It’s been five years since my last visit to London, where I was born and grew up. It’s one of those ironies of life that, while I was working, I used to “pop over” to England almost every year, but now that I am retired and with plenty of time on my hands, I have done most of my travelling within Israel.
Be that as it may, this year I decided – almost on the spur of the moment – that the time was ripe for a visit back to the land of my birth.
Actually, now that I come to think of it, nearly all my trips abroad (except for those connected with my choir) have been taken “on the spur of the moment”.
Robert Louis Stevenson famously said: “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive” – a saying which has been widely misquoted and even transformed into the fake Buddhist axiom “to journey is better than to arrive”. I cannot say I agree. Foreign travel has become a nightmare in our modern world, what with the stringent security checks made necessary by the rise of (mostly) Islamist terrorism, the discomfort of sitting for several hours in a narrow seat in a metal tube (because, in the cause of increasing profits, airlines continue to cram ever more passengers onto fewer flights) and the short tempers provoked by such conditions. When I tried to use my magnetic card which, supposedly, allows me to pass through a fast track at Passport Control at Ben Gurion Airport, it didn’t work and a message appeared on the screen informing me that my card was out of date. Then, when I landed at Heathrow, the automatic passport scanners failed to read my biometric passport and when I presented it to a flesh-and-blood Immigration official, he looked at it, then at me, then again at the passport, before finally pronouncing: “You’ve changed your hairstyle”.
Duh! “Well, yes!” I admitted. “We ladies like to do that once in a while.”
Was that really the reason the scanner failed to identify me, I wanted to know. He assured me that it was. I had been under the impression that the purpose of biometric passports was to take note of those features which cannot be changed (at least, not without plastic surgery), such as the distance between my earlobes and the corners of my eyes, or the tip of my nose and my chin. Anything else would be, plainly, absurd!
But the worst was yet to come. I attempted to withdraw £200 from an ATM at the airport. The machine duly presented me with a receipt – but no cash! However, on returning to Israel, I found that I had, in fact, been debited for the entire amount. I am still trying to get my money back!
As you can imagine, by the time I reached my hotel, at least two hours later than expected, I was hot, tired and in a very bad temper.
I had heard much about the rise in antisemitism in the UK – as in the whole of Europe – so naturally, I made sure to take with me (and wear, all the time), my Magen David necklace, which I flaunted on every possible occasion, while casually dropping the information that I was Israeli.
I have to say, I did not encounter any negative reactions – whether because the scare stories were greatly exaggerated or whether because the British are too polite, or whether simply because I exude an attitude of “Don’t mess with me!” In fact, the most helpful of the front-desk staff at the hotel, a trainee from Brazil by the name of Leticia, who went out of her way to make sure I had exactly the room I wanted, seemed delighted to meet someone from Israel.
My hotel was very central, right opposite one of the entrances to Kensington Gardens/Hyde Park. On my first night, I found myself in a well-appointed room, on the first floor, but facing a kind of inner courtyard, so that, while I was away from the noise of the street, the view was a particularly unlovely one of the huge pipes serving the hotel’s air-conditioning system. Since I was planning a longish stay (nine nights), the staff were very helpful in ensuring that I was able to transfer the following day to a room on the fourth floor, overlooking the park.
I had paid for a full English breakfast – worth every penny. It was lavish! I passed over the bacon and ham, of course, but that still left a wide choice of eggs – scrambled, sunny-side up, or poached (if I had expressed a wish for lightly-boiled eggs, I am sure that would have presented no difficulty), fried tomatoes and mushrooms, baked beans, hash browns (not to be confused with hash brownies 😉 ), several varieties of bread and rolls, including toast, croissants and a delicious fruit bread, English and French cheeses, cakes, muesli and all manner of breakfast cereals, fresh and preserved fruits, at least four different kinds of fruit juice and of jam, yogurt in various flavours, coffee and – of course – properly brewed English Breakfast Tea!
Ok – no salads and no smoked or pickled fish, so it still didn’t match the traditional Israeli hotel breakfast, but it was pretty good all the same and made additional meals during the day (other than maybe a sandwich mid-afternoon and tea and malt-loaf in the evening) almost unnecessary.
