Monday Night Blues

This week, not a jitter or a flutter of the Sunday Night Blues.   They can be known to creep up during Antiques Roadshow and floor you with a feeling of overwhelming futility by Sunday supper.  The cure is simple : have a night out planned for Monday evening.   A Monday night out kicks work-a-day blues into touch.  It reminds them who’s boss of that ill-charted ship – Your Life.  It essentially says “I’m going to treat my liberty like a right user and squeeze every last bit of time out of it.”  And, if the only way you pay is a delicate head on a Tuesday morning, then no difference.  Nothing of any interest can ever happen on a Tuesday morning anyway.  It is better seen through a fug of sweet coffee and Nurofen (but then so are most things).

Last Monday night then, I lurched  -with aplomb and brio – into the first night of the BluesFest London festival with an evening of The Echoes of Ellington at the 100 Club.  The 100 Club is a bastion that guards the northern gateway into Soho like a 1950s doorman.  I’ve blogged on the niceties of this venue before (see https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/97-98-99/) and think that if my life was an ideal one, I would be in the 100 Club four to five nights a week dancing and listening to live music and enjoying the general ambience of feet tapping and 1950s suits.  But the one night you don’t really want to be melting in an underground music club in the centre of Oxford Street was Monday last.  That was the day that we were all stuck to the floors, baked in the buses and essentially went totally doolally because some fool turned the temperature up to “mega hot” on Planet London.   It was so hot the ice cubes in my freezer burst into flames.  I was distinctly worried.  I thought that after 45 minutes in the 100 Club I would be wearing my mascara on my mouth, sweating like a hussy and have to be carried out in a delirious frenzy, with steam coming out of my ears, by those lovely chaps from St John Ambulance.  And all that for a big band, I thought?

Prior to the gig I did the safest and most comforting thing.  I went to Pizza Express.  There’s something so incredibly reassuring about Pizza Express.  I like the way they dance groovily on the line between High Street middle-of-the-road and hip 1960s typefaces.  I love the fact that every Pizza Express is the same.  I love the fact that the overhead lighting is distinctly flattering.  In some towns in England, the Pizza Express is the nicest, most fashionable place, a stylish beacon of dining.  You are always sure of an American Hot (even if the Army aren’t in town).  But even in deepest Central London it is still lovely.  Perhaps it is because the one in Dean Street remains largely unchanged in twenty years that it reminds me of going out as a young teenager for dinner, which is always a good thing.  The acoustics are those of a private swimming pool – everything seems to be open and made of marble and it’s a given that you must shout to make yourself heard in any PE in Britain.  When I was in a horrid play in a ghastly place (Slapdash On Sea, I called it) the only place where you could get a decent meal after 10 pm and get slightly, friskily drunk with the other actors was Pizza Express.  Niggling irritations amongst the cast seemed to be washed away.  Nervous, sweaty and uncomfortable sexual frissons with a man you didn’t actually like in a scene during that night’s performance could be whitewashed out.  Perilously, you’d brave half-a-bottle-happy drunkenness with the same people every night for nine weeks.  At the end of a miserable performance, it was a joy to see the same old marble table tops, the small black vases, the token, solitary bright red carnation, the cream coloured menus with their dozy, dark blue fat font.  People would swap their stories.  You’d tell them – daringly – stupidly – about an affair you once had with a drummer.  They’d tell you about drugs experiences with a respected Sunday night drama type actor at Glastonbury.  You’d discuss plays you would never write and they’d steal it for the plot of their novel that they would never write either.  You would pledge friendship over the dough balls.  You would develop in-jokes, in-phrases and invent comedy dance moves.  You’d discuss going to Southwold as a group.   And then the run came to the end and none of you ever saw each other again.

Lunacy, eh? Acting – what a LAUGH.  Not.  The only thing that made it bareable was the safe, well-meaning, and actually, for Slapdash-on-Sea, rather glamourous Pizza Express.   I love it.  In Dean Street, however, I was briefly interrupted by a thumping bass that curled up through my bottom, or seemed to.  It turned out to be the live jazz downstairs.  I waited for my friends who arrived hot and happy from St Albans, and wolfed down something called a Romano which was spectacular, before heading over the road to the 100 Club.  Oh joy!  Oh rapture!  They had put in air conditionning.  Thank goodness.

The Echoes of Ellington big band has been in circulation since, I think, about 1999, and is run by the illustriously adept Pete Long, who chirpily informs his audience between songs of various information and anecdotage relating to them.  It’s a fantastic band featuring some of the best jazz musicians working in the UK today, and it was particularly great to see Enrico Tomasso on trumpet.  I was joined by My Very Good Friend The Doctor and her new boyfriend.  We were surrounded by the usual smorgasbord of jivers, jitterbuggers and zoot suits that Monday night traditionally invites to the 100 Club (the night of the Jive Class that always starts at 7.30) and, despite the only 70% capacity, the evening swung.  I mean, really.  I mean, my neck still hurts from my jabbing and shifting it about in time to Take the A Train.  I mean, if their had been a small child / an old person / a general fragile being in the vicinity, I would most certainly have taken them out.   At one point someone tried to dance with me but I felt a bit sick so I stopped.   My Very Good Friend The Doctor had a swimming time too, although my attempts at trying to record something onto to my Iphone just ended up looking like a load of red and white blobs with a piano in the middle of it.  We ended up leaving shortly before the very end, however, as it was half eleven and, well, that jazz and liquor does cost something, you know, and we all have to work in the morning.  Heading back out onto Oxford Street was a bit like when your plane lands in a hot country and you walk – Boom! – into that all encompassing blanket of fuggy heat.

