Tuesday, June 28, 2016

London Calling

The Queen Mother wanted to see the musical Cats. The Royal Father told her we would see it in London, bringing about a yeah-right response from Her Majesty.

But in August 1991, we were riding in the back of a dingy blue cab on the first leg of our journey across the pond. Our time-tested packing process had to be adapted for the airlines, which meant taking fewer and smaller bags (and no Happy Meal boxes). Dad had just purchased a new toy: a Ricoh Hi-8 camcorder, which he began using as we were loading up the cab in the driveway.

"It's his baby," Brother Michael quipped. "He'll probably having it on his lap." And he was about right.


The trip capitalized on Dad's frequent-flier points involving two different carriers. He would hop on a direct flight to London via the now-defunct TWA, while Mom, brother and I would get there on also-now-defunct Northwest via a rimshot in Minneapolis. The way the flights aligned due to delays, we would both end up at Gatwick at roughly the same time the next day.

That next day part wasn't something I had girded for. I didn't realize how many hours it took to fly from Minneapolis to London. After departing the Twin Cities around 5pm, eating chicken on the plane, I had the choice of trying to either sleep on the plane or watch The Godfather Part III. I tried to do both and accomplished neither.

From my journal:
I'm listening to the rock-and-roll channel on the in-flight headphones... make that stethoscope. The things have no shred of wiring in them -- the actual phones are located behind the plug-in and the tubes carry the sound to one's ears. The sound quality is lame -- it's like listening to FM radio over the telephone.
At 9:30am London time -- 3:30am St. Louis time -- my groggy jet-lagged self arrived at Gatwick with the rest of the family, and we took the train into London, followed by a taxi.
You have to be a sports-car driver to compete with the London traffic. I've often griped to some slowpokes on I-44 that if we were in California, we'd be doing 80 miles per hour bumper to bumper. They don't go that fast in downtown London, but one tends to wonder.
We were able to get two rooms with two beds for this trip, meaning I wouldn't have to fight with Brother Michael over surface area or covers. Our room at the Canterbury Hotel overlooked Marble Arch and Hyde Park. The Royal Room stared into the side of a building.


Some friends of Grandpa and Grandma Francis -- Douglas and Elizabeth -- left us a message at the desk inviting us over to their flight for a get-together and walk to their favorite bistro down the way. I was hoping I could make it. Jet lag was crashing my system as a lack of sleep and difference in time conspired to make me nauseous. Mom had given me a airsick patch to put behind my ear, but it wasn't working.

So unfortunately, the first question I had to ask of our new friends when we arrived at their flat was, "Where is the W.C.?"

Try as I might to hold back and shoot some video of our friends' beautiful flat, I had to visit it twice. And in one rush to make it to the porcelain receptacle, I barfed on part of the floor... and the microphone of Dad's new camera. Foam protected its delicate parts, but it couldn't protect us from the smell. "Gamey," Brother Michael remarked.

After a third go-around, I finally emerged in better spirits.

"He's smiling," the Queen Mother observed. I had rebooted my system. Time to go to the bistro -- a short walk down the street to a quaint and candlelit eatery. I had a lemon-lime sorbet and a Coke, and it stayed down this time.

We followed it with a walk around Hyde Park. Elizabeth marveled at how I could shoot video while walking backwards. "Oh, he's quite good!" She looked forward to seeing me on a "chat show" one of these days, after learning I was embarking on a journalism education.


We took on Buckingham Palace our second day, a Sunday, hoping to see the changing of the guards. It wasn't happening, but we did catch the horse guards prancing by us down the street in their tall hats and poised ponies. Lunch followed at the world-famous Hard Rock Cafe, where I decided my system was back to normal enough to eat and drink more. We spent $140 on t-shirts and merchandise. We did some shopping near the River Thames shops and then got on what would be the first of several tours included in our vacation package, including a dinner cruise.
All four of us tried to get a table together, but I guess we just should've sat down at one on our own, because the woman who was directing people to table didn't look like she had it together. Chicken was the main dish, but the bird looked so small that I thought it was a Cornish game hen.
I also got a beer, but I could only stand half of it -- too bitter. Brother Michael said I should've asked for "lager." Afterwards, I had to grab a Coke at the McDonald's across the street.


