Twilight at the Tower Bridge

London

Tower Bridge, just beyond the Tower of London, as the sun goes down. February 2016
Tower Bridge, just beyond the Tower of London, as the sun goes down. February 2016

About this time last year, Katie and I flew off to London for the weekend to take in some theater, a London Fashion Weekend show, some good food, some history, and a shot of urban living.

Our first night in town, we’d seen the play “The End of Longing” on the West End.  The play was pretty good, the stage sets were remarkable (both for their look and for their “rapid changeability”), and our meeting with Matthew Perry after the show went well– no matter what my daughter might tell you to the contrary.  (Unless Matthew Perry is actually reading this, in which case, let me take a moment to apologize and say that I’ll try to be much cooler if I ever meet you again, please don’t feel the need to take out a restraining order against me.  And, for the record, that person who called out your name before you approached me, thinking it was me, was actually someone standing behind me– and this is why I was totally unprepared for your approach and may have lost it a little.  Seriously.  I don’t usually blither . . . or shake–it was REALLY cold out too, and I was wearing a sleeveless coat in the middle of winter in London– not practical, but it was really cute, don’t you think?  Anyway, Matthew, we got off on the wrong foot, you and me.  I’m lots cooler than that.  Sometimes. Anyway, embarrassing as it was, I really did mean it– you are great.)

Moving on. . .

Our second night in London required a strong drink to make me forget how I’d embarrassed myself on our first night in London.  Katie wanted to go to a rooftop restaurant or bar and soak up a little urban chic.  Good plan.  But the chicest of the chic would have required reservations much in advance, so we looked for “in and out” bars that would fit the bill.  One popped up with potential, and in an area of the city that we know well and has some great views.  The rooftop bar at the Hilton Doubletree by the Tower of London.

It fit the bill well.  The bar itself was chic enough, if not ultra swanky.  The drinks and desserts we ordered while oogling the view were spot on– I went for a Moscow Mule, my favorite go-to, and something cheesecake derived (fuzzy memory, but I remember that the presentation was great).

We sat inside (it being February), but there is a very large and lovely outdoor terrace too, if you find yourself in London during warmer months.

The view as the sun dropped low and disappeared altogether was stunning.    I did feel urban, and I did feel chic, as I sipped my Moscow Mule and looked out over the hustle and bustle of London.  So much energy and atmosphere rolling out in the streets below and all along the Thames.

First, it’s the urban energy and the architectural artistry that quickens your pulse.  But then . . . well, maybe it’s my wistful nature, or maybe it was the Moscow Mule, but I think maybe it’s a universal truth that you look out over a scene like this and you find yourself not just overlooking geography, but gazing at history rolled out before you like a red carpet just begging you to walk it.

The Tower of London alone could suck you into its stories, never to re-emerge in the present.  (Because so many people who entered the Tower of London never did re-emerge.  So many.)  There alone you have 1000 years of history: a history that includes  Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard, Guy Fawkes, and Sir Walter Raleigh.  A history that includes the prisoner who escaped by dressing as a washer woman and walking out of the gates undeterred– a tale later immortalized by Mr. Toad in the Wind in the Willows.  And a history that, despite it’s strong-arm nature, notes its own possibly precarious existence in the legend of the ravens.  The flock of ravens that lives at the Tower, considered a menace by some, enjoys nearly sacred status by others.  Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the Tower and the Monarchy will fall.  This legend is taken seriously, if not somberly: the ravens have their own Yeoman Raven Keeper.  (Brexit may be problematic, Parliament may be bickering, but rest assured that the Monarchy doesn’t plan to fall any time soon, and the Raven Keeper will see to that.)

If your gaze slides just west of the Tower and down the Thames, you’ll be strolling into Southwark.  Into the history of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, past The George Inn, the oldest (or only) galleried Georgian pub remaining in London, and a favorite drinking spot of the ever-thirsty  Charles Dickens.  Here, if you are terribly bookish, or prone to the seductive ambiguity of twilight, or more than one Moscow Mule into the night (which I wasn’t), you might get so caught up in the teaming past-life of the London streets you are over-looking (that you might have, in a less wistful mood, entirely overlooked), in their teaming vapors of past-present-literary lives that, each and every one, ask to be explored and understood– well, you might just never re-emerge.