Of course, we weren’t in a hot country, we thought, as the No 159 bus dribbled past outside Shoe Express.  We were in Oxford Street on a Monday, but how lovely that time had become elastic and hot and fun and deliriously musical for those short few hours.   Tuesday morning became more – not less pleasant – because the landing into it had been cushioned somewhat by a blanket of jazz.   It was an astonishing evening, and I advise get thee to Echoes of Ellington quick.  Guaranteed to beat Sunday, Monday or even Tuesday night blues, my friends.  As for tonight, well, it’s a Thursday, isn’t it?  No blues of the non-musical variety today.  Mind you, I appear to be going back to Pizza Express again and from there straight on to Legally Blonde at the Savoy Theatre.  And, next week’s Sunday Night Blues have also been absolutely, completely and totally annihilated by the incredibly exciting prospect of Take That at Wembley Stadium on Monday.  I shall report back from both, forthwith, dear readers, particularly on whether I ever achieve my life aim of somehow capturing Mark Owen and putting the wee lad in one of those hamster cages for small things, and watching him go round and round and round and round whilst forcing him to sing Puff The Magic Dragon.  I think it may stop him having extra marital affairs.  We shall see.

Do return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.  

Capturing the Castle

The terrible shame about my job is that it’s too loud in the office for me to get on with my reading.  I’ve tried logging on through Kindle and staring at the screen, as if I am trying to dicypher a particularly grueling spreadsheet, but the buzz and hum of noise around me is making it impossible.  Is it me or is summer going nuclear this year?  Blankets of heat and turquise skies are bleeding through our cars and windows and then lots of prairie bashing rain descends and everyone grabs their umbrellas?  It’s not at all like England, where we like sort-of-warmish breezes followed by a light drizzle.   It’s gone to my head, as this morning I tried to dress like an American Midwesterner, about to spend the morning singing Rogers and Hammerstein songs and working the hay and tending the farm in the baking heat.  This was not a good idea – as it’s hard to rock red gingham in a corporate setting.  My job is less Annie Get Your Gun than Annie Get The Paperclip, so I changed my sartorial outlook.  Despite willing and praying and asking the powers that be politely, it still isn’t Friday.  This is a scandal and I must look into whether something can be done about it.  Meanwhile, the DVD collection beckons. 

  For those of you who read last week’s instalment, I did not return from horse racing with enough funds to build that tax haven in the Cayman Islands, nor am I buzzing off down New Bond Street to buy expensive shoes.  I did succeed in a little winning, then a little losing, then a cup of tea and an ice cream, a glass of lovely champagne with dear friends, and some more winning and losing but emerged with nothing lost and nothing gained.  The mud was exhaustive.  Despite cleaning my shoes, I still managed to go to Ronnie Scotts on Friday night and make the carpets smell like Berkshire horse. 

Yesterday afternoon, the only thing that cured me of post-Ascot, backed-the-wrong-horses torpor was putting on I Capture The Castle, a good adaption – although with botched, changed ending – of Dodie Smith’s book of the same name.  It’s probably one of my favourite books of all time and one of the best literary depictions of a story told through the simple – yet illuminating – structure of one girl’s diary.  A quintessential English tale, it’s part coming-of-age realism and part fairytale.  I read it for the first time when I was 26, which was a terrible idea.   I should have read it when I was 14, but it somehow passed my teenage radar.   I have now read it at least three times. 

Cassandra Mortmain is a seventeen year old with literary aspirations, who lives with her somewhat bohemian family amid their crushing poverty in a dilapidated Suffolk castle. Her a sister, Rose, hopes to marry for money.  Their mother is dead and their father bereft of funds.  So far, so Jane Austen.  But, this is the 1930s, and when Cassandra is described by her local vicar as “Jane Eyre with a hint of Becky Sharp” you know you’re in for something a little more robust.   Cassandra & Rose’s father, James Mortmain, is a saturnine character who succeeds in intimidating his family until they are unable to confront him at all, and who rots in his study with his writer’s block and a ready supply of detective novels from the local library.  Here he stagnates, having produced no written work since one ground-breaking and high academic text eleven years previously.   Cassandra’s stepmother, Topaz, a surrealist painter’s model with a penchant for taking her clothes off and communicating with the elements in the wilds of Suffolk, does her best at raising the two girls – and their younger brother, Thomas – but her well-intentioned ideas about money and marrying the girls off are ineffective, made futile by her lack of common pragmatism and modernism.  She is currently working on a painting called War & Peace, “based on the novel”.  Cassandra is our guide, and her diary draws us into her world with ingenuous ease.  

The arrival of two young American men, the inheritors of a local estate and – by proxy – the Mortmains’ landlords –  into the wilds of Suffolk present the novel’s catalyst, so I shall tell you no more about it in the hope that you read it for yourself.  Suffice it to say, it is one of the most brilliant books ever written as a coming of age story of a seventeen year old girl.   It will hit a note with any female that was ever sixteen,  I absolutely guarantee it.  Cassandra’s is our only narrative voice, and writes in three separate diaries during the course of the novel, each of different monetary value, as the Mortmain’s fortunes shift and change, and as she passes through her rites of passage.  Dodie Smith was in her early fifties when she wrote this, but her ability to write as the first person narrative of a seventeen old is uncanny – never condescending, never with an adult hindsight – and totally believable.  It was written in California where Smith was living with her husband during the Second World War.  Homesick for England, and desperately worried by regular reports of Britain under Nazi fire that came through the news, she constructed a strange 1930’s Suffolk idyll, both real and unreal, with quintessentially English characters, who are bowled over by the glamorous, rich Americans who are suddenly foisted upon their lives.

