The Smoke: London Report, 2019

A couple of years ago, my dad finally pulled the trigger on a lifelong wish to take the family—he, his fifth wife, his four sons (two of us from his first wife and another two from his third), and my full brother’s sister-in-law—to London for a few days, before an ancestral research trip to Scotland (ostensibly the main purpose; we’d spend over a week there). The trip was postponed due to the birth of my niece (now almost two), but the stars aligned again this year.

I was surprised was how initially chill I was about the whole thing. I used to be a massive Anglophile (the meaning of which in the States has tended to include the whole of the UK, not just England), and was almost as interested by our ancestry as my dad was. If this had happened before, say, the turn of the millennium, I’d have probably been jumping off the walls. Since then, though, I went through grad school, did a lot of widespread reading about world history, and couldn’t help but notice how some of the darker strains of American Anglophilia seemed to spring from class and arguably racial tensions (my mom’s approach to her own genealogy—cartoonishly Scots-Irish Calvinist—falls a lot more along these lines, I think). That’s without going into how much of an ethnic privilege—in the States, anyway—“finding your roots” can be in the first place, given the obvious problems African Americans, say, have in tracing their own ancestors across the Atlantic. Add to this that part of the reason I glommed onto the mothership in the first place in the early teens was because I’d found a place to explore a lot of the American pop culture I’d partially forsaken in my own transatlantic obsessions (my previous online home was a British horror films forum), and you’ve basically got someone who sometimes fights not to regard his own former loves with some distaste.


That said, here’s me at my old digs in September 2010 in a former cultural life.

All that being said, I was looking forward to the trip. I’d never been overseas, and my reduced Anglophilia offered at least one advantage in that there was a lot less I’d be sad to miss out on. We’d be staying in London for three days, flying up to Inverness, and from there driving through Mackay Country in the company of a guide for several days before driving down to Edinburgh where we’d spend a day before flying back to the States. I was excited and a little nervous at the same time; it would be the longest I’d ever been away from work or a “normal” life at least since moving to Michigan seventeen years ago (where I spent a week or so of tentative employment before the word came down about the crappy service-industry job on which I’d pinned my hopes—not quite “then as now,” but close enough), and memories of my last experience with international travel (which involved taking the bus from Ann Arbor to Toronto in summer ’11) didn’t fill me with much fondness for the idea of passing through immigration and customs (I was grilled for ten minutes in the Detroit “facility” coming back by some dude who resembled a Cyberman version of Tab Hunter). Still, this was as close to bucket-list material as I was likely to ever achieve in my life, so missing out was not an option. My job, whatever its other drawbacks (many of which have to do with my specific workplace circumstances anyway) is pretty reasonable about schedule requests, and so I was not only able to get the time off but also to bank more than a little outstanding PTO to cover some of the costs of the trip (which would amount to a lot less given that my dad and his wife, as this was his lifelong dream, were covering the flight, hotels, and about half of the meals).

The trip there largely consisted of me managing to pry loose five hours and change of sleep; we had cloud cover over most of the Atlantic, but the odd glimpse of the night stars thereover was pretty thrilling, as there’s no place in walking distance I can see that kind of thing at home. Fortunately I was awake to see Devon and Cornwall come into view, and the familiar-but-different land use patterns I could see from the plane (to say nothing of the relatively sprawl-light footprints of the larger towns and smaller cities) slowly started to get the excitement rolling. Customs at Heathrow was both happily and ominously easy; we had nothing to declare, and so all we had to do was an optical scan in company with our passports, which… ehhhhhh (I don’t want to be grilled for ten minutes by a Cyberman Tab Hunter—or Danny Dyer in this case?—but that definitely gave me something to chew on, as this is more or less what happened when we got back to the States, too). We were picked up by a shuttle and promptly sped down the M4 past Gunnersbury and Chiswick, and landed in Brook Green, right at the nexus of Shepherd’s Bush, Kensington, and Hammersmith, kind of ideal for some of the sightseeing we (or at least I) wanted to do (the house’s exterior could have come out of a Monty Python sketch opening or a Young Ones location shot, and I got a kick out of imagining Sheila Keith giving a variety of unconvincing blandishments to a young couple nearly half a century ago that it “wasn’t haunted”).


