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A travelogue about London

Today. Please indulge me, a short travelogue.

When I had my show on CKNW I always did a travelogue and was always criticized by the station for doing so – which simply encouraged my view that it must be a good idea! I nearly always had positive feedback.

Last May, Wendy came to me as I was glued to my computer and said “you’ve aged 10 years since we were last in London in January so it’s time to go again”. I needed no persuasion and immediately went to work booking our usual room at the Kensington Hotel (formerly Jurys) and hitting the web for cheap airline tickets. This was quickly achieved so on September 2 we flew Air Transat (Thomas Cook) to Gatwick. The tickets were about $1000 each but we paid a couple of hundred extra for “Premium Class” on the way over hoping that the wider seats would help us sleep. They didn’t but that was mostly because we left so early that even a little pill didn’t help.

I hate the Airbus 330. They are cattle cars – uncomfortable as hell but as one of the employees cheerily said – and he was right – “gracious flying went out with the Flying Boat”.

The service was, however, outstanding both ways and the food a little more edible than most airline meals.

In recent years my back and knees have become so bad that we hire transport from the airport to the hotel but Gatwick, being much further from the Kensington is especially hard on me because one must get the bags to the train, off again at Victoria Station thence a cab. This time I decided to book a “saloon” with a company called ExclusiveAirports which meets you at the airport, gets you and your bags to a neat clean car and takes you to your hotel. On departure day it picks you up at the hotel and takes you to the airport. The cost, for two return was £110.

Expensive, but worth it if you have bad knees and a bad disposition. You can, of course do it much more cheaply from all airports by the underground then a taxi from the nearest station to your hotel.

We go to London with the advantage of being frequent visitors so we have no need to worry about the inevitable question, “What! You went to London and didn’t see ***! While I’m often surprised, after more than 100 visits, that I still often see something new we’re under no pressure to see anything.

The Kensington is a marvellous place for us. We’ve been going there for 17 years, 2-3 times a year, and we’re greeted like family when we arrive. There was the manager, the reservations manager, the food and beverage manager all there to welcome us and it would be even better than going home if only Chauncey (our chocolate Lab) were there too!

I’m often asked why I go to London so often and the overriding answer is simple – Wendy and I love the place. There is another reason, though – no one knows me; I’m amongst 8 million strangers. London is, then, our Maui but without British Columbians. Don’t get me wrong – I love my fellow British Columbians who have provided and still provide an interesting and profitable living. I just think both of us need a break from one another from time to time.

It was mid morning when we arrived and it’s our habit to stay up until bedtime UK time – to sleep on arrival means you’ll never adjust to the 8 hours time change – so we took off for one of my favourite small book stores, BookThrift, just around the corner where we’re also greeted with open arms and a good array of new books at a premium, and the better class of remainder. By that I mean books that obviously aren’t remainders because they were shit to begin with but a surprising number of books that I had passed up at full price a year ago. (Considering how many I buy, that takes some doing!)  I found a book of letters from Arthur Ransome, the great writer of children’s books who is better known to me as a flyfisherman who wrote beautifully on that subject. I love books of letters. I also found a neat book on the 6 Queens regnant of Britain. Two books in the first two hours – not a record but not bad.

After this, we walked the 15 minutes to Harrods and surrounding stores except it was nearly ¾ of an hour for me as my bad back joined my terrible knees to slow me up considerably such that we took the tube back home.

We set out to get a couple of pairs of jeans for me at the “Big and Tall” store and were unsuccessful because I’m not big or tall enough. My problem seems to be that I’m the only person in the male world who is 5’11” and 205 pounds. Overweight yes, but no Sumo wrestler. My size falls between the stools but we finally got the job done at Harrods. We split while Wendy cased Harrods and I went to their book department, run by Waterstones, on the third floor, where I found The Battle of Britain by James Holland. This is a different book on this subject which is a hot one now, being the 70th anniversary of that seminal event. It’s different because it does two things – it covers the entire period of May-October 1940 and does it from all three – German, French and British – camps. I read it over the week and it is excellent. (This trip only 7 books, about 5 less than usual!)

The next day we stayed pretty close to home because we had tickets to the BBC  “Proms”, the famous concert that plays at the Royal Albert, just a reasonably short walk from the hotel. It’s a product of the BBC Orchestra and well worth attending.

We did a second bit of “culture” and went to the Globe Theatre and saw a wonderful production of the “Merry Wives of Windsor”. This is a funny play but this performance really had us all with sides splitting. If you’re in London during the “season”, make the effort to go to this wonderful theatre modeled after the original Globe which was the idea and effort of the late Sam Wanamaker, actor and director. The theater has covered seats (under a thatched roof) and a “pit”, an open area for the “rabble” as in days of yore. Quite often the “rabble” heckle the players, the favourite demon being, of course, Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice”. Usually Shylock is redeemed by the end when it’s obvious that for all his many sins, he’s the only non-hypocrite in the play.

Wendy and I have two special days in London – one day is devoted to her ogling the expensive stores on Bond Street and environs and me doing the used book stores, meeting at Frankies Restaurant in Selfridges Department Store, where, believe it or not, you can get the best pizza in London; the other has us walking the parks starting at the top of Kensington Gardens, through Hyde Park with a stop for lunch at the Lido on the Serpentine, through Green Park and St James’s to Westminster.

One of the things I’ve always admired about the Brits is the way they give the finger to stupid laws.

We were sitting by the Long Water in Kensington Gardens near to the Peter Pan statue, underneath a sign that says “no dogs allowed in the water”. We were sitting next to an English lady and Wendy remarked on how often we’d seen dog owners throwing balls or sticks in the water for their retrieving dogs and that it was too bad there were none today. I wondered whether the English had lost a bit of that independence we loved so well when, almost as if on a signal, three Labrador retrievers appeared, two chocolate like our beloved Chauncey and one yellow. No sooner had balls and sticks been thrown then more magic! Three more dogs appeared and they all had the merriest time stealing sticks and balls from each other and racing each other to get to the thrown object first. Labradors are all so friendly, of course, and it was like home as we were snuggled by three sopping wet Labrador Retrievers! Our day was made.

(One of my favourite memories of British contempt for stupid laws came one day in the Piccadilly Circus tube station at the bottom of the second escalator where a large black saxophone player busked away to his heart’s content under a sign saying “No Busking Allowed, £200 fine.”)

There was only one disappointment. Because of the ability to download on the internet, the CD stores are vanishing and even those which remain like HMV, have a lousy selection, getting lousier every day. I probably typify their customers as I go to them only to make note of individual songs to download.

Only a week – but a great one with the love of my life in the city which, Vancouver excepted, is also the love of my life.

One Response to “A travelogue about London”

  1. Michael Francis says:

    Thank you Rafe. When you were at CKNW I enjoyed your travelogues and that enjoyment continues unabated. Age mellows as well. I am glad you report images such as the labs in Kensington Gardens as opposed to a description of a brassy London musical. Both are wonderful and have their place but the park evokes images on a human scale. Those images are enhanced by your eye for appropriate detail.

    Keep it up.

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