Travelogue: Despite attack, British carry on

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(Cartoon by Pont, Punch, 1940)

London, Sunday, Sept 17

Today’s Seattle Times headline reads “UK makes ‘significant’ bomb arrest but attack seems imminent.” “Attack seems possible” is more the mood here: We were in London when the attack occurred, but didn’t learn about it until we read it in the news. And judging by the usual Saturday night crowds, no one here is very exercised. Yes, there are some military guarding certain areas, but that is more to free up more police to hunt for the terrorists than from any panic or sense of fear (two “persons of interest” are now “helping the police with their inquiries”). London carries on.

This seems to underline some essential differences between the UK and the U.S.: What we read here is that the government is concerned and has gone to high alert – but that is nothing more than taking responsible precautions. Yet, we read in some papers in the U.S. that London is in virtual lock-down, with military everywhere, and the public in panic. Instead, people here are outraged at our president’s immediate, off-the-hip tweets, and the general mood is that things are in good hands, and it’s best to wait and see how this develops – meanwhile, get on with things. I suspect that if something similar happened in Seattle, we would see panic, lock-downs and drastic measures.

I see a similarity at the border: every time I come to the UK I am impressed by the efficient courtesy at the border. In contrast, a young Canadian we met on the ship, who is on his way to study in France, was grilled at length at the U.S. border and asked questions such as “Why are you going on the Queen Mary?” “How many people does the ship carry?”

Anyone who travels much will have some horror story about the U.S. border – like the two 70-something ladies I met in Canada who were taken inside and questioned on their way to visit family in Portland. I sometimes wonder if we don’t mistake rudeness and crudity for security, if our finger-ready-on-the-trigger attitude really makes us safer?

But here we are in London. Disembarkation from the ship was much the same mess as embarkation. You’re called up by groups: deck, tour, connection – but the groups were called up too fast, resulting in long, slow lines at the exit. I think we stood in line for almost half an hour.

Be that as it may – it seems to be the one chink in Cunard’s otherwise shining armor – baggage collection was quick and easy, all bags having been collected the night before, and it was only a short walk to our bus to St Pancras station, London, and then a few minutes by taxi to the corner of Longacre and Bow Street, 50 yards or so up the street from the Royal Opera and the Russel St entrance to Covent Garden. After a fight with the safe holding the keys, up the steepest, shallowest stairs ever seen, to our very nice two-bedroom apartment. Typical Britain: our address is in Longacre, but our flat is around the corner in Bow Street.

Renting a “flat” is generally cheaper than a hotel, and doing so means you can relax, get up or eat when you want, and generally be at home. The last two trips I’ve booked through Indigo Flats (www.indigoflats.com); great to deal with, efficient, helpful, and other than those stairs, well-furnished, well-let flats in great locations.

;Our first night here, Jeff was down with a cold, and we were both travel-lagged, so while Jeff slept, I had a quick, early dinner with William Chapman, one of my oldest friends, who is about to retire from his position as CEO of Mansion House (he was formerly Appointments Secretary to four prime ministers). The next day we did some necessary shopping, and I had a fitting at Henry Poole for a tweed jacket. We dined at Wilton’s, in Jermyn St.

Wilton’s dates from 1742, and is perhaps the best seafood restaurant in the universe. They specialize in oysters, of which Jeff had six: three Scottish, three from the Mersey (he preferred the Scottish, and allowed me to taste the nectar, which tasted like, well, nectar – or Ambrosia, if you will). I had the lobster bisque (more tart than is usual at home), and then we had Dover Sole Meuniere, and words fail, except to murmur inadequately something about “perfect,” or “amazing.” This was accompanied by a grand cru Chablis, and at the end, we could neither of us even think of dessert; the meal was perfect “as is.” Sole Meuniere is so simple that it is impossible to cook well. Wilton’s does it perfectly.

A short walk along Jermyn Street, and then up to Piccadilly when my leg gave out, and then we took at taxi to the Savoy, having agreed that the perfect end to a perfect evening would be a cocktail in the American Bar.

The American Bar in the Savoy. (Courtesy C London City)

Which needs a paragraph of its own. The Savoy is one of the old, great hotels, and while it has been refurbished, it retains the feeling of settled-in age and the quiet elegance of its Art Deco décor. The American Bar is said to be the oldest cocktail bar in the world, and was once the haunt of such luminaries as Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald (neither of whom was present – but the bar has that feel… ) – and Winston Churchill, about whom there is a good story: while Prime Minister, he was walking from Simpson’s but found the fog too thick for safety, so he walked into the Savoy, commandeered a suite, phoned Downing Street to summon his secretary, and then spent the night dictating various letters. Apocryphal? Perhaps – but part of the Savoy Legend, which is long one: John o’ Gaunt had his town house here in the 14th century.