It is fairly short book and easy to read.  It is, in fact, deceptively simple; Smith’s notes on the plot and characters ran to a book nearly 1,000 pages long – easily three times longer than the actual novel.   It was her obsession, and her preoccupation with it disturbed her sleep patterns and shaped her life.  I am jealous of those of you who have not yet read it and have the pleasure still to come.  From the moment Smith opens her story in the ramshackle castle where the Mortmains have made their home with Cassandra’s famous line, ” I write this sitting in the kitchen sink….”  you are charmed along, hooked into Cassandra’s inner world.  An ideal summer read, people.   I know what you’re thinking though : “This is a departure from the usual theme, is she ill?  Where is the belch and fart of the inner city?  Bluebird’s usually out sucking up traffic fumes on High Holborn and basking in the stench and furore of the centre of town.  Has she lost her plot?”   I know it’s not usual for me – as this novel’s somewhat bucolic setting is as far from London as you can get in southern England.  There are two scenes in London; in a Park Lane apartment and a St John’s Wood photographic studio respectively – but this is not a book of the city.  But the fact that this London Bluebird is using this week’s entry to tell you how marvellous something set in Suffolk is – well, that is a turn up for the books.   It’s bloody marvellous.  Go forth and read.  And then please comment with any thoughts or reflections you may have here. 

Do return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.  

Don’t Frighten The Horses


Mingling with the aristos is something I am not usually allowed to do.  Inevitably, they sniff me out by my high street collar and throw me back in the room labelled “Serfs / nouveau / Waifs /  Middle Class Other”.  But this has done nothing to stop my delusions of aristocratic grandeur.  I was basically born to be noblesse oblige.   The fact that I am not yet a Duchess is a woefully sad one, but when that funny chap from Debretts told me the way to be one was to marry that Duke with one eyebrow, half an immune system and a penchant for being whipped on a Tuesday while he whimpered “Oh Nanny! I shall be better – I shall be good!”  I couldn’t be bothered.  For a start, the nanny uniform chaffed horribly and our aristocrats are just going to have to be a bit more human, if they want to encourage us to dive into the murky depths of a gene pool where husband and wife have been first cousins since 1689.

The other difficulty is that the current aristocrats seem to lack grandeur and glamour.  It was those feral, feckless lunatic aristos of the 18th century who really knew how to roll.  The aristos of the Georgian era were basically out on the lash between 1760 and 1789, with only regular 15 minute breaks for peasant-drowning, chamber-pot-visiting and racing.  By the time the early 1800s rolled into Regency splendour a party wasn’t a party without sessions of  gambling in which wives and wigs would be burnt, estates would be lost and dowager Empresses were found weeping under St James’s card tables because they’d accidentally got preggers via the third underFootman.

For the Edwardians – just add actresses, Winston Churchill, ladies with fifteen inch waisted corsets and King Edward in the corner in a pair of belle epoque tights.

But I worry that the aristocracy of today know how to behave themselves.

They do, though. They’re all poor for a start – and high class ladies to “walk out with” do cost something these days, you know.  I mean, at the rates I used to charge I’ve probably bankrupted several county seats.  Now they open up their hallowed halls, befriend the ghastly National Trust, make jam and have gardening programmes.  They’re basically just a load of poor people with good tailors.  Their days of wine and roses are more cava and crysanthemums now.  Occasionally though – and it is a rare and deluded thing – a chink of light shows through the dour greyness of economic necessity and the clock seems to turn back. It doesn’t actually turn back of course, but the illusions steadies itself for a moment and we are made to believe a system  has remained unchanged for four hundred years.  There are about five places in England where you can sit and pretend we still have an Empire.  These are:

1  The entrance hall of Blenheim Palace

2.  Anywhere else in Blenheim Palace

3.  Centre Court at Wimbledon on a balmy Men’s Singles Final day

4.  At Eton on June 4th.

5.  At the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot

I am braving the Berkshire fields and going to Ascot today for Ladies Day.  I’m not allowed in the Royal Enclosure, not since that time I knocked Prince Andrew out with a shuttlecock in the Windsor & Slough County Badminton Fair.  But I am the next tier down with my friends, the Grandstand.  Firstly, I have to drive to Berkshire and don’t know where that is, and secondly, I have to try to understand the betting odds system.  Early, devout followers of this column may remember my ecstatic reaction to not losing £50 on a horse in the Grand National of 2010, and – in fact – gaining £60 fine English Sterling pounds.  That’s money for nothing.  I was astonished to make money on the horse, but am not naive enough to believe that it set a precedent.  It was nothing more than a caffeine-riddled, manic examination of the Daily Mirror on the morning of the 4.15 at Aintree.  Just like a stopped clock is right twice a day, so twice a year do my random betting habits win through.  By the time you read this, I will have my shoe heels yielding to the Berkshire mire, whilst I holler at a thin chap from Cork riding on a steaming Dobbin with twenty pounds of mine on its back.

It’s another language, the odds, accumulators, evens, each-way, to win, on the nose, up the – yes, quite.  I had a grandfather who sort of did this type of thing.  He must have been very good at gambling and making squillions on doggies and horsies because he spent so much time on it that he never did anything else – like get a job or talk to his wife.  He was at the White City dog track more than he was in his own home.  But unfortunately, he can’t have been very canny at gambling after all because when he died all he left behind was a large collection of safety razors and plastic bags full of those little blue biros you get free at William Hill.   And you can’t buy an Ascot hat with that.   So, surely, through some dreadful sort of genetic osmosis, I ought to know things that have dripped down in some rancid way from my grandfather.  Well, I don’t.  I don’t think I could bear to throw money away on betting about something without knowing about it, so I have been cramming on firm ground and furlongs, two year olds and jockey names, fillies and accumulators.

