There’ll Always Be A London

The Thames and Parliament

The Thames and Parliament

As October is upon us, it’s high time I closed out the saga that has been “my summer vacation” with its final installment: a week in London, where, despite the heat, we saw, heard, and tasted a host of quintessentially British delights.

The immigration officer asked us what we planned to do: “Go to the Proms!” said I. “Have a curry on East Ham High Street!” said the Edu-Mate. My sally got no attention, but to the Edu-Mate’s the officer replied, with a wry smile, “I love that East Ham is a destination!”

The Taste of India, dosa

The Taste of India, dosa

And indeed we did go to The Taste of India on East Ham High Street, as we always do on our visits, though this year we haven’t a single photograph to show for it, more’s the pity. (Wait! This just in: the Edu-Mate has located some photographs of East Ham High Street.)

View from the Chelsea Physic Garden

View from the Chelsea Physic Garden

Many posts ago, David Nice wrote about the lovely Chelsea Physic Garden (probably more than once, but here’s the one I particularly remember).  It seemed only fitting that we should meet him there “in person” for the first time. We arrived by tube, and he, suitably attired for the hot weather, arrived by bicycle, complete with satchel in hand.

The garden, aspects of which David pointed out here and there, is undergoing a transition, and it’s not yet clear how it will all turn out. Such a lovely oasis it is, in the midst of this busy city, and what a shame if the powers that be do decide to take up precious space with a visitor’s center. There is no need.

David with mulberries

David with mulberries

The garden should be a place to wander, to take in plants and flowers, eat something delicious at the Tangerine Dream Café (as we did), and, for heaven’s sake, don’t leave the wedding tent up so much, encroaching as it does on the bit of open lawn that creates a perfect vantage point for viewing. David knew best how to navigate (coming up to us, palm opened with a treat of mulberries), and watching dragonflies hover and flit in the bit of pond.

The surrounding area reminded me, after becoming architecturally aware in Finland, how very much London has to offer on that score. It’s been years since I’ve walked along the Chelsea Embankment. Why had I never noticed the Old Swan House, with those magnificent doors?

Prufrock, Jackie, and the Edu-Mate at Europe House

Prufrock, Jackie, and the Edu-Mate at Europe House

We were pleased, too, courtesy of David’s Diplo-Mate, to visit Europe House (a brilliant repurposing of the old Tory HQ) and see the view from its roof, as well as the exhibit then on display at its 12 Star Gallery.

As it happened, David had an extra ticket to a new play-within-a-play version of The Importance of Being Earnest, with Siân Phillips (she, whom we first met as the marvelously despicable Empress Livia in I, Claudius) as Lady Bracknell. So, that evening, I had my first chance, now walking in London on my own, to get entirely turned around while looking for the theater. (In this instance, at least, I had plenty of time.) Among the other delights of this production of Earnest, who but the English would conjure up farce out of cucumber sandwiches (or the lack thereof)? David’s review may be found here.

Samuel Johnson and Hodge, his cat (Beryl Bainbridge)

Samuel Johnson and Hodge, his cat (Beryl Bainbridge)

Another day, at Somerset House, an exhibit of Beryl Bainbridge’s paintings was on offer, and we thought, why not? We knew her as a fine novelist, but didn’t know she also wielded a brush. Among other things, Bainbridge was obsessed with painting images of Napoleon—though not paintings I suspect he would have endorsed as sufficiently grand. My favorite among her paintings was that of Samuel Johnson and Hodge the Cat.

The same day, our friends Jackie & Gill had arranged for us to go to a simulcast of David Hare’s Skylight. I didn’t at first understand. Why a simulcast, when the play was on live in London? But then, I didn’t know the simulcast was at a trendy theater in Spitalfields. Dinner beforehand, on Brick Lane of Monica Ali fame, was conveyor-belt Indian. Every window had a sign indicating its restaurant had been voted best by x or y or z, and plenty of hawkers were on the streets beckoning all passers-by to come and eat. Definitely NOT a destination in the manner of East Ham.

