Sleepless in Singapore (Less So in London)
Singapore – London / Friday 24 March 2017
2017 has been dark and rough so far. Death and dying seem to have taken centre stage, leaving me feeling quite unanchored and adrift. And yet, in the midst of all the sorrow and grief, there have been brief shining moments – the coming together of family, the love and support of friends, the art and affection of a five year old.
Work has been manic, which has provided a useful distraction; the late nights, combined with the ‘adriftness’, however, haven’t been very good for sleep. So, I went into this much-needed break, sleep-deprived and exhausted, and so looking forward to hanging out with S in London. Other than booking the hotels, this was going to be an itinerary-less holiday.
The day before I left, there was yet another crazy attack – this time a car rammed into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge – how many times had we walked that route last year when we stayed right next to the bridge. So it was with many messages which ranged from “stay safe” and “keep your eyes peeled for crazies” to “maybe just stay in your hotel” (!), that I left for London …for the first time in my life leaving for a trip without my mum’s prayers for protection.
The cabbie to the airport was a sweet man who not only got my bags out of the boot, but also got a trolley for me and sent me off with an enthusiastic, ‘Have a safe trip’. As I boarded the flight I wondered if I should sleep or stay awake on London time. Decided on the latter. As I settled in my seat, I noticed a little girl across the aisle – she was about 10 and superbly well prepared for the flight even before take off – sitting cross-legged in her seat, iPad all set for viewing. Fortunately, I had decided on the ‘no sleep’ option – as in the seat next to the girl’s, was her baby brother (maybe 10 months old) and a helper
laden with baby paraphernalia. The parents were happily settled in their seats behind these two – the mum made an appearance (very) occasionally to check on the kids. Later during the flight, I realised that kid #3 was sitting behind the parents with yet another helper…and that the helpers were in uniform (!!). To their credit (whom the ‘their’ refers to here is debatable – parents or helper(s)), the girl across the aisle was extremely polite and never forgot her Ps & Qs.
The flight was delayed taking off and by the time we took off I was about half an hour into Movie #1 – Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them – which was great fun. After a rather large and yummy nasi lemak breakfast (which had just about everything – ikan bilis sambal, peanuts, cucumber, egg, fried chicken, otah), I dozed for about an hour with Adele in my ear – which effectively drowned out baby across the aisle.
Nap done, a movie-fest ensued –
#2 Bridget Jones’ Baby (which actually was LOL funny. The presence of both Colin Firth and Patrick Dempsey was a big plus too.)
#3 Jackie (which I thoroughly enjoyed, breathy foreign accent and all. I thought Natalie Portman did a great job providing Jackie’s point of view of that brief shining moment).
#4 Inferno (another fun, ‘page-turner’ of a movie)
#5 Queen of Katwe (a great feel good movie with the added bonus of being a true story – the kind where you keep watching till the end of the credits to see what “the real life characters look like.”)
Midway through one of the movies I noticed a suited man bowing repeatedly in the far aisle – I thought he was Japanese and having a conversation with another Japanese who was seated. A few minutes later, bowing man was standing next to my seat. Turns out he was the chief steward, C, and mid-bow, he asked, “Dr T (he pronounced it perfectly) – medical or PhD?” When I said, slightly bemusedly, “medical”, he boomed, “Can I have half your brain?” …er… He proceeded to thank me profusely for choosing to fly SIA, and if I “need ANYTHING at all”, to please let any of his “family members know”. When I said thank you, he once again boomed, “WE should be thanking YOU. You could’ve chosen ANY airline but YOU CHOSE US.” And with another bow, he was off. What n what. Wonder if he knew I was a non-rev 🙂
5 movies, and a lamb/dhal/biryani rice later we landed smoothly at Heathrow a few minutes ahead of schedule. Chief steward, C, gave such a heartfelt ‘farewell address’ I almost applauded. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, we have FINALLY landed in LONDON, after A VERY LONG FLIGHT. …If I or any of my family members did ANYTHING WRONG or didn’t serve you as we should have, I ask for your forgiveness. …If you’re here in London on business, I wish you A SUCCESSFUL TIME. If you’re here on holiday, have FUN, if you’re here with loved ones, HAVE A ROMANTIC TIME. But whatever it is, STAY SAFE…” It was a delightful change from the usual monotonic messages with words that ran into each other, informing of time and temperature.
Immigration was surprisingly smooth and quick, and my bag was off the belt even before I reached it. Ubered it to the hotel. S had reached the hotel a few minutes earlier and said ‘the hotel is gorgeous’. It was a glorious spring day, clear blue skies, not a cloud in sight. I ventured to ask the Uber driver (a young bearded Brit with a Muslim name) about security in the city, given the recent Westminster Bridge incident. He launched into a (restrained) tirade on how wrong it is to vilify all Muslims because of one crazy person who was probably mentally ill, then turned on the radio to LBC which he said was debating the issue 24/7 – so I could hear for myself ‘the nonsense’ that goes on.
As we drove through London, I didn’t notice any overt security presence. Londoners were out and about, as were the tourists, which was all nice and reassuring. We got to the hotel with no problem. It was fab seeing S again and being on the receiving end of one of his bone-crushing hugs.