I have been keeping a Word Doc, and it is a running view of the competitors due to race at the 1550 Gold Cup this afternoon.  I don’t know what the bloody hell is going on, because the nags keep dropping out, the odds are like me trying to read Arabic, and the silly names drive me round the bend.  Why are horses never called John, or Chris?  Or Nigel?  Why things like “Riverdrop my Ankle”, or “Crumpled Sheet”?   I can’t follow my own word document, and the more odds get released, the more I think I want to cry.  There are other things happening on Thursday which I was looking forward to, because I read there would be steaks.  Apparently there won’t be – they are stakes.  And they’re some kind of race named after the wettest counties in England – The Norfolk Stakes, the Northumberland Stakes – or they are named after unpleasant, dead people – George V Stakes.

The most confusing advice from the royal la la we are royal, don’t you know, Ascot.com, is that informal picnics are allowed in the carparks, but “formal entertaining will be stopped”.  What do they propose to do?  Run me over with a horse if I arrive with my own sommelier or six piece dining suite and pitch it up in the coach parking area?  I am just going to turn up with my own Tijuana brass band, butler and just go for it.  It’s dreadfully common not to travel without one’s butler.  Also, must we negotiate the sheer horror of the “Traditional sing-a-long” that occurs after each day’s last race, and in which we are joined by the brass band?  Doesn’t it all smack of school assembly (with added crowned heads and horses)?  “Free song books are provided” the website tells me.  However, I’m going to put a request in for “Smack My Bitch Up”.  Is there any phrase in the English language more vomit-inducing than “traditional knees-up”?  Why would I want to pull my knees up, sing “Land of Hope and Glory” and show my drawers to a load of Lords and Marquis’s like some Edwardian actress out on the pull?   I don’t know what a “Traditional” sing-a-long means anyway.  According to what tradition?  One of this isle’s peculiar, outdated, French-hating, single mother damning, badly-dressed English traditions, no doubt.  I don’t know the words to “We Don’t Trust the Foreigners, Audrey, No We Don’t”. Or “Roll Out the Barrel : We’re Old Etonians Having a Right Laugh”.

Sports attire is strictly forbidden in The Grandstand seating area, but those bastard jockeys still  get in.  Perhaps it’s because they are too small to be seen by the naked human eye – the Ascotoids who police the arena and not aware of them brazenly flaunting clothing rules.  But I shall be there, throwing money towards the bookmakers (was there every a more dangerous combination than the items “race course” and “cashpoint” in close proximity?  My survey tells me that Ascot has five cashpoints.  I just hope they aren’t all for Coutts).   No doubt after five hours under the crumbling, grumbling skies of Ascot I shall be feeling either woozily warm about the tradition of race meets, or I shall be riddled with indignation at the prospect of another heady dream of aristocratic longing destroyed.   Shall I be victor or loser? Will I get to share a crumpet with the Duke of Devonshire?   Shall I be imprisoned for brandishing a fish knife in the face of formal dining?  I might come home with less money than I left the house with, all hidden under my enormous hat.  But I wouldn’t bet money on it.

Do return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.  

Afternoon Tea at St Pancras

Aah, St Pancras.   I went to the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel for tea yesterday.  And it was totally awful.   Londoners – avoid, avoid, avoid.  Having tea at Gilbert Scott’s Gothic nightmare hotel is worse than being beheaded at the age of 14, which is what happened to poor old St Pancras in Rome.  Now my cakes have digested and my tea has gone down, allow me to elaborate…

I thought I had done so well following my mammoth 3,000 word description of Museum of London last week, that what I deserved was a cup of Earl Grey and a bloody lovely slice of cake.  You know what I mean, readers, for this high point of high afternoon  – full afternoon tea – is the English’s best invention.  A carbo-friendly stop gap between luncheon and supper, a ritual that has no healthy items in it whatsoever and contains a three course meal in miniature.  Some London hotels do this splendidly.  Claridges is charming and laid back with a sumptuous collection of sofas and a harpist.  The Ritz is brutally fussy and French and accompanied with no nonsense hard-backed, slightly padded chairs.  There are lots of doilies.  The Savoy I haven’t been to since it’s refit but was always a slight disappointment.  The Soho Hotel in – well, Soho, actually – is a bastion of cosiness in London’s most racy district.  In the winter, the wooden shutters are drawn, the fire blazes and tea and scones are served in a Georgian room that is as blissful as anything in Black’s Club in Dean Street.  But Kings Cross is not the same as these places.  Actually, it looks a little cleaner, a little better.  It is now rather middle-class, friendly and exciting.  The phrase “Kings Cross” is used less and less and the rather patrician, Latin sounding “St Pancras” is used more and more.  This place which used to feature industrial wastes of York Way and random prostitutes sloping up and down outside the station wearing scowls and three inch heels is now a spanking new Eurozone with Parisian trains, an organic bakery on the lower concourse and London’s most antipicated hotel reopening.  Twenty years ago, who would have thought it?

The St Pancras Renaissance looks splendid from the outside and is, as it’s name suggests, a rebirth.  Or rather a revival.  The Gothic movement was initially a Victorian revival, and now we’ve revived the revival, which is  nice, if aesthetically confusing.  They’ve taken out the darkness of the gothic and bleached everything with high glass windows and sunlight.  It’s a bit like massive, glass-encrusted neo-Victorian pub.  The inside reminds me of a hotel near Heathrow Airport where I sometimes used to go to watch my brothers play in four piece lunch-friendly jazz in the early 1990s on Sundays.  It’s open, wide, characterless and non-nation specific.  The grand red brick of the Victorian hotel has been sliced through with modern glass plates, and UAE-looking black marble floors.  The door staff look distrustful and slightly bitchy.  They seem to want to know what I am doing there.  They are suspicious and graceless – but why?  Okay, I was a slightly sweaty, cardigan and plastic bag clutching woman in four inch heels, grumpily lurching out from the Victoria Line, but not a child-catcher, terrorist or robber who has a thing for snatching hotel pillowcases.

