Monday, November 21, 2005

An Autumn in London

After spending 10 hours sitting cramped, in the care of insensitive air hostesses who behave like housewives sick of their chores (it wasn’t Air India), it’s quite a relief to see London spread out below, lit like an Indian town on Diwali night.

As the plane touches down, the man in the next seat discreetly takes out a rexine folder from his pocket and opens it to look at a picture of Lord Venkateswara (he had done the same while taking off). With the blessings of the Lord, we step into London.

I am carrying only a handbag, but tonnes of mental baggage: is it going to be as great as I’ve heard it to be — I keep asking myself during the hour-long drive to the hotel. I’ll find that out soon. Meanwhile, I badly need a lighter. Mine was confiscated by a Jat constable at the Delhi airport. And here, the hotel is a no-smoking one, and the staff doesn’t smoke too, but they give directions where I could find one.

Thus begins my first encounter with a famous yet totally unknown city, late in the night, in search of a lighter. I walk on the cobbled streets, against a crisp, chilly breeze. These are the last days of autumn, and the sidewalks are carpeted with maple leaves. Mish, mash, mish, mash, comes the sound as you trample upon a heap of them — that’s usually the sound of a still night in London.

Finally I find a shop — Hart The Grocer. Having bought whatever I wanted to, I am suddenly faced with a problem: will I find my way back? Worse, what if I get mugged? As I walk out of the store, a bearded man (he could’ve been a Charles Dickens character) calls out to me. He says something, which goes above my head, but I presume he’s asking for directions and tell him: ‘‘I’m new to this place.’’ ‘‘No man, you got a pound to spare? Am hungry, you see,’’ he says. Beggar or a bully? I say sorry and walk off. On the way, I walk past people walking in groups, talking and laughing loudly. Potential muggers? I get nervous and quicken my pace. The hotel isn’t very far.

The next day is Sunday. I am up at six. Joggers and dog-walkers are up too. I wander near my hotel for a while before walking into a shop, run by a Gujarati, to buy the Sunday papers. I scratch my head which paper to buy — I want to buy them all. I settle for ones you don’t get back home — The Scotland on Sunday and The Irish Independent. The news isn’t good — there’s been a bombing at Bali.

But the weather is great. It’s sunny and time to see London. I randomly choose a destination: Buckingham Palace. My hotel is near Russell Square, in the heart of London, from where I take the tube to Victoria station. Taking the underground train is the fastest — and the cheapest — way of getting around London. The underground here is the oldest in the world, and also the largest: it takes three million people around the city every day.

But very often, your legs take you around faster from one place to another. London is the place to walk. Everybody walks. I walk too, from the Victoria Station, finding my way to the Buckingham Palace. I follow groups of tourists — they ought to be going there too. And soon I am at the gates of the 18th century Palace — the home to the Royal Family. Had I not known this was the Palace, I wouldn’t have stopped to look at it — that’s the beauty of London. The past and the present blend so well that you can’t say what is what. Everything is charming, in a very old fashioned way.

In front of the Palace is the Victoria Memorial. The queen is perched on her throne, looking at the city. She looks as if somebody froze her into marble while she was still ruling most of the world. I take pictures and walk away, under her gaze, into St James Park. Here, ducks swim in the lake. Pelicans come to say hello to you. And squirrels eat out of your hand.

I walk out of the Park, on to the Great George Street, and reach Parliament Square. It is 1.45 pm. The Big Ben chimes (it chimes every 15 minutes). The tower overlooks the Thames. On the other side of the river is the London eye, the giant wheel that offers you spectacular views of the city during a 40-minute ride. I take a walk along the river, on the Victoria Embankment. I pass Cleopatra's Needle — the Egyptian obelisk which, 3500 years ago, stood at the Sun Temple at Heliopolis.

My next destination is Trafalgar Square — again, walking distance. The fountains you see here were remodelled in 1939 by Edwin Lutyens, the man who designed New Delhi. Then, for a while, I roam around Picadilly Circus and Soho — the cultural centres of London. You can walk here for hours and hours, passing by fashionable shops, fashionable people, theatres, open air restaurants, pubs. Bombay Dreams is still running here, and so is ABBA.

Londoners love to drink (but they don’t like to get drunk) and Soho is the place to drink. I get into a pub — just to get the feel of being a Londoner — and ask for a pint of Guinness, the dark bitter beer said to be high in iron content. It costs me 2.70 pounds — almost Rs 200.

The sun is about to set when I step onto Fleet Street where all newspaper offices were located once. Today, thanks to technology, they’ve all moved out to bigger places. Only Reuters remains, but its journalists have moved out too, to Gray‘s Inn Road, into a building which was once the Times office and where Graham Greene started off as a sub-editor. Hidden in a lane next to the Reuters building is the 500-year-old St Bride’s Church — also known as the journalists church. I tip-toe in: there is a musical performance on. I notice inscriptions in memory of departed people — all past editors, news editors, correspondents, publishers...

The Fleet Street ends with the majestic St Paul’s cathedral. It was built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1698, to replace the much larger original destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. Londoners still haven’t got over the fire. Most buildings have smoke-detectors, which are tested on a regular basis. So, all along the sidewalks, you find smokers puffing away outside their offices.

It’s getting dark and I return to Russell Square. I am tired, but it’s too early to get back to the hotel. So I do what a Londoner does every evening — go to the pub. It’s a traditional English pub where I am sitting. The furniture is wooden and vintage posters adorn its walls. In another few minutes, Arsenal will play Auxerre in the championship league. Armed with their pints, the people in the pub are ready for action. Most of them seem to be supporters of Arsenal, but goalkeeper David Seaman lets them down.

When I leave the pub it is drizzling. I get a little wet but feel refreshed. After a hot shower in the hotel, I watch television. The ads are already about what to buy this Christmas. Somewhere in between, I fall asleep and miss the interview of my favourite writer, the late Evelyn Waugh, recorded in the 1960’s, which BBC was to show later in the night.

October 2002


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