it is a great time to buy. Up in the lingerie section, I sought underwear but as I was getting ready to pay, the store made the announcement that it was closing in five minutes. That’s when I realised that they close at 6 pm on Sundays–even during the holiday season! Now that would never happen in the Land of Mamon, aka the United States. So I quickly paid for my purchases and was out and on the bus again, weighed down with gifts.

I spent a rather quiet evening with the telly, watching Far from the Madding Crowd with Julie Christie and Alan Bates. I realised in the first five minutes that I had seen this version before in Bombay, aeons ago, in the private British Council auditorium. Some scenes remained burned in my memory–the ones, in the beginning, with the sheep tumbling down the cliffs, another of the house on fire and Gabriel’s attempts to quell the flames. I ate another lovely dinner as I watched until I grew too sleepy and almost fell asleep on the couch.

It was the soggiest weekend in my memory but apart from the fact that today was rather unproductive, I really did use my time effectively and did not allow the rain to deter my plans ovet the past three days.

A Taste of the Borough Market and Tate Britain

Friday, November 28, 2008

More details of the carnage in Bombay continued to surface through the night. I called my folks first thing this morning to get an update and spoke to my Dad who kept me abreast with the situation. I cannot believe that Llew and I stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel in January this year when I led 22 Americans on a study tour of India. Leopold Cafe has intimate family connections for us as it is the restaurant in which my father proposed marriage to my mother so many decades ago. On the occasion of their Golden Wedding anniversary in 2004, my parents returned there with children and grandchildren to commemorate that proposal and to celebrate half a century together. The management had been especially kind and generous and upon discovering that my parents’ were celebrating such a momentous occasion with their nearest and dearest family members, they provided a meal on the house to the entire party, much to my parents’ bafflement and embarrassment.

All these thoughts went through my mind as I watched the calamity unfold on television and on the internet. The pain that I felt on seeing the beloved city of my birth ravaged with this kind of hatred and violence is hard to describe. We don’t refer to the land of our birth as ‘Motherland’ for nothing. I have realized over the years that the longer one has been away from one’s native land, the stronger grows the pull towards it for we are connected, as if by some invisible umbilical cord, to the country in which we took our first breath and that nurtured us to adulthood under its maternal protection. For that reason, Bombay will always occupy a sacred place in my heart and seeing her so savagely harmed was too hard to bear.

But I had to get on with my day and after I finished transcribing another one of my Anglo-Indian interviews and made some professional appointments for next week, I decided to go out and do some sightseeing. I am beginning to believe that the reason London has so many excellent museums is because it has so many really awful days to contend with–weather-wise. Each morning, I pull up my blinds and gaze at the skies trying to read the minds of the Weather Gods. Today, for instance, we had what I call a ‘Black and White Day’–the kind of day on which the world looks like an image in a black and white photograph, i.e. robbed of all color by the absence of the sun. It is the perfect day to spend indoors and London has, fortunately, enough venues in which you can escape the cold and dampness and lose yourself in a world of happy contemplation and self-study.

I hopped into a bus going eastwards from Holborn and got off just outside the ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’, aka The Bank of England. From there, I took Bus 133 which crossed London Bridge and took me to the Borough Market where I decided to browse around and taste food products offered by some of the country’s best purveyors of all things delicious. To my disappointment, I discovered that the dealers do not take credit cards. I used the last few pounds I had on me to buy Greek delicacies for which I developed a taste in Greece–dolmades (pickled vine leaves stuffed with rice flavored with oregano and pine nuts) and feta cheese.

Then, I sampled the wares on offer from a number of super friendly vendors and that formed quite a filling assortment of appetisers–thank you very much. I particularly loved the aged Gruyere and the mature Irish cheddar being offered at one stall but the preserves and chutneys at another were just as divine. Pear and Vanilla Butter was tempting as was the Red Onion Marmalade and the Apple and Damson Chutney. I sampled a load of Turkish Delight stuffed with pistachios and chocolate covered orange rind being passed out rather generously by the keepers of a sweets stall. There was also a chimichuri sauce that was to die for being offered in a stall that also sold a marvelous dulce de leche caramel sauce. What else did I sample? Cold meats and a variety of pates, hot mulled wine (boy, was that good on this freezing day!), superb basil pesto brimming over with parmesan cheese, olive tapenade and a variety of honey–such as orange blossom honey and heather honey. All these goodies sustained me until I took Bus 133 and sailed off once again to Kennington–a part of London’s South Bank which I have never before seen and arrived at the Oval Cricket Grounds. From here, I took Bus 88 that carried me across the Vauxhall bridge to Millbank, another part of the Thames Embankment, from where I walked a few blocks to the Tate Britain.