But we did. We drank in the view and wondered at the lights and lives we peered out over, if not into.  Then we left our towering view above the Tower. We emerged energized, awe-spired, and feeling rather chic and smart.  We emerged ready to tackle more of what our fabulous friend London could throw at us.

If only it had given me one more chance at making a good impression on Matthew Perry.

C’est la vie.  Or, as my London friends might say:  th9sb27hg3

 

 

St. Martin-in-the-Fields

London, by Trafalgar Square

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Clearly no longer in-the-fields, St. Martin’s Church bustles with the energy of London.  It sits just at the edge of Trafalgar Square, one of the busiest spots in a busy city.

Trafalgar Square images
Trafalgar Square images

You’ll know Trafalgar Square from photos:  Admiral Nelson’s column anchors its center, surrounded by those fierce lions, and the National Gallery sits to its back, while traffic circles all around.  It is a manically busy spot, but also a fabulous place to catch the heart of London.  If you look from the National Gallery to Nelson’s

Creative Commons image
Creative Commons image

Column, you see Big Ben in the distance.   Then, if you walk to your right, you walk through the Marble Arch and down toward Buckingham Palace.  The other direction, you’ll find the Strand (with its West End theaters) and St. Martin-in-the-fields.

The beautiful stone church seems to have embraced its new “not at all in the fields, but at the heart of the crowd” identity very well.   It is well known for its continued ministering to the city, and in so many ways.  It has, historically, had a strong mission for working with the homeless.  It’s also popular for its concert series.  In fact, music is at the heart of much of St. Martin’s reputation– it’s Cafe in the Crypt is a hot spot for jazz lovers.  The Cafe (open the week through for diners) has Jazz Nights on

Cafe in the Crypt
Cafe in the Crypt

Wednesdays.  If you like Swing, Dixieland, or R&B, this is the spot for you.  I can’t vouch for the food, having not eaten there, but I can tell you that many of these “crypt cafes” in British churches are quite good.  We’ve frequented dozens of them over the years, a few underwhelming and a few really spectacular.  They are always worth a try–especially if a jazz night is thrown into the  mix!

Earliest references to St. Martin-in-the-fields are traced back to records from 1222, but excavations have uncovered gravesites from about 400 A.D, when there was a Roman settlement in present day London.  (At which point, this area would certainly have been “in the fields” and far from the small town’s city limits.)   The church has undergone many changes through the centuries–some dramatic.

From a JT Smith print, published 1808
From a JT Smith print, published 1808

As the fields turned to city sprawl, Henry VIII extended the parish of St. Martin’s and made changes to the structure.  The church survived the Great Fire of London (1666, I think), which was no small feat.  Still, the old facade was pulled down in 1721 and the new marble structure was put into place.  I’m a fan of the “new” neo-classical church, but it still seems a shame to me that a church could survive the fire that leveled so much of the city, just to be pulled down a few years later.  But there were reasons for that–structural decay chief among them . . . and who can argue with that?

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St. Martin-in-the-fields as it now stands

For us, St. Martin-in-the-fields was a great find as we meandered from Trafalgar Square toward the Strand and Covent Garden.  We didn’t take the time to learn much history or eat in the crypt.  We didn’t stumble into a service in progress (which would have been nice), but we knew the name and were curious to just have a look inside.  And what we found made us curious to know more.  We opened the doors of the old church, expecting to see what we usually see, but were greeted, instead, with a uniquely bright take on church windows.  The East Window, sat directly behind the altar area, and the visual centerpiece of the church, looks like this:

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It’s modern, but traditional at the same time.  It’s so spare, but still manages to look like a cross.  And the light it lends to the space is fantastic.  You see something like this in London, and you immediately think the windows must have been bombed out in WWII, and apparently that was the case.  And then you think, this window almost looks like it’s being hit with a shock–of sound or schrapnel– something that bends its fibers.  And yet, it’s beautiful.