The hotel seemed to fashion itself after something from 1920s New York – from the font to the decor. It was indeed gorgeous, and the room had many interesting books which I hoped I would have time to at least flip through before we left. But for now, there was much to catch up on with S, over a nice cup of tea which he made.
Jetlag hadn’t set in yet, and so we thought we’d start the feasting with R’s recommendation, Le Boudin Blanc, which was within walking distance of The Beaumont. We got there early, using our trusty Google Maps, and got a table despite our lack of reservation. The food was excellent, as was the wine. We had to have the escargot – with garlic and parsley butter (sopped up with some hearty rustic bread), and I had the trad Gallic chicken and pork sausage with truffle oil mashed potatoes (the smoothest I’ve ever had) with pistachios and port wine sauce. S had the duck confit which he said was A*. We were too full for dessert unfortunately. What a fab first dinner. The conversation, as it always is, was excellent too – though tinged with sadness as it revolved around our losses this year – while being so grateful that we all could be together for those two weeks in January.
It was cold walking back (correction – I was cold walking back) but just what we needed after that meal. By then I was ready for shower and bed. An excellent first day in London! Tomorrow – NO plans 🙂
What One Does on a ‘No Plan’ Day in London
London / 25 March 2017
We both slept well and wandered down for breakfast at about 9AM. Breakfast at the Beaumont can be had at the Cub Room – a cosy little ‘residents only’ lounge-like room. It was one of those spaces where solitude and company can be enjoyed equally.
We stuck with the Continental breakfast with its yummy scones, breads and jams. It was a long leisurely breakfast with much of the conversation a continuation of that the night before. As it was a no plan day – and a brilliant sunshine-y day – we thought we’d just go walking after breakfast. S needed a camera charger and the very helpful concierge, Isabella, directed us to Camera World off Oxford Street. Before we left, we asked if she could make a dinner reservation for us. On our walk back from Le Boudin Blanc last night, we had passed by Murano’s which looked nice and sounded familiar (S later recalled that it was on the list of possibilities for my birthday dinner last year) – so thought we might have dinner there.
Camera World and Jessop’s didn’t have the charger, so S decided it would be an iPhone holiday – not quite going device-free a la his 21st birthday but… [to read about that episode – https://sunil-nambiar.com/2015/09/ ]. By now we’d decided on our lunch venue – Four Seasons in Chinatown for our roast duck / Chinese food fix. We got there before noon and were number 2 in the queue that was already forming. We could’ve been number 1 but we’re not kiasu like that…actually we were in the wrong queue…Four Seasons and Little Four Seasons are right next to each other. We were in the LFS queue before we realised this was the restaurant which specialises in hot pot (though it probably also had roast duck) so moved to the FS queue. ANYWAY, we obviously got in at noon, AND got a table. Food came in double quick time…roast duck, kailan, softshell crab, and a lychee wine. All excellent, and A Lot. We thought, ‘Oh we might be able to ta-pau for dinner’…wrong! We did extremely well and polished it all – well, almost all; if we’d asked to ta-pau what was left, we most certainly would’ve been laughed at.
We needed to walk after this, and so we did…through Soho, past Trafalgar Square, the Mall, Whitehall…at some point along this walk we thought we might see if we can get in to see the Churchill War Rooms. We wanted to go last year but the summer queue was far too long. Today, there was a short queue, which we joined. On a previous visit, I’d been to the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth; these War Rooms and the Churchill Museum are part of the same IWM organisation which has 5 museums, 3 of which are in London – the third being the HMS Belfast.
It was a short wait to get into the underground Museum followed by a fascinating afternoon spent beneath the streets of Westminster. Part of the bunker has been converted to a museum on Churchill’s life – his letters, his speeches…most of his extremely racist remarks or speeches weren’t on display, but there was one speech where he speaks about how the backward Indians needed to be helped. S was just thankful I didn’t make any loud comments (he’s still traumatised by my “All stolen!” remark at the Tower of London many many years ago).
The War Rooms have been preserved really well – in particular Churchill’s bedroom (which he rarely used except for afternoon naps) – with charts, maps, books all as they were when the officers and staff left the bunker at the end of the war. There even were some sugar cubes on a desk. The original ‘MS Excel’ sheets adorned the walls – hand written charts, giving details of ‘flying bombs’ – where they were, how many were destroyed, the number of casualties, etc. There were old-fashioned black telephones, with a ‘scramble’ button, and a wall map in the main ops room, on which someone with a sense of humour had drawn a little cartoon of Hitler.
The officers and support staff who worked in the bunkers formed close friendships, and interestingly they (especially the secretaries) all thought they were super safe in their offices underground. The truth was that the rooms were only about 10 feet underground, and as vulnerable as any ordinary basement; if there had indeed been a direct hit, the building above would’ve come tumbling down on those beneath, and they would be buried in a concrete tomb. When Churchill realised this, at some point well into WWII, he had a concrete slab put in to reinforce the bunker, but this may have protected only some of the area. While the bunker was being reinforced, Churchill preferred to be above ground during airstrikes.The other effect of living underground was a deficiency in Vitamin D, and to this end ‘solar lights’ were installed…not sure how effective these were though.