It has been a long time since I visited the Tate. When I was last there, 22 years ago, as a graduate student visiting London for the first time, I had spent a great deal of time contemplating the series of pastels by William Blake that had been his accompanying illustrations for his Songs of Innocence and Experience. That, and a handful of Turners was all I remembered of the museum. I was glad to have the opportunity to study the collection again. But it was cold and the drizzle had been continuous all day, so I headed straight to the large basement cafe for a hot pot of Earl Grey and a sultana scone which I enjoyed with clotted cream and strawberry jam. This is British comfort food, to be sure, and I relished every crumb and savored every drop.

If I have to look on the bright side of my foot affliction, it is to cherish the quiet contemplative moments I have on my own in-between sight seeing when I sit back to rest my feet. I no longer find myself tearing from one sight to the next as I have done over the years. I have slowed down considerably because my physical condition no longer allows me to rush. But, I have realised that as a result of going at a more leisurely pace, I now have the time to people-watch and to look over everything that I am seeing and doing without feeling pressured in any way to cover everything. And perhaps that is the one good thing that has come out of my ailment.

Anyway, after I had rested sufficiently, I began my perusal of the Tate’s permanent collection. Tate Britain is not as large or crowded as the National Gallery but it’s collection is no less impressive. True, its works are not as well known as those in the National either, but if the viewer is interested in seeing lesser-known canvasses by British Masters of the medium, this is the place to go. I started at the beginning with the Tudors and Stuarts and worked my way chronologically to Modernism. En route, I saw two truly stunning and rarely seen works: the 1898 canvas entitled The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Edward Burne-Jones and the exquisite Flaming June by fellow Pre-Raphaelite Frederick Leighton, both in a private collection in Puerto Rico and currently on loan to the Tate.

I also saw the Tate’s newest and proudest recent acquisition: the original sketch by Peter Paul Reubens of the main medallion entitled The Apotheosis of James I for the ceiling of the Banqueting Hall which Llew and I had visited just two weeks ago. Purchased at the cost of 7 million pounds, this small sketch, an early study in oil on canvas, is remarkable for it shows how clear was Reubens’ vision even at the very beginning when he first received the commission for what became the spectacular ceiling.

I was also delighted to see Millais’ Ophelia which has returned to the Tate after a very long time. On the other hand, I was disappointed to discover that The Lady of Shallott by John William Waterhouse has temporarily left the Tate and will only return next June–darn! It was also a treat to see so many variations on Willy Lott’s farmhouse on the River Stour in Suffolk in John Constables many paintings as well as a marvelous clutch of smaller canvasses by Turner. I felt so enlightened and edified by my visit and by the pace at which I was able to view the works on display. In fact, I only finished 17 of the 28 rooms and shall make a return visit to see the more contemporary of the works on another occasion.

Another lovely bus ride took me back home, still through streaming window panes on the upper deck. I am struck at the assurance with which I am able to get from one part of London to the next using the buses. It is only unfortunate that on a couple of occasions, I have taken the bus going in the opposite direction. But, hey, no harm no foul. With my bus pass, all I do is hop off and catch the same bus from the opposite side of the road and I’m back on track again.

I think that what is best about my time here in London is the fact that I have so much of it for myself. It’s so nice to know that I live in the heart of the city and never have to hurry back to the Tube for fear of having to make a long journey into the distant suburbs when the trains or the buses are empty–a matter that always inhibited me from staying out after nightfall on my visits in the past. It is comforting to know that I can get back home in less than a half hour no matter where I am. I am also pleased at the way I am juggling duty and pleasure so that each day is filled with productive professional activity while also including some of the more pleasurable things on my list of Things to See and Do.

The Borough Market and the Tate Britain fall in the latter category and I guess I can now tick those off my list and move on!