St. Paul’s at Brook Green; the Blue Plaque’s… somewhere in there.

I figured I’d get started right away; I’ve done a lot worse on five and a half hours of sleep. The history started to smack one in the face almost on departure: St. Paul’s Girls’ School, next to Brook Green (and a couple of blocks away), is where Gustav Holst had his day job for several decades, writing The Planets and most of his major works while employed as a music teacher (he’d devote several pieces to the area, including Hammersmith and Brook Green itself). On a more contemporary musical note, Hammersmith Tube Station is beneath the former site of the Hammersmith Palais, site of one of my favorite (and maybe their most unintentionally self-critical) Clash songs (there’s also apparently a bench nearby dedicated to the late Rik Mayall, but I couldn’t find it). Once I was on the Tube, I was completely at sea as to what I wanted to do first (though I’d already decided to save the big specifics—British Museum, National Gallery, and Greenwich, for Friday and Saturday), so figured I’d just head into the center and play by ear what happened next.

I wound up at John Soane’s House, recommended by several Avocados and a mildly jarring but in retrospect fantastic way to start a London visit. The eccentric Regency architect focused much of his passion on his all-nooks-and-crannies curiosity of a house, filled with European and Egyptian relics, assorted early modern odds and ends, and a number of famous Hogarths (including the Master’s much-reproduced Chairing the Member). Sadly (if understandably) no photos, but ducking my way through one cluttered passageway after another and then emerging into the leafy brightness of Lincoln’s Inn Fields was something else, and it was nice to get a preliminary breather in the first of many parks that saw me splay in various positions that three days. Afterward, I decided to head further into the City and check out St. Paul’s and environs, getting several shots of the former but deciding not to enter (definitely next time, though, now that I’m a little more familiar with both Christopher Wren’s genius and his prominent role in determining the city’s seventeenth- and eighteenth-century development), and traipsing down St. Peter’s Steps to get a couple of really specific location shots (in an earlier form, they were the site of the famous scenes from the 1968 Doctor Who classic “The Invasion” in which the Cybermen invade London). It was then that I noticed the Millennium Bridge behind me and how tantalizingly close Tate Modern was. I hadn’t intended to go, but… it was there, right?


St. Paul’s to my left, Tate Modern to my right; this was the closest I ever got to Tower Bridge (and certainly the only photo thereof that I took).

Both Tates wound up disappointing me a bit, but I’d recommend Tate Modern above Tate Britain largely because of its proximity to so much else. The building was really cool, and the street life that managed to pervade from all directions was wonderfully energizing (one minor though not overriding regret is that I didn’t spend enough time on the non-Greenwich South Bank). That said, after seeing, say, the Art Institute in Chicago or the National Gallery East in DC, the collection didn’t hold that many surprises, though there were some excellent pieces and a really good exhibit on proto-magical realism in Weimar painting and drawing. I took yet another load off (finding that in life much as in work, if I stop every couple of hours and crack my feet, things go a lot smoother) and headed back across the Millennium Bridge (itself offering wonderful views of the Thames in both directions) and back into the City. Made another circuit of St. Paul’s and headed north along St.-Martin-le-Grand. I’d already decided not to see the Tower (and am honestly not sure I’d see it on another visit) but decided the “next best thing” would be something nearly as old and that turned out to be the gorgeous old church of St.-Bartholomew-the-Great, founded in 1123 by Henry I’s jester Rahere and smack up against both Smithfield Market and, as it turned out, Florin Court, which doubled as “Whitehaven Mansions” in the late twentieth-century ITV hit Poirot. Much of the interior is original and it’s a lovely, secluded spot in the heart of the modern city (Hogarth was born in the adjoining close, but no Blue Plaque). From there I headed back south to get a couple of shots of the old city walls, next to the Museum of London. They started out with Roman foundations, but were built up until the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. As with everywhere else “historical” in London, the site was surrounded by modern life, with lunching City workers and students making a day of it, and I got my first sight of a magpie. They’re great.


