(gotta work on this title...)
I had never been a 'cruise person.' It always seemed to me it would be like spending travel time in a hotel lobby. But I had made the mistake of passing along an e-mail to Jennifer at work for Travelocity, a discount online travel agent. She replied with a brief note suggesting I look at one itinerary. It was miraculously underhanded - a twelve-day cruise of the Mediterranean. This I could have ignored, save that we would cruise by night and tour exciting cities by day. Some I had visited, like Florence and Venice. Others, like Monte Carlo, Jen had seen - and a few looked shamelessly exotic, like Istanbul ("where," as James Bond once said, "the moonlight on the Bosporus is irresistible.")
We would only be able to afford the least expensive cabin, an inside stateroom with no window, or, as we told our friends, a guaranteed spot on a dingy somewhere aft, covered in a blue tarp. But who wanted to spend all of their time in their room? I started packing.
Jen's dad had given us new luggage, which was most fortunate: onboard, we'd need not only clothes for two and a half weeks, but several levels of dress, including two or three "formal" evenings, which meant packing my tuxedo and dress shoes. My old family rule was never to pack more than you could comfortably carry. The new luggage rolls, however, and "comfortably" became a very slippery adverb.
12 July 2001 Baltimore to London
The odd thing about getting to London was that Jennifer and I had to fly separately- not only on different flights, but by different airlines. Through different cities. To different airports. In this age of frequent flyer miles, we had accrued enough for Jen to fly free, but it would have cost nearly $1000 for me to join her. And so I was on a plane through Philadelphia to Gatwick airport in England while Jen ran through JFK in New York to Heathrow. I had the easier transfer, but she got more sleep, stretched out over three seats. My connections from Gatwick were absurdly easy: a fast train to Victoria station and a cab to our hotel in Kensington, way out to the west side of town, near Shepherd's Bush.
Jen's quiet flight made up for the fact that she actually missed her connection in NYC. Her plane arrived late and, though her pilot alerted the transatlantic flight that they would have six sprinting passengers, he chose to lift off 15 minutes early. When she arrived I was settled in, sleeping on (and creatively deforming) my glasses, but freshly showered. Jen, of course, was sporting "airline hair." Jetlag was chasing us; we walked out to the local pub for lunch. I began to remember why London is my favorite city in the world: everything about it makes me smile. I love the atmosphere, the culture, the abject politeness. I love the ziggy lines by the curbs indicating "no parking." I love the tunnel-shaped stations of the underground and the Cadbury chocolate vending machines in them. I love the mildly embarrassing street names. The girls are very lovely, though they don't have to be; each one has a beautiful, musical accent that wins me over. To Jen's chagrin, I still fall in love there a thousand times a day.
We walked. We walked up to Noting Hill, where an eyeglass shop helped straighten my nose for a £1 contribution to the society for the blind. We walked up to Hyde Park where girls were riding, and children were feeding the swans. Jen did not believe that the clear skies and balmy weather were strictly anomalous. Until it began to rain. We walked- scurried, actually- to Kensington Palace, once the home of Princess Diana. It now houses an exhibition of British royal garments from the Renaissance through the modern era. They have an audio tour, stored on a small memory stick with a speaker: punch the number of the room you're in, and a historian presents historical notes. Upstairs, the palace has extensive rooms: the King's and Queen's chambers, and a cleverly ornamented staircase, with frescos of the suitors and guards watching you ascend.
It was getting into the evening, and we returned to the Hilton to change, and grab a quick buffet dinner. Always read the price before sitting- it was, er, impressive- but I didn't mind much. Did I mention that our hostess had a lovely Scottish burr?
When I was studying theatre in London back in 1990, the internet was only starting to come into its own. This trip, I was able to research the current shows and book tickets online. This first night, we saw The Witches of Eastwick, a musical based on the film with Jack Nicholson that hasn't come to the States yet. It was absolutely charming, retaining most of the film's key points while making the story fresher. As a Cameron Macintosh musical, the producer of such pyrotechnical fare as Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera, it had to have splashy effects, including a possessed cello playing itself and, for the close of Act I, the three witches flying out over the audience. It was brilliantly done. They even fixed the film's rather problematic ending, making for a great entertainment. But why does such a prototypically American musical have to find success in the West End first? Likely because the composers are not household names in America. .