Besides spending time with my brother, I visit London mainly for two things – the theatre and the parks. On my very first morning in London, the skies were partially cloudy but the sun was shining and it was quite warm (by British standards anyway 😉 ), although rain was forecast for the afternoon. That’s the trouble with British weather – one never knows how to dress, because when they say “possibility of some rain in places”, you can never know which places or how much rain, and so I never dared wear one of the summer dresses I had packed in my (very small) suitcase and I almost always felt the need to be cautious and carry an umbrella.
My brother and I arranged to meet in the Broadwalk of Kensington Gardens, right opposite the hotel. I got there early and so I walked over to the Round Pond and watched children feeding the gulls, ducks, geese and swans.
By the time David arrived, it was starting to cloud over. David has an application on his smartphone that notifies one in how many minutes it is going to start raining. Forewarned, we took refuge in an (outdoor) cafe near the children’s playground (had we waited for the rain to start, we would have been unable to find a table at which to sit), and “splurged” on a cappuchino apiece. We were exposed to the cold wind, but at least the giant sunshades provided some shelter from the drizzle.
And I had the opportunity to photograph some of the many starlings which congregate at the cafe (as I had noticed on my previous visit, five years ago).
At least, I think they were a kind of starling, but I may be wrong and if anyone knows better, please let me know!
When the sun came out again, we strolled through the park, popped over the road to the Royal Albert Hall to see if, by some miracle, they had any tickets available for the Last Night of the Proms the following weekend (they didn’t), then returned to the park to enjoy the lake, the Princess Diana Memorial, and the Serpentine Museum, which has a new and very modernistic, artsy cafe, within whose “walls”, any pigeon would be happy to perch 😉
Halfway through the afternoon, the rain started again – in earnest this time – and we again took refuge in one of the restaurants by the Serpentine, for a bowl of delicious tomato and basil soup, over which we lingered, in the hope the rain would stop. When it failed to do so, we walked back through the park in the rain to the hotel. I had forgotten, and needed to be reminded by my brother, but as children, we did quite a lot of walking through the park (not this one, but Regent’s Park) in the rain.
The following day we spent on the South Bank of the Thames – one of my brother’s favourite haunts and it was easy to see why. The River Thames is always fascinating and there is so much to see and do along its banks – much of it free. There was some kind of Africa festival going on, with African films being screened (some of them free, in the South Bank Centre lobby), a Pop Up Food Market featuring African foods (I had no idea they eat so well in Africa! I thought they were always suffering from famine – at least,, that’s what Oxfam was always telling us), and a class in African drumming in one of the spaces in the South Bank Centre.
Along the riverside promenade, we saw these locks affixed to the railings, with names inscribed upon them, but were unable to ascertain their significance. Google was no help. If any Londoners can help solve the mystery, please do so, in the comments section below.
Anchored in the middle of the river, was an installation by the Korean artist Ik-Joong Kang, Floating Dreams, consisting of 500 individual drawings and illuminated from within – a kind of floating lantern, three storeys high, dedicated to the memory of the millions displaced and parted from their loved ones during the Korean War.
On a barge hard by the opposite bank, there was a giant wooden replica of the City of London skyline as it would have appeared on the eve of the Great Fire of London. Later that evening, it would be set on fire and burned, to mark the 350th anniversary of the conflagration that changed the face of the British capital forever.
The next day, Monday, I took my brother to see the National Theatre’s award-winning production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Based on Mark Haddon’s book of the same name, the play tells the story of 15-year old Christopher, a mathematical genius who suffers from Asperger Syndrome.
It is always a challenge to adapt, successfully, a book to the stage or screen, but I thought the way we were shown Christopher’s view of the terrors of the outside world – as a cacophony of loud noises and flashing lights – was brilliantly done.