There were signs calling for silence – as Churchill got annoyed by noise and demanded silence (especially during his afternoon naps) – and signs explaining the various air raid sirens. On one of the files in the Cabinet Room (from which Churchill ‘directed the war’) was an ‘Action Today’ sticker – the equivalent of today’s ‘urgent’ e-flag on emails. A little room which passed for a toilet was actually a comms room from which Churchill made top secret calls to Roosevelt in the run up to D-Day
I can’t imagine living and working underground for months and years. There was no running water, I imagine the air would’ve been foul (made worse by the cigar-smoking PM, and all the rest of the smokers), the sleeping quarters were apparently shared with bugs and rodents. Definitely not nice! But I imagine friendships were forged and loyalties cemented, and for that time, that was the new normal.
We were there till almost closing time, an afternoon well spent. By now my feet were protesting and we decided to Uber it back to the hotel. Our concierge couldn’t get a table at Murano’s (she said it’s usually booked weeks in advance on weekends) but had booked us at another Italian place. It was about 6PM when we got back to the room, and I thought I’d have a snooze-ette…needless to say, I woke up way past dinner reservation time. So instead we did a Food Panda-kind of thing, and ate in the room. And then I went right back to sleep.
Friends, Food & Bridges
London / 26 March 2017
Another bright sunny morning. Decided I’d go light on breakfast as we were meeting friends for lunch. Went to the Cub Room and ta-pau’d some breakfast for S (they have that option, complete with pastry boxes, etc. – very thoughtful). Had a lazy morning, chatting, lolling, long shower…we’d forgotten that the clocks go back to summer time today (despite the note that was left on the bed last nigh), so were slightly confused about the time on the bedside clock, which wasn’t what my phone was showing, till we remembered.
Ubered it to Somerset House where we were meeting P and family. We were early and wandered around the courtyard and water feature. This used to be the residence of various royal wives and nobility in the 18th century, and now houses restaurants, exhibition spaces and has provided a filming location for several movies – James Bond, Sherlock Holmes and even a Bollywood movie. It’s also a concert space – the likes of Snow Patrol and Amy Winehouse have performed here, and Norah Jones akan datang. Part of Somerset House is used by King’s College – with the rest of its campus nearby.
Lunch was at Tom’s Kitchen – Tom being Tom Aiken, who got 2 Michelin stars when he was 26, making him the youngest British Michelin-starred chef. It was Mother’s Day in England and the 3-course lunch came with a complimentary Prosecco. The food was fab – I had the treacle cured cod loin, pork belly (American-sized serving – which I couldn’t finish) and the sticky toffee pudding. Yum. The company was fab too – it was lovely catching up with P and family. Post-lunch we went for a walkabout – to LSE (P’s alma mater), past Lincoln’s Inn and Fields. I had, many years ago, attended a dinner at Lincoln’s Inn with S who was studying for her Bar – today, things looked only vaguely familiar.
We said our goodbyes to P and family and continued our walkabout. The whole area was very ‘lawyer-ly’ – the Royal Courts of Justice, the Inns, shops selling wigs and gowns. We wandered down Fleet Street, then past King’s College which had pics of its famous alumni lining its front – Desmond Tutu, Florence Nightingale, Joseph Lister, Mario Vargas Llosa, Martin Bashir (ok, this one is questionable).
We doubled back to Somerset House and visited the Syngenta photo exhibition that was on there. The theme was Grow-Conserve, and sustainability – photo essays showing the effects of pollution, displacement, and some which showed just trees (hmm). The most startling
(and traumatic according to S) was perhaps a live counter that showed the ‘years left to the end of seafood’.
We sat for a while in the courtyard, enjoying the sun, then decided to go for a walk. This time across Waterloo Bridge, and along the Thames past the National Theatre, various bars and restaurants. The light was lovely, people were out (they also seemed to be ‘just walking’) and there were kids playing on the riverbank. We crossed the next bridge, the older 19th century Blackfriars Bridge, back to the other side. It was such a lovely evening; we stopped to sit on one of the many wrought iron benches and just enjoyed the moment – the setting sun reflecting off the river, the people strolling by (no one seemed to be in much of a hurry), the joggers. We were right next to a main road and yet it all seemed quiet and peaceful (my partially blocked ears from the flight may have contributed to this feeling).
We were meeting friends from Singapore for dinner at Covent Garden. So we did a slow walk there, stopping for a drink at a pub on the way. Dinner was at Mamie’s, a cosy little Crêperie which served crêpe-everything. I had a sausage-y crêpe for the mains and we shared a chocolate-y banana crêpe for dessert. A very satisfying end to a relaxing day.
Everyday is a Birthday
London / 27 March 2017
Another light breakfast and lazy morning as today we had made reservations for an Indian lunch. Jamavar was a short walk from our hotel and had rave reviews – part of the Leela Palace group, a Michelin-starred chef, Rohit Ghai… I definitely was ready for a good Indian meal.
