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Invitation to stray

May 1st, 2007

BY GILLIAN WILCE

londoncab-copy.jpgOne of the all-time best-known pieces of advice to tourists visiting London was Gerard Hoffnung’s “Try the famous echo in the British Museum Reading Room.” It was, of course, tongue in cheek — a winning entry in the New Statesman’s weekly competition. Being involved with this competition — including moonlighting as one of the many pseudonymous characters (Ms. de Meaner, perhaps) who inhabited the mythic “Comp. Complex” and set and judged the competitions — was one of the jolliest aspects of working at the New Statesman. Misleading advice for tourists was a favorite and was repeated several times over the years, though none of the results ever quite matched the brilliant succinctness of Mr. Hoffnung’s entry. Another highlight, also before my time (which was in the 1980s), was the Graham Greene parody competition, won by a new name in competition annals, which turned out to be a pseudonym for — yes, Graham Greene himself. I also remember with fondness a competition to provide gnomic sounding but outstandingly meaningless proverbs, like the solemn dictum: ‘“He digs deepest who deepest digs.”’

But I’m straying from my intended theme, which was to offer a little non-misleading (I hope) advice to anyone who is planning to visit London. I noticed yesterday, while walking from London Bridge to Tate Modern past the Globe Theatre, that even though the summer holidays are still some way off, it was getting very crowded along the river walkways. And this put me in mind of a few random thoughts I’d been having about how best to enjoy this city.

First, and most practically, if you are on a budget, check out the prices of small everyday items and choose where you buy them. Take that contemporary staple, bottled water, for example. En route into town, I can buy one for 50p in my local general store, or 65p just up the road. But forget to get one there and I can end up being asked £1.20 for a similar bottle at a stall in a mainline railway station or tube or a central London shop. And I’d be wary of those vans you find lurking outside or beside or under every tourist attraction unless you want to pay the very maximum for an ice cream or hot dog.

Paradoxically, if you need to travel late or can afford private transport to get about, then I’d advise going for a traditional black cab every time. In an emergency I always use one; I’d never risk a mini-cab even though they are cheaper. With a licensed London taxi driver you are perfectly safe and sure of getting to your destination as quickly as possible (even if it doesn’t always seem like it; I remember a cab driver once saying to me that if he crosses and re-crosses the river people think he’s adding time to the journey when he’s actually doing the opposite since the Thames bends so much). It takes years to “do the knowledge”; it has even been found that afterwards cabbies have literally increased hippocampus capacity. But it isn’t just about learning roads; trainees are, for instance, put through the mill by instructors to see that they can keep their cool with awkward customers.

For less expensive travelling around, while the tube may be efficient and perhaps more appealing in such a large and complex city, if you can face it, do take the bus. You will simply see so much more, get to know a London which is not just made up of “sights” but is a living city. And talking of sights, given how much there is to see and visit, I’d encourage anyone to go to “real” places rather than ersatz “attractions”: the Tower of London rather than the “London Dungeon,” real actors in the theatre rather than wax models in Madame Tussauds (I’ve never seen the point of these). And don’t just stick to the familiar tourist routes between the best-known landmarks. The big art galleries and museums are, of course, worth visiting, but you could also follow up special interests and make the acquaintance of a different London at the same time by venturing east, say, to the Geffrye Museum with its history of domestic interiors, or to the Whitechapel Art Gallery or the White Cube in Hoxton for contemporary art, or south to the Museum of Garden History in what was St Mary’s Church beside Lambeth Bridge, or further south to the Horniman Museum with its emphasis on natural history and on music. Or take yourself northwards up to the top of Primrose Hill for a panoramic view across the whole city.

To slow you down even more, my biggest single piece of advice would simply be to walk, walk everywhere you can — and look around you as you go (not forgetting to look upwards), especially if you are interested in architecture. R, whom I met at Tate Modern at the end of my walk along the south bank, was remarking on the sameness of Glasgow’s architecture compared with the infinite variety of styles in London. We were at the time sitting in the members’ room at Tate Modern gazing down at the ultra-modern steel Millennium (foot) Bridge arcing over the river in front of us towards the 300-year-old dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, still imposing its presence even against a backdrop of jumbled concrete and glass and ubiquitous giraffe-necked cranes.

Then, let your walking turn into meandering. If your timetable allows, simply wander. Turn off the beaten track, get a bit lost. I go back and forth to Covent Garden quite a bit at the moment. In a rush the other day I cut through a pedestrian court I don’t think I’d ever set foot in before: elegant, very English with its lamp standards and flowers and red phone box, and totally quiet compared with the busy streets around. London is full of such courts and alleys, and so often people stick to the main routes, leaving these byways all the more peaceful.

You can get a real feel for the city by ambling round in it like this, discovering new pleasures and seeing its well-known attractions in a different light. Last Friday night, on my way home from class at the Poetry Society building (there’s a Poetry Cafe there open to all, by the way — worth a visit for poetry lovers), I was on my way down Bow Street when I stopped, my back more or less to the famous (cf. P.G. Wodehouse) but now defunct magistrates court, to look, properly look, at the Opera House. It was interval time and I realized that you didn’t need to go to a performance, desirable though that might be, to get the full effect of the floral hall (which used to be just that — I remember going there at dawn one day in the early 1970s to fill a friend’s car with boxes of fresh-picked daffodils). From the street outside you can see not only the detail of the delicate high-arched glass ceiling but even the frieze of figures in the upper bar which, by sleight of vision, appears to hang as if quite unattached in mid-air in the hall. On a smaller scale, but equally pleasurably, stroll though any residential area at dusk and peer at the lit pictures of Londoners’ lives in basement windows.

As Dr Johnson said in 1777, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” and that means a lot more than Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. •
Illustration by Janine Applegate

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Wilce | Link to this Entry

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