23 July 2012

An American Tourist's Guide to London--in 1963

Ye Olde London, with Ye Newe London Eye slightly visible.
Photo from Flickr user Jr.ge. Used via Creative Commons. 

I didn't go to London during my Not-So-Grand Tour. It seemed too easy, too familiar. I'd been there before—less likelihood of getting lost. I knew the culture—less likelihood of accidentally insulting someone's mother. I spoke the language, or at least something resembling it—less likelihood of all of the above, in addition to all manner of other communication embarrassments.

All in all: less likelihood of the sort of awkward, out-of-my-comfort-zone moments that are agonizing and frustrating and even dangerous at the time, but which later make for hilarious, revealing stories (that is, books).

But lately, I've begun to regret skipping it, because the world's eyes have turned Thames-ward. I hear there's an event happening over there soon. Something involving various muscle-bound individuals showing off their athletic prowess in the name of country and competition and product endorsements.

A few months ago, the incomparable AA Gill wrote a piece about London, his hometown, for the New York Times, ostensibly in the service of Olympics-bound visitors. Embracing the city's evolution, in the past few decades, into a cultural tapestry without peer, an “amazingly polyglot and variegated” world capital, Gill shuns the classic stereotypes.
You want stiff-lipped men in bowler hats and cheeky cockneys with their thumbs in their waistcoats and fish on their heads.
I’m sorry, but they’re not here anymore. No city’s exported image lags so far behind its homegrown veracity than London’s, so let’s start with what you’re not going to find. We’re all out of cheeky cockneys, pearly kings and their queens, and costermongers. You’re not going to find ’60s psychedelia and the Beatles in Carnaby Street. There aren’t any punks under 50 on the King’s Road; there are no more tweedy, mustachioed, closeted gay writers in Bloomsbury, no Harry Potter at King’s Cross. There aren’t men in white tie, smoking cigars outside Pall Mall clubs and there isn’t any fog, but you can find Sherlock Holmes’s house on Baker Street.” 
… London is a city of ghosts; you feel them here. Not just of people, but eras. The ghost of empire, or the blitz, the plague, the smoky ghost of the Great Fire that gave us Christopher Wren’s churches and ushered in the Georgian city. London can see the dead, and hugs them close.
Let's say, for the sake of argument and—ahem—convenience, that you're interested in unearthing some of those ghosts. Not the Ye Olde London variety, Gothic and grim, but the more recent past, the Beatles' era, fresh enough in our collective cultural memory to feel like it's still relevant, even for those of us who weren't yet born when John Lennon died.

I happen to own a guidebook from back then. Europe on Five Dollars a Day, 1963 edition. I've been leafing through the London chapter of late and making some some notes about early-1960s London, Arthur Frommer-style. And by the way, if anyone wants to do some on-the-ground Frommering (Lee's term for the scavenger hunts we undertook every day in our attempts to use the guidebook in other European cities) and report back on how things have changed or have not, drop me a line. I might know a guy who can send a PDF.

Frommer on London

Frommer begins:
London, to some, is an imposing place, to be respected rather than enjoyed. To me, this city is as unpretentious as the smallest country hamlet. When London is known and absorbed, it remains in the mind not as a memory of monuments and museums, but of utterly simple and sympathetic sights: the galleries at Covent Gardens filled with students rapt upon a Sadler's Wells ballet; the calm and smoky innards of a corner pub; the clusters of children in Kensington Park; the cheese-and-ale parties in the one-room skylight flats of Chelsea.

All you've heard to the contrary, Londoners are among the friendliest people of Europe, and London itself is an inviting town.
Stereotypes linger, of course, and these remain the classic tableaus that populate our modern daydreams of London, even if the haze of those corner pubs dissipated with the nation's initiation, a few years back, of an indoor smoking ban. Still, though: the pubs, the gardens, the young artists and bohemians and tight-trouser-wearers holding informal salons in unfinished lofts. Gill was right.

Frommer on hotels

In Frommer's section about hotels in London, there's a bit more riffing on the stereotypes of the city.
Generally speaking, I think you'll find that English hotels, in all price ranges, are not as good as those on the continent, and—except for their phenomenal free breakfasts—fail to offer values comparable to those found in Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia—even Italy and France. But the important point to remember is that the inexpensive English guesthouses share these defects to no greater an extent than do most First Class English hotels.

Some readers, for instance, have complained that their guesthouse rooms had a Dickensian gloom about them, with heavy Mahogany fixtures and brown woolen drapes. Fact: most First class hotels in London have a Dickensian gloom about them, have dark Mahogany fixtures and brown woolen drapes. Other readers have written in that their breakfast bacon was underdone, and the eggs were greasy. Fact: the hotels in the elegant Mayfair section serve underdone bacon and greasy eggs.
When in London, expect these things, and revel in them. For England would not be England if the interiors of hotels were decorated in Scandinavian-type pastels. And what would the stories of Sherlock Holmes be like—if it weren't for the fog!” 
Frommer says that the hotels in London cost roughly half of the going rate in US hotels and that because breakfast is included, you can spend a bit more than usual on a room: “to stay within the $5-a-day budget in London, you can go as high as $3.50 per person.”