And what a meal it was. Jamavar has its own specialty cocktails – I had the Kashmiri (gin infused with saffron, Maraschino, Licor 43, lemon and egg white!), S passed and went straight to the wine. The food was truly divine – stone bass tikka, lamb biryani (of course) – cooked with a puff pastry ‘lid’, aubergine done three ways (a pakora, stuffed with chettinad spices and with stone fungus). We ordered gulab jamun for dessert – it was gulab jamun with a difference – not the usual soft balls in syrup. Here, there were smallish gulab jamuns encased in another dessert, ‘shrikand’ which is made from curd and saffron, with a roasted layer of some kind of lentil. Brilliant! As if that wasn’t enough, there was a complimentary chocolate and Indian sweet dessert. Bliss…
It was time to walk after this super wonderful meal. And walk we did, through Hyde Park…we saw a directional sign saying ‘Princess Diana Memorial Fountain’. So we walked in that direction, and ended up at a little cottage…which housed the public loos. The signs weren’t great, the fountain was quite a distance away, over the Serpentine River. But we got there. It was less of a fountain, and more of a water feature in which children were happily splashing around. Quite appropriate I thought – not ostentatious at all, but quite beautiful, and definitely ‘accessible’ – much like her?
More walking and we eventually got to Kensington Palace where, once again, Diana’s dresses were on display. Decided to go see and spent a good couple of hours in the Palace. There seemed to be more dresses on display than there were the last time I was at the palace (about 10 years ago).
S, of course, regaled me with various nuggets of information (I don’t know how he remembers these things)…how Diana and Princess Margaret could see each other from their respective apartments as they dined alone at their (I’m sure large) dining tables. Apparently this changed after the Martin Bashir interview when their relationship turned acrimonious. S also told me ‘who all’ the current occupants are – the Cambridges, Prince Harry, Prince and Princess of Kent, etc etc…needless to say, we saw none of them.
We Ubered it back to the hotel. Our Uber driver actually drove up to one of the palace entrances, and we had to run back from the main road to jump in, just as palace security was walking up to wave him away. The driver must’ve been disappointed to find he was picking up a couple of tourists and not a royal using a false name…
Dinner tonight was with my cousin, K. She met us at the hotel and we went to an Italian place off Oxford Street. It was pretty empty; when we asked if there was a table for three, the waitress, straightfaced, said, “Oh, sorry, we’re completely booked tonight.”…” Oh ok” and we turned to leave, thinking they had some corporate booking or something. But, as it turned out, the waitress was just trying to be funny… ha ha (sigh).
The food was surprisingly good. I wasn’t very hungry after the magnificent lunch so ordered a ‘small plate’ of meatball pasta..which ended up bigger than the normal plate, as it came with sides (that the normal plate didn’t). They may need to rewrite their menu as the ‘small plate’ was described as ‘for those who aren’t that hungry’…
Tomorrow, we move out of The Beaumont, and into The Goring. This holiday is going by way too fast…
Royal Day Out
London / 28 March 2017
Last day at the Beaumont. We had the company of a group of suit-ed men at breakfast in the Cub Room. It sounded like they were discussing football transfers. The host (not suit-ed) sounded American and was holding court – he was either talking while the rest were silent, or he was shutting down anyone who dared to proffer an opinion. Most of ‘the rest’ were silent – the few who did speak (briefly) sounded Spanish or Portugese. Some names were bandied about but none sounded familiar. If V were here, he may have shed more light on this intriguing (though mostly loud and slightly annoying) conversation / monologue. As we’d said so many times in the past few days, “Nice if V also were here.”
After breakfast I thought we should go to Hamley’s while we in the neighbourhood. I needed to get pressies for J1 and J2. J2 had very specifically asked for Belle – the one that looks like Emma Watson (or Justin Bieber, as the case may be). There was one – in ball gown finery…£55!!! The peasant girl version was not much better at £45. Hmm, there needed to be a Plan B – which I hadn’t thought of yet. Not much luck with J1’s gift either – they were all out of Charmanders. So back to the hotel, empty handed and uninjured, despite all manner of flying toys from the minute you stepped into the store. We left toy heaven (depending on whose POV) and got back to the hotel to finish packing and check out.
Lunch was at Murano’s – yes, managed to get a table. Weekday lunches aren’t as popular as weekend dinners obviously. Angela Hartnett’s one Michelin-starred Murano’s set lunch didn’t disappoint – and was probably better value-for-money than its dinners. S had a duck confit starter while I went for a seafood soup. It was ossobucco for the mains for both of us – super yum 🙂
It was a slow walk back to the Beaumont, past some armed soldier-like people – which got us a bit worried, till we realised they were the security detail for the ‘Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’. We made it back to the hotel sans Google Maps (*pat on the back*), picked up our bags and Ubered to The Goring.
Another gorgeous hotel, and apparently the one that Kate Middleton stayed in the night
before her wedding. We were shown to our room by André (day 7 on the job), told to mind the step to the bathroom, and shown the lighting options for the room and bathroom (Bright, Calm, Cosy, Oooh!).
