Thursday, May 24, 2012

London, London, London

I had a grand plan after my arrival to take a short nap and then do a little shopping and wind down in a pub. I ended up checking into my hotel, the convenient and comfortable MIC, and sleeping for over seven hours. My first day in London wasted, I slept the rest of the night so I could start fresh on Tuesday.

I've been to London a lot over the past 30 years, so my main objective these days is to shop and see West End plays rather than concentrating on historic and cultural sights. My favorite shops right now are Japanese sock chain Tabio, high street women's casual/resort/party clothier Monsoon, and crazed bargain-hunter's delight Primark. I accomplished this in a fast-paced morning of power shopping, completed in time to attend a matinee performance of "Jersey Boys." This musical tells the history of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. I absolutely loved it -- of all the musicals I've seen in London over the years this has been my favorite.

I rounded out the evening by having dinner with my friend Sophie, who took a train up from Bournemouth (a 90-minute trip) just to see me! We ate at the Jamie Oliver-founded "Fifteen" in Shoreditch. They had really creative cocktails, including something made with date-infused rum. I tried burrata for the first time, and had a tasty pork chop with cannelini beans for dinner.

Day two (or I guess really three) promised to be sunny and gorgeous, so I hopped a Thames Clipper riverboat (part of the city's regular commuter transit system) to Greenwich. I'd never been there before, but had read some history about the Royal Observatory and wanted to see it. The trip down the river was fun, seeing famous sights like the London Eye, Tower of London, and St. Paul's from a new angle. Greenwich itself is leafy and green. I followed the suggested path for visitors, which begins on the grounds of the Old Royal Navy College. Many of the buildings now house studios and practice rooms for artists. The first stop was the Painted Chapel, where a music school was conducting end-of-term examinations. The public was allowed in, so I sat and listened to one of the students for a while. I heard four songs: light opera, traditional opera, a Broadway show tune, and a duet sung with another man. Due to the exams, we were not supposed to take pictures, but I managed to snag one on the sly of the ornate ceiling.

King Charles II built a palace near the College, now called The Queen's house. It currently is used as a museum of maritime paintings, but I visited just to see the architecture of the building. There were huge sculpted fireplaces and ornately painted ceilings, but the most interesting feature to me is the so-called "Tulip Staircase," a decreasing-radius spiral decorated with fleur-de-lis (not the misnamed tulips). The Queen's House will be seen world-wide later this summer, as the Olympic equestrian events will be held on the green behind the house. When I visited they were erecting bleachers and building temporary facilities where the horses would be housed.

On a steep hill above the house perches the Royal Observatory, built as a live/work unit for the first Royal Astronomer, Sir John Flamsteed. I toured his house and the three observatories that were added over the years. I also stood right on the Prime Meridian and fired up an iPhone app that reads out my current latitude and longitude. The app was off by a bit.

My last stop in Greenwich was at the restored Cutty Sark, the last and arguably the fastest of the China Tea Clippers. The design of this ship was quite remarkable: its sole purpose was to balance the factors of holding as much tea as possible while sailing as fast as possible. There is one giant hold, a short-height "in-between" deck deck, and that's it. All the crew quarters and work areas were built as little wooden buildings on the top deck. At one point there was a crew sleeping area in the forecastle (the space in the bow on the in-between deck) but it was so noisy from the sound of the ship under full sail that they turned it into additional cargo space. You might not think that a sailing ship would be noisy, but the Cutty Sark was designed to slice through the waves, so there was a lot of slapping and pounding up front.

I'm so lazy at home, but pack so much into my days when I'm traveling. If this wasn't enough activity, I then met my old friend Greg from Los Angeles who just happened to be vacationing in London. We hung out at a pub and caught up for a while, then I headed to a theater to see the show based on Queen's music, "We Will Rock You." I had high hopes for this. Like so many people I really like Queen, and the show was created with input from former band members after Freddie Mercury's death. I'm sorry to say it was a silly mess. There were tons of Queen super fans there who sung along, and the show is clearly beloved by the audience, but I just couldn't get in to it. The plot was kind of dumb: a dystopian future where rock and roll had disappeared and everyone who wasn't a "Bohemian" was white and looked like the stereotypical Los Angeles wannabe actor/model. A group who looked like the cast of "Rent" hid from this sameness and plasticity living in an abandoned Underground station, their leaders hoping to find The One--oh wait I mean "The Dreamer" who could bring back live rock by finding Excalibur--oh wait I mean the last existing electric guitar. If you think I made this sound good then feel free to waste your money on it, but be warned that only one person in the cast can carry a tune worthy of Freddie Mercury. Really, the whole thing came across as a "Glee" production.

This concludes my London adventure. At this very moment I'm on a high-speed train heading northwest to my next stop, the oddly amusing seaside resort of Blackpool. There's a lady sitting in the next row having a cell phone conversation with the volume turned up so loudly that I can hear both sides. If this is what is coming to airplanes, I really don't want it to happen.

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