Street in Spitalfields

Street in Spitalfields

No more, in Spitalfields, the silk-weavers, open markets, and waves of immigrants; but rather brimming with the gritty edge of fashion, which sadly, as we all know, will become staid and overpriced (if it’s not already). But for now, we gladly made our way through the labyrinthine theater to take comfortable seats from which to watch Bill Nighy, Carey Mulligan, and a fine young actor, Matthew Beard, up on the screen, and after, outside, in the early evening, young women in wigs of magenta and blue tinsel arrayed along the railings, drink or fag in hand, or both.

Another day, we went to Bletchley Park, “Home of the Codebreakers” during World War II. Out of a set of featureless brick, steel, and concrete huts, that world is brought to life in (mostly) evocative and intelligent ways. Here and there, we spotted an older woman sitting on the grass, reading and waiting, we suspected, for her more enthralled partner to get his or her fill. But even for the non-code-spotter enthusiasts among us, there was plenty to see and do and think about, not least of which was to be reminded of the importance of Alan Turing and the despicable treatment he received after the war.

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall

And yes, I did go to The Proms, the first night, no less, thanks again to David Nice. We met up with him for cake and home-made muhammara; then, he on his bike and we by tube, we arranged to meet at the Royal Albert Hall. The Edu-Mate knew the route, and David noted we could also follow the throng of folk headed the same way. Except by the time we got out of the tube, there was no throng . . .

I jogged ahead, not knowing where I was going, turning every now and then so the Edu-Mate, there only to guide me, then intending to head home, could point the way. Finally, out of nowhere, it seemed, the great round hall loomed up, and the question was, where was the front, and where the back. At each entrance, I asked, and was pointed to the next, until I’d run almost the whole circumference of the place. I wasn’t the last inside, but almost: I arrived at my seat, dripping with sweat, just as Sir Andrew Davis raised his baton.

But there I was, at the First Night of the Proms, and what could be more fitting than Elgar, with the combined forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus, the BBC National Chorus of Wales, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, four fine soloists, and hundreds of people standing in the five-pound seats? And there was David, listening with singular focus; though he was charged with reviewing the concert, he made not a single note. His memory for music boggles my mind. (David’s review is here.)  Elgar’s The Kingdom isn’t the most powerful of his works, and the acoustic in the hall meant the soloists’ voices didn’t reliably carry to where we sat, but the solo instrumental passages floated out effortlessly, and the choirs, most remarkably at pianissimo, bloomed into the hall.

After, with storm clouds threatening a dazzling sunset, David and I walked over to where Royal Albert himself sat on his pedestal, surrounded by the continents, redolent of an Empire lost, or so it seemed to me.

Africa, the Albert Memorial

Africa, the Albert Memorial

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Listening List

Elgar’s The Kingdom

On Spotify

On YouTube (excerpt from The Kingdom; the entire Proms performance may be found here)

David Nice and Prufrock in the Chelsea Physic Garden

David Nice and Prufrock in the Chelsea Physic Garden

26 thoughts on “There’ll Always Be A London

  1. Hilary

    Hi Susan – wonderful read and am so pleased you were able to do so much in London and its environs … the Chelsea Physic Garden is lovely isn’t it … while the Proms – and oh yes finding the way in … then Spitalfields and also out to Bletchley Park – a place I will visit. Lovely weather you had too – the photo of Albert’s Memorial is just so British summer … wonderful you met up with David and Jackie … Beryl Bainbridge’s art is interesting … cheers Hilary

  2. David N

    Oh, it does make me all goosebumpy to read this, look at the pix and realise we did actually meet and that the blogosphere can lead to real friendships (as you already showed us with your visit to Friko, husband and garden). I fear the CPG will be after me for picking the mulberries, but what else are you supposed to do when they’re there in abundance? I hope Tangerine Dream make good use of them, too. They were in to Battenberg on the last visit, probably inspired by the Great British Bakeoff.