My favourite of all the London parks is Regent’s Park, which, when I was a child and living nearby, no more than a fifteen minute walk away , served as our “back garden”. There were parts of the park which we favoured more – such as the Rose Garden – and other parts – such as the section we referred to as “Doggy Park”, because dogs were allowed to roam there unleashed – which we enjoyed less, as we were all afraid of dogs. It is a fear we have long since overcome, and so on Tuesday, we spent much of our time in these roads less-travelled. We returned to the Rose Garden, however, where I managed to snap up the last available ticket for that evening’s performance of “Pride and Prejudice” in the Open Air Theatre. I was hesitant at first about doing so, because the skies were still quite overcast and the theatre does not refund money for performances cancelled because of the weather. Instead, they exchange the tickets for another performance (on the basis of ticket availability) and I was due to return home in less than a week. However, I was glad I took the risk, because it did not rain – in fact, it was quite a warm, summery evening – and the adaptation of Jane Austen’s most popular work was most enjoyable. Most of the cast were very young – some, straight out of drama school, I gather – and I didn’t recognise any of the names, but it was great fun.
The following day dawned bright and sunny and so I was emboldened to leave my umbrella back at the hotel, and enjoy a day at Hampstead Heath and Kenwood, unfettered by excess baggage.
Hampstead Heath is not one of the places we used to frequent as children, but it has since become one of my brother’s favourite outdoor spots.
However, I do remember visits to Kenwood House, once home to the great jurist Lord Mansfield, who, in 1772, delivered a ruling which is widely held to have abolished slavery in Britain.
“The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged”
I was almost unable to believe my good luck when the hot weather continued the next day also and we were able to travel by river to Greenwich.
A word to anyone planning a visit to London: if you have an Oyster Card (a smartcard which enables you to purchase various travelcards and upload them to the card, or to store money for Pay-As-You-Go), not only will you pay a lot less for travelling around London by bus and Underground (the Tube, as it’s known to Londoners), but you will also be entitled to a 33% reduction on some (not all) of the riverboats, which ply the Thames between Westminster and Greenwich (and also, possibly, Kew Gardens, Hampton Court and Richmond). Since not all of the riverboats have a running commentary about the sights you will see along the river, it’s worth asking about that, too. Ours did – not a professional guide, as he took pains to remind us, but simply a riverboat skipper who loves London and who does not get paid for his commentary and explanations, except for any tip you might feel inclined to give (they pass a top hat round, at the end of the trip) for an amusing and informative commentary, delivered in an inimitable Cockney accent and peppered with many in-jokes which you probably have to be British (or, at least, ex-British) to understand. A knowledge of the English language, however good, is not enough.
Along the river are many famous sights such as the London Eye (otherwise known as the Millenium Wheel), St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Obelisk (popularly known as “Cleopatra’s Needle”), the Shard (so called because the observation platform at the top resembles a broken shard of glass), a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship The Golden Hinde, in which he circumnavigated the world, Tower Bridge and many others.
Disembarking at Greenwich, our first stop was at the Old Royal Naval Hospital and the Old Royal Naval College, before proceeding to the Park, which houses the Old Observatory and the Greenwich Meridian.
Shortly after arriving, we were fortunate to catch the start of a free, guided tour of these historic buildings. The only parts of the the Royal Naval College open to the public are the Chapel and the Dining Hall, known as the Painted Hall and famous for its painted ceiling – which should not be missed by anyone keen on art, and Baroque art in particular. At the time of our visit, the Hall was being used for filming a new feature film about Queen Victoria and so we could not go inside but we could see the celebrated ceiling.
From the hill where the Observatory is situated, there is a magnificent view of London, and of the river which made the city what it is.
We also found time for a brief visit to the National Maritime Museum, where there was a fascinating exhibition made up of sounds and pictures screened on a screen shaped like an ocean wave, and all around, videos were screened with ordinary people describing what the sea represented for them.
We spent the whole day at Greenwich, finishing up with supper (the traditional fish and chips) at a riverside pub, and returning to town by the Docklands Light Railway.
And with that, it seemed, the spell of good weather had ended. The following day was cloudy and drizzly and we both had things to do, so I took the opportunity for a little shopping. But even there, London never ceases to surprise and delight. I found myself in one of the city’s most oldest and famous department stores, Selfridges. This huge and, arguably, over-the-top department store, opened in 1909, is famous, among other things, for its window displays, which are always based on a relevant theme. This year, the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, that theme was the plays of William Shakespeare. Not only were the storefront windows devoted to the subject, but inside the store also, fashion displays recreated scenes from “Macbeth”, “Richard III”, “Romeo and Juliet” and other plays. And to complete the picture, the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” was staged in the store’s own in-house theatre.
