Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Two Days in London, with Manchester and Sheffield along the Way

To love London is to love life, my friend David used to say.  It connects with a global sensibility and kindred spirit of my beloved NYC.  I’ve always adored London, visiting it year in, year out for decades, watching it change, cope with the sea of glossy details which cover cities everywhere.   While cities everywhere must cope with the onslaught of sameness, London’s neighborhoods remain gems. I remember my first trip their thirty years ago, strolling through punk Kings Road, now posh.  The city still surprises and amuses.

Scenes from a few days in London. Lots of laughs.

But getting there, or extracting myself from here, that wasn’t as simple or easy.

Holy week is always crazy.   This was no different.  Monday night before leaving, I noticed my flight was leaving at 7:15 am, not pm.   So, I stayed up all night and hit the road at 4:00, the moon still out when I walked out to catch the A train to JFK.

 The flight out to Heathrow was quiet enough.  But arrivals and connections were anything but simple.

After a three hour delay, putting me out of reach of any departing trains from Manchester to Sheffield, where I’d spend the next day, giving a talk at the Political Studies Conference.

Arriving for these quick trips can wear on the soul.  But the stroll through the country town on the way over reminded why I’d come.  The streets filled with puddles, a cathedral, and a pub, the countryside connecting with the city.   

The conference was in city hall, my panel in town hall.  We debated social networks and civil culture, online voting and the politics of sports and friendship.  Everyone had something to elaborate.  I had a blast giving my Rebel Friendships talk for the very first time.

Finishing, I made my way to the train station to make my way back to London.

There, i planned to hang out with Jamesy, my old Vassar buddy from my San Francisco.  We hang here together every year, uniting to continue a conversation which started back in 1993 on the left coast of the US, in a foggy town at Zuni Cafe on Market Street.  We talked and walked, drank and ate, worked and played, gossiped about friends and old roommates, old scores and new games. Remember when you were roommates with so and so, but were supposed to be friends with so and so, who kept your deposit for so and so, who didn’t want  you to leave so you called the cops on so and so, who brought his friends over to the party, when he was engaged to so and so but was dating so and so but was sleeping with so and so, so he left and you met so and so dressed in nothing looking for so and so, who hung out with you even though she was looking for so and so.  That should be your next novel, I recommended, remembering those quirky years in between Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the ensuing wars and terrorist attacks, when the country was obsessed with what the definition of “’is’ is.”  

We met at M’s apartment in Kensington.  We’d known each other longer, since 1986.  Full of art and talismans from his travels east, a Rudy Valuntino bust and semi pornographic photos, his home is a work of art.  And he always shares it, even when he is not there.  Jamesy and I snacked on chips and caught up when I arrived, eventually making our way out to the pubs in search of curry and beer, which we succeeded in procuring.  The pubs are changing in London, become more and more the same, less details or animation.  But still a places where stories and fights start and end. We wouldn’t make it to sleep till 3 AM.

Thursday, we made no plans, none at all.  After putzing about half the day, we made our way out for a stroll through Hyde Park, a public commons like our central park, but nothing like Olmstead’s gem, it is unique in and of itself. We’d hope to catch a glimpse of the oldest tree in London, but had no idea where to begin, so we just walked.  Strolled out of the park, back into the park, trying to find something that we could not find in New York. These days its not as easy. 

So we zigged and zagged, grabbed a cab, wandered to Piccadilly Circus, and Trafalgar Square, the majesty of the place is always curtailed by the messy history, the conquests the colonial antagonisms, the treatment of the Irish, the Indians, everyone else but them. The English really are bastards, a friend from Ireland recalled.  Well, they have been.  But who am i to say as an American? And then there are the Beatles, punks, monte pythons, and pop geniuses and London is still London.  So we walked and walked, and stumbled into Serpentine Gallery and walked. 

And finally, we made our way for a stroll through the majestic National Gallery.   El Greco’s Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple, the Caravaggio’s, the collection is exquisite.  Jamesy showed me his favorite, The Execution of Lady Jane Gray. But watching the people watch is just as moving, so many  lounging out taking in so much of our collective cultural memory.

James smiled as  I looked at him from the top of the gallery, the sun shone in his face with a smile.  

So we kept on walking down Downing Street. 

 Some students had organized a quirky rally.  Lets go check it out, I told James.  “Stop Taxing Periods,” “End the Tampon Tax” read their signs as they stood outside 10 Downing Street.   Apparently sanitary napkins are considered luxury items worth a significant tax, which men do not pay for items such as Viagra. “Tampons not essential, we wont wear them,” declared another sign. In the history of rebellions, theres been the Boston Tea Party, the Whisky Rebellion and then there was...

“Why are you here?” I asked her.

“It  is a facebook protest,” she explained, walking me through the nuances of National Health Services and EU tax policies.  A man stood by her carrying a very large replica covered in red paint. He wore a pair of underwear with even more paint on his head.  The police stood by laughing.

“They were really hot,” noted James, nodding goodbye to the protestors.

“There’s the Gandhi statue down there,” he pointed, looking in the direction of parliament.

Lincoln, Gandi, and James

From Sloan Square to Chelsea we wandered, taking in a pint or two with the preppie “sloanies” and stopping for Chinese food along the way.  Back at the hotel everyone was watching the debate on tv at the pub, so we stopped to watch and chat. 

“Let me go” by Heaven 17, “The Promise” by When in Rome, and “Come Sail Away” alternated as we listened to the radio most of the night, as we added a few notes to the sonata of our friendship, extending from San Francisco to Poughkeepsie, Los Angeles to New York City, with stops in France and Belgium, Minneapolis and Barcelona, Berlin and London along the way.

Jamesy helped me make my way down to Waterloo for my trip. 

I’d spend the weekend in Falmouth, in South England, where the stories continued. But for now, thank you London.  Thank you. See you soon.

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