A Walk in Southwark and a Play at the Globe Theater

Wednesday, September 1o, 2008

The sun finally peaked out today making a guest appearance during what, Londoners tell me, has been a dreadful summer on the whole. Of course, this rarity would have to occur on the one day in ten whole days that I had to stay home to prepare for my classes for tomorrow! Still, I can’t complain. I managed to salvage much of the warmth and light by working hard all morning at my desk making notes for my classes and adding new pages on our Scotalnd trip to my website.

Felcy came to meet me this morning. She is to be my new cleaning lady and will come in to do my domestic chores on Fridays. I was almost certain she would refuse to accept employment with me as I need her for such a short time only every other week. But I think she was delighted to find a compatriot in London–we can both trace roots to South India, she to Goa, me to Mangalore–and wanted to oblige. Also, she was recommended to me by a family friend whom she holds in high regard and for whom she has worked for years. So, it was all settled then and she will relieve me of the bulk of my chores. She seems cheerful and companionable and, thankfully, speaks perfect English. She also seems to know what needs to be done without being trained–which is a big comfort to me.

Today was also the day my first 2 movies arrived from LoveFilm which is the UK equivalent of Netflix. I picked them up from my mailbox this evening and hope to take full advantage of the free 30 day introduction they have given me. If this arrangement really works, I shall continue to pay them 12. 99 pounds per month to receive 2 DVDs at a time–unlimited. As it has turned out, I have been so busy writing, that I have hardly found any time for TV movies.

Lunch done and with my tickets having been booked for the 7.30 pm performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe Theater, I decided to take one of those lovely walks in London as delienated in the book 24 Great Walks in London. This one is entitled “Bards and Bawks in Southwark”–pronounced “Sut-erk”. It was a two hour walk that began at Borough Tube Station and ended at London Bridge Tube Station. I gave myself a spare half hour at the Theater to enjoy a hot chocolate before the performance began.

As with all these walks, I realize that each time I set out I am in for a treat. I passed three churches–St. George the Martyr, the grand Southwark Cathedral, the oldest Gothic church in London (Shakespeare, Gower, Marlowe, Dickens–all worshipped here) and St. Thomas’ Church which was under heavy renovation and closed. I also saw the remains of the Marshalsea Prison in which Dickens’ father, John, was imprisoned as a debtor–an experience which so traumatized Dickens and was the subject of his prison scenes in Little Dorrit. In fact, the entire area is steeped in Dickens’ memorabilia. There is a Little Dorrit Playground and Court across the road and the Southwark Public Library has fascimile scenes on the wall of the first illustrated pages of the novel.

Southwark also had a totally delightful hidden garden called the Red Cross Garden created in the later 1880s by Octavia Hill from what was a paper factory, in her determination to create open play space for the poorest children of London’s south bank. The garden and the cottages that border it are adorable and I was amazed at how well it has retained its original objective. The space was full of the last roses of summer, an abundance of lavender–most drying on the bushes–bulrushes in a pond and catmint. Neat pathways allowed charming strolls and a couple of people sat on benches chatting amiably on what was a lovely afternoon indeed. But for the most part, the garden was deserted–a fact that added to its serene ambience.

Just a few steps away was Cross Bones, a cemetery for the prostitutes from Southwark’s brothels who were forbidden a decent burial in consecrated ground. The hypocrisy of Renaissance and Victorian Christian society was brought out in the callousness with which these women were treated. Forbidden by the Bishop of Winchester to be blessed in death, their professions were, in fact, licensed by the church! As time went by, this cemetery was used to bury paupers, the nameless dead. Today, it has been turned into a shrine by which to remember the poorest of the poor, those whom Time forgot.

Across the street, I arrived at Maiden Lane, the street on which the original Globe Theater stood in Shakespeare’s Time. Careful archeological digs have revealed some remnants of the original theater which have been carefully preserved and the area cordoned off from any future development. Just a few hundred meters away is the new revived Globe Theater, built through the efforts of American film-maker Sam Wanamaker who subsequently passed away. The gradual gentrification of Southwark means that droves of tourists are pouring into a part of London that received few visitors until ten years ago.

