My newly fortified passport in hand, I flew from Limoges to Stansted yesterday, getting to England a few days before Eric who’s coming by car with all the equipment on Friday. I was really looking forward to my afternoon in London. Since it’s almost Christmas I thought it’d be kind of festive to do a little leisurely shopping and strolling.
I don’t know what I was thinking. Since when did the words “leisurely” and “strolling” have anything to do with London? I took the express train to Liverpool Street and parked my bag in the Left Luggage place there easily enough. I was trying to figure out where to go first when the decision was made for me, as I was carried up the stairs by the rushing wool-coated tide, all of whom seemed to be redistributing phlegm: hacking, coughing, blowing, while simultaneously talking into mobile phones.
Out on the street was like being hit in the face repeatedly with a slightly damp leather glove. Lashings of cold air, snatches of conversations, bursts of steam and greasy food smells. And I remembered how it is, with London. In some ways, I love it. But it rarely loves me back.
I got on a bus to Tottenham Court and climbed to the second level. From up there I could enjoy the architectural details of the buildings and look down on all the striding strivers. Everyone was in motion, everybody going somewhere or trying to get things done by phone, except the little knots of smokers outside bars and pubs. The bus wound through Broad Street, Bank Street, past St. Paul’s, but then without explanation went out of service. I picked up the next one but it sat in traffic for so long I decided I’d be better off walking.
So I walked, past Holborn, down to the Strand, up through Covent Garden, and all of a sudden I was right in front of Saint Martin’s. I spent a year in London once, under the guise of attending art college there, and that’s the only reason I can think of that I always end up back in this part of the city. I know there are lots of better places to spend an afternoon but something, call it muscle memory, always brings me back there. Maybe it’s an attempt to solve the unresolved mystery of what I was doing here all those years ago.
Down Charing Cross, and I thought of going to see a movie. I was almost tempted by the marquee advertising Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn in “Four Christmases” but that would have been admitting some kind of defeat. Plus it wasn’t showing for another forty minutes.
After all the walking I was shaking with hunger. I saw the back of the National Portrait Gallery. It’s free to get in and I know they have a decent cafe so I headed straight down there and got some delicious mushroom soup and, because I’d exerted myself so much, warm apple cinnamon cake with lots of double cream.
Too lazy to go back in time before the last century, I strolled around an exhibit of portraits of important Brits, people like the Queen and Prince Charles and Margot Fonteyn and David Hockney, but after the third or fourth picture of Prince Charles I thought “I don’t care about these people” (except David Hockney), and because it had been free to get in, I could leave.
Up to Regent Street, into Liberty which is such a beautifully intact old department store. Funny, the conspicuously expensive items on display now seem from another era too. I ran my hands over the pricy scarves and notebooks, just to acknowledge that these things do exist, not as good as owning them but almost. H&M, Zara, Top Shop: for some reason I felt compelled to examine the trendy, tacky stuff too, thinking maybe I could find a gift or two but realizing it was useless. I forget how pointless shopping can feel in these kind of places. I wanted to get back to Foyle’s bookstore. “I know it’s on Charing Cross, just past that Nando’s restaurant there. Wait, is that the same Nando’s I passed five minutes ago, or a different one? Is that Pizza Hut the one next to the Starbucks between the Next and Boots or the one around the corner from Superdrug?” The West End always had a lot of tourist crap but way back when there were little corners of civilization and charm that captured my imagination. It gets harder and harder to find anything that isn’t a chain store.
I loved looking around Foyle’s but I lost my scarf in there. Paranoid, I imagined one of the clerks found it, and the whole staff were sworn to secrecy to keep me from getting it back. No doubt one of them is sporting that red mohair beauty to work today, just like that motel employee in Rochester, NY is still using the brand new bottles of Pureology shampoo and conditioner he refused to acknowledge I’d left behind this past October.
I decided to head back over to Liverpool St. where I was supposed to meet our friend Peter for the 8:30 train to Norwich. I wanted to get a nice glass of wine somewhere. Pubs with names like Dirty Dick’s and the Cock and Sparrow didn’t hold a lot of appeal, so I settled on, forgive me, Pizza Express. Not a bad chain of jazz venue/pizza restaurants, but – a chain. I shouldn’t have bothered – the waiter ejected me when I told him I only wanted to order an appetizer and some wine. Unlike France, where you can sit for hours over one little cup of coffee, this place is only about making money. It’s harsh. I found a small wine bar with a good selection but there weren’t any seats, no doubt so they can jam more bodies in there. Still, I enjoyed the wine and listening to the boring conversations around me, about where to go on holiday if everyone still has jobs next year.
I collected my bag and met up with Peter – we were going to eat in the dining car. He said the food was good, and there’s something special and old-fashioned about eating off of real plates and tablecloths on a train. Civilized, right? Which used to be part of the appeal of visiting England for us vulgar, tacky Americans.
They plan to end the dining service as of next week. Something to do with job cuts, but probably more to do with the service not generating enough money. Take out the tables and they can ram some more people in. Who said life is to be enjoyed?
The dining car was already closed. So we ate bags of potato chips on a train crammed with exhausted people, some of them crouching in the corridors. That hackneyed Samuel Johnson quote kept going through my mind about when a man is tired of London he’s tired of life. After one afternoon, I was just happy to get the hell out of there.