The following day the weather was even worse. It poured the whole day, putting paid to our plans to purchase tickets (at an exorbitant price of £40 apiece) to attend the Proms in the Park event that evening. There were tickets available within the Royal Albert Hall for the Last Night of the Proms, for those willing to spend £660 on a box, or, if that was a tad too pricey, a modest £192 in the Stalls, but even these were just a trifle over my budget 😉 so we decided instead, to content ourselves with watching the live TV broadcast on the BBC, up in my hotel room. But before that, for the day’s live entertainment, we went to a matinee performance of The Play That Goes Wrong:
It was so funny that I laughed until the tears ran down my cheeks and David said he almost fell off his seat, he laughed so much.
After that, we walked across Waterloo Bridge in the rain (it was too windy to attempt to open an umbrella) to the South Bank Centre, where we indulged ourselves with coffee and the most delicious carrot cake on the fifth floor terrace of the Royal Festival Hall, as we enjoyed the view of the Thames in the rain, under lowering grey skies.
Back at the hotel, since it was too rainy and windy to join the promenaders in Hyde Park with their picnic hampers, we switched on the TV, took out the remains of the fried chicken, egg and onions, tuna and sweetcorn salad and challah thoughtfully provided the evening before by my brother, and settled down to enjoy the Last Night of the Proms in the comfort of my hotel room.
When it was over, David said he thought he could see the fireworks lighting up the sky over Hyde Park from the window (as I said, my room did overlook the park), but I myself didn’t see anything.
I should mention that I did, in fact, take in a couple of live concerts during my ten days in London – both of them at the delightful Church of St. Martin’s in the Fields, a gem of the late Baroque era. Besides its regular programme of evening concerts, held by candlelight, St. Martin’s also has free lunchtime concerts three times a week. These generally feature young and upcoming musicians at the start of their musical career, and make an ideal midday break if you happen to be shopping in the West End, after which one can have a picnic lunch in Trafalgar Square, just across the road, before popping in for an hour or so to the National Gallery, which is right next door.
I enjoyed two concerts – one on Monday, featuring the Roth Guitar Duo, and another on Friday, with the mezzo-soprano Emma Stannard, who performed, amongst other things, De Falla’s “Seven Spanish Folk Songs”, which I know well, as I am working on it with my own vocal coach and therefore particularly enjoyed.
After each of these concerts, I took my own advice and, after a sandwich lunch in Trafalgar Square, visited the National Gallery. Those of you who may be planning a trip to London, do not fail to put the National Gallery on your “Must See” list. I make it a regular stop every trip – sometimes visiting it more than once. Like many of London’s great museums, entrance is free. There is a box for donations at the entrance, but no-one will press you to make one or look at you askance if you don’t.
Anyway, as I said – I visited the National Gallery after both concerts. In fact, I actually popped in there three times, so impressed was I with the annual “Take One Picture” exhibition. Each year, one picture serves as the inspiration for primary schools’ projects which encompass, not just art, but also geography, social history, textile design, and even current events. This year’s painting was “Mr and Mrs Andrews” by Thomas Gainsborough. Just to give an example, in one school, the children noted that Mr Andrews was carrying a gun. This led to a discussion by the third year students (aged 7-8) as to the possible reasons for him carrying a gun. They assumed, rightly, that it would have been used for hunting and this, in turn, led to a spirited discussion on the rights and wrongs of fox-hunting, in which framework, the children researched the laws of hunting in the British Isles. A recording of the debate could be heard on headphones by exhibition goers. The casual listener will be amazed at the maturity of some of the arguments put forward by these 7 and 8 year olds. Other children researched fox habitats in the school grounds, drew foxes and prepared fox heads from clay, which they later painted. Thus, Gainsborough’s famous painting served as the kick-off point for studies in art, geography, natural history, law etc.