On our third day, we finally got to see the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace -- a royal mess. We had to shove our way up to the iron fence to see anything, and once there, people pushed and pressed while jabbering in at least half a dozen different languages. "Dos horas!" a Spaniard exclaimed, referring to how long he had been waiting as people shoved him around.

The changing of the guards is an elaborate ceremony featuring those beautiful Palace guards in their bearskin caps, toy soldiers in real life, a full brass band, and a contingent of Scots in kilts playing bagpipes. We have pomp and circumstance. We have a battle of the bands. We have probably have people with black marks on their faces from being pressed up against the iron.

After another tour we had a night free of scheduled activities, so we decided to take the bus over to Piccadilly Circus.
Catching the right bus is easy, eh? No -- we goofed up along the way. The first problem was finding the right bus stop; we found it after three tries. Go the bus only to find out unceremoniously that it only went halfway to where we wanted. We caught the connecting bus only to hear from the conductor himself that our Travelcards weren't good for where we wanted to go -- for some reason our destination was in Zone 2 (which my Dad insists it was not) and our cards are only good for Zone 1. We had to get off, and after a long walk we finally caught the right bus. Dad now says we'll ask before we get on whether a bus goes to a certain place.


Our fourth day took us into one of London's most reverent and beautiful sites, undergoing renovation at the time, but still accessible. We walked among the tombs of kings and queens and "Poet's Corner," the place enshrined for T.S. Elliott, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry James and others. Once an hour, the Abbot (which I called the minister on duty in my journal because I didn't have a better word) called upon everybody to stop what they were doing and join with him in a short prayer for the concerns of the world -- and everything and everybody just froze in reverence.

Afterward, your servant visited what would become one of my favourite parts of the London visit: the Imperial War Museum, a series of underground rooms where the Royal forces strategized and planned during WWII.
You wear a walkman around your neck and take the tour by tape. The sound is so crisp and clear that I actually thought for an instant that Winston Churchill was in the room! As for the rooms themselves, many of them haven't been touched since the end of WWII. One can still see scribbled notes on desks and maps with pins up on the walls.


The home of the famous Beefeaters and Royal Ravens was staffed by yeomen guards in black tunics, explaining to us the various methods of torture -- the rack, a "woman's leash," a neck collar with spikes on the inside, foot shackles, whole body shackles... I'll take the pillory in Williamsburg.

They also led us into the royal jewel house, filled with gold swords and miters and as well as medals and huge plates. The room with the crown jewels is split into two levels: an outer level for those who want just a passing glance, and an inner, slower level for those who want to get up close with the bling. The yeoman guards are there to keep things going.

"Move along, ladies, this isn't Harrods!" one quipped to us.

One of those crowns weighs 52 pounds. How do you wear something like that without it breaking your neck?


We found ourselves eating at chain restaurants more often than we expected because of the exchange rates. At Pizza Hut, we got an all-you-could-eat special for 4 pounds each. And I found myself, it seemed, the only person in the entire eatery who was eating pizza with my hands instead of with a fork.
Dad's philosophy is "we invented it, so we can eat it like we want. Mine is that London is a town of diversity, and if you're allowed to walk down the street looking like Sheik Abdullah The Great with your wife wrapped in black, you oughta be able to eat pizza with your hands.

We saw two shows in London: Phantom of the Opera and Cats. The first was an amazing show -- great music, great special effects, candles rising through the floor, it's all good -- even if Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman weren't in it anymore. One thing that surprised me was how we seemed to be overdressed for the show. Even people who were in the Dress Circle like us were wearing shorts and T-shirts. Cats would follow in a few days.


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