I only ever go to London on short trips; get the train down, do something touristy, eat something foodie, see a show, sleep, go back home, cry when I see my bank balance. In truth, I don’t know if I like London much. It’s crowded, and I find that overwhelming. It’s so focused on tourism such that I don’t believe I’m in the real London. You know the real London; Chelsea Pensioners, Pearly Kings, the cast of Eastenders arguing, doing the ‘Lambeth Walk’ (Oi!), flower sellers, the occasional ‘ore wiv an ‘eart of gowd, guvnor, Sid James laughing, the musical genius of Chas and Dave (that’s enough cockney clichés). The ‘City’ one visits is like a movie set surrounded by an ocean of suburbia where real Londoners live. It’s a strange place. I got the same feeling about Manhattan being separate from the rest of New York.
People come to take selfies next to Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Nelson’s Column, Tower Bridge, Beefeaters, Coldstream guards, Big Ben’s scaffolding, raw sewage in the Thames, traditional Red buses, traditional Red post boxes… I’ve seen people queuing up for photos at traditional Red telephone boxes that, strangely, don’t smell of the traditional urine or vomit.
If you’re from the UK, you probably have your own take on the ‘old smoke’ and you may disagree with my views. My wife and I go two or three times a year. It’s the 2nd most popular tourist destination on earth, with 20 million visitors in 2017. So, it must have something going for it. I’m summarising this year’s trips in this blog.
There are over 39,500 restaurants in London. I’ll be honest, I haven’t eaten in all of them, so I don’t have much to say. However, there are more than 200 MacDonald’s ‘restaurants’ in London and, trust me, they’re all crap. We were in a rush last week and so found ourselves eating next door to the Palladium theatre at a place called ‘Five Guys’ (named Moe presumably). The décor is brilliantly designed to lower your expectations of the food. The joint couldn’t be uglier, garishly lit and chunks of it painted with bright red gloss paint. Truly offensive. It cost £20 for two burgers and one regular fries (actually, chips). The verdict? The best burger and chips I’ve had in my life. Big portions and couldn’t be fresher. Twice the price of a Maccy D but infinitely superior.
Next door in the Palladium, we saw ‘The King and I’ and it was fantastic. The cast was top quality with the kind of actors that leave when the production goes on tour. Tickets front row of royal circle… don’t ask, tell yourself it’s a one-off, a treat. Four glasses of wine cost a mere £28, and that was the cheapest of the evening! London is like getting pissed in the discount aisle at Aldi.
During the day we went to see the Tower of London. We were tempted not to do the guided tour, but it was free, so we thought we’d give it a go and wander off when we got bored. As it started, I recognised the guide, I’d seen him before on Facebook and YouTube, Beefeater Dave. He was superb; informative and funny. His act was a ‘routine’. Inevitably it was scripted, but he was genuine, and commanded respect for that. He was the highlight of the afternoon.
There’s plenty of stuff in the Tower to keep your interest for a few hours and I enjoyed it. The queue to see the Crown Baubles was reasonably swift at twenty minutes. The diamonds could be glass for all I know (or care) and the other jewels looked like Rowntree’s fruit gums but… hey! On a more critical note, this mildly stimulating display in the Jewel House is, of course, the establishment showing off. It’s probably meant to inspire awe, but only inspired contempt in me. It’s a garish display of a thousand years’ worth of stolen goods and the prop cupboard for all the dull ceremonies of Pomp and Circumstance.
Around the grounds, the Coldstream guards display the patience of saints having to stand immutably po-faced as a part of the scenery on hundreds of selfies every day. It’s camp military theatre, and I felt sorry for them (though I doubt they’d want my sympathy). I hope they’re well paid for standing around doing nowt. There’s lots of armour, cannons, swords and stuff in the White Tower, and great views of London Bridge from the castle walls. Definitely worth a visit.
The next day, for the second time in our lives, we stood outside Westminster Abbey and procrastinated about going in. I do like mooching around a nice old church, but it galls me to spend £22 on a ticket when the Vatican is free. Having had royalty flaunt its wealth at me, I did fancy wandering around the Abbey, pointing and giggling at their graves. Instead, we settled for a cup of coffee and an egg n bacon bagel from a café called ‘Bagelicious’, and it was superb.
On a previous visit, we had a look in the British Museum. It’s a brilliant place (so is the Museum of Natural History) but it does get pretty crowded, which bugs me. I get over excited in the Ancient Near East section, but nobody is interested when I shout things like “Wow! Those are Tiglath Pileser III’s nasal hair tweezers”, and “Gosh, look at his ornate beard!” I can tell, dear reader, that I’ve snagged your interest here with Tiglath. He was quite a character and if you’re interested in the Assyrian Empire in the 8th century BCE, click here. If you aren’t do not, under any circumstances, click that very boring link.
I’ve been to Covent Garden several times to see the opera. Opera is like Marmite, you either love or you hate it, but you won’t know till you’ve been, so I say; give it a try. The most accessible opera for the first timer is ‘Carmen’. It’s by Verdi and it’s in French but don’t go and see a version sung in English because the words won’t fit the tune. Even Plastique Bertrand’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi” (That Aeroplane for Me) sounds rubbish in English. You will already know most of the tunes in the 1st half of Carmen and there’s two massive bangers in the 2nd half too. As for the language problems, there are screens in English which keep you up to date with who’s killing who in the story. Some opera companies are better than others as they have better singers and, importantly, bigger orchestras. They’d have to be pretty bad to make a mess of Carmen, though.
Opera tickets cost a fortune at Covent Garden, but you don’t have to get the best seats because the focus is on the music more than the visual aspects of the gig. Have a few glasses of wine before the show, book your interval drinks, sit back and relax. If it’s crap, you can still tell everyone that you’ve been to the opera and enjoy the social cache of showing off.
In full posh plonker mode, last Christmas we went to Covent Garden to see the Royal Ballet. If Carmen is opera’s ‘Now That’s What I Call Arias’, then ‘The Nutcracker’ is the equivalent production for ballet. It’s accessible because it’s got such famous tunes in it. Naturally, being a sucker for culture, I thought it was brilliant. The story is weird, but the staging was fantastically realised, and the dancing was sublime. The male dancers seem spectacularly well endowed, but in truth they wear ‘dancing belts’ the size of Blackadders’ codpiece. So, you’ve no need to feel genitally sub-standard unless, of course, you are. In which case, I (and Austin Powers) recommend this device.
For both visits, we stayed in one of Travelodge’s ‘hub’ hotels. On the positive side, they are a step up from the plastic coffin style of accommodation so popular in Tokyo, and they’re the cheapest central London rooms available. The rooms are small and a little claustrophobic as they don’t have any windows, but they’re OK for a night or two.
Should you go?
I said at the start that I didn’t like London but, really, I guess I do, if only in small doses. London has stuff which isn’t available in the provinces. If you enjoy the theatre, especially classical theatre, then the choice (and the quality) outside London is limited. Unlike Europe, where subsidising of the arts is considered civilised, in the UK it isn’t and what money is available is focused on the capital. There’s a handful of venues for classical arts in the UK, there are dozens in France, Germany and Italy. It’s annoying but if you want to see the best in theatre, you have little choice but to go to London. Of course, it’s a global tourist honey pot and charges accordingly. That said I’ve seen some great stuff in my closest city, Manchester, but not enough because, alas, the northwest is woefully short of classical culture.