So, from the Victoria Line into the Victorian Slime.  Large leathery banquettes fill an atrium-sized room that looks like a very large changing room of a municipal swimming pool.  To the right from the lobby is the Booking Office, part of the original building, which links the station to the hotel.  It’s a lovely looking dark bar.  It’s perfect for a post-work drink, probably in the autumn or winter, when the darkness suits the climate.   This room does at least do something to excude the romantic idea of travelling by rail.  We were told we could order afternoon tea here.  We were given four menus – all wrong, all different –  in succession, before being told there wasn’t a menu for tea.  Honestly – I nearly got on a train for France.   No tea?  Scandal.  “Yes,” our challenged waiter said, “we don’t do tea.”

It turns out they did, about seven feet away, in the vast swimming pool changing room bit where non-plussed old people sat about chewing stale bread.  Victorian Gothic, whether it is to your taste or not, has atmostphere.  But whoever designed the interior of the St Pancras Renaissance was not imbued with the confidence necessary to let this atmostphere come into it own.  Slabs of modern furniture look like concessionary apologies, offensive in their inoffensiveness.  It feels like a smart airport.

We sit down and are given another menu.  And another.  And then had to ask for another, our seventh.  We get the right menu.  The afternoon tea was £30.00, which is usual for London hotels, if at the very top price bracket of the high tea charts.  What wasn’t usual was the “choose your own coz we’re too lazy” table in the middle which clearly featured leftovers from that morning’s breakfast.  It must have, because you don’t serve croissants and pain au chocolat at tea time.  Unless you’re a pervert.  Or French.  Or a French pervert, all of which were far too close for liking at the Eurostar terminal.  Terminal was the level of boredom I engaged with when trying to place an order.  We would, Mother Bluebird and I, have one tea to share.  But – here’s the complicated science bit! – we wanted two tea cups.  We are not so poor as to only afford to drink out of one.  Mother Bluebird wanted soya milk in hers, because she is lactose intolerant.  I wanted to hit something because I was Victorian Gothic-intolerant.  I ordered Earl Grey tea with slices of lemon.

Five minutes later, our waitress (over-starched, under-trained and – quite frankly – in the throws of a tea-based nightmare) said, did I mean I wanted a lemon and ginger tea bag in my Earl Grey tea?  No, I said.  It was enough to make me want to get on a train to France.    “Is the afternoon tea everything listed here?” we asked.  There were at least four cakes and lots of different kind of sandwiches.  She looked totally shocked and went off to speak to the Manager.  Of Tartlets.  Or someone.  She came back.  Yes, she said – it’s everything.

“Oh goodie.”

“Everything” turned up twenty minutes later, and was four finger sandwiches, two tiny slices of apple and walnut cake, an unhappy chocolate macaroon and a stressed oblong of French patisserie with three tiny raspberries on it, that looked like a pastry contemplating ending it all and committing suicide.  The scones hadn’t arrived at all.  Honestly, by this point I was half way to getting a train to France, or even bounding out of the door, onto the platform and going to Lille.  Not that I know where Lille is, but it has to be more fun than this over-inflated hellhole, even if it’s in somewhere monstrous like Belgium.  This was supposed to be my birthday tea and it was a bag of shite.  What to do?   There were in total, 8 items for £30.00.  I worked out that was about £3.50 per item.  The roast beef in the finger sandwich was full of gristle and decidedly creepy.  The bread for sandwiches was cut half a day earlier.   The staff were being marshalled by very strange looking managers in very cheap, shiny suits who glared at us all with guarded suspicion and who would have been more at home as managers of those shops in the Tottenham Court Road where they unlock stolen mobile phones.   There are two things the English do very well when it comes to customer service, and unfortunately they are the only two things : provide a sumptuous English afternoon tea, and serve it using excellently attired butler-type professional waiters in London’s five star hotels.    That’s it.  The rest of English customer service is a fruity mix of rudeness, class resentment and laziness.  Five star hotel teas are really all we have.  A good waiter knows how to be graceful, deferential and to imbue your experience with that vital air of luxury.  The staff at the St Pancrap Renaissance know nothing of this.  They don’t understand what they are doing or how to do it.

We wanted our scones (pronounced sconnes, obviously, not scohnes).  “Where are our scones?”   we said.  We were ladies.  Having tea. In the centre of London.  In England.  It cannot be.  IT CANNOT BE THERE ARE NO SCONEWORTHY SCONES.  The Gods simply wouldn’t allow it.

“We were waiting for a sign.  You have to signal,” said our waitress.  Signal?  I know it’s a station but I don’t work on the railways.  What kind of signal?  Should I stand up and burst into the chorus of the “Wichita Lineman”?  Or hold up a gold embossed sign stating “Scones required here, please deliver forthwith”?

“Sorry?”  said Mother Bluebird.  She hadn’t been this perplexed since John Lewis refused to deliver a chair and she gave them a stern telling off over the phone, featuring words like “I’ve been a cardholder for thirty years, you know”.

“Yes, we like to receive a signal, after you have finished eating everything else, and then present the scones to you, warm,” said the white jacketed lady waitress.

Is this as depressing to read as it is to write?  When did English afternoon tea become so laboured and awful?  It’s not performance art.  Nor is it fine dining from the 1980s, for God’s sake.  Surely the high bastion of high tea is impervious to such tomfoolery, I thought.  Then I realised.  Most of the people sitting around us were either OAPs or Russian oligarch OAPs.  This was an idea of English tea but it wasn’t the right one.  It was someone else’s idea of afternoon tea, and that someone else must be a parsimonious, precious sadist.  The idea is if you pay £30.00 a head for tea you get £30.00 of pompous service, which is stupid.  What you want is £30.00 of food.   What a bunch of fools.  “SIGNAL” we both said, somewhat abruptly.  Our scones came, and they were wonderful.  But they are supposed to come before the pastries, not as a digestif.