    Never been to Bletchley; never noticed the Swan House (though we went on a Sunday afternoon walk through Brompton Cemetery to the Physic Garden for lunch again, and then around the streets and Embankment, seeing wonders especially in the studios along the street where Oscar Wilde lived). Must see both.

    Well, that was some summer and I have to say, Vonneguttian style, of our three meetings, ‘if those weren’t nice, what is?’

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: It was such a pleasure to revisit our visits in preparing this post. I had much the same feeling as you, sort of pinching myself, yes this can and does happen, and the Vonneguttian phrase absolutely applies. Your walk to and around CPG sounds splendid. So much to explore!

      The concert season finally starts for me, and I had reason to think of you in relation to both concerts I’ll be attending this week. In the first, tomorrow, Rattle and the Berlin Phil perform Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (Along with Stravinsky’s Firebird), which I seem to recall you were looking at closely a while back, perhaps to give a presentation? I love those dances and have never heard them live. To “prepare” (and as there was construction and other noise outside my open window today), I played them with the stereo cranked up good and loud! Very fine, indeed. Friday, I’ll hear the final segment (though it’s my first) of the NY Phil’s Nielsen Project concerts. And here I think you’re in the process of preparing a course of Nielsen and Sibelius–do I remember that correctly? I’ve heard very little Nielsen, so I’m looking forward to learning about and hearing more.

      1. David N

        We got that programme from Rattle and the Berliners at the Proms, and I reviewed it for The Arts Desk. Not entirely right, but it was one of their better evenings. And of course wonderful music, even if the first half of Firebird in their hands was a bit inert.

        Also just reviewed the first instalment of Gilbert’s NYPO Nielsen cycle, of which I assume your ‘last instalment’ is part. AG isn’t really a temperament man, so the Inextinguishable lacks some seismic quality, but the First is really beautifully done, completely converted me to what I’d thought was a not terrible inspiring prelude to a real adventure in the other five.

        The Nielsen course goes ahead, though BBCSO admin have pulled the rug from under our feet by saying that the usual 50 per cent discount to concerts for students can no longer apply to ‘privately-run courses’. Another bucket of cold water, but as before it’s only served to stimulate further action…

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: So short-sighted of the BBCSO Admin, which should be keen, particularly with your track record, to take the opportunity to “build audience” as they say. (Though I’m having trouble with that word “audience” after reading yet another hand-wringing article from a composer who is puzzled about the role of the audience, that big, alien, outside “it.” http://www.sequenza21.com/2014/10/outside-of-music-on-the-role-of-the-audience/)

          Found your review of the Rattle/BP program, but can’t locate the review of the first installment of the Nielsen cycle. Is it out as yet?

          PS: Since I first wrote this post, the Edu-mate has located some delicious photographs of East Ham and “the Taste,” as we call it. They’re in the slideshow now, and one is of the sign outside advertising the Indian buffet breakfast I’d mentioned to you.

          1. David N

            I must have a look – it should be on the Sinfini website, I blush to say I don’t go there as often as I should. But at least there’s a bit of cash involved, as – one day – we hope there will be on The Arts Desk (many months have passed since we requested figures on the subscriptions – those are supposed to be there to feed us).

            East Ham clearly one of THE places for idli. Must eat there (only passed through on the way out from the only football match I’ve been to in recent years). Southall, in completely the other direction, is another such.

            1. Susan Scheid Post author

              David: A football match, no less! East Ham is definitely a “destination,” and perhaps one visit we can all go there together, who knows? I haven’t seen anything on Sinfini as of yet, but I’ll try to keep my eye out. (The Nielsen concert, BTW, was tremendous. It was recorded for CD; I’ll be interested to hear the extent to which it can convey the experience in the hall.)

              1. David N

                A very dull match, ending 0-0. The only pleasure I took from it was the musical waves of sound of the supporters’ chants.

                The Gilbert Nielsen recording has spectacular presence and depth. I might be specially struck because I’ve got a new CD player (the old one had started to skip and splutter), but it’s a fine achievement.

