Our hotel was literally (one might even say “playfully”—theatre district pun) in the throbbing heart of Leicester Square…intentionally. (It is the tan building in the middle of the image at the top of this page.) The activity for blocks around is unlike anything I have seen outside of Hong Kong. (Sadly, Greenwich Village, NY is not active at all, anymore.) The adjoining Chinatown has quadrupled in size and been polished since our last visit. Piccadilly Circus, so buried in construction back then that we thought it a slum, is a dazzling ring of neoclassical buildings with trendy, high-end shops and restaurants. (We ate one night at the oldest Indian restaurant in London.) What are redundant souvenir shops in many touristy neighborhoods, Leicester Square has theaters, casinos, Mike’s male strippers, day-of-the-performance half-price ticket vendors, a whole spectrum of restaurants, and myriad street performers. It is quiet from predawn until the revelers recover. My kind of place.
Charlie Chaplin and William Shakespeare are both immortalized in sculpture at this center of stage and film entertainment, though the Globe Theatre is a hike from here. (The boy just walked in front of the statue and I thought it a poignant reminder of why we create statues and plaques.)
There must be 30 plays running in this neighborhood at all times. Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap is in its 65th year, leading me to believe that if something beats this record, I probably will not be in the audience. (And if it is anything like Book of Mormon, I am pre-grateful.) As to what awards are given to gay bars, I can only imagine—but not in writing.
Some years ago, Prince Charles took a lot of heat for comments he made about modern architecture. I take his side in this. London has row after row of stately neoclassical buildings that are outstandingly beautiful, many refurbished and repurposed. Amid these are flat façades with unadorned, metal-framed windows and doors, the best of which are nondescript, the rest are just badass ugly. One such building in Leicester Square holds the worlds largest M&M candy store.
The best view of this building is at a sharp angle, where it can reflect the beauty of what came before and should return.
Here’s an example of indisputable ugliness. It has a certain dynamism, I concede, as it appears to be two buildings colliding, one buckling from the force. My guess is that Home Depot ran out of cork panels before the architect was finished adding rooms. By comparison to many, there seems at least a weak attempt to decorate the roof with a squashed beret.
Could anyone find a modern square or the curved street out of this square done in modern architecture that would look not just pretty, but refined? How much deeper into bland could we possibly sink? And London cannot hold a candle to San Francisco’s modern mediocrity. The best country/city for modern architecture is probably Copenhagen. For those who enjoy TED Talks, here is a good argument:
An area to the west of London called Vauxhall is growing at an astonishing pace. One large complex is a bit odd looking, but it has activity at the street level with a touch more symmetry than a healthy mind can absorb. Nonetheless, it generated greater public interest than many less controversial constructions.
This complex was nominated by architects for “carbuncle of the year,” a dubious compliment, for anyone who thought otherwise. (The winner was far more deserving.) One positive thing about Vauxhall is that it is connected to London proper by all forms of public transportation. Ok, so there is not much greenery…except for the glass. It appears to be inspired by the video game, Angry Birds.
We saw Vauxhall from the less-than-speeding train on its last stop before Waterloo Station🎶, a favorite Kinks song of mine. We had travelled to Hampton Court, where Henry VIII held parties and charmed the panties, and eventually heads, off a chorus line of nubile nobility who gave Henry their best head before that phrase had less morbid connotations. But I am wildly digressing.
Hampton Court is interesting both historically and architecturally. Built in stages by different owners and kings, it hangs together pretty well.
The entrance is guarded by these fearsome creatures holding shields in a decidedly clumsy way. But their scale against the entrance makes them almost charming.
The ceiling of the great hall, where tonnes of roasted meat were consumed by Henry’s friends (some, prior to being killed themselves), is a masterpiece of woodworking. It is probably the most impressive part of the palace, with the possible exceptions of the chapel and the gardens. The part of the palace where Henry took residence is impressive, but cold. By the time George III occupied a different, newer half, the rooms are less impressive, but warmer and more suitable for country life.
In Trafalgar Square, Mayor Kahn, whom Trump hates and hurled insults at him before visiting London, stands a model of an Assyrian statue destroyed by Isis after our invasion of Iraq. (The inscription above tells more.) I have included a photo of the Canadian embassy on one side of the square because there was a rainbow flag among Canada’s Maple Leaf flags. I infer that this has something to do with Canadian support for an underground railroad rescuing gay men and women from persecution around the world, just as Canada was once a key refuge for escaped slaves from their neighbor to the South.
Our destination in Trafalgar was The National Museum, a must see (and free). Among my favorite things was a class of school children intently forging art in plain sight.
To the right of the children is a nice painting of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, but it was neither the artistry nor the miracle that caught my eye—it was the frame!
(The posing boy was inserted to demonstrate the implausible scale.)
These two photos are of the same painting. You will notice that there is a strange something on the floor between the two men, but from the second angle, it appears to be a human scull. Whether it demonstrates an astronaut entering a black hole or a municipal worker having been careless around a steamroller, I cannot recall.
Remember Carnaby Street where all the cool London kids shopped for smart fashion in the 60s? Remember the 60s? Well Carnaby Street has gone a little upscale, but it maintains the small store charm of shops wedged into low, narrow buildings. Today, cars are forbidden. Hurray.
On our last afternoon, we connected with an old friend from PG&E with whom I worked some 26 years ago. She is a British citizen who moved back to London from San Franciso after marrying Mark, someone I have never met. It was wonderful to see her again.
There is so much more of London and surroundings to see that it will be another, shorter trip in the next couple of years. Trains to Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, and Brighton can fill a day here and there. A boat trip to Greenwich to learn about why time is so mean, as I can attest, with the photo above, it is.
If you have read this far, you need to do more with your life, but thanks for listening?
Our long trip home was bearable.