There was a one year old on the table next to us.  Quite chirpy she was.  When she ordered her tea, along with her parents, she received a 1,000 monologue on the tea, what kind of cakes there would be and whether she liked milk with her Lapsang Souchang.  And she was only one.  We didn’t get a speech.  The staff were slow, sycophantic, yet ineffective.  No one knew what they were doing.  Honestly, I nearly threw myself under a train to France at this point.  It’s English tea gone mad.  Even Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter Tea Party made more sense than this.

We were a bit annoyed so went off round the hotel to look at things.  Ernst & Young were having a meeting in a room ostentatiously titled “The Ladies Smoking Room” which put me in mind of a series of 1920s flappers sitting about in funny hats with massive cigarette holders.  We found the loos, which were dead classy, but around every corner there were intimidating men in cheap suits, looking at you funnily as if you were trying to steal something.  We went to have a look at a staircase which looked like a Gothic nightmare someone had thrown up.  We felt we couldn’t hang around looking at it for as long as we would have liked due to the heavy who was clearly guarding the hotel from further acts of architectural and design vandalism.  We sloped off.  It was all very unpleasant.

If you find yourself in Kings Cross do pop into the Booking Office bar for a quick drink, but only if there’s a train to swiftly carry you away somewhere else.  This hotel is a hollow, ordinary and downright silly place.  It is nothing but daft.com.   And if you are unfortunate enough to be staying there in a room, remember that they have recently discovered that the station announcements for arrivals and departures are audible through most of the rooms,and you don’t want to be disturbed at night by the information that the 14.52 to Edinburgh Waverley is about to leave.  Or by the pitiful cries of ladies screaming for their scones.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

The Musing of London

As promised, dear readers, I report back from my venture to London Wall last Thursday.  My museum feet are sore and my brain throbs with the enormity of articles crammed into the Museum of London, but God, I’m conscientious.  I am here to tell you what I saw and what I thought about what I saw.  The area couldn’t have looked more dramatic as I got out from the underground in time to hit the alarming deluge that swamped London at about 3.30pm, and by the time I go to The Museum of London I looked like a shoddy, soaked Roman slave that had got lost and delayed on her way to Londinium.

London Wall has to be the least inspiring building ever built.  It’s a 1970s monolith, a horror construction shunted up before the 80s really got going, and backs onto the remains of the old London Wall.  The wall and the building have little sympathy with one another and have turned their backs on each other.  They are almost as incongruous as a soggy Bluebird, landing on the front desk, umbrella a-dribbling and hat askew gasping out “gotta map for the Museum? I’m soaked and you close in an hour and a half”.

The ladies on the front desk were so polite and nice, bearing in mind they have to deal with swamped fools like me all day.    The new part of the Museum, the Modern Galleries which opened to grand aplomb last autumn, has been tagged on to the original section.    And what an original section it is.  It covers 450,000BC to 1558 AD.  The first section, titled “London Before London” covers the period from 450,000 BC to 50 BC.   This was the London of hunters, herders and farmers, of lions which lived in the Thames Valley in the Ice Age, of  Neanderthals who lived in Esex in 60,000BC – 30,000 BC (thank goodness they don’t live there anymore, readers!).  There was an “unlucky elephant’s foot” from this period, unearthed in Essex in 1964.   Why would you need an unlucky one?  Surely a lucky one would suffice?   Either way, from about 400,000 to 30,000 BC Londoners lived beside elephants and tigers and bears, which must have caused havoc on public transport.

I was pleased to see The Museum of London has a poet in residence.  Each section has a poem about it’s particular part of history, and it’s a brilliant thing.  The Stone / Iron / Mud Age section features the poetry of Bernardine Evansto, who has her job cut out for her.  What rhymes with “monkey skull”?  In Grays, Thurrock, a macaque monkey skull was unearthed.  It’s tiny, cylindrical, peculiar.   By 4,000 BC Londoners have basically sorted themselves out, kitchen-wise.  Bone tools hang up and there is some lovely pottery.  All these artefacts are viewed through glass cases to a soundtrack of forest noises, which makes you think only of rainforests, rather than pre-historic Chiswick, but full marks for trying to make the atmostphere evocative.   As you will see, not enough is done to ensure this happens elsewhere.

There is some wood magic!  I don’t know what this is but it was lovely.  And a Dagenham idol!  It is a thing to worship at, if you were living in Essex during the time Jesus was squealing in his manger over in Bethlehem.  It’s a idol of a little man, with a bald head.  He is tiny, wears a West Ham strip and sits in miniature white van screaming at traffic lights in Barking and has tattoos of accomodating lady friends down his arms.  Okay, he isn’t.  The Dagenham idol doesn’t actually have any arms, but is a two foot tall, non gender specific wooden statue that looks a bit like Alan Hansen.    Then I see, that many household tools created between 4,000 and 2,500 BC are in the shape of jockstraps, supposedly to be used as defences in the event of an irate Stone Age housewife.  There is a reconstructed head of “Shepperton Woman”, a lady who lived in approx 3,500 BC in the Middlesex area and presumably got lost on her way to Shepperton Studios to appear in Through the Stone Age Keyhole:  Who lives in a hut like this?” .  Her face was reimagined through DNA technology.  She looks like you or me, and it makes you realise that 5,000 years is nothing in evolutionary terms. The faces whose sides are pressed against i-phones half the time in 2011 are the same shaped faces which were pressed against animal carcasses, swathes of hide and (if you were lucky ladies!) Julius Caesar’s stately,imperial cheek in Roman Britain.