Today, the neglected, crumbling buildings of the neighborhood are being revitalized through modern housing projects that cost tens of hundreds of pounds. I was fascinated to walk through the former Bear Gardens where, in Medieval and Elizabethan times bear and bull-baiting tournaments were held–a bloody sport that fired the public imagination and was extrememly popular. I also passed by the old Rose Theater which staged plays by Ben Jonson and his contemporaries. Indeed, this part of Southwark was a cultural hothouse in the days of Elizabeth I and it slowly seems to be attaining that level of theatrical and cultural proficiency again.

Past The Globe, I saw the Clink Prison, the oldest remaining medieval prison in London and the remains of the Palace of the notorious Bishop of Winchester who, as can plainly be seen, lived a luxurious and lascivious life. Just a few steps ahead is a replica of The Golden Hind, the famous ship of which Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake for his solo circumnavigation around the world. This brought me directly to Southwark Cathedral where the altar was recently refurbished and freshly gilded and looked stunning. (I had seen only glimpses of it shrouded under scaffolding when I was last there this past March with my friend Amy Tobin). I passed the famous Borough Market, England’s most famous food emporium and crossed over on to Borough High Street towards St. Thomas Lane where at the Church of St. Thomas, the Angel of Mercy Florence Nightingale worked as a nurse in an operating theater that is today, like the Clink Prison, a museum. I am stunned by the number of buildings that have been reconstructed and turned into museums. No matter how small they are, they are still receptacles of curiosity and of an epoch that is fascinating in its antiquity.

Then, I was at the New Globe Theater, Sam Wanamaker’s baby, its unique circular shape a wonderful addition to the river scape. It sits cheek by jowl with the equally unique Millennium Bridge and by their very presence these two structures–one essentially Elizabethan, the other Futuristic–have revitalized the South Bank and made it a must-do tourist destination.

It was a little past mid-summer when I got down to the comic business of seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Bard’s last comedy, at his own Globe Theater. What a difference it made seeing the evening show. When I had last seen a play at the Globe, a few years ago, I had attended a matinees show of Hamlet as a groundling, i..e. standing in the ‘pit’ by paying just five pounds for a ticket. I was unable to stand for more than an hour then and I had left having seen the entry of all the major characters.

This time I was seated, like Elizabethan aristocracy, in one of the ‘galleries’, enjoying the view from up above. The entire production was ‘over-the-top’, portrayed exactly as things happen in dreams, that is to say, with no resemblance at all to reality. The characters interacted with the audience in the pit in the same way that Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later The King’s Men) had done, resulting in an enormous amount of ad-libbing which the groundlings relished. Costumes were sumptuous, stage movements–including the choreographed dances–were strategic, performances were uniformly good–the best part of all was the clarity with which Shakespearean poetry is articulated by these well-trained artistes. Despite the ‘strangeness’ of the language, there is never any difficulty following the plot and the actors were so effortlessly able to roll the poet’s words off their tongues. Slapstick, great good rollicking humor, rough and tumble, the kind of high jinks that appealed so much to his audience kept this contemporary audience in splits and there was never a dull moment. There was even an attempt to delineate double roles through a change in accent, with Theseus and Hippolyta employing a Scots accent (with which I became so familiar on our recent travels in Scotland) when playing Oberon and Titania respectively. This, I thought, was an inspired example of dramatization.

During the intermission, I went downstairs into the courtyard, stood “Bankside” and gasped at the panorama of London laid out before my eyes. As the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral glowed softly, the varied heights of the other buildings were bathed in neon colors that brought a completely different vista to the urban landscape. These lights, reflected in the waters of the river as the Thames flowed gently downstream, took me back to the time of Elizabeth I when the traffic on the waters was thick with the “bards and bawds” of the walk I had taken earlier. How privileged I felt to be able to relive the grandeur of the greatest of Renaissance drama in the land of its birth, in a space that was so evocative of the exact atmosphere of a century long past.

I walked back to London Bridge Station with Prof. Mike Hattaway (no relation to Shakespeare’s wife Anne who spelt her surname with an ‘h’!) who teaches Shakespeare at NYU and is a Professor Emeritus at Sheffield University. We made a companionable twosome on the ten minute walk and have made plans to meet soon for lunch. To my enormous delight, though I changed Tube trains, I still made it home in 20 minutes flat! I simply cannot get over how quickly and easily I can travel from anywhere in London to my flat.

It is for nights like this that I have longed for London in my dreams and to see them coming true night after night…it flies in the face of all my fondest expectations.