Monday, April 10, 2017

London with Someone Who Knows Where He's Going

Quite a while back, when Gene and I worked together at Out North, I always felt like he knew everything there was to know about theater. Not only did he know the stage part, but he taught me things about ticket numbering, about backstage, about fund raising, you name it.

Now, visiting him in London, I see that Gene just knows A LOT, period. I also see that his heart of gold is still intact. Not only did he send me all sorts of helpful stuff beforehand in a big envelope, but he gave me an outing in London that becomes the perfect example of London-with-a-capital-L. (You can contrast this with the next post, which will be the story of a bumbling day with Barbara.)

We started out at the Borough Tube station. (Gene knew to pick that because it has only one entrance so I couldn’t get lost.) We then walked down the street. He was going to take me into the oldest pub in London, the George Inn, but it turned out a film shoot was happening inside. It was a gangster film, and the gangster actors were hanging out, waiting for their entrance.

We circled around Guy’s Hospital, and Gene always found little nooks and crannies. At the hospital is a courtyard with a statue of John Keats sitting in a little stone nook and looking so poetical.

On the wall nearby, a blue oval (the sign that means something historical happened here) featured Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher bane of my year in graduate school. Wittgenstein was a drug runner!

“Goosey goosey gander,

Whither shall I wander?

Upstairs and downstairs

And in my lady's chamber.”

Gene took me to the Cross Bones Graveyard, for the “Outcast Dead.” Apparently, the prostitutes south of the Thames would signal their availability while waving and wearing white gloves. The gloves – arms hooked at the wrists – looked like geese, and these “Winchester Geese” were buried in unconsecrated ground, now decorated with ribbons of remembrance.
The rest of the rhyme speaks to the rounding up of Catholic priests by the Protestants, so we also stopped by the Anglican Bishop of Winchester’s palace as well as his private prison, “The Clink.”

“There I met an old man

Who wouldn't say his prayers,

So I took him by his left leg

And threw him down the stairs.”

Walking by the Desmond Tutu Room in Southwark Cathedral, we came upon double doors. Written in large letters on the floor:

Near the Cathedral, a large plaque describes the Legend of Mary Overie: Her father, a terrible miser, faked his death so his servants would fast for a day and save money on food. The servants were so happy, they feasted instead, which so enraged her father, he jumped up. The servants, thinking he was the Devil, beat him to death. Mary was so upset, she sent for her lover, who rushed to claim the inheritance, fell from his horse, and broke his neck.

Yes, this is the kind of story appearing on a historical plaque.

Mary, by the way, was so distressed, she used the inheritance to found a convent and was sainted.

Modern London is just as … irreverent. Their skyline, in order, is the Cheese Grater, the Gherkin, and the Walkie Talkie.

We went in a cheese-monger shop where giant cylinders of cheese were on racks and we could taste them by age. The Borough Market was an astounding feast of produce, jams, olive oils, teas, cheese, ciders, spices, fish, breads. It was an incredible display of raw abundance, a Costco of the homemade!

Every now and then, we’d wander (deliberately, because Gene knows where they are) into a little hidden gem of a park, a place with a pond or walk that was so quiet you wouldn’t know you were in the middle of London. It’s something so smart about London, creating quiet spaces. I think of how Anchorage’s parks are active spaces, and I appreciate the quiet oases here.

Then, of course, I had to sit in the Ferryman’s Seat, an ancient stone seat embedded in a wall in Southwark. The ferryman would sit there and wait for his fares. In reading Prophecy, the Cityread London book, they mention hiring wherries to go up and down the Thames, so it’s all starting to fit together!

After five hours on the trail of London’s history with Gene, we crossed to Trafalgar Square via the very special crossing lights:

Gene deposited me exactly on time at the National Gallery for my workshop, “Relaxing with Paintings,” for Slow Art Day. It was a brilliantly orchestrated day … to be contrasted with the stumbling serendipities I encounter on my own. Only later did Gene tell me that a few minutes after I entered the Gallery, a helicopter landed in nearby Trafalgar Square to medevac out a woman who got hit by a bus. I bet she was a tourist, I bet she forgot to look right, and I’m glad her injuries are non-life-threatening.

I never cross a street without looking both ways, multiple times, and only moving when someone else steps out, too.


  1. This is a delight!

  2. Ah, Barbara. You've met the man I love in his element: Alternative city tour guide! or City tour alternate guide or Guide to London Alternative history and present, or... just a lot of fun, interesting stuff.

    He's good at this, isn't he?

  3. Wonderful. Thanks.

    And shows you just how BIG a city London is. I lived there for 4 months, and have visited several other times. I thought I knew the key parts of the city reasonably well. But I've visited SO LITTLE of the south bank, where almost all of this adventure occurred.

    Maybe I'll explore some of these things on my Wimbledon trip this summer – since for the first time I WILL be staying south of the Thames.

  4. Unfortunately, after the Cheese Grater, Gherkin, Walkie Talkie (aka Popcorn Box) and the Electric Shaver, there wasn't time for the Glass Testicle.

  5. Hooray for a really fun day. It sounds like you are getting the most out of your time in London. I loved the Borough Market. I'm glad you had a chance to go there.

  6. Brings back great memories Barbara. Here's the tour Gene took us on - totally different. visiting-with-friends.


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