London July 23

Washed by yesterday’s rain, the glazed red tile and warm yellow brick of The Gloucester Road Station made a pleasant backdrop for the row of rental bicycles at the tree shaded bus stop that met our eyes upon exiting the hotel in the morning sunlight.

Eager to explore the districts urban delights, we were also driven by the appetite for coffee and breakfast.  Halfway up the block across the Road, we were struck by the genteel but sumptuous appearance of a French bakery, whose matte black façade and signage reiterated its distinctive monosyllabic name in classic white font: “Paul.” Trays of fresh sandwiches on baguettes just out of the oven, fruit laden pastries, and gleaming croissants filled the warm-lit window.

The compact shop bustled with customers and servers replacing empty trays in the display cases with filled ones being prepared in the large back kitchen.  At  the sidewalk table, we relished pastries and coffee of this uniquely authentic French cafe. But within a couple of days having seen the same facade as frequently as Starbucks’, we learned that it was an international chain. Compared to Paul, however, Starbucks was McDonald’s.

While planning for the trip we’d already been converted from using maps and guidebooks to relying on digital information, whose convenience and extent profoundly changed one’s relation to the world around. The wi-fi access purchased through a small addition to the monthly phone bill, along with the innumerable apps that conveyed  real-time information both from and to the user brought everything about the unfamiliar worlds we explored within the (occasionally fumbling) reach of a hand in the pocket.

Finishing our cappucino’s we zoomed in and out of Google maps on the small screen to decide how to spend our first morning.  We chose The Victoria and Albert Museum a few blocks away along streets shaded by huge London plane trees.


I remembered coming there with my Cal Poly in London English class in 1992 for a group reading of Pride and Prejudice in the setting of a stately home’s drawing room and finding the building laughably grandiose and ornate—an embodiment of the philistine pomposity associated with that queen’s name.

Thirty one years later, the courtyard through which we entered produced a different impression. The dense red brick and terracotta renaissance revival style of the surrounding walls was set off by a sloping porcelain tiled plaza, a curvilinear stainless steel fountain and the asymmetrically angled roof of a glass enclosed sunken basement, together creating a feeling of luxurious instability, a cruise ship in a storm.

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The 12 foot greeting figure on a pedestal reinforced the disorienting impact of monumentality, polish and surprise.  A stately young Black woman, hair in a tight bun wearing a loose fitting tee shirt, sweat pants and no-nonsense work shoes stands confident and poised with hands in pockets.  Skin, hair and clothing are presented with super realistically varied textures, but also with a uniform bronze surface that looks glazed with black, suggesting the surface of a classic marble. She struck me as a domestic worker or a hospital orderly, maybe a union organizer, overworked, underpaid, supporting a family with dignity and pride.


After a couple of hours wandering through some of  the seven miles of galleries housed by this characteristically Victorian scaled building, we settled for a while in one of its inner courtyards where a new fountain  invited children to splash in the shallow water and adults to soak their tired feet, refreshingly diluting its original   grandiosity with contemporary informality.


By early afternoon we were grateful to use the prepaid “Oyster card” allowing for a week of unlimited public transportation and climb on the double decker bus that took us back to the hotel for nap that formed part of our daily schedule for the rest of the trip–a concession to the limitations of energy  that always seem to hover at the edge of rejuvenating stimulation.

Before leaving on the trip, we’d purchased tickets for a performance of  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a regular summer event in the Royal Albert Hall. “Puttin on the Ritz” for this profoundly urban occasion felt both self-conscious and natural.

The evening walk after early dinner at a formal Indian restaurant along the edge of Kensington Gardens brought us back to the center of “Albertopia,” the district containing the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Royal Albert Hall to our right and the Albert Memorial Monument just inside the park to the left.


It’s gaudy Gothic Revival style had an irresistible appeal with the evening sunlight igniting the gold of its towers and canopied statue and the festive crowd of concert-goers converging on the crossing of the boulevard toward the colossal domed venue.


The building’s design, embedding dense complexity within symmetrical repetition of contrasting yellow and red colored bricks baked from local clay dominated the eye like a formation of redcoat troops.


The impression of a sports arena was reinforced by the scale of the interior dome–seating capacity 5772, plus a large a central floor for standees– and garish  lighting.  Despite the huge size of orchestra and chorus, for me the musical impact of Beethoven’s blasting score was diluted in the immense space.


We did feel something of the triumphal celebration of the Ode to Joy in concluding the first day of  this long delayed self-guided tourist adventure, unfolding now despite the ever present challenges and constraints of age.



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