St.-Bartholomew-the-Great, interior.

Then it was back towards the West End. I’d been a little worried about how much I’d be able to cover, but was pleasantly surprised at how much I’d already done. I figured I’d go ahead and fit the other Tate into my meander, and took the little-used Tube line to Pimlico Station. It was a bit of a maze through somewhat impersonal, Nash-era residential blocks, but I found it eventually. The Tate Modern, at least, had a bit more variety; you’ve got to have a lot of patience for fifteenth- and sixteenth-century British aristocrats (or their portraits) to get through something like a third of the museum, and as I tend to doze off until Lely and Vandyck show up, that wasn’t great, though it also helped me breeze through with little guilt. Sadly, the “good stuff” didn’t feel like it repaid the journey; Hogarth’s famous self-portrait with his dog was fun, and there was a really good exhibit on William Blake’s illustrations and their influence on other artists, but all in all I probably could have done without it (not that I regret it; now I know). Even the vaunted Clore collection of Turners kind of lost its power without the demonstrative force that placing Turner among other artists generates (the comparison with the National Gallery was notable). That said, I was rewarded with a very pleasant stroll down the Thames until I got my first glimpse of the Houses of Parliament from Victoria Tower Gardens. Big Ben was largely shrouded by scaffolding for my visit, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the other one, so didn’t mind so much. I took about fifteen minutes to unwind in the gardens and exchanged pleasantries with the odd passerby.

Whitehall and Westminster were surprisingly cozy (weird, given all the political craziness that was going on those three days); in fact much of London struck me this way. I guess the way it developed over the centuries explains a lot, but its pleasant ugliness was kind of a shock (it often reminded me of Toronto, of all places). Thinking of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey as these grand edifices isolated in history and tradition and then realizing they’re just two not-that-large buildings across the street from each other… it was an interesting adjustment. After making it (and glaring at the Brexity cretin who was dancing around as a counter-protest to the pro-Remain demonstrators on the other side of Abingdon Street), I dashed back on the Tube to South Kensington, where I decided to go ahead and give the V&A a look. I hadn’t planned on it, but still had another hour before all the museums closed, and I didn’t figure on seeing all of it; if I could just have a gander at Tipu’s Tiger, I’d be set. While this largely turned out to be the case, I was able to check out a few other exhibits as well, including post-classical Egyptian footwear and some Islamic metalwork from the caliphates (between all the museums I visited, I might have seen half of the surviving astrolabes in existence).


Victoria Tower Gardens; I probably should have stuck around a bit longer.

After that it was off to Hyde Park to relax with, it felt, half the rest of London. Regent’s Park might have been more properly “bucolic,” Greenwich Park more genuinely relaxing, but it felt like Hyde Park was kind of the city’s main drag when it came to needing a green lung. I sacked out for a bit in sight of the Albert Memorial, and then did a bike hire and covered most of Rotten Row and the Serpentine, before having to double back after Kensington Palace because the bank near Bayswater wasn’t working. After getting a mild workout, avoiding dive-bombing parakeets (the result of escaped pets who’ve formed mildly alarming cadres in many of the parks and green spaces of southeast England), and having one close call (my fault) with another cyclist, I made one last dash to the city center to have a look at the Thames at sunset, specifically from Waterloo Bridge (I’m not as mad of a Kinks fan as I used to be, but I had to be there at least once). En route back to Hammersmith, I stopped off at the White Swan for a pint (Nicholson’s Pale Ale, probably the best beer I had in England) and a fish pie.