We had a date with John Snow this evening – The John Snow – of pump handle fame, the ‘father of epidemiology’ and one of my heroes. At a time in the 19th century when the miasma theory (of bad air causing illness) and well before the concept of germs, John Snow investigated a cholera outbreak and with careful mapping of who was ill and where they were, traced the source of the outbreak to a water pump on Broad Street. The water pump handle was removed and currently resides at the LSHTM. The pump too is no longer there. The John Snow pub is near the original location of the pump and the John Snow Society regularly meets there; each year a prominent public health person delivers the ‘Pumphandle Lecture’. A couple of years ago my other hero, Atul Gawande, delivered this lecture.
Until recently, having a drink at the John Snow (pub not pump) will get you membership in the JS Society, and a free JS mug. This is no longer the case – in its lieu, the bartender gave me a guest book to sign, and to put in writing my disappointment at this new development. From the messages in the guest book, it was obvious that many public health people from across the globe had visited The John Snow and felt the same disappointment. Anyway, we had a drink at a table right next to a picture of The man.
We thought we’d catch Beauty and the Beast today. We’d wanted to go to an old theatre but tickets at one of those were either sold out or the theatre was quite a distance away. So, we settled for the 7.30PM show in 3D at the IMAX at Leicester Square. Our walk from The John Snow to Leicester Square was shorter than expected so we wandered around for a bit then stopped for coffee at a Costa. While chatting over coffee, I suddenly remembered that Kate (of Wills and Kate fame) was going to be the National Portrait Gallery for some gala dinner. (I knew this as S – surprise surprise – had told me about it last week, and had asked, “Shall we go?” – go stalking i.e., not go for the dinner. To which I’d replied SURE).
The National Portrait Gallery was just around the corner from us; when we got there the crowd was about 2 or 3 deep, paparazzi on their step-ladders, and officious looking men trying to keep a path clear for pedestrians who actually just wanted to walk past. We were there at about 6.45PM with tickets for the movie at 7.30PM and not the faintest idea what time Kate would appear. We figured that it was a gala dinner, and this was England not India, so how late could it start – 7.30? 8.00? Officious Man 1 (small and rather rude) said we had a long wait. When passers-by asked him what everyone was waiting for, he rather disdainfully said, “If you have to ask, there’s no need for you to be here.” or “Go use Google.” A couple of teenagers in front of us looked to be prepared for a long wait, as their parents (further back in the scrum) passed them sandwiches and drinks.
A big man ambled by and asked what we were waiting for. The Italian-sounding girl next to me said “Duchess of Cambridge” to which the man said, “Oh is that all? I’m not wasting my time. She’s not even good looking.” (ya, right). In the next breath, he goes, “Maybe I’ll hang around for a bit.” Then he launches into how he was a butler to the royal family, and once he served Prince William three times on three different occasions in a week (“He must’ve thought I was stalking him.”). As the minutes ticked by, his story went from “butler to the royal family” to “I’m in this freelance butler association.”
As we wondered what time Kate would appear (getting no help from officious man), the ‘butler’ said he had passed Kensington Palace on the way and ‘the security was out’ which meant that Kate had just left. With that, he surmised it’d be another hour or two before she got to the Portrait Gallery…hmm…S and I wondered if that means she’d be driving around London in her limo for an hour or two just to kill time, given how near Kensington Palace was. By this time Italian-sounding girl and I had formed a bond of sorts – from all the eye rolling we were doing.
At about 7 or so, people dressed to the nines started arriving. A fancy limo pulled up and out came…someone I didn’t know and a man who looked to be much older – her father? The paparazzi were up on their ladders, shouting at the someone I didn’t know to ‘look this way’ – she obliged and did a couple of turns on the red carpet. S later informed me it was Alexa Chung, some model. And the man was indeed her father.
At about 7.15PM, I asked S – “Kate or Beauty & the Beast?” – he (surprisingly) said “Beauty and the Beast” while I said “Kate”. By this time we were in the middle of a jostling crowd, and I was hemmed in by a very smile-y lady who reeked of alcohol on one side and Italian-sounding girl on the other. A young Middle-Eastern looking boy joined the throng near me, and I heard him on his phone, excitedly telling someone (maybe his mum asking where he was) that he was waiting to see the Princess. Teenage boy in front of me then decides to stand on a foot stool for a better view – but quite hastily abandoned the idea as those of us behind him protested (loudly). A paparazzi with a stepladder joined the crowd late – and absolutely no one gave way – which got him rather grumpy; bad week for him obviously – he was overheard saying he’d been “camping outside Pippa’s for days and got nothing.”
And then, at 7.30PM, there was a sudden palpable increase in excitement levels, and butler-man commented “Should be soon now.” A black limo pulled up, the flashes go crazy and Kate steps out. She truly is quite stunning – I now see what S meant when he said “she glows” – she actually does seem to glow. And just like that, she walked the red carpet and entered the gallery – no Alexa-type turns for her. With that, the crowd evaporated, and we half ran to the Imax. We got there with plenty of time to settle into our seats and watch several ads before the movie started.
It was great fun, with the 3D effects quite spectacular. We were also just pleased with ourselves that we managed to do both – see Kate and not miss the movie 🙂 It was close to 10PM by the time the movie was over and we were both a bit peckish. Decided to try Cicchetti, an Italian ‘tapas’ place which we’d gone to last year. Once again, we got there late, no reservations, it looked full, but we were shown a table – almost the same one as last year – and food was as yum as it was last year. We were both wilting by the time we finished dinner so Ubered it instead of walking back to the hotel, and a good night’s sleep.