Another school used the picture in geography lessons, as an aid to understanding map work and symbols. The children, aged 7-8, drew a birds’ eye map of the Andrews estate, carefully marking the churches, hills, fields, rivers, hedgerows, lakes and woods. They then reproduced sections of the map and, using various modelling and marking techniques, they created clay tiles which were glazed in colours which reflected the colours in the painting, and were then fired in a kiln.
The 8-9 year olds at another primary school, in Brighton, felt that Gainsborough’s large canvas reminded them of a flat TV screen, which started them wondering what families of the Andrews’s social class would do in their leisure time in the evenings. They felt that a peepshow was the closest approximation of the modern television and so they set about creating one. Small groups of children created various scenes for inclusion in the peepshow. The school served children of many different backgrounds, and I found myself wondering what might have been the background of those responsible for this particular scene, with its Middle Eastern-style archway, the armed man in the background, and its graffiti on the wall saying “Let’s Win This War”.
I found this exhibition so enthralling – not to mention enlightening – that I actually went back for a third visit, to which, this time, I dragged my brother along.
Another one of the temporary exhibitions which I quite enjoyed on this third visit, was “My Back to Nature”, by contemporary artist George Shaw. At first glance, some of the paintings seem to belong to what I call “the Emperor’s New Clothes School of Art” – meaning they are modern rubbish that pseudo-intellectuals will praise to the high heavens because they want to be thought clever. Other were genuinely compelling – beautiful, even.
I don’t usually care for modern art. This exhibition, however, made me think twice – for which my brother’s enjoyment of it was, in no small measure, responsible.
I had planned to spend my last day in London at one of the great museums, but the day dawned so bright and sunny that David and I both agreed that Regent’s Park would be more suitable by far. We had planned to meet in the Rose Garden, but as I walked by the lake on my way from Baker Street Undergound Station (without catching even a glimpse of Sherlock Holmes, I might add 😉 ), my ear caught the sound of music and I was surprised also to see armed policemen and private security guards patrolling the paths, as well as tented kiosks on the lawn. In reply to my query, one of them informed me that it was a music festival – a Jewish music festival. Yes, on my last day in London, hours before I was due to fly home, I found myself enjoying Klezmer in the Park – actually, a fusion of klezmer and sephardi/mizrahi music, in company with hundreds of my fellow Jews, eating kosher sandwiches on sale from the kiosks, dancing, singing along – and enjoying the open display of their Judaism.
The festivities went on for several hours, during which time, David and I also found time to visit the Rose Garden once more, and to enjoy the beauty of “The Island”, where many species of waterfowl make their nests and which, when we were children, seemed to be closed to visitors most of the time 😦 .
In those days, the Island seemed a mysterious, impenetrable sanctuary and we used to make up fantastic tales about what we imagined it must be like. Nowadays, there seem always to be crowds of visitors there. It quite spoils the Magic 😦 .
As we turned to make our way back to the hotel, this squirrel came to investigate us. I couldn’t persuade it to eat from my hand, but it condescended to accept three nuts from me, which it promptly buried in the soil.
It was hard to tear myself away from the park but I had a plane to catch. Here too, things did not go smoothly. The on-line check-in on the El Al website, which is supposed to save time, actually took the best part of two hours, as I was repeatedly bounced from the website (and the extremely unstable wi-fi connection in the hotel made matters worse. I eventually disconnected and used the cellular internet connection for which I had taken out an overpriced package with the phone company but that was not much better.) A few hours later, as I ate a sandwich in the park, I received not one but two SMS notifications from El Al to say that the flight would leave as scheduled but would be operated by a Portuguese charter company I had never heard of. I fly El Al, not only for security reasons but also for its safety record. El AL has never lost a passenger flight, with the exception of a plane that was deliberately shot down by the Bulgarians in 1955 at the height of the Cold War. Moreover, I had paid extra for a seat with more leg-room, but this flight did not have Economy Class Plus.
In fact, I was even considering switching to another flight. In the event, I did not do so. The flight took place as scheduled, landed on time (despite taking off nearly an hour late) and my seat was quite comfortable. The cabin crew, with one exception – and she tended to the Business Class passengers only – consisted entirely of young men, all of them rather good-looking. Too good to be true – I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they were all gay 😉 .
All in all, I enjoyed my vacation. But it’s good to be home.