Early again the next day (probably earlier than the first) I set out, mainly to check out a couple of spots in the northwest before getting to the British Museum as early as possible to see the Rosetta Stone before it was literally covered with other tourists. I took the Tube and then Overground to Maida Vale and then Baker Street, where my obligatory photo of 221b (helpfully broadcast by shrubbery hung in the windows?) was livened up by learning that San Martin, liberator of Argentina, stayed nearby in the aftermath of his military victories (c. 1824). Not too long, apparently, after Regent’s Park was put together, and that’s where I headed next, grabbing a bike and doing much of the western side as well as getting a peek at the Regent’s Canal Towpath (a major objective of my next visit). After doffing the bike and making a circuit of the gorgeous gardens (and strongly suspecting I caught a glimpse of Damian Lewis on the way for some reason), I took the Tube to Russell Square Station (another iconic film location, as it was the setting for another 1968 Doctor Who classic, “The Web of Fear,” as well as Gary Sherman’s 1973 Death Line, the subway cannibal movie) to get ready to face the British Museum.


It’s hard–even here–to describe how exciting taking this photo was to more than four or five people in the entire world. I think.

As it turned out, it was a doddle once past the security checkpoint. Tourist crowds surrounded the Rosetta Stone anyway, but that was almost an attraction in itself, and as I’d already decided not to see about half of the exhibits, I was able to concentrate on the relatively unique material (i.e. early British), among other things the Sutton Hoo hoard and the Lewis Chessmen (half, anyway; the other half I’d see later in the National Museum of Scotland). I noodled around for about an hour or so through some of the other exhibits (was a little disappointed to find that the Levantine section was under repair) and then headed for Bloomsbury Square Gardens for another mild kip. After that I just wandered around for a bit; the plan had been to drift south from the Museum through Seven Dials and Covent Garden towards the National Gallery, but I learned the latter was open until nine and so figured I could loaf for a bit. Covent Garden was almost exactly pitched between historical preservation and touristy schlock, and I wound up having lunch at the Round Table in St. Martin’s Close where, among other things, I saw Theresa May give her notice on live TV (didn’t expect capital-H history, however tawdry or grotesque, to take place during my visit, but there you are). I guess if I’d had any sense I’d have made a beeline for the Houses of Parliament to take in the circus, but that was my day, dammit. So I took the Tube out to Maida Vale and had a pint at the Warrington Hotel, a gorgeously decorated Victorian pub that was the filming location for the classic Sweeney episode “Night Out” (1975), in which John Thaw’s Jack Regan is roped into helping an old flame by a gloriously slimy T.P. McKenna. After a pleasant conversation with the Italian barman about drawing (I invariably sketched at pubs throughout the visit) and a nice bike ride around Little Venice, I headed back to Trafalgar Square to check out the National Gallery. It wasn’t a disappointment at all, but it’s starting to dawn on me how much a lot of the insights you can get from seeing art in its gallery setting have already settled in my mind. As a result, though it was a thrill to finally see Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, or (especially) Turner’s Fighting Temeraire, seeing them reproduced so often may have taken a lick of sting out of the effect (though seeing the middle in its proper size is definitely something else). I was pleased to see that the National’s sole American work, George Bellows’ Men of the Docks, was in the very next room from the Turners (good for the Ashcan School and, I guess, Big Ten athletic alumni; I wouldn’t care much if he hadn’t gone to Ohio State).


Admirer and admirers: Supper at Emmaus.

The next day was handsdown the best, as I’d promised myself Maritime Greenwich and it did not disappoint. Rose early yet again and took the District Line to Bank, and then the DLR to Cutty Sark/ Greenwich, getting an eyeful of the Isle of Dogs and the massive skyscrapers of the West India Docks and Canary Wharf en route). The Greenwich complex was what I’d most anticipated during my visit, and there was definitely a sense of buildup in watching the famous market slowly awaken on my way into town. As per Maitland’s suggestion, I had a late breakfast at Heap’s, which was fantastic (pleasantly surprising, too, to see the period Gillray and Rowlandson prints and cartoons on the walls), and then went on into the National Maritime Museum (which comprises “Maritime Greenwich” along with the Queen’s House and Royal Observatory) as Greenwich Park already started to fill with people.