More Royalty (Sort Of)
London / 29 March 2017
We had a lovely breakfast on our first morning at The Goring. Here, it was the works – one could order anything on the menu (like at Cafe Royal last year, when S outdid himself at breakfast). I started healthily with porridge and fruits, then deteriorated to scrambled eggs, bacon and toast. S had the kippers – a big serving.
S had to go to the Westminster Reference Library which was back near Leicester Square so we took a walk there after breakfast. We had to go past Buckingham Palace – there was a HUGE crowd – at the gates, across the road at the Queen Victoria Memorial, everywhere; security (on the ground and in the air – in the form of helicopters) was out in full force too. The Queen wasn’t in as it was the Union Jack, not the Royal Standard that flew above the palace. The gate was open and we hung around a bit to see if someone was coming or going. As it turned out the crowd was there just for the changing of the guards. Sigh.
It was a slow walk to the library through the by now familiar St James Park. S didn’t take long to register at the library, after which we Ubered to Brixton. A short half hour drive away from central London – but a whole other world. There was a Caribbean / rasta vibe to the place – from the people, to the food that was being hawked, and the colourfulness of it all – the clothes, the sounds, the smells. Definitely edgier than London.
We stopped for a pub lunch (fish and chips for me, curry for S) before meeting Nick Stephenson for our afternoon of Bowie. We (I)’d been Bowie-fied over the last couple of months – DB-obsessed R seems to have transferred her obsession (while still retaining a healthy – or unhealthy – quantum of her own) to J2 – who is all of 5 years old (going to be 6 in May, she’ll have you know). The girl (J2 i.e.) has been watching DB videos practically on loop – she knows the lyrics – and uses them (or variations of them) to good effect (e.g. while doing a project on sharks, she said, “oh no, not again, I’m stuck with a valuable fin” – as opposed to the actual lyrics which has ‘friend’ instead of ‘fin’!), she knows the moves (“David Bowie dabbed”), she knows exactly when in each music video DB will do something like roll his eyes or ham it up for the camera. She and R are neck and neck when it comes to DB Obsession.
R and J2 were the reason we decided to go for some Bowie-immersion. Our guide Nick was probably on par with the obsessive rellys; I told him about J2 and her ‘valuable fin’ line – he couldn’t stop laughing and said he wants a daughter like her. S and I were the only ones on the tour today so it was a private tour for us with our guitar-toting, Bowie-channelling guide. Nick is a singer/songwriter, a major Bowie fan (of course) and started these Bowie walking tours at his girlfriend’s suggestion. We started with a bit of background to Bowie’s Brixton and a pretty impressive rendition of Space Oddity just outside the entrance to the Brixton tube station.
The tour took us to David Robert Jones childhood home on Stansfield Road (where he was born and where he lived with his parents and step-brother till he was six, when he moved to the slightly more gentrified Bromley), past the Stockwell Infant School (where many a brawl was had), and to the Ritzy where his parents (both married to other people at the time) met.
We did a little detour down a street (Atlantic Road, I think) near Electric Avenue as Nick wanted to show us some street art on the shutters of a fish and chip shop. He hoped the shutters were down – we were in luck, they were indeed down and so we got to see the full effect of the art – Tupac, Big L and various other rappers in black-and-white shuttered glory. Very impressive.
We ended our walk at the James Cochran (aka JimmyC the Australian street artist)’s mural of Bowie, inspired by the Aladdin Sane cover, with its iconic lipsticked Harry Potter lightning bolt across half his face. On the wall next to the mural was an ad for make-up – someone had drawn similar lightning bolts across the models’ faces.
The mural is now preserved by a perspex sheet over it as the many messages scrawled on the wall surrounding it were beginning to encroach on the mural itself (horrors!). There were messages in all languages, pictures (of Bowie and Hindu Gods) and, at the foot of the mural, some fading flowers.
Last song and one encore done, we said our goodbyes and wandered around Electric Avenue for a bit before Ubering it back to London – and to Westminster Abbey. The last time I was there was in 1984, the year I spent Christmas in Wales with the Rolfes. I remember seeing a weathered stone in the abbey bearing the name of a seafaring Rolfe – a relative from the Pocahontas side of the family?
It was a nice wander around in the Abbey. The aisle didn’t seem as long as it does when seen on TV – the aerial view effect maybe. The Abbey has been witness to all the coronations (except for the monarchs who weren’t crowned – there were two I think), various royal weddings (the latest being that of the Cambridges – and which we watched at home, complete with tea and scones) and funerals. There’s a whole section where poets/writers are buried, another for politicos, and yet another for scientists (like Newton and Darwin). i wondered how this ‘clustering’ happened – did they bury one scientist, then when the next one died, they decided to pop him next to the first for company, and so on, till there were ‘sector-specific’ areas?
