It's always fun and instructive to revisit old haunts with people who've never been to them before. So, visiting London, where I lived for over 30 years, has been lots of fun. This time, my teenager was again with me and her memories of places she had visited several times before are buried in the recesses of her memories, filed under 'less than 6 months old', 'less than teenager', and 'teenager but busy Snapchatting'. My wife's memories are better but sometimes co-mingled with those of other visits. My friends, both those from Jamaica, who know London a bit, and those from France where this is as well known to the French as how to make Yorkshire pudding are lapping up what they can, each day.
The French adults are great: just suggest something to them and next thing is they are trying to arrange to do it. So, after arriving via EasyJet on Saturday and smothering us in hugs and kisses (because we've known them for about 12 years, but my wife hadn't seen them for about 10 years, and 'the baby' whom they saw 3 years ago has now shot up in height and changed looks), they slept well and were off early on Sunday morning to find a tour bus to see all of the major sights. We'd not see them again till noon, when they were running back into the hotel breathlessly, after leaving the bus, walking through Hyde Park, negotiations the Tube, and getting back to the hotel on foot. Phoof! 🙂 We'd planned to take them to have afternoon tea at the Wallace Collection, just off Oxford Street. If you don't know this gallery of fine art then shame and discover fast next time–it's free–as it's tea room, located in the back, is a gem. 'Ah, wow!' That's French for 'Oh, wow!'
We took in the latest display, which was ironically from the 'gilded age' of Louis XIV (14 for those who didn't do Latin). 'Ah, wow!' After a gobful of richness, I suggested a walk outside before our tea reservation. I decided to not follow my wife and daughter, whose shopping genes were kicking in as I saw them heading south towards Duke Street/Oxford Street. I took my French friends north to George Street and gave them a mini-tour of four blocks of potted social and economic history.
Row houses, that were chic; mews where former stables now gave people small apartments; public housing that has now become the habitation of the well-to-do. Massive structures that told you about the concentration of people and money that still exists today. Did we lose count of the number of Rolls Royces that passed? 🙂
I showed them the Post Office Tower, a marvel still, with its revolving restaurant: "It moves!" my friend told me, after he'd stood staring for five minutes. I explained what I recalled of it's opening as a telecommunications marvel. My father worked for the Post Office at the time. I also mentioned the underground mail railway that few knew existed, that transported mail through the city. I now see that this month the Post Office has opened it to the public as an historic feature on which rides can be taken. My father worked for a time at the Western District Office, at Rathbone Place, and I remember his showing me this amazing sight of dark tunnels and mini-trains.
I also showed my friends pieces of urban architecture that are easily overlooked: footscrapers, from the days when streets were not paved and mud was not to be trailed into the house; coal shutes, looking like manhole covers on the sidewalk, to supply coal into the basements of houses, when coal fires were allowed (those chimneys used to serve a purpose, but bad smog in the 1960s killed that off before it killed off more people). We looked at the reality of 'upstairs, downstairs' as we inspected the many basements. I tried to explain the many squares that one sees in London, which give the city centre and some other areas unexpected greenness and charm. We looked at globalization at large with coffee house chains competing for our money. We looked at some pubs and I explained how they used to enshrine social divisions (no women or children, for a long time; restricted hours; etc.) We explored some public toilets, now beautified, and still functioning, though some have now moved to other uses, such as 'downstairs' clubs. Then, time for tea!
It's a charming part of English culture that holds many little traps. Scones and clotted cream are delicious in the afternoon, with a pot of tea. Now, I'm a bit traditional on this, and explained that the scone should be warm and split by hand, not cut (that way the surface can hold more 'filling'), and that the cream goes on the scone before the strawberry (no other) jam. It's not difficult, so why spoil the pleasure. The arrival of the tray of scones, etc, was followed by more 'Ah, wow!' and then a few more 'Ah, wow!'s Was there ever a time when the French wished they were English? This may be it.
After a long, lazy time working our way through our tea, served appropriately by a French-speaking Congolese man, we ventured out again into the English 'summer'. The ladies went into shops, and I took my friend on a tour of Bond Street and Brook Street, and pointed out how the city had been calmed with more pedestrianization, but also changed immensely with the arrival of Middle-eastern influences such as hookah bars. A quick tour of former places of high fashions, and a look at Claridges, the luxury hotel in Mayfair, with its doormen in their top hats and tails, and we were done. We sat outside the massive structure of Selfridges and talked, then walked through part of the ground floor, where my friend's eyes gazed in amazement. It's incredible to imagine this store in its original time in the early 20th century, once a chain of stores, but since largely sold off, and the flagship store in Oxford Street is the second largest store isn't he UK, after Harrod's.
We got back to mundane things and I gave a little economics lesson about what was going on in London on this calm Sunday, as money chased goods, and supply met demand. Race, colour, gender did not matter so long as the oil of economic logic flowed through the pockets of those carrying bags and goods.
I reminisced about Oxford Street at Christmas-time and gawping as a boy in the 1960s at the lights that stretched all along the street, from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road. 'Ah, wow!' 🙂