Then something awful happened.  It was like what happened at the Transport Museum where I inadvertently broke into a 19th century hansom cab.  I broke an interactive piece of machinery.  I was aghast.  I didn’t think anything like that could happen to me, not in the pre-history London bit – what on earth could I do?  Illegally step into a hedge? – but break something I did.  Basically, it was a game for children and I still couldn’t work it.  It was a “wheel of Roman Britain breakfast” type thing.  They have found some pips somewhere in the Thames Valley, and they put them in little plastic cases that can light up.  These pips are 2,000 years old.  You have to work out which pile of pips is hazlenut, crabapples, blackberries or wheat, respectively.  You press which group of rotten, ageing, mouldy pips you think it might be and the right one lights up.  But I jammed the answer button, so god knows what they had for petit dejeuner.  Although I had just eaten a Cadbury’s Whole Nut, which is a bit like their hazlenut breakfast but with added sugar, so I felt rather authentic.

Onwards, through the Iron Age, there were more knives than in a military garrison.  I also noticed that, when stepping up to the glass and almost nose to nose with the offender, I had eye sockets closer together than an adult male skull from 1300 BC that was dredged up in Mortlake.  I was more simian than he was.  Should I be worried?  Am I devolving?  Or, is that just a South London thing?     The space for the prehistoric area is large, white and more than a little clinical.  I would have liked smells that had resonance – sheep milk, farm yard turds,  ageing Stone Age man pants, broken blackberries and mulch.  That kind of thing.   The building that houses the London Museum is not friendly towards the creation of atmosphere.

Shortly after the Iron Age section I came across a Japanese lady asleep next to an interactive mammoth game, having been rendered soporific by the pottery displays.  Then  – suddenly it seemed – we were in a modern era.  Here’s the thing:  The Romans turn up, and thank goodness they did.  I mean I’m sorry about Boudicca and everything, but Britain would be just another northern European destination without the Romans rocking up and doing clever things with mosaics – I mean, the bathrooms are darling.  Their sofas are lovely too.  It’s actually an awful shame that for about 700 years after the Romans had left, Britain reverted to the squat toilet and the no-back, hay hair chaise longue with matching cauldron look that summed up the Dark Ages.  Interior design-wise, the Romans are the business.  The soundtrack that accompanies us through the Roman section changes to one of diligent industry – chopping, sawing, sandals walking and Italians shouting at each other.  There are no more forest noises.  The Romans wouldn’t stand for it.  London is filled with glass-based vases and jugs, strange earrings of beautiful turquoise dug up from underneath what is now a bank on Gresham Street, and a seemingly limitless amount of public baths and – perhaps the worst thing of all – taxation.

At this point a highly antiseptic looking glass wall, built at an angle, to encourage vertigo in the most hearty of Londoners, looms to your right.  You are invited to look down on the original Roman London Wall in the bit of garden below.  The vision is a splendid one – as it is complete with an irate taxi driver, parked up and shouting into his phone, at its imperial base.   From here, we zoom into Saxon world, where a London home circa 1000AD gives the visitor the first chance to actually experience the sense of something.  You can walk into it, a dark, dry, not entirely unpleasant place, with a home made bed to the left and a faint smell of horse.   As the millenium gets under way, the feel of Europe advancing gets stronger, and by 1200, almost every jug, cup, shoe and quilt are French or Italian influenced.  Most of it is so like the chunky pottery with large fruit designs on it that Habitat was churning out in the 1990s as to be uncanny.  But it is not all cheer and pleasant milk jugs in the Middle Ages.  There is a large area devoted entirely to Black Deaths, and a screen in a darkened room, were a creepy voiceover whispers all the cities in the world where Black Death claimed it’s coughing, wretched, 13th century victims : “Alexandria” a woman whispers, on the screen, accompanied with licking flames of fire swallowing up bits of the part of Egypt where people now go deep sea diving,  “Constantinople”, she whispers.    Then “Paris”.  Then “Preston”, which simply didn’t work ; try whispering “Alexandria” and you sound quite sexy and elegant.  Whisper “Preston” and you sound like a bus driver with a porn habit.

They were filthy, of course.  There were plagues and leper hospitals, including information on the massive leper burial site now lying underneath Liverpool Street Station.  A beautiful, vast collection of buckles, belts, coins and curls was in this section, a model of the original St Paul’s Cathedral and another interactive machine which, yet again, I took the opportunity to break.

Sigh.  I don’t know what it is about me but with this one it was a “Middle Ages Interactive Take Away Menu” game.  You press the modern takeaway option “Hot Dog!” and you get a picture of an unhappy, short, bald man in 1325 with his equivalent – a sign saying “Sheep’s feet on Caudle”.   Then I pressed “Meat Pie” and broke it.  I can’t understand why this keeps happening to me.  I didn’t even get as far as pressing “Fish & Chips”.  Presumably, if I had, the medieval equivalent would have been “Codpiece”.

From there, we are suddenly into Tudor London.  The Fire comes and goes,  the King comes and goes, and silver and gold relics, kettles pots and pans are everywhere.  There is a splendid mock-up of a London living room in the 1650s, but the lighting is so brassy and insensitive that it’s nearly ruined.  The informative notes on the panel beneath the window say the sitting room would have been lit by tallow candle.  How about helping imagination along a bit by recreating a similar kind of light?  Instead, the Museum becomes what it remains for the whole of it’s “modern” section – cramped, anxious, and unable to sit happily in its space.  The artefacts are remarkable,  the excavations made from the ground and the sitting rooms of Londoners over the last five hundreds are exceptional by any standards, but the displays jar, the labelling is complex and often not adjacent to the item it is meant to label, leading to confusion.    There is an interactive “cholera” outbreak area, where touching a plastic panel reveals words like “disease”  when pressed, but there is no mention of the word cholera, what the water pump means, or any information on the cholera outbreaks.  Children gaze at the display nonplussed.  Adults gaze at the display and ignore it, assuming it is for children.

