[caption id="AdventuresintheMostHappeningPlace_img1" align="aligncenter" width="231"]
[caption id="AdventuresintheMostHappeningPlace_img2" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]
THE OTHER DAY I READ that London is the most happening place in the world just now, and for once I can believe it. Everywhere, long-term projects that dragged for years are finally complete, crumbling structures have been refurbished or at least repainted, new museums and venues have appeared out of nowhere and some truly bizarre attractions just seem to be happening on the streets as you walk around.
Only yesterday I saw a construction worker entertaining his mates with Barry Manilow hits on an old upright joanna at Liverpool Street station—someone’s placed a whole bunch of pianos around the city for anyone to use. I understand there are ping-pong tables, too. Even one or two of the tube stations have been cleaned. It all boils down to this: If something in London has not been finished for Summer 2012, you can safely bet it won’t be finished at all.
This year was always going to sparkle with a million events both sporting and cultural, dazzle with artistic innovation both corporate and underground and glitter with Royal pomp on an overdrive unseen since 1897. It’s just a shame it’s also twinkling from a billion raindrops reflecting the light from the myriad fireworks, laser displays and street party lanterns. I’ve never known such torrential rain for so long.
Still, if there’s one thing we Brits are good at (and I use this cliché advisedly), it’s dealing with the weather—and in case you’re worried, all those pianos have little plastic covers. Our street didn’t have a party, but plenty did, rain and all. And I am sure someone somewhere has calculated how many feet of bunting per head of population were sold in the run-up to the Diamond Jubilee. I’m guessing it was a good 100 yards of little fabric triangles on strings per person.
Because of the heaving central London crowds, not to mention the ever-present rain, Tony and I chose to wait downriver at Greenwich for the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant, because we knew that most of the 1,000-strong flotilla, including the floating belfry and the Queen’s barge, was to finally dock just beyond here. Unfortunately for us, everyone else knew that too. Eight miles after the official finish point, the crowd was a good 10 people and almost as many umbrellas deep. I was struck by the sheer diversity of people who’d turned out, and by the undisguised excitement people were displaying. It would be lying to say that everyone was mad for the Jubilee, but a lot more were than I would have expected.
Absolutely everywhere around town, there’s “stuff” going on. Last night, London’s newest skyscraper, The Shard, a giant glass pyramid it’s impossible to miss from any angle of London, opened to a massive display of light shows and light classics from the Royal Philharmonic. Apartments cost a cool £50m, but from February there will be an observation platform right at the top that the public can visit. The annual Greenwich and Docklands International Festival (the last week of June) boasted 30 meter-high marionettes and a gigantic papier-mâché galleon parading through Woolwich in an ocean of foam.
TRANSPORT FOR LONDON’S LATEST venture, a cable car from North Greenwich Peninsula across the Thames to Queen Victoria dock, near ExCel Exhibition Center, also opened a couple of days ago and I love it. It is, of course, an unnecessary frivolity, a 50-meter-high “solution” to a problem that never existed; we already have plenty of transport there, but it is such fun. Okay, so once you get north of the river, there’s one restaurant, a couple of convenience stores and a quite nice stretch of water to see, but it’s the journey that counts. My first ride, costing £3.20, was paid for by swiping my pay-as-you-go Oyster card through the turnstiles. It was so smooth, so exhilarating and gave such incredible bird’s-eye views across East London that I have now bought a multi-ride pass that gets me 10 trips for £16, in my opinion one of the best bargains in town—you wouldn’t get one spin on the London Eye for that. The “Emirates Air Line,” as they want us to call it, has two speeds, a five-minute crossing for commuters at rush hour and a 10-minute journey for tourists during the rest of the day. I highly recommend it, even if all you do once you get there is turn around and go back again.
[caption id="AdventuresintheMostHappeningPlace_img3" align="aligncenter" width="620"]
This Month’s Contacts
Emirates Air Line (Cable Car)
Greenwich and Docklands International Festival
Old Vic Tunnels
Royal Society Summer Exhibition
Thai Pot Restaurant
<One Man, Two Guv’nors
THE OLD VIC TUNNELS RUN underground behind Waterloo Station. Originally, they had the unsavory job of playing hospital to returning Great War soldiers too badly injured for the general public to witness. They were closed for almost a century, and are bloomin’ creepy, not to mention damp. Now, though, they are being used for a variety of odd artistic events, from Secret Cinema screenings to immersive art “happenings” to a fascinating, unfathomable experiment where a theater set is being left to rot in real time in one of the tunnels. I often go to see what’s happening there (and to check out the state of the mushrooms on that set).
In comparison to moldy pantomime scenery, The Enlightenment Café was positively normal. The evening was the tryout for a new series of events where Science meets Art meets Steampunk. Several of the tunnels had been turned into candlelit Victorian “laboratories,” complete with plush, deep-red velvet furnishings, strange glowing test tubes, dusty leather-bound books, stuffed creatures in cases, birds’ skeletons and sundry traditional mad professors’ paraphernalia. In each of them, a frock-coat-clad scientist gave lectures or produced experiments about some aspect of their work, as though we were a group of learned 19th-century colleagues dropping round for a cup of tea and a chat about their latest discoveries.
What made it fascinating for me was that these people, who looked like they had stepped straight from central casting, weren’t actors, but real Ph.D.s, research-scientists and professors, lecturing in aspects of their own fields. So, although they were giving the “pop science” view of their work, if you had questions, or wanted to take ideas further, they could actually talk the talk.
In the main tunnel, a Victorian-style music hall played a program based on scientific themes with a historic bent against the ever-present aroma of damp, a fascinating mixture of lacey costumes, sparkly props and H.G. Wells-esque rockets. There’s no doubting that the Old Vic Tunnels is one of the weirdest venues in London just now, but it’s worth keeping an eye out—you really never know what you’re going to find there next.
FOR THOSE WHO PREFER their science rather straighter, the Royal Society throws open its doors the first week of each July for their summer exhibition—a wonderful gathering of Fellows and universities showcasing their latest work for the public, in language people like me can understand. The exhibitors are quite happy to take their ideas off on tangents. I had a lovely conversation with a meteorologist about how, as an Evil Genius, I could create a secret weather machine of doom and hold the world to ransom, though given the downpour outside the Royal Society’s exquisite 18th-century balcony windows I suspect I had been beaten to it already. Entry is free—worth it just to see the staggering marble and gold beauty of a building normally off-limits to architecture lovers.
After the exhibition, we were looking for somewhere nearby to eat. Perhaps it’s the sudden influx of 2012 tourists, but everywhere in London seems really busy at the moment. Even on a Tuesday we were finding it hard to visit any of our normal choices, so we plumped for Thai Pot, on the corner of Bedfordbury in Covent Garden, a place we’d passed many times, but never been inside. I was glad I finally made it. It’s got mid-priced, classic Thai cuisine, with clear indications as to how hot everything would be, no surprises and swift service. The décor was clean and modern, and the dishes a good size. Covent Garden is notoriously hard to find decent, non-touristy eateries, but this is definitely going in my little black book of last-minute restaurants in the city center.
JUST UP THE WAY, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, One Man, Two Guv’nors continues to play to packed houses. I’d managed to miss it at the National Theatre, then at the Adelphi, and its original star, James Corden, is now regaling Broadway, but I’d read that his replacement, former understudy Owain Arthur, is even better in the role, so Tony and I booked up.
It’s an extraordinary show, part 1960s farce, part musical, part pantomime, and if you’re not into audience participation I’d sit a fair way back. The pace is frenetic; the laughs frequent and less politically correct than they might be and the slapstick perfectly timed. But the sub-Beatles, not-quite-part-of-the-action musicians are probably my favorite part of the whole evening. If you go, make sure you’re early for the pre-show entertainment.
By next time I should be a good way through my marathon of trying to see every play showing at the Globe, listening to spooky stories in an overgrown graveyard, enjoying afternoon tea in Mayfair, listening to All the Bells in England and cheering at the Olympics.