And then, if you are a slightly nerdy English major, like me, you hear the poetry of Yeats: “Things fall apart/The centre cannot hold.”  The window appears to have a gapping hole at its center, and Yeats’s post WWI poem conjured the same image.  But here, in St. Martin’s, the fantastic ovoid center holds.  An entire world war later, and the center holds.  With the bustle of this great city, and the enduring attacks that humans perpetuate on each other, and the center holds.  In a community of faith, in a busy corner of tourism, in a jazz hot spot, with all of the sacred and profane met in this one thriving building, and the center holds, despite the evidence of warping and instability on its edges.

And this is why I love St. Martin-in-the-fields.  Her facade has withstood fires, only to decay and be rebuilt and stand still.  Her fields have given way to asphalt and traffic, but still a sort of urban beauty.  Her focal point, so often anchored by predictable images in stained glass windows, has warbled, has warped, has shed its coloring, but let in more light, and, yes, it has held.

Oh how I love this church.

London Fashion Week, Feb. 2015, Part 2

 

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We were in London Wednesday to Sunday, but the epicenter of the trip was  Thursday.  That was the day we had tickets to London Fashion Week festivities and the Amanda Wakeley catwalk.DSCN0481

We woke to a chilly, rainy day in London.  The sort of day that is perfect for an indoor fashion show, but not perfect for looking your best when you show up at the gates of the show.  We primped and twirled in front of the mirrors at our hotel until we felt pretty good about ourselves, but the wind and rain on the streets of London did us no favors.  Of all people in the world, the Brits should have a word that means “cute but sodden.”  That was us.

smerset house

Luckily, there were no bouncers at the gates of Somerset  House with the mission of separating the stylish from the sodden, so we made our way in to the festivities.   The courtyard of Somerset House was set with large tents–housing the catwalk shows and a small shopping area.  Parts of the interior of Somerset House were set up with other vendors for the “Shop the Catwalk” experience.   The spread of bags, accessories, and clothes were impressive (and more egalitarian than you might think: while most shops were very pricey, there were a few offerings in line with every budget).  It was quite a spectacle, with the beauty of Somerset House itself, and its grand hallways and staircases, providing an exquisite backdrop.

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We arrived about 11 am and the Amanda Wakeley catwalk show didn’t start until mid afternoon, so we shopped the vendors who were set up in Somerset House, and then visited the gallery for a photography exhibit featuring the work of Guy Bourdain

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Bourdain’s photography–featured largely in French Vogue in the 70’s and 80’s, and for shoe company Charles Jourdan– was fun, edgy, and occasionally unsettling.

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Early in his career, Bourdain worked with the artist Man Ray, and the surrealist’s sensibility is always apparent in his photography.  Our favorite series of photographs depicted disembodied legs (calves in exquisite shoes–mannequin’s legs) on the streets of London–hailing cabs or waiting for the Tube, etc.   It was a great exhibit, and a fitting show to pair up with the LFW activities.  Many of the photos struck a certain tone that I think of as Warholesque– very late 70’s pop-surreal-tongue-in-cheek.    All the sass, glamour, and playfulness of  high fashion . . . with a little edge, a little menace, the threat of emptiness at the heart of it all.