After the show, Jen and I walked through the evening chaos of Leister square. At night, ever mother's child is out in London, teenagers and grandfathers alike. Street performers about, and the discos shake until 11:00. Then the trains and many busses stop running, the taverns close, and everyone goes home. It's uncanny. But amid the throngs, one rarely feels threatened. It's much more San Francisco than New York, and I love the difference.
We hopped on the No. 94 bus (upstairs, in the front seat of course) for the ride home and, as jetlag finally overtook up, passed out.
13 July 2001 London: the Globe
Jen had never really toured London, so this was my city to plan. We took the tube headed for the Tower. En route, though, I had an inspiration and we hopped off at St. Paul's, to see one of the two largest domes in the world along with the Vatican. It is a magisterial place, with tombs for the most formidable names in British History. They had a lovely gift shop in the crypt, including the complete St. Paul's choir's recordings of all of the psalms. (I couldn't choose just one, I wound up buying none, alas.) Jen was particularly impressed at the smoky photographs of the cathedral during the Blitz and the amount of smoke staining which remains.
We spent the afternoon on Bankside. The first time I visited London, it was 1979. Bankside was still a quiet, dreary place reminiscent of it's heritage of Conan Doyle and Dickens. But two decades earlier, a plan was put into effect to change all of that: plans to build a reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe theatre on its original site. My father, a scenic designer, taught the
Those plans have now been realized, and Bankside is a carnival replete with its own Starbucks. The theatre is a blend of meticulous restoration and modern concession (toilets, metal reinforcing under the wooden staircases, etc). There is an entrance building, containing a bookstore and a couple of restaurants, one of which we tried for lunch. The theatre itself feels absolutely authentic. The stalls are quite narrow and very steeply raked. The groundlings around the stage do stand. The roof looked thatched, and does not cover the center. It did rain a little, and the groundlings got rained on.
Part of the reason for the project was to discover what surprises the architecture held. The acoustics, for example, were outstanding: the design of the stage lends itself to great projection without amplification (thank goodness). The musicians gallery was far higher than I'd realized from the models, far above and not visible from the stage. Other contrivances became clear in the performance. It was a modern performance of Shakespeare's Cymbaline, a romance somewhere between Romeo and Juliet and King Lear, with a dash of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte for good measure (for Measure). Six actors and two musicians dressed in white pants suits played all the parts, clarifying the different roles by reciting the cast list, reading aloud a few stage directions, and some musical effects. Some actors played using a lot of gesture, reminiscent of the Jacobean style, and projected upward, toward the galleries. Some base comic lines were thrown sharply downward "to the groundlings." The construction showed how this was a conspicuous change in context. The musicians played numerous percussion instruments that decorated the stage. It was a marvelous show; my father would have loved it.
Afterwards, Jennifer was anxious to maximize her sightseeing time, so we went to see Buckingham Palace. The guards were of a lower profile than I recalled: as the Queen was not in residence that day, only two guards were posted. When she is in, there are four guards. Further, some shifts are not manned by the Grenadiers and do do not wear the traditional red tunics and bearskin hats. So, we took a long, long walk to Piccadilly, stopping only for a really good cappuccino on our quest for a place to dine. We bought a copy of Time Out magazine, always a reliable source for all the arts, including culinary, and headed for a lovely, small French restaurant. This was an ordeal: the streets around Covent Garden are as twisted as the British system for numbering buildings (up one side of the block, the down the other!). So, it had been closed for hours when we arrived, and we continued to wander aimlessly. Dinner was fish and chips in a small pub. Couldn't have done better by me if you planned it. And we grabbed the 94 bus back home again.
14 July 2001 London: the Tower
I was on a quest. Most good searches these days begin online, and this was no exception. I'd found the Internet Talking Bookshop several years ago as a source for those many excellent BBC audio drama recordings not available in the States. It's brick-and-mortar cousin is the Beckenham Bookshop. I wanted to see it. It turned out to be in the small town of Beckenham, well to the southeast of London. I called for directions. They seemed startled that I was coming from Shepherd's Bush, but told me to take the tube to Victoria and take a train to Beckenham Junction.
Jen decided that such a trip was not her quest as well, and took the morning to go to Harrod's. It turned out to be the day of their big "one sale," and was overrun. Interestingly, Dodi's father owns the famous department store, and has built a memorial to his son and Princess Diana including a fountain, a pyramid with an eye all lit by hearts with candles inset.
