I write this to you from my double suite on the Orient Express crossing the Swiss Alps. My manservant, Charles, is off fetching a cup of tea and steam pressing my white dinner jacket for tonight’s luxury feast.
Customs at London’s Heathrow airport was a breeze, and the new express train whisked me into Paddington in a mere 18 minutes. I was greeted by a city that was being torn to pieces, with more new construction under way than at any other time since WWII. Major thoroughfares like Piccadilly were hopeless, and I ended up making most of my journeys by Underground.
That night at the Naval & Military Club, a group of British Army officers just back from Afghanistan, and their dates, hosted a blowout black tie homecoming party, complete with disc jockey and disco ball. While singing a drunken “Rule Britannia” at 4:00 AM we maxed out the amplifiers and ended up blowing the power, not only for our building, but for the entire block.
Suddenly, our 18th century building was plunged back to the 18th century, meaning no lights, Internet, or flushing toilets. Candelabras solved the first problem, and a pink hard copy Financial Times the second, but when nature called, I had to retire to the pub across the street. Each time I did so, I enjoyed a pint of Fuller’s London Pride, not sure if I was making my problem better or worse. Two days later, two truck sized diesel generators on loan from the British Army magically showed up and solved the power problem, and we returned to the 20th century.
The next morning, I staggered out of the club, my eyes blinking at the light, my head pounding, to be greeted by 1,500 cyclists, completely naked in all their glory. It was some form of protest against the use of cars in the city. London never changes, does it? It is only a matter of time before the movement migrates to the states, I hope.
The Globe Theater is a magnificent reproduction of the original, which burned down in 1613 during a canon scene in Henry VIII (click here http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/). Its thatched roof, open-air seats, and 12-inch roughhewn oak beams led me to expect The Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon to walk out any moment. Actors tore through the standing crowds, reciting lines, and embracing a startled few theatergoers. Half way through As You Like It, I realized that the devotees sitting next to me were mouthing the lines. They had memorized the entire script.
One afternoon I asked a somewhat doddering old taxi driver to take me to Kensington Palace, who seemed quite impressed. He drove me directly to Harry and Kate’s private entrance. After giving me the gimlet eye, Scotland Yard directed us to the correct entrance for the tourists. I try not to cause international incidents when on vacation, and this time I came close.
England definitely did not show its best face when I walked out of a comedy club into Leicester Square at 2:00 AM. The women were so drunk that they walked barefoot across the vomit-covered pavement, unable to walk in high heels.
Another day found me at Christie’s auction house for a private viewing of John James Audubon’s spectacular Birds of America. The multi-volume set was in mint condition, the colors as bright as the day they were printed. Only 70 of the original print run of 140 in 1838 are known to exist. One sold for $11.5 million last year, making it the world’s second most valuable book after the Gutenberg Bible.
My last morning in London found me desperately hailing a taxi in a torrential downpour. The taxi gods smiled upon me, and I was soon barreling down the streets of Piccadilly and Westminster on the way to Victoria Station. It seems that a £20 tip can move mountains here. I arrived with more than enough time for a pre-prandial glass of Champagne before boarding the Orient Express.
To be continued.