Saturday, 7 June 2014

Back from London

I’m back from my holiday in London, and the conference at the School of Economics turned out well. It’s gratifying to gather with people with the same obscure interests, and all the more so when your interest is the world’s future.

I’ll tell more about the conference tomorrow, but for now I’ll stick to the rest of the holiday. I stayed, as I always do, at a hostel – a different one each time, to see which ones I should recommend. Hostels seem like a strange idea to many people, who are unfamiliar with sharing their room with strangers. It brings the price down from hundreds of pounds a night down to 10-50 pounds, though, and most people are quite courteous of one another. If you’re looking to stay in London, you could do worse than St. James – inexpensive but clean, with helpful staff, and right in the middle of the city.

My first night there I fell to chatting with two young men, a Danish hotelier and an Italian chef, working in London and figuring out what they wanted to do with their lives. After getting to know each other for only a short time, the chef was soon cooking us pasta Carbonara as an evening meal, and we talked late into the night.

London has far too much to see in a single trip, and each visit I check a few things off my bucket list. Thankfully, most of the sights of London can be enjoyed cheaply or for free. Take, for example, London’s plethora of museums. This time I went back to the Natural History Museum, which looks like a cathedral and feels the same – a church of the world. I also recommend the Gardening Museum, tucked away on the south bank of the Thames, with its collection of self-sufficiency tools and skills that most of the world has forgotten.

The Imperial War Museum also makes a fascinating experience – to its credit it shows not just the tools and toys of war, but the experiences of everyday survivors. In its depths English rooms from the 1940s are recreated – books, music, utensils – just as it would have been in the Blitz. In the middle of the living room was one of the cages families would hide inside, and along the wall are the stories of the children – native Londoners and refugees – who were evacuated and who stayed. I appreciate learning about war through the eyes of most people who see it, rather than through political speeches or generals’ memoirs.

I cannot highly enough recommend London’s transportation system; between the Underground, the buses and the very walkable streets, you can go anywhere quickly and easily. Locals complain about the Tube and the crowds, but I think they forget how lucky they are to have such a system at all.

As the West End is as famous as Broadway on the world stage, you might think that the plays would be prohibitively expensive, only for the wealthy. In fact, however, my first time in London I saw a great play with a star cast – Kiera Knightley and Elisabeth Moss in Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour – for about the same sum as a trip to the cinema.

This time I got tickets to the Globe Theatre – the re-creation of Shakespeare’s original home – for just 15 pounds. I had shown my daughter a television recording of As You Like It performed at the Globe, and now she wants to go there herself – and I told her I would happily take her to A Midsummer Night’s Dream or some other light comedy. This was not one of those plays. This was Titus Andronicus, and let me tell you, it was hard core.

Aside from the conference – more of which tomorrow – I didn’t plan out much of a schedule this time. Travel too often involves rushing to get somewhere, or trying hard to enjoy something before the time runs out. It too rarely involves sitting in a café in the middle of London, on a lovely summer day, reading a good book and watching the world go by. This time, for me, it did.

No comments: