Londinium Reverse Streams

London - Wednesday, June 21, 2000 04:30:00

Dawn has arrived and the air is filled with a cool grey-blue mist. Praed Street is dead quiet. Neither cars, nor cabs whiz by Notting Hill’s trendy streets. Two creatures stare across the road as I slow my step to watch. They behave like rodents, but hint perversely of both a canine and feline inbreed; miniature somethings with sandy colored coats, pointed snouts, sniffing street grub—rodent-like tails drape toward the ground. I’m at a loss. I want to approach them but their cautious calculated maneuvers in this mutually covert sojourn at a quite un-Londonish hour tell me to keep stride. Crestfallen, slowly subsiding intoxicated amusement carries on.

I trust that my instincts are leading me to my designated guest bed at 34-36 Sussex Gardens. One Princess Square is still vibrating through my body. It’s the Pavilion Hotel—a newly renovated 27-room hospitable haven that supposedly attracts odd sorts from the music and fashion industries. At least that’s what their advertising tags claim. The rooms are indeed funky and uniquely designed, but a bathroom seems to be an incidental addition. A shower is a challenge. It features one of those massage heads that happens to be hanging a mere three inches from my head. Flip it on and the cold water soon reaches an unrelenting burning pulse. Warning: sleight-of-hand required to flick boiling water in the direction of soapy body. This spartan shower also ups the cleansing challenge in lacking a soap dish or ledge for a shampoo bottle. Clever improvisation...which reminds me of the evening’s earlier jazz gig.

The Evening: Swinging with Earthworks

Soho’s Pizza Express Jazz Club hosted a week-long stint for Bill Bruford and his Earthworks. Part of the planning for my trip revolved around this particular concert. A desirable show or two away from the familiarity of one's home city makes a doubly rich vaction. This gig was special because the American guitarist, Larry Coryell, had been “on loan” as Bruford remarked, to his Earthworks ensemble for a few shows in London as well as select upcoming performances in Italy and Spain. New London friends, Chris Davies and Kim Jones, from Teddington, joined me at the jazz café. But first—rather than eating while listening—we dined at a French restaurant on Dean Street. Already a bit buzzed from a the wine at the restaurant, as well as a good ol’ pint at a pub on the corner of Dean, we sipped away two more bottles of red as Bruford and company played away for well over two and a half hours. Patric Clahar took the spotlight as runaway standout on tenor sax. Coryell upheld expectations. After a chat post-show with Bruford, exiting the jazz club was an eye opener as the grape tannins danced in our happy heads. Not too long after, I discovered useful late-night tourist information in a red phone booth.

Still Earlier That Same Day

The London subway system, known as the Underground, aka, the Tube, is remarkably convenient and well thought out. Except for the lack of air conditioning (which is the norm throughout the country), the trains are much more modern and user-friendly than New York’s equivalent. Is that too much of a surprise? What you quickly discover is that the steps or ramps (marked with a circle and horizontal line across the middle) do not always lead you directly to a train platform. There are maps with lots of entrance/exit numbers, most of them leading back up to street level, and then one magic entrance which actually takes you towards a train station. Once you’re on that right path, you may find yourself traveling on escalators that plummet deep into (a journey to) the center of the earth. Convenient, were signs that urged people to stand to the right, in effect creating an escalator express lane. One of the  most tedious challenges of New York City commuting is the frustration of dancing and maneuvering to get around a wide, slow moving, unwavering, indecisive piece of human furniture.

In London, I often used the Central Line at Marble Arch. That station was just a ten-minute walk from the hotel down past the middle Eastern cafés on Edgeware Road. Each day and night I walked by what was virtually a separate culture of Lebanese, Turkish, and Iranian immigrants. Outside these cafés, customers would smoke from a hookah, a magnificent centerpiece that might put an ordinary bong to shame. Bedecked with precious metals and emeralds, these table-high smoke machines seemed fit for an opium den revival. I set out from the Westminster station off the Jubilee Line which plopped me in the popular tourist zone. There was Big Ben and the Parliament buildings in all their architectural splendor. Westminster Abbey was next—home to the kings and queens dating back to the thirteenth centurya site of fine workmanship.

Having filled the quota of old world sites, an old bridge into Southbank, where I had been the previous day with Peter Banks and Cecilia, looked welcoming. It was a long trek heading east along the Thames leading to the brand new Tate Modern. “Opened May 11, 2000 by her Majesty the Queen,” the inscription read. A French photography exhibit as well as modern painter icons like Dali, Miro, and Picasso vibrated the synapses.