                1. Susan Scheid Post author

                  David: “musical waves of sound of the supporters’ chants,” love that–a silver lining, as they say. About the Nielsen, well, that clinches it. I had this CD queued up to purchase; now it’s a must. I look forward to reading your full review as well (it’s not up yet, correct?). Synchronicity at work on the CD player. I’ve had a VERY EXPENSIVE Marantz for the last 10 years that has never worked as it should. Finally broke down and bought a reasonably priced model, with a lot, a lot! of ribbing from the salesperson: “You paid how much for that CD player? How much?” (I wouldn’t have told him, but I went in initially to see if it could be fixed.) Hopeless. The new one, for a fraction of the price, plays all of my CDs, not just every third one, and the sound quality is excellent. Bliss.

  3. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue,
    think of it: we could have almost met! So little time ago I was in London – and of course I always visit the Chelsea Physic Garden, and walk along the Swan House (one of the Old Pensioners has become a friend of mine since my visit in 2013 – they live nearby). And Somerset House always is on my list too. Would it have been nice to have met you!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: Well, you know, that’s certainly not out of the question, as I suspect you and I will both be going back to London from time to time. We do hope to get to Berlin at some point, I hope, I hope. As to the Old Pensioners, yes, we walked right by there, past the statute of the old pensioner sitting on a bench. A fellow striding down the street toward us said, with a big grin, “I’m one of those Old Pensioners.” Perhaps he was your friend, who knows!

  4. wanderer

    Arguably the greatest (city) of them all, and arguably needs a lifetime to unpeel the layers. Wonderful photos and especially good to see your appreciation of Turing. And by look, the weather gods shone well upon you all, gathered together. How nice.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: We did have a high old time, we did, we did. The weather gods may have shined upon us a bit too brightly, but I’m not complaining. A lifetime to unpeel the layers is exactly right.

  5. shoreacres

    What a lovely visit you had. I never was smart enough to get myself there in summer, although winter and the holidays certainly had their charms.

    I was especially taken with your photos, and have to ask — were those trays of gulab jamun piled up? I think perhaps so, since they appeared just after the sweet shop. There was a fine Indian restaurant here for a time, but now it requires a drive into Houston for a really good meal, and it takes more than that to get me to make the drive.

    I’ve become more interested in the code-breakers in recent years, and would have Bletchley Park on my “must see” list if I made another trip. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy your reportage and links!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Well, it helps if one’s busiest work season isn’t in the summer, which yours has got to be, yes? To your question, yes, gulab jamun. I’ve actually never tasted one, but I loved seeing the tidy piles of them in the shop. Bletchley was fascinating, and really more than could be taken in in a day. I did realize fairly quickly I wasn’t codebreaker material. I couldn’t get any of the interactive displays to work at all, while others were immediately adept!

  6. Jackie Morrison

    Julab guman they were. Nice pic of the dosa too. It is tea time now so could do with one right now! However I am meeting Ben there for lunch this Thursday and will have a dosa with fond memories of our visit(s) and in the expectation of more to come!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: The Chippy Fish Bar cheek by jowl with long lines of Indian shops and restaurants is very much what makes East Ham High Street a fascinating place. I think also that, with your attentive eye, you’d make all sorts of discoveries about it that many of us would overlook.

  7. angela

    I am a terrible tourist…never see the things most people are supposed go see – I get lost on the side streets just looking at the buildings and how people Live – East Ham High Street shall be sought out to do just that if ever a chance to go abroad. Wonderful tour, Sue – love pics of you all as well! Cheers ~

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: Great to “see” you again! I would say you are better than a tourist with that approach. You would love East Ham High Street, I have no doubt. But, you know, whether you travel abroad or closer to home, getting lost in the side streets yields the best discoveries of all.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: How amazing that there is a cryptological hall of honor, and how amazing that you spotted this! Yup, he surely oughta be in there, eh?

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