The catwalk show was fabulous and Amanda Wakeley was very gracious when she came out (on crutches) to introduce her collection and discuss her thoughts on fashion.  Her philosophy was simple and classic, and that was reflected in the all-white collection she introduced with the catwalk show.  We enjoyed the show, but enjoyed our seats even more.  That is–we sat on the second row, in good seats, but nothing of note . . . until two minutes before the show started.  Then Caroline Rush, the CEO of the British Fashion Council, was escorted to the front row seat directly in front of us.  My daughter went nuts.  Just the day before, Kate had run down a list of cool celebrities she might see at LFW.  The impressive Ms. Rush was on that list.  I didn’t know who she was, so Kate Googled her and educated me.  Yes, this was definitely Caroline Rush in front of us, cheering on Amanda Wakeley and enthusiastically applauding the show.  As the  show drew to a close, Katie tapped Ms. Rush on the shoulder and asked if she could take a photo with her.  The answer was a very gracious yes, and as I snapped the photo the two of them chatted.   They say you should never meet your idols, but if one of those idols is Caroline Rush, then you have no worries, you are in good hands.

Wakeley’s catwalk show had been elegant, impressive–but I was partially distracted from the clothes as I kept looking at the models and trying to figure out if this was 30 or 40 different women parading clothing in front of me, or just 15 or so who kept changing outfits.  It disturbed me that I couldn’t tell.  A few of the women had very distinct faces, but many of them looked so similar, and so blank. They were simply a blur of girls, indistinguishable as individuals.   I’m sure that is, in part, by design– they stroll mannequin-esque, with blank stares.  They are meant to be blank canvases for the clothes.  But an afternoon of people watching and photography exhibits had my mind spinning on bigger questions of who we are and how we present ourselves through fashion–is it about beauty and comfort, is it about innovative art and form, is it about capitalism and consumerism, or is it about the masks we wear, or . . . or . . .  is it not reductive?

Yes, they are blurry girls.  By design, maybe.  They could be you.  You could be them.
Yes, they are blurry girls. By design, maybe. They could be you. You could be them.

 

We left Somerset House immediately after the catwalk–we had to turn it around quicklywoman in black if we wanted to change clothes (and brace for more damp and cold as the sun fell) before we headed out to the West End to catch The Woman in Black at the Fortune Theater.  It was a great show–the story was told by only 2 characters, who held the stage powerfully  for over two hours.  It was a very different experience from the spectacles we usually go to see–Oliver!, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Les Mis, Mary Poppins–it wasn’t about the stagesets or the carnival, it was a different sort of storytelling, and we loved it.

By the time we actually sat down to dinner, in the midst of the blurry nightlife of the West End, it was 11 p.m.  We were spent . . . but we were happy.

 

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Umbrellas in the spiraling stairs of Somerset House.

 

 

London Fashion Week 2015 – Pt. 1

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Somerset House, venue for London Fashion Week, Feb. 2015

 

Maybe you’ve seen the headlines in fashion magazines, the svelte and stylish stars in tabloid print; maybe you’re a fashionista and you are in the know.  Last week was London Fashion Week and festivities took place at Somerset House–a beautiful, neo-classical complex built in the 1700’s and nestled between the River Thames and the Strand (that major London thoroughfare that runs from Trafalgar Square through Fleet Street, home to British banking and legal offices).   The first few days of London Fashion Week belong to industry insiders and celebrities, but the later part of the week is open to the rest of us. . . and that’s how my daughter and I ended up shopping the stalls and attending the Amanda Wakeley catwalk last Thursday.

It was my daughter’s idea.  (I love to look good–and have a love of jackets that borders on fetish–but I also love to be comfortable.  This means I vascillate between style-mama and sweatshirt slob.  My daughter, however, is just coming to that age where style is the ultimate, and requisite, in self expression. )

So a couple of weeks ago, I got a call from her around lunch time.  She’d just returned to school after two days of a nasty virus, so I answered the phone expecting to hear misery and fever on the other end of the receiver.  Instead of fever, I got fervid.  “Mom, London Fashion Week is in two weeks! Look it up, Google it!  We need to go!”   I wasn’t prepared for this and, lacking any other comeback, I said, “You know, that’s not much heads up, but I’ll give it a look.”  My way of saying, I’m not ignoring your request–since you are so enthusiastic–but you know that’s just not going to happen. So, it turns out, the laugh was on me.

I did Google it, and it sounded kind of fun.  Too bad we couldn’t go.

 Could we?