I passed by the store myself: the tube was under repair as always, and I was diverted to a bus from Blackfriar's to Victoria, a scenic ride past the Victoria and Albert museum. The train ride was a sweet journey through the English countryside. Beckenham is a small, storybook town with the bookshop on the main road, High Street. The bookshop itself was miniscule, a single room. But the small, rotating rack in the back, right-hand corner was a goldmine. It was stuffed with volumes upon volumes of BBC programs: volumes I couldn't find in the states or shows I'd never heard of. They even had re-releases of programs I'd almost given up on, such as Bert Coules' adaptations of Ellis Peters' Cadfael stories. I introduced myself, now understanding why they were perplexed at my making the long journey down from northwest London. It was worth the trip.
Jen and I rendezvoused on Westminster Bridge, the corner nearest to Big Ben. The houses of Parliament were not in session, but the building is being cleaned and Big Ben, of course, is as rich and sonorous as ever. We walked into Westminster Abbey. It's quite different from St. Paul's in its ornate Gothic design, and has an even more celebrated choir. As I was daydreaming what it might be like to conduct such an ensemble, the choir itself came into their Quire to rehearse in the sanctuary for evensong. I was in heaven; they were even singing a prototypically Anglican anthem, perhaps by Herbert Howells. Jen was using our new portable camera, and attempted to shoot a photograph from her hip, turning off the flash. It was that latter setting which got her in trouble: the flash went off with a bright 'pop'. Immediately, a dour guard marched resolutely for her. I gestured to Jen 'no, put it away,' but the guard was not to be swayed from her castigation. She leaned in and hissed "you obviously know it isn't allowed." And then to some Japanese tourists sitting on the altar steps "Don't turn your backs to the altar. Hats off! " She was a stereotypical English matron, and absolutely marvelous. Jen, of course, was mortified.
We bypassed Westminster's kitschy giftshop filled with London souvenirs, grabbed two cream cheese and salmon sandwiches from their shop and ate them on the tube to the Tower. A group of students from the States approached us as an average British couple, asking out opinions of the American electoral process. I said I personally had voted for the other guy, and they left, giggling.
The Tower usually has a long line to enter, but wasn't particularly bad that day. A guide in traditional garb of the Beefeater was offering salacious stories about those interred in this castle turned elite prison, but we broke off to see the crown jewels. The entrance line now shows videos of Elizabeth's coronation. The new display has visitors on a slowly moving walkway past the ornate crowns and scepters, which allows everyone a good look in turn. We took the belt three times. Another modern concession: the guards are more visible, and carrying not nightsticks, but semiautomatic machine guns. No Thomas Crown affair here. Also guarded is the official's residence. I bought Jen a jewel of her own that afternoon, a sparkling pendant in the shape of a fleur-de-lis. We lingered for a long while at the tower, enjoying the weather and vistas the fortifications afford, and sharing the afternoon with a most amicable cat that rather liked being scritched.
We dined at a very old Indian restaurant, Punjab, in Covent Garden. Though "British cuisine" is no longer the joke it was a decade ago, the best food in England is still either Scottish pub food or Pakistani. That evening's show was a new musical by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber - and in London, the title is integral to the name. The show was The Beautiful Game, a marvelous production that seems unlikely to transfer to Broadway. Though Lloyd Webber has been king of the Great White Way for decades now, the show is about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The title refers to soccer, an obsession throughout England, Ireland and indeed most of Europe. The Irish accents are played thickly, and many songs
Who knew that Tudor architecture could be so... groovy?
include references the average American just won't get: "clean the kit" (sports gear), "classical" (marvelous) and even "football" (soccer itself). It begins in fun, with the priest coaching the team drilling them in the three rules ("God is Irish! God is a Catholic! God plays the beautiful game! ") and ends in the tragedies and violences as the team members get wrapped up in the war between IRA and Orangemen.
The production, as I indicated, was ferociously original. It was set on a seemingly bare stage, unadorned by any curtains or sets. The proscenium is chipped away, exposing pipes and sheet rock. In fact, the entire back wall and, I assume, most of the wings are built out as a false wall. The choreography turned the natural body moves of soccer into ballet. When one character lands in jail, the front of the stage is covered by a chain link fence. For the Act I finale, a beautifully misty rain storm pours on the stage.
The outstanding book was written by Richard Curtis, celebrated author of many British comedies including the Blackadder and Mr. Bean television series and the movies Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary. If it does come 'over the puddle,' the show will require so many concessions as to amputate its very heart. I'm glad I saw it in its original form, even if the newly released cast album doesn't contain Irish accents as thoroughly mastered as the performance we saw.
Next: we actually get to see a ship!
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