18 April 2006

London dreaming

Everything in the city is viewed as if underwater. Icy spring winds hit you as you round the corners of buildings. We avoid the tourist traps and focus on museums. Walk around Kensington Gardens, watching Londoners taking their hounds for constitutionals. Have a birthday pint at the Prince Alfred in Bayswater - the barman makes a four leaf clover in the foam. The British Museum cannot be experienced in a single day. Get annoyed at a random little old lady who keeps correcting me when I say that Cleopatra's sarcophagus has distinct Greek features ('Egyptian, dear, it's Egyptian.' I know this, it's not like it's not signposted everywhere in the damn building. But what the hell, I'm a tourist so I must be ignorant.) For the record, Cleopatra was Macedonian, so there. Museum staff start closing the doors of galleries just when I discover a room full of Greek vases depicting the twelve tasks of Herakles (that's Hercules to you and me). I get art attack in the National Gallery. Holbein's The Ambassadors is much bigger and much more colourful than expected. Wendy and I get lost in the middle of the night by walking to Kensington Park Gardens instead of Kensington Gardens Square, where the London House Hotel actually is. Bunk beds have mattresses (apparently) filled with passion fruit vines bearing an uncomfortable crop. Walk down Oxford Street to buy shoes and CD's, as well as some Polaroid film for Matt. The hallowed grounds of Kew Gardens are visited on a bright, sunny day and I welcome the quiet open spaces. Have an overwhelming sense of the past and human achievement in the Palm House. Try to suppress the desire to frolic in the daffodils planted around the Chinese Pagoda. People are watching. The Victoria cruziana in the Waterlily House has only sprouted one leaf this early in the season, and its anything but gigantic. Walk by the Thames in the bloody cold to see Cleopatra's Needle and some bridges and photograph a paver with T.S. Eliot on it. Eat ginger chicken udon at wagamamas and walk over Tower Bridge at dusk to the Bang Bar at St. Katharine's dock. Want to visit the Saatchi Gallery, only to find that it has been evicted from County Hall and will reopen in Chelsea in 2007. No Jeff Koons bunnies for us, then. Visit St Paul's and wonder about the seemingly 300 year-old graffiti by its large doors. The scary Ukrainian woman at the London House Hotel makes mounds of toast for breakfast and has spiky red hair. Find an escalator in the Underground like the one in Late Night Shopping. Most of the buildings are colourless but graceful, proud but tired. Go to buy cheap tickets for Stomp! at Leicester Square and feel like a tourist. Go to Harrod's and feel indifferent towards all the gaudy decorations and designer suits, shoes, handbags, teabags, mop handles, toothbrushes, clipboards, etc. etc. The Dodi and Diana fountain at the bottom of the escalators is just too much. Wendy buys an apple for about £1,60. It wasn't nice. Listen to some unsigned bands play awesome funk and soul during YoYo at the nottinghillartsclub. Chinatown looks like a construction site with ornate gateways; I photograph a stall selling Dendrobium cut flowers next to some durian fruit. Get really tired of toast for breakfast. Large parts of the Tate Modern are closed off for refurbishing, but get to see another Monet, as well as some MirĂ³ and Bacon. Pollock is not art; Picasso is a genius. Rothko is what it looks like: restaurant decor. The Natural History Museum is a grand building with displays mostly for children; disappointed not to find more extinct fish and double-headed lizards in formalin like at the Natal Museum. In the V&A Museum, find a Muslim girl on her knees, sketching with great care, pausing now and again to adjust her position around a Charles Rennie Mackintosh chair. Camden is full of beautiful Goths playing Depeche Mode and Sisters of Mercy in their shops full of boots with secret compartments in the heels and more spikes than Vlad Tepes would know what to do with. Buy sunglasses like the ones I lost in the sea at Tarragona (street vendor; £6,00). Portobello Road is a tourist trap.

A beautiful place filled with efficient, albeit sometimes abrupt people. So much history and culture. So much art and architecture. So much to see and do. So much damn shopping. So little time. I will be back someday.

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