 I logged on to RyanAir.com–an Irish airline known for (usually) cheap tickets when you travel within Europe.  Imagine my shock when I saw that we could book tickets on our travel days for 20 Euro per person each way.  For the next two hours, I skittered the sticky strands of the world wide web, and eventually extricated myself with airline tickets, London Fashion Week tickets, and reservations at reasonable, but extraordinarily well-located and well-appointed  hotels in hand.

  And theater tickets; every trip to London needs theater tickets.

So next thing you know, we were off to LFW!

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We arrived Wednesday mid morning, after only 2 or 3 hours of sleep.  (One way to catch a cheap flight is to fly at a God-forsaken hour.  Ugh.)   We weren’t due at Somerset House until Thursday, so we checked into our hotel near the Tower of London  and jumped on the Tube (London’s  rail) to head out to Kensington  and make an afternoon out of Harrods Department Store and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Harrods is a London landmark, and it lives up to its reputation.  If I were plump with cash, I could have a really good time there.  Sadly, I am not.  The clothes were beautiful, but here’s how it works at Harrods:  your daughter sees a fabulous swimsuit and pulls you that direction.  You turn over the price tag and realize that it’s an $800 swimsuit (maybe more–I’m a little vague about exchange rate math), and next thing you know the chic shop girls are reviving you with smelling salts.    And, yes, I suppose “shop girls” is outdated, but it seems to fit here, because Harrods isn’t just a store.  No, Harrods is a theatrical production.  It’s like a West End stage set, where everything glitters, and you turn a corner and –pow!–you’re in a different land.  You move from the colorful, sparkly set of the  jewelry department, to the finely choreographed fragrance floor with it’s fleet footed sales-people-spritzers, to gallery after gallery of magnificent women’s clothes, to a children’s section full of books and toys that is so visually perfect and orderly  you will wonder if any REAL children have actually been in that space in the past 24 hours, to a food hall that is amazing. . .truly amazing.harrods macr 2

harrods

However, not to be a downer, but the $5 strawberry I ate in the food hall–plump and juicy as it was–was really nothing special.  I’m sure that’s the exception to the rule.  At least, everything LOOKED amazing.   And all the shoppers LOOKED amazing.  It really was theater at its finest.

As the curtain came down on our afternoon at Harrods, however, I had a little trouble getting out the front door.  More than a little.  Alarms went off, security guards stepped forward.  I handed over my purse and my tiny Harrods bag of macaroons.  (I had no large Harrods bag filled with thousand dollar swimsuits.)  I unzipped my coat, as the guard said, “It’s probably a clothing tag you never clipped.”  Who knew?  My year-old red ski jacket (which, note to self, is not a cool thing to wear when you shop at Harrods) had a tag on the inside that clearly said “clip after purchase.”  It had escaped my attention.  Had it said, “Clip after purchase, or you may be arrested exiting Harrods under the gaze of posh customers,” I suppose it might have registered.

So that was our interesting Harrod’s experience.  Don’t let me dissuade you — it’s a lovely store.  I’m just not sure I’ll be allowed back in.

So, on to the V&A Museum.  The truth is, I wish that I could tell you more about the Victoria and Albert Museum.  It is huge, and filled with fabulous things.  Even the “lunchroom” is a grand production.  But, honestly, Kate and I were the walking dead by the time we got there.  We’d been up all night; we’d ridden the highs and lows of walking Kensington and shopping Harrods.  We were enthralled by the V&A, but we were beat.   We entered the museum wide-eyed, immediately sat down to some nibbles in the food wing, and hoped to refuel sufficiently.v and a mus

Once back in the museum, we strolled the magnificent clothing galleries, enjoyed looking at silver and furniture, and then it all goes to a blur.  We were both about to hit the mat, and we knew we were going down hard, so we grudgingly left the V&A, with so much still unseen, and headed back to our hotel.  It was time to tuck in for the evening, eat dinner, and rest up for the next day, the main event–the London Fashion Week extravaganza.

More on that in Part 2.