While the center of the National Maritime Museum is undoubtedly the extended Nelson shrine they’ve got on the top floor, there were plenty of nuanced, contemporary exhibits on subjects like Captain Cook and the effects of European exploration and colonization on indigenous peoples (stuff like guns salvaged two centuries later from the Endeavour’s 1770 grounding on the Great Barrier Reef or the coconut bowl Captain Bligh used on the Bounty skiff vie with canoe models made by the last living Beothuk in the 1820s or ceremonial staffs recognized by contemporary Polynesian visitors as being made by their own ancestors in the Cook Islands), as well as the somber effects of ill-fated polar explorers like Franklin or Scott. That said, the Nelson exhibit was surprisingly multifarious, with the big guy’s coat he wore when shot at Trafalgar (bullethole included; his pants and socks were also on display with the blood still on ’em) next to a load of Trafalgar tchochkes and memorabilia that went on sale almost the moment news of the battle got back to Britain. There was also some stuff on Jutland and the East India Company, the latter including a video of its effects on modern-day Britons of all backgrounds that I’ve been fruitlessly trying to find online, as it looked really interesting. Afterwards, I headed across the colonnade to the Queen’s House, built by Inigo Jones in the early seventeenth century and, as the first Palladian building constructed in England, the effective grandparent of pretty much everything else built in the UK (and, to some extent, Anglo North America) afterward. Inside, it’s basically just elegantly decorated rooms and paintings, but one in particular—the King’s Presence Chamber, which was allegedly heavily favored by the two Charleses—impressed not just for the color scheme but for the art; there’s been a drive recently to circulate more contemporary stuff, and so the classical paintings and portraits are now accompanied by Kehinde Wiley’s Ship of Fools (a partial homage to Bosch that also references contemporary maritime migrants); I can’t think of a more simple or elegant statement of how I felt when I was in London.


Ship of Fools, state of mind.

The Royal Observatory (and attached Flamsteed House) are one of the complex’s biggest draws as world longitude wasn’t only established there but also centered the Prime Meridian right in the middle of the Observatory building, so visitors can, of course, stand in both Eastern and Western Hemispheres at the same time (I may have done this myself). The Flamsteed House holds most of the Observatory’s exhibits, including Christopher Wren’s simple and elegant Octagon Room, and, of course, John Harrison’s world-changing chronometers, which made the measurement of longitude possible. Arranged from “H-1” to “H-4,” it’s amazing to see how each successive model was refined, as Harrison turned what looked like a primitive film projector into a large pocketwatch. Afterwards, I had a look at the Camera Obscura next door, which uses the mechanism to give eerie reflected views of the complex’s other buildings at the base of Observatory Hill. David Hockney’s gone on about how use of the camera obscura helped early modern painters like Vermeer capture such eerily life-like images, and it looked more than a little like an animated Canaletto of Greenwich. I made one last stop at the Planetarium’s exhibit, largely to see (and touch!) the Gibeon Meteorite, one of the oldest objects in the world (as it probably predates the world, having crashed in South Africa in the 1830s after whirling around for four and a half billion years) and get a San Pellegrino (and first blue tit sighting).

The rest of the day was almost pure relaxation and enjoyment. I spent about an hour in Greenwich Park, taking a brief swing into Blackheath, having a look at the gardens and the red deer, avoiding more parakeets, and sacking out for a good half an hour next to a Romano-Celtic temple site as I let the sun wash over me. I stopped at the Plume of Feathers for a pint and some sketching, and wandered around the waterfront getting shots of the (much-filmed) Old Royal Naval College before thinking about returning to central London. Very briefly considering taking the Thames Clipper back, I reboarded the DLR and took the same route I’d taken that morning until getting off on a whim at St. James’ Park, as I hadn’t seen that yet. Man, if I thought Hyde Park was a hub of activity on Thursday… I sacked out again under a tree and did some more sketching, and then did a circuit of St. James’ Park Lake, amazed at how many different (and unfamiliar) bird species were just hanging around. Near sunset, I took the Tube to Ravenscourt Park and went looking for the Dove, a riverside pub in Hammersmith that had intrigued me during the research. After finding the “subway” (road underpass), I wound up in Furnivall Gardens and went on in. The Dove is renowned for allegedly having the Guinness-confirmed “smallest barroom in the world,” which, if I were more cynical and the pub newer, I might have thought had been accomplished by taking the naturally-occurring space between the front end of the bar and the main wall and sticking a door on it, but apparently it’s legit. It looked like a date was going on next to me, so I was probably more reticent than I necessary when the woman asked me about my sketching when the guy went to the bathroom (I should have at least told her goodbye), but I was having a great enough time that I didn’t worry too much. That was probably the longest I spent in a pub my entire visit; had three or four pints (not hard given the relatively low ABV of most British beers I encountered), did a shit-ton of sketching and had a great time jawing a little with the bar staff.