There are some small exceptions.  It is inspiring to come across the whole Newgate cell implanted into the beginning of the Modern Galleries, for visitors to walk into, sense the oppression and feel the history.   It is resplendent with 18th century prison graffiti.  It is also wonderful to touch the original Newgate door; all hunkering, great bolts and massive nails, as if a door for a giant to walk through.  But the opportunity to create a awe-inspiring fountain of fire to mark the “Whoops baker – you left the oven on , you Stuart dolt!”” conflagration of 1666 is missed;  “1o,ooo houses went up in flame…” says the RADA – trained actor over the darkened room, where a display features small papier mache looking London, with its sorry cluster of muted, orange-ish lightbulbs.

The Galleries of Modern London then, is the new feather in the cap for the Museum of London.  And it is a vast improvement on the older sections, partly because of it’s imaginative use of space.  I particularly loved the selection of beautiful 17th and 18th century shoes in glass cases underneath the floor.   The famous Fanshawe dress is there – the stupidest and widest dress in the world.  It’s here, in post-industrial London, that the city seems to come back to us; the London of custom houses, of costume dramas, of coffee houses, novels and plays.  We can connect with it, as we recognise it with almost as much familiarity as the London of today.   And what a London it is.  Twelve foot high wooden models of Scottish Highlanders stood outside most of London’s tobacconists in the 19th century, and two of them are here, leering out into the Victorian promenade area like great bastions of the promise of carcinogenic pleasure.   The Victorian street is nobly put together – tailor’s workshop, tobacconist, grocer, public urinal, a rampant display of china dolls in a scary toy shop – but so clean, and so cold as to make people feel nothing.  A little cobbled floor, a little soundtrack and – again I think,with smells – a slight stench of manure, and this area, so lovingly designed and beautifully created – would have come to life.

There are some bizarre Georgian pleasure gardens which are so daft that they must be mentioned.  Visitors sit in a darkened room, amidst a cheap, white wooden gazebo surrounded by plastic shrubbery.  Around this, in a faint- hearted reproduction of Pleasure Gardens, a film of actors, whooping and waving crinolines and passing love notes  to each other, plays out behind plastic trees on opposite sides of this awful, dark arena.  It’s expensive and incredibly cheap at the same time.  As a fitting metaphor for the Pleasure Gardens section as a whole, the Ye Olde Georgiane filme was woefully out of sync.

The walk in poverty map, made famous by Charles Booth, is brilliant, as is the exhibition of Suffragette paraphenalia which would be enough to turn the laziest and most tardy of voters into raging militant feminists.  It is actually worth going to visit the Suffragette exhibition alone.  Take every woman you’ve ever met who doesn’t vote to teach them a lesson.  The most heartbreaking artefacts are those made, sewn or knitted in Holloway Gaol by those suffragettes on hunger strike through the most militant campaign shortly before the First World War.  But the exhibits are cramped, and the space left to accommodate them badly signed and underlit.  And there wasn’t even anything for me to break here either.  Thank goodness I didn’t try to tackle that V1 rocket that was in a glass case, because I’d only have brought on another Blitzkrieg and had confused American tourists running for Moorgate underground station in a bid to survive.

I did like the 1930s telephone, which you can pick up and hear original stories of the early days of the telephone through the receiver.  This was great, although no one warned me that the connecting wire between telephone and receiver was so short in the olden days, so I hit myself in the temple with it.  There was the window from the Lyon’s House in Coventry Street, which was a shock, as apparently my father sat at it on VE Day watching the crowds in Piccadilly Circus below.   Now, if  he had turned up in the exhibit that would have been a surprise.  However, I think we guarded ourselves against that possibility when we cremated him and illegally shunted the ashes under a bush in the Regents Park.  Nothing would have upset that lemon cake I just wolfed in the cafe more than a reconstituted version of a cremated dead father appearing in the middle of the Museum of London in his usual search for Cracker Barrel cheddar.

There was a Lyons Corner House menu, which tantalised the tastebuds.  It looked fab.  Why don’t we still have them?  A lovely silent film of London in the 1920s and 1930s blazed out of an Art Deco imitation cinema, a timely prequel to the destruction of the Blitz.   It showed a London where it was compulsory to wear a hat and smoke on the tube at the same time.  There is a late 195os winklepicker shoe, but the pointy shoes from 1425 could have taught those rock and rollers a thing or two.  The 1960s give a cursory nod to a lovely but lonely Mary Quant dress.    If the Museum of London is to be  believed, the 60s didn’t swing, they merely hovered in a plastic display case on the way to the shop and conferencing facilities.

The shop is just atrocious.  It’s a series of tourist-feeding, red buses on key rings and – bizarrely – old fashioned sweets.  It should be a riot.  But it’s a missed opportunity, with the exception of the postcards.  One tea towel design was available.  Two mug designs were available, one of which the “Keep Calm and Carry On” mug you can pick up in any Cards Galore shop.   The shop has one book on a current photography exhibit but nothing else that corresponds to the museum.  Conversely, the cafe is brilliant.

Ultimately then, is this a violently missed opportunity?  Or recognition of the fact that his glorious, galumping, vibrant metropolis of ours, active for 2,000 years and counting, is uncontainable?  My advice for visitors is this: look for nothing beyond the articles.    This really ought to be an exciting place, but there is no space or room for the articles to be suitably observed and absorbed.   There are recorded summaries of what it was like to be a blacksmith or glass engraving apprentice in the 18th century, so some effort is made for personal stories to be told.  But the overall impression of this museum for a city in which millions and millions of people have lived, worked, loved and died, is a strangely impersonal one.   The accumulation of resources is marvellous in terms of items, but the absence of imaginative resources is saddening.  If so much of London is there, why does it feel as if so much of what makes London London has been missed out?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.