The cocktails are expensive. Very expensive. We had ones at the bottom of the price list, at £20! Mine was a Gilbert Rumbold, invented in 1930 by the then Head Bartender Harry Craddock (Grey Goose vodka, Italicus Rosolio, lime juice, cucumber juice, eucalyptus and peppermint syrup and champagne). At the end of the menu you find the “Vintage Cocktails,” where the prices achieve escape velocity and can only be afforded by the Russian oligarchs who are buying up all the most expensive real estate in London. The “cheapest” was the Moonwalk, at a mere £100, the winner being the Sazerac (“1858 Sazerac de Forge, 1950s Pernod Absinthe, vintage Peychaud’s Bitters) – at £5000.00. And yes, that’s three zeros to the left of the decimal.

Yesterday we rested: Jeff’s cold in a retreat, but I felt one coming on and the leg was misbehaving, so we basically napped and dozed all day – and ate very little! I was feeling “off” enough to give up using my ticket to a matinee of “Woyzeck in Winter,” an intriguing mash-up of the Buchner play, and Schubert’s “Winterreise.” Wish I’d gone, but several hours of sleep were badly needed.

Today being Sunday, a bit more rest, perhaps some shopping (I need a warm coat for the Faroes), and Jeff, who is a superb cook, is doing dinner tonight, and William will join us.

This week’s best pub name: The Duck and Waffle; reigning town names: Nether Wallop, Ugthorpe.

Tuesday: William is giving Jeff a personal tour of Mansion House – the Lord Mayor of London’s official residence – and I am more or less in bed with what I hope will not turn into a nasty cold. Jeff had a grand morning at the Victoria and Albert museum, looking at Islamic art and has been very enthusiastic about two very old, beautiful carpets. Wish I’d been up to it. The “V and A” is an absolute treasure house of anything you can think of from Islamic and Asian art, to British silver, from Grinling Gibbons furniture to plaster casts of classic and medieval sculpture. It’s not to be missed, and is only a stone’s throw from Harrod’s, which is worth seeing as long as you leave your credit cards in a secure location elsewhere.

I heard a moving 9/11 story yesterday: The day after the attack, the Queen asked the American ambassador to join with her viewing the Changing of the Guards at the palace. For the Queen to review the ceremony is unusual, and when she does, the troops pause in front of the palace and the band plays “God Save the Queen.” On this occasion, the troops came to attention and the band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” our ambassador standing beside the Queen on the balcony. An unexpected, touching, and very British statement of solidarity.

Jeff is spoiling me. As he did last year, by the time I emerge, fresh croissants from Paul (the Patissserie in Bedford Street at the other end of the Covent Garden piazza – try it!) and his perfect omelets – Jeff even brought his omelet pan from home!

Thursday: We are both nursing colds! Last night we dined with William and Stephen Tucker (retired vicar of Hampstead) and went to the Royal Opera for Mozart’s Magic Flute. No “stars,” but the attraction to the Opera is the very high standard of staging, ensemble and production. The Flute is a difficult opera to put on a large stage in a big house, but it was very good indeed. Unfortunately our front-row seats had about as much footroom as a cheap airline seat, and my legs simply couldn’t take it, so I left at the interval and walked the hundred yards back to the flat (and the eight thousand steep steps up to the first floor — thank heaven the Sherpas left some oxygen tanks at Camp Two!) Still, a lovely evening.

At noon I’m off to my second luncheon at the Oxford and Cambridge Cub with Stephen. The first never happened: I got my dates mixed and battled my way over on Tuesday, only to find I had the wrong day, and in the process I managed to leave a book in the taxi that I had brought from Edmonds for Stephen. I’ll plead distraction: I took the underground to Piccadilly Circus and then a cab, but at the moment every street in London is under some kind of construction: our two lanes up Lower Regent Street turned left into one lane in Piccadilly, and were then diverted down a side street with even more construction and a tight squeeze between scaffoldings and heavy machinery. The driver was apologetic, but in the end the only way to get to the club was in ever-narrowing circles on one-way streets, arriving at some distance from the club, where the sidewalk was blocked by still more street construction! It was almost like getting from my home to Edmonds with the usual two or three construction stops on the way, so I did feel at home.

I leave Saturday for the Faroes, so tomorrow I pack up all my dress clothes and leave them in a suitcase in William’s office in Mansion House, to be collected just before I come home at the end October. The plan is to travel as light as I can, in the Faroes and Shetlands – a few shirts and rain gear, and a pair of water-proof shoes. So this will be the last note from London, where colds have prevented us from doing and seeing as nearly much as we’d wished and planned. Jeff returns to Edmonds very early Sunday morning.

In spite of viruses, it has been wonderful to be in London, a city that always energizes me and makes me feel that life is full of opportunity and interest. All you have to do is walk on the streets to feel it, at any hour of the day oi night. I can’t wait to come back next fall.

— By Nathaniel Brown

Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the U.S. Cross-Country team in 1989. He coached at three Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for nine years and Cross-Country Skier for two. He has written three books on skiing and training. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service, until retirement six years ago

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Vicarious travel with Nathaniel Brown is a pleasure and a joy to read. Thank you, Mr. Brown! I share your love of London and the UK. My Edmonds News, please keep publishing these accounts!

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