All the World's a Story

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A London Story

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The plane ride to Heathrow is easy, a mere six hours from JFK, following the coast of the US to Newfoundland, making a 45-degree turn towards Iceland, drafting the jetstream through the north Atlantic across Ireland, finally touching down in West London.  An hour-and-a-half long tube ride later and I was in Swiss Cottage, a charmingly “posh” (as described by locals I had spoken to before leaving) section of Northwest London where my girlfriend shares a flat with a French chef and Spanish grad student while she studies at Central School of Speech & Drama.

Swiss Cottage is not remotely Swiss, nor does it abound with cottages.  In fact, most of the houses are multi-story, Victorian-style, million-pound mini-mansions, the kind you always imagine as a child had the secret door through the library to the laboratory where some intrigue occurs beyond your 8-year-old comprehension.  Swiss Cottage gets its name from the pub centered around the intersection of Finchley and Avenue Roads, built in 1804 and called the “Swiss Tavern.”  The modern incarnation, still on the same spot, is more grandiosely titled “Ye Olde Swiss Cottage Public House,” where it serves the traditional Samuel Smith English Bitter out of an oak cask.  The bitter is an English invention and more commonly known in the US as English Ale.  It is characterized by the intense bitter aftertaste it leaves on the tongue, one of the effects of a higher hops content in the brew.  It is slightly opaque in nature, even cloudy and when poured, looks almost like a Guinness as the head retreats from the bottom of the glass.  It is also delicious, especially at room temperature, where the full flavor tends spring out of the pint glass (a whopping 20 oz in the UK) and warm the very insides on a cool autumn night.  Or so I’m told.

Ye Olde Swiss Cottage Public House

“Ye Olde Swiss Cottage Public House” happened to be the very spot where my girlfriend and her classmates would go to have a drink after class.  My introduction to English pub culture went like something out of a Dickens novel.  I stepped into a warmly lit room full of sweater-clad people talking and laughing to each other.  No loud music blaring, no dimly-lit hallway to negotiate around the bar.  No one bartender struggling to maintain a state of calm while eighty or so drunken yuppies yell at him over bad stereo system.  This was the very definition of the word “civilized.”  All that was missing was a large hearth roaring in the background and men smoking cigars in top hats.  Actually there was a large hearth, it just wasn’t on.  The beer was delicious, the staff were delightful, and conversation was able to flow without the risk of losing one’s voice halfway through the night.  I loved it.

It was something to be there.  I have always been an Anglophile.  One of my first memories of television is Ringo Starr spouting his incredible Liverpudlian accent on Thomas the Train Engine. My parents would let me watch in their bed in the early mornings on our 13″ black-and-white tube-tacular set.  Due to this devotion to the local PBS station (and the fact we couldn’t afford cable), my teenage years were filled with one witty British comedy after another, culminating in the genius of Monty Python and all of its wonderful absurdism.  My first attempt to develop a taste for eggs came about at age 6 because of The Hobbit, the first book my father ever read to me.  I wanted so badly to be a hobbit, and I think rightly identified the root of my transformation in the diet.  Sadly, I didn’t develop a taste until well into the Monty Python years, but the effort was an important step.  I was ensconced in British culture, by the simplicity of existing in a house with a penchant for publicly-funded entertainment and nerdy books.

The Conductor

Fast forward 10 years and I was living in Australia.  My parents had the foresight to let me play soccer as my first sport, which probably also helped seal the deal on my love affair with the United Kingdom.  Here we were in a commonwealth of the British Empire and all of the sudden we had access to all of the best soccer in the world.  I took up playing on a local Irish team, my brother on a Greek team.  Our introduction to real world of football came on the day my brother’s team played the local Turkish team.  On a Saturday afternoon, on a well-manicured pitch in Southeast Melbourne, two countries came and battled out their latent frustrations and warring history through the legs of their 14-year-old sons.  The mood was tense, the atmosphere friendly, even though a few tackles were a bit late.  As I recall it was a draw, a fitting respite for two countries who took so much from each other for so long.  Soon, though, my brother and I were completely taken with the discovery of world football and its tremendous grace, power and beauty.  We searched for hours on YouTube for the perfect goal, found teams to support, began participating in fantasy leagues, the works.  We became adopted sons of the world’s game.

