Dropping In

October 16th, 2010

Next week I’m going to London for a week. This will be my first visit since 1978, a year when, as I’ve told people, Sid and Nancy were still an item and no one thought Margaret Thatcher would ever become prime minister. Things have changed, they said; you won’t recognize the place. That wouldn’t be difficult, I think, as I only spent a few days there on my first trip and saw really nothing I remember save vague recollections of Big Ben, Tower Bridge, and a damp and dour B&B somewhere…, well I haven’t a clue, really. To prepare for the trip, I asked some friends, many of whom have lived there at one time or another, what they would do or where they would go, making it clear that I wanted to know what interested them, not what they thought might interest me. Sorting among the responses has been interesting: I will visit Shoreditch and Angel, shop at Selfridge’s and browse the shelves at Foyles. I may visit a gay bar near the Marble Arch which one friend swears by and another says is at least a century-old with a clientele to match. I’ve never been a fan of ferris wheels and I definitely will not be dropping in on the Crown Jewels.

The thing is, I’ve no talent for short visits to big cities. Like showing up ravenously hungry to a dinner theatre buffet, it’s difficult to know where to start and how to get the most personal satisfaction for the money and the time. I’ve tried reading the weighty guidebooks beforehand (Time Out’s London is over 400 pages) but they’re like reading software manuals without sitting in front of a computer - nothing really sinks in until you’re there and then who wants to waste precious holiday time on guidebooks? And then there is the special problem of London itself which appears to have been just thrown together over the centuries like some great stew. At least Paris has its numbered spiral of neighbourhoods and New York and Toronto both have their grids. Speaking of the latter two, it’s funny that the British were more logical in planning cities far away than they ever were at home.

My biggest problem, though, is not so much not knowing where to go for dinner or not having enough time to really do the Victoria and Albert Museum but that a short visit rarely allows me to get through the surface of a city. What is it really like living in the place? Where would I go for a good coffee and a sit on a rainy November Saturday afternoon? If I was desperate for a pee in Covent Garden, what would I do? It’s things like these that I really want to know and in a week can never learn. This doesn’t mean that I’m not looking forward to my trip; even dropping in for a hallucinatory whirl will be grand fun and an opportunity for adventure. Tasting a bit of the politics of the place at this particular point in time will be interesting in itself. And who knows what role serendipity may play.