Article 50 was triggered today by Theresa May and outside the Abbey, across from the Houses of Parliament, the press was out in full force, with marquees announcing the presence of CNN, BBC, CNBC and various other channels. We may have missed the main interviews – as no famous interviewers / interviewees were spotted. The likes of Christiane Amanpour were in attendance as we found out from the news later today. We did spot some lookalikes – in particular there was one who was a spitting image of Boris Johnson, who with other less spitting images of Theresa May etc., posed for pictures for press and curious tourists.
By now, it was time for dinner, and a craving to be satisfied…it was a long-ish walk but entirely worth it – a super yummy Ippudo dinner – it was getting a bit cold, and the ramen with the hot soup really hit the spot. A most satisfying end to a most satisfying day.
A Literary Sort of Day
London / 30 March 2017
This morning we decided to have breakfast in the room, which was far more relaxing as we could eat while still in our pyjamas. Well, I did anyway – S was dressed to go out, as always. The breakfast trolley was bursting at the seams (or, more accurately, spilling over at the edges) – as, true to form, we had over-ordered.
After breakfast we set off for the British Library, where we were meeting P. It turned out to be a most fascinating morning poring over the Library’s permanent collection…it was a real treasure trove…there were original manuscripts, music scores and letters – here a letter from Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra; there, Handel’s Messiah, several scores in Amadeus Mozart’s hand (who seemed to have been cataloguing his music); royal letters – a letter from King George III, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, and from more recent times, John Lennon’s lyrics for a song.
There was a whole section on holy books. Next to some very large and ornate Qurans, there was a small, relatively modest but quite beautiful little Quran from Kelantan! The Gutenberg Bible was on display, as were various Hindu and Buddhist scriptures.
Leonardo da Vinci’s 500-year old notebook, with his incredibly neat mirror-image handwriting, was particularly awesome. Even more intriguing was a ‘hidden figure’ that was found on one of the pages, with some new imaging technique. Da Vinci seems to have erased the figure – one theory is that the sketch was that of David – his rival Michaelangelo’s creation – and that Leonardo erased it in a fit of jealousy.
There was the collection of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer whose life’s work was collecting manuscripts of famous writers, musicians…famous people, in general. He had ‘originals’ from Marie Antoinette to Oscar Wilde, Dickens and Darwin. In a split second, my collection of autographed books paled into total insignificance.
The area housing these treasures didn’t seem that large when we walked in, but we ended up spending a good two hours there, before we decided to go have lunch. Lunch was at the very bright and airy Terrace Restaurant. They had Scotch Eggs – blast from the past…it was quite yummy though my mum’s was definitely in a different class – especially when combined with the brown sauce which she’d perfected (brown sauce recipe is in the Good Housekeeping (I think that was the name) book – Volume 2 if memory serves me correctly…we grew with these our ‘go-to’ tomes for all things household.
We had tickets for the matinee performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which came highly recommended by P and another friend whom we were having dinner with tonight. Traffic was horrendous, and the integrity-full Uber driver we booked came to pick us up but advised us to take the tube or we might be late for the play. Good man! So we tube-d it today to West End and the Gielgud Theatre (age 111 years). School outings were out in full force, and I hoped the kids wouldn’t be too ‘boisterous’ during the play.
We had great seats, and S was in a prime number seat. The instruction that was on the seat said that if each letter of the alphabet was assigned a number, and if on adding up the numbers of the letters in our name, we get a prime number, we are entitled to a prize. Much adding later, we concluded that we don’t have prime number names.
I wondered how the excellent book would be translated to stage – and how much would be lost in translation. I needn’t have worried. The production was simply brilliant – it was quite amazing how paragraphs and paragraphs of descriptions in the book were interpreted on stage; the visual effects, while relying mainly on the actors’ physicality, and some very clever lighting, provided exceptionally vivid images. An afternoon well spent!
Dinner was with old friends, G and N, at their lovely home in Chelsea. It was a relaxed evening, with wine, a yummy home cooked meal and good conversation. Another good day…but this week is whizzing by far too quickly…
Sevenoaks / 31 March 2017
Third day in a row, we had breakfast in the room – me in jammies, S ready to go. Second last full day here and we’ve been so lucky with the weather so far. Another blue-skied sunny morning. Today we’re visiting L and her family at Sevenoaks (actually only OneOak now apparently after a storm some 20 years ago blew six of the oaks down).
Today too, we had a good Uber driver – when we said we were going to Charing Cross to get a train, he decided he had to get us there ‘on time’ (though we hadn’t got our train tickets yet), weaving his way through various back streets. Near Leicester Square, traffic was at a standstill, and he suggested we walk to the station which was less than five minutes away. We did that and half an hour later we had left the bustle of London for the idyllic Sevenoaks. L was waiting and drove us to her lovely home in the country. What peace and quiet! No sounds of traffic at all.
Introductions done, we (L, her mum and sister, S and I) went for a walk at Knole Park which was practically in their backyard. It was a fun, chatty walk – in parts the sun was out, at others, there were dark dramatic clouds, but fortunately no rain. Part of the park was a golf course – golfers were out, and we made sure to stay well away from stray balls. Deer were out too – they seemed quite used to human company and languidly mooched around as we walked by.