So here I was, traveling to the place it was invented and where today, the best footballers in the world flock to play in the Barclays English Premier League, which boasts an annual revenue upwards of $3.5 billion dollars.  Its stars are fabulously wealthy and while mostly unknown in the US, can hardly go anywhere else in the world without stampeding mobs and paparazzi watching their every move.  Cristiano Ronaldo, formerly of Manchester United, one of the largest clubs in the world, and now of Real Madrid, arguably the largest club in the world, boasts endorsement deals and supermodel girlfriends that would put any NFL player to shame.  In a way, it felt as if I was coming home.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Unfortunately, I did not have the foresight or the funds to enjoy a game while I was there, so that was out.  I did however make a pilgrimage to the stadium of mine and my brother’s personal favorite club, Arsenal.  Arsenal is a club with a long history, most notably characterized by the chant “Boring, Boring Arsenal” because of their habit of winning games by scoring a quick goal and then shutting up shop on the other end of the pitch.  If you’ll recall from the movie “The Full Monty,” one of the ways the men start learning to dance is by equating a certain step to the Arsenal Offside Trap, a defensive move that involves everyone in defense stepping up to catch the forward “offside,” meaning he is ahead of the last defender (not including the goalie) when the ball is played to him.  If this is too confusing, don’t worry about it.  Here’s a picture:

The Offside Trap

If you still don’t get it, start watching soccer.  I can guarantee you won’t regret it.

I made it to the stadium and found it was not open, so I did the next best thing and visited the gift shop, entitled impressively “The Armoury.”  I contented myself with the purchase of a personalized Arsenal mug, though I could have shown my support in any number of ways, most notably an Arsenal Monopoly game, which begs the question: Is there anywhere Monopoly has not plundered for their real estate money-making machine?  Will I go to the Taj Mahal one day and find that, if purchased in tandem with the Red Fort (another famous Indian landmark) and populated with hotels, I will in fact be able to bankrupt everyone if they were to visit?

Regardless, I did not buy the game, preferring to be a conscious consumer that buys something reusable and with my name on it, for less than ten pounds.  But the reason to love Arsenal now is that the old adage of “Boring, Boring Arsenal” has been thrown out by the advent of Arsene Wenger (pronounced Veng-grrr), a haughty Frenchman whose genius catapulted Arsenal to an unbeaten season, the first ever in the Premier League and a feat that may never be repeated.  What’s even more amazing is he did it by playing attacking football from Dreamland, a fictional place commentators often refer to when teams are performing with such ingenuity and style they surpass normal human standards.  Some of the most beautiful goals every made are from that 2003-2004 season and I offer a terrific YouTube compilation for your enjoyment:

Exciting isn’t it?  Beautiful too.  The simplicity of and power of some of these goals is simply breathtaking to witness.  It is the reason this is the most popular sport in the world, a sport the world will stop for.  In 1914, a spontaneous truce was called during the first Christmas of World War One.  German and British men all along the lines got out of the trenches and began a ragtag game of 50-a-side soccer.  It is a sport that brings the world together, and I love it more than most things in the world.  Start watching it, believe me.

So, my Mecca visited, my piece of the history purchased to drink out of later, I set off walking back to Swiss Cottage.  Hampstead Heath was conveniently along the way, and I found the detour refreshing after the more industrial North London.  The Heath, as locals refer to it, was more recently popularized by the British indie film Bright Star, the story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne’s brief love affair before Keats’ death at 25.  Some of the most beautiful romantic poetry ever written was thought up on walks through the woods and creeks of this small park, and I, a burgeoning poet myself, had to see the place of inspiration.

