Standing at the back of my 777 from Tokyo to London, I had a realization: Human beings regularly take things the breadth of a two-lane highway and chuck them into the sky with every expectation that they’ll stay up there. Madness.
The British Airways pilot was exceptionally polite and genial, the food was so good I actually commented on it to the air hostess, and they had nearly every Bond on the movie channel, including In Her Majesty’s Secret Service. As I can never sleep on planes, I caught up on Jack the Giant Slayer (pure fun), Lincoln (too self-absorbed), Argo (delightful, if obviously embellished for added tension), Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (awful, but just excessive enough to be amusing), and then the first thirty minutes of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which must have been written by somebody who didn’t speak English. Then I started on season three of The Walking Dead, which was about as tense as the realization that you’ve forgotten your keys when you step out to go to the grocery store.
From above, London looks like a terracotta circuit board, long capacitor-like buildings strung between connecting roads and rivers, flower-pot chimneys emerging as the plane descended. Then Heathrow immigration was like Ellis Island in the 1920s: an interminable multicultural mass, at the end of which a pleasant customs officer asked such detailed questions he must have been considering hiring me as his replacement.
Roughly 26 million tourists visit London every year, and it seems that the city expects them to figure it out for themselves. To buy a day pass for the tube, one has to determine not only which of six zones one intends to travel, but also whether one is traveling in a ‘peak’ or ‘off-peak’ period, a term that is conveniently defined nowhere in sight. If you get lost on the way, not to worry: you will surely find a sign directing you to the thing you’re looking for once you’re standing at your destination. The lack of line maps on the overland trains was frustrating—when I once missed my stop I had to ask a passenger if we’d passed it or weren’t there yet—but the departure and arrival lobbies at Heathrow Terminal 5 were my favorite: While they are both accessed through the same entrance, only the arrival lobby is labeled, resulting in small groups of travelers walking in circles looking for the right door. London seems to be aiming for the motto, ‘One Billion Confused.’
City of Ancients
London is old. While anything in Japan predating 1981 is an earthquake risk, my London hosts were careful to point out the two lone houses in their area that had been built after The War. While this does leave some interesting architecture, it also means that London is a 21st-century city in combat with its own 19th century infrastructure.
Opened in 1863, the London Underground is the oldest subway system in the world, with the Piccadilly Line serving the single busiest airport in Europe. The tunnels are so hamster-tube small that there is no space for a luggage rack; the seats face each other so tightly that you have to be markedly polite just to pass someone—and this is probably the last place in London where the general populace is actually polite. My 65-year-old host was nearly bowled over when she paused to orient me in Green Park Station, while at Waterloo Station I was randomly mocked for being an ‘American tourist’ by three drunk twenty-somethings—who I presumed would shortly be off to Paris to complain that the French are rude.
The imprecision of London public transport is staggering. The first tube wicket I encountered—in the airport—was broken, and I passed another where staff had to slap a prepaid ‘Oyster’ card onto the reader every time someone used a paper ticket. Having waited fifteen minutes in line, the first automated ticket machine I tried to use would take exact change only, and staff could only recommend I go to the shop next door to get coins. Then everyone waits on tenterhooks in Paddington Station because nobody knows which platform their train will arrive at: it’s announced ten minutes before each departure, with mad columns of commuters racing across the hangar-sized building. Fortunately, staff generally ignore procedures and do whatever is needed to keep things running smoothly, and I was regularly allowed through failing gates with an unconcerned shrug. But you’d think the nation that invented trains might have worked out a thing or two about how to run them.
I did get a giggle on my first train, however, when it was announced that I was on ‘a Piccadilly Line service to… Cock-fosters.’ High humor surely pervades in Britain because all the schoolboy puns have been wrung dry by the time they finish geography.
The West End
After Tokyo, London’s West End is the most expensive place in the world to rent office space. Charing Cross Station offers access to Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, the British Museum, Leicester Square and the theatre district.
Leicester Square is as crowded as Shibuya crossing. This is where the royals catch premieres of Bond films, with cinemas on every side and shops selling cheap theatre tickets every twenty paces. Starting just a few hundred yards from the square, there is literally one theatre on every block in every direction, featuring everything from Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan to Judy Dench in Peter and Alice, with Les Misérables thrown in for good measure. Naturally, I saw Spamalot, which was fun, but also gave me hope that one of my plays could also be professionally produced if I could get a big name to support it.
The British museum features some remarkable architecture inside and out, and is perfectly fine with tourists photographing the archaeological exhibits, many of which are simply sitting out in the open. Meandering through the Egyptian exhibit, I grew increasingly amused by the recurring description, ‘colossal head’—because I gradually realized that each represents a case where the rest of the body was too much trouble to haul onto a ship for London. They even had a piece of the Great Sphinx’s beard. I didn’t know it had had a beard.
At Westminster Abbey, the audio tour snaps you to attention by opening with, ‘Hello. I’m Jeremy Irons.’ Prior to entry, I had known little of the place aside from its relation to the Da Vinci code, so I was pleased to discover that my £18 gouging at the entrance had gained me access to the cultural heart of England. Founded in the year 960, Westminster Abbey has been the site of royal coronations since 1066, and is now marked by a millennium’s worth of famous tombs—with the unfortunate result that the interior feels more like an overstuffed attic than a monument to national glory. With big names shoved in wherever there’s an inch of space, it was depressing to realize that some of the most beautiful tombs belonged to people I’d never heard of, validating a line I’d written in Fragile Order about the impermanence of mortal renown.
Overall, London was a good place to meet people, but with the exception of the Great Court at the British Museum, it failed to impress me aesthetically. I suppose it could be that, having grown up steeped in British lore, seeing the real things felt more cliché than extraordinary. The ranked coats of arms hanging in Westminster Abbey just looked like Hollywood backdrops and expanded Lego sets. Rather than presenting any sense of vastness, Trafalgar Square just felt crowded and inconvenient to cross. Even against the rare blue skies, London’s architecture, with its grey-to-tan color scheme complemented by a brown river, looked faded and tired rather than monumental. Even the recently-completed Shard, the tallest building in the EU at 306 meters, felt about as imposing as a forgotten game piece. My overall impression of London was simply one of ‘blandeur’: a lot of effort for little inspiration. As national capitals go, Sydney, Bangkok, Taipei and Vienna all have much more to say for themselves. I even thought Cardiff was nicer.
And now, having offended everyone but the Welsh, I will run off to a wedding in Cornwall…