We had a quick look at the 600-year old Knole House, home to various nobility, before looping back to the car for the drive home. J had prepared a very yummy lunch, which we had in their sunny dining room, overlooking a very large garden. L’s dad joined us after work, and it was an afternoon of more good conversation with the Ps.
On our return to London, we thought we’d go to the British Museum, as it was Friday – late closing day. We did a quick walkthrough of an American-themed exhibition – The American Dream: From pop to present. It traced the last 60 years of American history, from JFK’s assassination to Vietnam, the man on the moon, AIDS and racism – presented through billboards representing the various times, art, sculptures, a video of seemingly unrelated events…
This was S’s first time to the Museum, so we, of course, had to see the Egypt section with the phenomenal mummy exhibits. These remain as fascinating as the first time I saw them almost 30 years ago. There were new exhibits, involving techie stuff – e.g. virtual autopsies of the mummies. There was one exhibit I didn’t remember – a very well preserved mummy that was brought back by some British explorer and actually unwrapped. This one caused no small degree of discomfort – for both S and me. It somehow smacked of disrespect – that the body of this ancient human being was laid out for all to see, and to take photos of if they wished to (we didn’t but many did). A far cry from Westminster Abbey where no photography is allowed – even of marble tombs.
And with that it was closing time, and we were ushered out. We walked in what we (correctly) assumed was the direction of Covent Garden, and eventually we were back near King’s College and Charlotte Street. We chanced upon a place that was still open for dinner – Four to Eight – and had a surprisingly good Italian meal. We shared a Charred Pear and King Prawn Linguine which was perfect and for the first time this week I didn’t feel like I’d overeaten…it’s all relative.
Focus on Food
London / 1 April 2017
Today, as in the first day here, we had no plans – other than food ones. We breakfasted once again in the room, with the Union Jack flapping right outside our window. Another sunny day – we truly have been lucky with the weather. Even on the days where rain was forecast, it remained sunny.
Did some packing post-breakfast before heading out to lunch. We once more had to pass the Palace – the Queen still wasn’t home (where does she go everyday we wondered…and channelling Ammumma, we said, ‘she can’t stay at home even for one day’…ha ha). The crowds were still there, we knew not why.
A film crew was in residence too, with huge lighting booms above the Victoria Memorial. There weren’t any ‘dressing room containers’ so we figured they were just filming some location or establishing shots. A passerby very convincingly said they “must be filming the new season of The Crown.” Hmm, I wonder.
[Afternote: A bit of post-trip Googling revealed that the crew was setting up to film the new Mary Poppins movie.]
Lunch today was at Gymkhana in Mayfair – Michelin-starred and ‘inspired by the gymkhana clubs of the Raj’ said the blurb. It was all dark wood and leather, rattan-trimmed booths, Rajasthani lamps, and sepia-tinted photographs of polo players on the walls.
We went for the lamb keema with the optional addition of pearls of wisdom – brain i.e. It wasn’t quite the Hannibal Lecter version – more the version of my childhood. I recall going with my grandfather to an Indian eating shop when I was 7 or 8, and him asking a young server in Tamil if he has any brains. As that wasn’t on the menu that day, the hapless boy wagged his head and said, “No, saar.” For some reason that scene is etched in my memory. Today we didn’t have to ask anyone if they had brains – brains were their specialty. The ‘pav’ with the pearly keema was spicy and delish, and probably laden with cholesterol.
For the mains we shared a ‘wild muntjac biryani with pomegranate and mint raita’ – muntjac being a small deer. This was a first, and was yummy too. We also had crispy lady’s fingers which is always a hit, by which time we were quite stuffed and had to decline dessert.
A slow walk back to the hotel, and we were ready for some tea – which was had out on the verandah (it was also called The Veranda), facing The Goring’s pretty garden. A wedding party was inside – we think the girl was Singaporean, as every single member of her family was engrossed in his/her mobile phone. It was a lovely relaxing hour or two out on the verandah, chatting over an endless pot of tea.
We took a short break to shower, finish packing and generally do nothing, before dinner – down at the Goring’s Dining Room – also Michelin-starred (we did well today). We had the famed Egg Drumkilbo for starters – apparently the Queen Mother used to put in appearances at the Dining Room to have this dish which was her favourite. The lamb mains was very tender and pretty much perfect. There was sweet rice pudding for dessert – which I had. S said it reminds him of his Ammumma – and the time he was recovering from wisdom tooth (teeth) extraction and feeling absolutely miserable – and mum made sweet rice for him, and brought it to him to eat in bed.
And so, our holiday ended. I leave early tomorrow, while S meets up with friends and heads back to Newcastle in the evening.
Many Brief Shining Moments
London – Singapore / Sunday 2 April 2017
Another goodbye this morning, with another of S’s bone-crushing hugs – which would have to last till he comes home in June. What a wonderful week we’ve had – the conversations…about what it is to be family, the ‘meaning of life’ conversations, the more practical ones about internships and work…
There was much sadness and also much laughter remembering all the good times we’ve had over the years.
The friends we caught up with, the perfect meals we had…layers and layers of brief shining moments…which I suppose is what life is about – all our Camelots.