Hampstead Heath

What struck me walking through this place was the evidence of its age.  It is easy to identify age in London.  You are surrounded by cathedrals, castles, and walls dating back to Shakespeare, back to the Middle Ages, back even to Roman times when London was first settled.  You are constantly reminded that life existed before you and will exist long after you are gone.  It is the same in this little spot of country, but the evidence is different.  Walking down a manicured gravel path, you turn a corner and an old man, gnarled, bent, and weathered, greets you.  He stands regally, his branches splayed out to the sky, his rigid backbone, that probably saw Shakespeare himself wander by at one time, stands straight and true as ever.  The elderly trees of Hampstead Heath are what make this such an impressive and startling place to be.  You begin to understand where Tolkien came up with his Ents.  He stared at these massive old trees and saw a living creature that just got tired and stopped moving around.

Here is where life starts to get interesting and where the difference lies between a city like London and my own habitation, New York.  I know it is a cliche, but New York is a relatively new place.  New York was founded in 1624 by the Dutch as trading post.  Its oldest surviving building is the Peter Claessen Wyckoff House, a Dutch saltbox structure that stands in Flatbush, a neighborhood of Brooklyn.  It is a simple household, probably owned by a tradesman or trader.  London began as the Roman settlement Londinium, founded in 43 AD.  It’s oldest surviving structure is the Tower of London, which is actually a collection of 21 different towers.  Its oldest is the White Tower, built in 1078 by William the Conqueror, that stands in the center of castle-like structure built up by kings past.  The amazing thing is, the Tower of London is still in use.  The Yeoman Warders, the group charged with the care and upkeep of the Tower, still reside there with their families.  Most of their duties today extend to entertaining tourists and feeding the ravens of the Tower.  It is said that the should the ravens ever leave, the Tower would fall.  They are now kept on payroll and given an annual salary of £1 a year to help cover their daily diet of raw meat.  Their wings are also clipped on one side, to prevent them from flying over the walls.

Not that they have any reason to worry.  The ravens live a cushy life and the Tower has not been invaded in about 600 years.  But the Yeoman Warders do protect some of the most priceless treasures in history.  The Crown Jewels are housed in a vault on the backside of the White Tower.  This vault, a combination of two steel doors weighing 4,000 lbs. each, holds the crowns or the skeletons of the crowns, of most of the monarchs since Queen Victoria.  These crowns, aside from a select few, have been stripped of their jewels, as the jewels are passed along to each new monarch on their coronation.  These jewels include the largest diamond in the world, the Cullinan diamond, weighing in uncut at a whopping 3106 carats (about 1 1/3 lbs of diamond.)  Nine cuts were made in these diamonds and the family of Cullinan I-IX was created.  Cullinan II resides on the Imperial Crown and Cullinan 1 in the Sovereign’s Royal Sceptre.  If you have never seen a very large diamond, as I never had, you cannot imagine the awe these stones inspire.  It seems like no big deal, especially to someone from a country without a monarchy, but trust me, go.  It is an experience to breathe in.

The Imperial Crown of India

Other crowns are also kept there, including Queen Victoria’s diamond tiara-like crown and the Imperial Crown of India, worn once by King George V on his visit to India, where he reportedly complained about a headache after three hours of wearing it.  It has not been worn since.

England is a country rich in history and tradition and I felt right at home in the middle of it.  Aside from the influence of my Brit-friendly parents and my preference for English football, I was surprised at how easy it was to integrate myself into the society.  Most of the time traveling is an uncomfortable and often embarrassing mix of faux pas for the first week (or month or year) there, but I was able to comfortably find my feet quickly and enjoy my time in London thoroughly.  The best part of it is summed up by my first meal there.  My girlfriend took me to another pub called The White Horse Tavern near her house after drinks with her classmates.  There we met Phil, a very British, very polite bartender who served us the best Thai food I have ever eaten in my life.  To have the combination of English Ale and deliciously authentic Thai food made me realize I was in for a treat while here.  This combination of New and Old World, of cosmopolitan cultures mixing to create an effervescent, lively society is what charmed me the most about London.  I will certainly be back.

Coming Soon…

A London Story Part II:  I Go to the Theatre


Written by Seth James

November 4, 2010 at 11:20 pm

Posted in Travel

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