Thursday, March 1, 2012

Not-Horrible Things to Do in London

If you have engaged in conversation with me for more than five minutes, you have more than likely been aware of my passionate hatred for all things to do with London. I love Oxford (as a city, it's easily in my top five), but London frequently reduces me to tears. Half-decent Georgian food aside, London is a city of decrepit urban sprawl and derelict foxes. However, as there is a chance that I will be living either in Northwest London or East London next year (am currently counting the minutes until April, during which month all will be decided!), I suppose the Mature Thing to Do would be to count London's miniscule blessings. Certainly, there are a few - minor - things that London does not-terribly, among them:

The South Bank
Londoners apparently hate the South Bank, deriding it as touristy and otherwise horrendous, and/or a false imposition of "European urbanization values" onto London's sprawl. As a great fan of European urbanization values, I see nothing wrong with outdoor seating, riverside promenades, or the presence of The Globe theatre, The National, the best/cheapest used bookstalls in London (I judge the intellectual tenor of my used-book stalls by the number of Virago Modern Classics available, which is a useful general hermeneutic principle), and the only reasonably priced food in London. I speak, of course, of the paella at Cafe Brood, in Borough Market across from Southwark Cathedral. A fiver for an obscenely large scoop of paella, to be consumed as the sun sets over the Thames. One of the very - very - few non-chain restaurants in the South Bank (chain restaurants representing the commodification and assimilation of cultural diversity into corporately-acceptable standardized menu cards and the flattening of diversity into a nebulous ideas of Englishness), Cafe Brood also offers dangerously large jugs of sangria.
Come Away with: A copy of Lawrence van der Post's Journey into Russia for 3 pounds from the bookstalls outside the National; flower tea at the baroque but naturally overpriced bar at the BFI, overpriced but nevertheless very good theatre books from the strong selection at Foyle's.

The only area of London I unambiguously like. Easily the best charity shopping in London (while, as Charity Shop Tourism notes, Epping and Golder's Green are up there. Clapham is also home to a proper bakery, unpretentious greenery, restaurants that look that they have been designed by genuine human beings rather than Marketing Effectiveness Teams. Highlights include (just outside of Clapham), the Battersea Power Station Cafe (our local when VEB lived on Battersea Park Road), home to the best English breakfast in London. Unlike most places in London, the Power Station offers biscuits with its cappuccinos, has decent couches, and - most excitingly - has in fact not been designed by the sort of Englishman that assumes that beauty is some sort of dangerous French innovation that will lead inexorably to sodomy, bacchanals, and the intermixing of the social classes.
Come away with: a perfectly-fitted Karen Millen cocktail dress (at left) for fifteen pounds from a Clapham High Street charity shop.

The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery
Free and eminently wanderable, the National Gallery is the "romantic date walk" of choice for me and the VEB. While I'll always have a soft spot for the Louvre and/or the Met - where I spent most of my childhood pretending to be Marie Antoinette in the furniture sections - (and, on more sentimental grounds, the Ashmolean), the National Gallery allows me to indulge my largely-inherited Italian-Renaissance obsession (with forays into Velazquez and 19th century Parisians). I don't have any personal favorite "to-visit" paintings here, but it's a surprisingly affordable way to pass an hour in London.

Come away with: a stack of postcards in which to write thoughtful birthday cards throughout the year; an intense desire for Museum Gallery Reproduction jewelry.

Hookah Lounge, Brick Lane
Nestled away amid the mobile phone shops, overcrowded fish-n'-chip joints, and drunken slumpers than line Bethnal Green Road (and a stone's throw from the "faux fur, red lips and jeggings" crowd in Shoreditch), Brick Lane is home to an uncharacteristically excellent tea room. Tastefully decorated, with offerings of about ten varieties each of tea and coffee (including Arabian, Turkish, Chinese, Moroccan, and other varieties), Hookah Lounge cannot quite compare to the Best Moroccan Tea Room Outside Morocco Of All Time (that would be the amazing and bizarrely titled Algiers, near Harvard Square, in Cambridge MA, my single biggest regret about not staying in the US for college). but it's affordable (3 pounds for a reasonable sized pot of tea) and atmospheric.

Golder's Green
Like any good New Yorker, I'm Jew-ish (ie, half) enough to get excited about my kosher roots. Like most things in London, the falafel+hummus shops are not quite as nice as they are elsewhere (The falafel in Paris's Rue de Roisiers easily wins the Falafel Deathmatch, were such a thing not Too Awesome to Exist), but they're enormous, cheap, and served by Attractive Jewish Boys. (Who operated, alas, on the assumption that I was an unambiguous WASPy shiksa who had never tried falafel before and hence kept giving me free samples - to be fair, I must be the only naturally blonde-haired, blue-eyed Sicilian-Catholic-meets-Ukranian-Jew in existence). Golder's Green is also home to another Decent Cafe: the Victorian quaint-chic Cafe Imperial (divans, enormous cappuccinos, cheap lemon cake, slightly fewer Attractive Jewish Boys).
Come away with: Oversized falafel sandwiches, modest retro gear, bread from the Kosher Bakery,  Korean-Jewish "fusion groceries"

The Last Tuesday Society, Hackney
I bought the Very English Boyfriend a taxidermied crow here for Christmas. He is called Mortimer. Enough said.

Runners-Up: The British Library, the walkways around Little Venice, the bizarre Serbian hotel I stayed at in Holland Park, any iteration of Paul, the possibly defunct "Italina" restaurant in Hackney, Battersea Park, charity shopping in Epping, Fortnum and Mason's teas (c.f. Richoux), the canals in Camden, anywhere that isn't Oxford Street, really.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

I don't get why people are crazy about London. Here in Madrid, the Spanish are obsessed with London - and I just don't get it! It's a city that on the whole is put together in an ugly way (only in London will you find a beautiful Tudor building next to a 60s office block).

OK, there is a lot to do there, but you need a lot of money to do it. This is the reason Madrid wins for me way ahead of London. It's cheaper to go out and eat out. You've got 3 amazing world class art galleries and outstanding smaller galleries.

London is depressing. It's dirty and the lifestyle there is too manic.