Saturday afternoon bliss atop Observatory Hill in Greenwich.

Two weeks later, I’m still coming down off it a little. We left the next morning (albeit getting more of a dose of English countryside than I expected as my dad’s wife confused Luton Airport with Gatwick—which was fine as I was still a little loath to leave, and I still got in a morning walk to Holland Park) and flew to Inverness, and there was plenty the next few days to keep me occupied. That said, even given that I was a three-day tourist and there were problems and areas that either escaped my attention or didn’t impinge (and plenty did; there was more than enough evidence of people living rough, and I picked up at least one Big Issue, though I screwed up the change and didn’t give the guy more than the price as I’d intended)… the idea kept surfacing that the “good stuff” was almost a perfect environment. A near-unparalleled cross-section of human history, convenient and accessible public transit, well-situated green space in an urban environment, and above all people (and speech) from all over the world . Even given all the different languages and accents, there were few places I went—even on the Tube—wherein I didn’t hear at least one other North American voice (and I think I was served in a bar by maybe one native-born English person while actually in England; I probably had more interactions therewith in Scotland). While I knew mentally that all this stuff was there, I’d been largely excited for the history. In the end, though, it was the modern life that sunk its hooks in me.

The Tube was a case in point. The people-watching handily beat Chicago (and Chicago’s no slouch!) and the spatial organization pleasantly contrasted with my admittedly one-day memories of the Manhattan subway almost twenty years ago. Given the daily cap on Oystercards, I would have happily spent the better part of a day thereon (and I’m well aware there are plenty of people who have to do this with little or no choice in the matter) just people-watching and sketching (and maybe I will on my next trip). There was one moment in particular that last day on the District Line when I was going from St. James’ Park to the Dove. Either at my first stop or Victoria, this man and woman got on—the man wolfishly handsome, the woman engagingly insouciant in a way that called to mind a combination of Shirley Anne Field and Ellie Kendrick (with a braying laugh that sounded like the first half of Sybil Fawlty’s). Both looked like they were on their way to the club (seemed a little early, but maybe they’d intended to get dinner first). They kept hanging on each other and trading jokes for a couple of stops, but just before Earl’s Court, something changed. The woman sat down and started tapping away on her smartphone occasionally flashing understated glares at the man, while the man sort of swung listlessly on the pole and glanced at me a few times in what looked like a bid for sympathy (and if I was gonna give it, I’d need a truckload of context, because she was adorable). Eventually, at Earl’s or Baron’s Court, the man swung off the pole almost in a single bound out of the doors when they opened without the woman noticing. I was kinda thunderstruck, and then thought it might have been some game they were playing. The thought didn’t survive the woman looking up from her phone several seconds afterwards and then around… and then at me. “He took off last stop,” I told her a little sheepishly. She sat for a bit, and then a look passed over her face, mixing disappointment, determination, and dare I say cautious optimism. A small smile hit her lips, she nodded, and then got off at Hammersmith, texting furiously all the way up the stairs. I managed to stick to my then-course, but I’ve been gripped ever since with the idea of turning the situation into a painting. I can’t not at this point.


I seem to have misplaced my better sketches of the incident, so here’s a pochard taking a breather in the middle of St. James’ Park.

It was awesome. Would do again.