Why I Can’t Stay Away From London – and Wouldn’t Want to Anyway
“You know what Samuel Johnson said about London, right?”
I gawked at Fanny, my interlocutor, with whom I was conversing in a Blackfriars pub. No, I did not know what Johnson said about London.
“He said, ‘If you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.’”
“For there is in London all that life can afford,” Johnson’s approbation concluded. I’d not argue with that, but for me the most astounding thing that Saturday evening in Ye Olde London pub, down the block from St. Paul’s Cathedral, is that while discussing the cultural riches of Britain’s capital, a random Londoner can quote me a thought from one of the city’s leading figures 300 years ago.
Not three years ago. Not 30. Three centuries.
There’s just no place like London.
That’s why I can’t stay away.
It is the capital of my world, and once a year I find myself spending a week in my favorite hotel along the Thames, even though it is not easy to get here from the remote island north of Seattle where Nicole and I live on our 27-acre farm. But off I go to:
–Watch British actress Sophie Okonedo spit out Medea’s bitter, bloody revenge on her philandering husband, Jason, of Argonaut fame: “Now go forth under the cold eyes of the weakness-despising stars. Not me they scorn!” The theater is plunged into darkness and the audience erupts in adulation of the players, rendered crimson by stage blood and the ferocity of the play.
A year ago, I watched Kit Harington conquer a small stage in a former warehouse (Donmar) as the reluctant prince-turned-arrogant-king Henry V. It was as visceral, compelling and provocative a Shakespeare production as you can imagine.
When Brits do theater, they are not fooling around,
– Marvel at a small passageway in Whitechapel that houses the entries to both a KFC outlet and an anarchist bookstore called Freedom. I’m not sure there is an anarchist bookstore left in the U.S., but if there were, I’m not sure it would share a gateway with fast-food chicken.
But, then, London is extremely ecumenical. Do you need an original edition of Trotsky’s introduction to the Communist Manifesto? Sure you do. Can’t get that in Omaha.
–Watch a pair of London bobbies stop traffic near Royal Albert Hall (the world’s premier concert venue) so a swan and her cygnets can toddle across the street. “They’ve got the right of way,” one of the cops cheerfully explains.
–Find myself in a London pub having superb fish and chips (Fanny’s recommendation) gaping at the televised England/Wales rugby match, a form of organized lunacy that makes American football look like crochet.
Choose just any old pub you see while walking around. They’re all pretty good, and this one allows you to decline mushy peas, which I should. Further, as a non-aligned observer, I can honor the English 20-10 victory about which, believe me, everyone else goes nuclear. Pandemonium.
By the way, if you cling to some antediluvian notion about British reserve, you’ve clearly never been in a London pub.
–Watch the world’s best buskers at Covent Garden. They come from all over the globe to this premier street performance venue, jugglers from Austria, acrobats from Senegal, soul singers from Manchester, declaimers from Oxford.
I know I am begging controversy here. What about New York? Paris? Rome? Omaha? When you consider everything, none measures up, and, yes, I have been to Omaha. As for all those silly drawings in Paris, the world’s greatest paintings are in Madrid.
Is London faultless? Heavens, no. The West End, for all its marvels, was the breeding ground that spawned Andrew Lloyd Webber on an innocent world. Most of the contents in the British Museum were stolen because Victorian “adventurers” knew best how to “guard” shiny stuff. The U.K. government should immediately make amends for this imperial thievery. Tomorrow would be good.
And to this day, despite huge advances in British cuisine (you must go to Uruguay to get better steak) unwary diners can still find mushy peas on their plate, oozing and stinking like old grass clippings. Luckily, the better pubs and restaurants ask beforehand if you want them so they can avoid unnecessary fatalities.
But mushy peas are canceled out by bacon rolls and fish ‘n’ chips. Victorian larceny was counterbalanced by Princess Diana, whose memorial in Hyde Park is a matchless monument to kind-hearted struggle. And Andrew Lloyd Webber — an infinity of Andrew Lloyd Webbers — is effortlessly canceled by Shakespeare.
“I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it,” Will said. Me too. But it’s not a waste. It’s the best by far.
This article by Eric Lucas is reprinted with permission from his blog, Trail Not 4 Sissies.