In case you're wondering, that's about $25 today, adjusted for inflation. Rumor has it the typical prices in London have ticked up a notch or two, even when the Olympics aren't in town.

So, where to stay in 1963 London? Go straight to Russell Square, Frommer says; here is the “heart of a district of budget hotels.” Focus your attention on Bernard Street, Bedford Place, Bloomsbury Street, and Gower Street.

On Bernard Street, there are any number of brownstones converted to bed-and-breakfasts, their atmosphere “typically representative of English life” and popular with British travelers. Try the Harley House at 15-16 Bernard ($2.80 per person), “an exceptionally friendly, happy establishment,” or the The Edinburgh House (22 Bernard Street), whose gregarious proprietors “promise to 'burn the bacon' for American guests.”

Frommer also offers words of warning: avoid The Newlands Hotel, across the street from the subway station, as it “charges much too steep prices for the mostly tiny rooms it offers,” and The Berner House Hotel (30 Bernard Street), “whose surprising discourtesy to readers has become intolerable.”
For lower prices but also a bit less charm, Frommer suggests Sussex Gardens or the Kensington Gardens area.

Frommer on food

You'll note that Frommer does not dispute the complaints readers lodged about the food in their bed-and-breakfasts. It's the perpetual comment of the tourist in Britain: beguilingly charming people, distressingly grey and sodden food, evidently to match the grey and sodden weather.

(I'm guilty of this myself. Writing about Scotland, I once noted my “lingering nausea from the 'Full Scottish Breakfast' at the B&B—runny eggs served with rare meats of unknown provenance, cold toast and oozing circles of scarlet that may have been tomatoes or possibly stewed jellyfish.”)

Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day is full of effusive praise about many of his favorite spots; there is, it must be said, an unnecessarily healthy population of exclamation points. But Frommer also lands his share of punches, too, nowhere more brazenly than here. In short: the food sucks; you're gonna be hungry.
London is unlike the other capitals of Europe in its attitude towards food. Outside of England, meals are occasions, and cooking is an art. The restaurants in Rome and Vienna and Paris are restaurants—not mass-produced lunch joints. In London, on the other hand, chain restaurants abound, standardized places, serving fast meals, cheap.

With great despair, this book recommends that you eat in these inexpensive chains, while in London, and save your money for the better meals available in France and Italy. Cooking is a lost art in Great Britain. Your meat-pie-with-cabbage will turn out to be just as tasteless for 40 cents in a chain restaurant as it will for $2 in a posh London hotel.
Frommer's list is full of those pies-plus-veggies meals. Kidney pie here, veal pie there, backhanded compliments about the barely-palatable comestibles all around. His comments about Simpson's-in-the-Strand, a recommended “big splurge,” are worth quoting at length:
This a large and gleaming place, terribly correct and British, and staffed by a corps of walrus-mustached C. Aubrey Smiths who seem to be living out their life cycle at Simpson's. They wheel the beef cuts to your table on silver 'dinner wagons' and carve with great ceremony. Don't ask whether the meat is English or foreign, or you'll cause a riot. … [A] required stop for at least one lunch or dinner; your trip to London will be incomplete without it.
If the traditional English food scares you off, Frommer says, try the Marble Arch Barbecues, a chain that broils its meats over an open flame, apparently following an American restaurant trend of the era and offers a welcome “respite from British fare.”

Most of all, Frommer suggests heading to the immigrant restaurants, especially in Soho, “a jumble of foreign restaurants, dives and bars, that slightly resembles a cross between New York's Greewich Village and San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.” Head to The Pakistan (44 Frith Street) for chicken curry or The Piemonte (just a few doors down, at #48) for Italian food. Frommer's highest recommendation here, though, is “London's largest and best Chinese restaurant, Choy's, at 45 Frith Street,” where you'll pay about a dollar for a delicious, filling meal of chicken chop suey or Pacific prawn in batter.

Fast forward to 2012 and the circa-1960s tourist attitudes still endure—British food isn't good, unless it's not actually British—but the reality is, there's plenty of good food in London, even the traditional British kind. It's not all overcooked entrails and mushy peas. London lays claim to two of the top fifteen restaurants in the world, and a quick Google search for “british food bad” reveals as many articles refuting that claim/myth as it does snarksters like me perpetuating it for laughs.

And those “foreign” restaurants that were Frommer's stomach-savers have not only grown in number and ambition but have become part of the very fabric of British culture. As one Guardian food writer recently put it, a sentiment I'm sure AA Gill would share, “Sure, France reinvigorated my love of food-- as it does every year--by making me realise how much more interesting it's all going to be when I get back, how lucky I am to live in a food culture that's alive, not preserved and worshipped like a relic.”

Frommer on things to do

First of all, schedule a whole afternoon for the Tower of London, “the most profound experience of your London stay.” It's the history here that is the attraction—still true, that; just ask the legions of tourists who still flock there, like 11-year-old me back in 1992—as it is at the next stop on his list, The British Museum. Then there's Madame Tussaud's and its “frighteningly-lifelike” wax figures (this, of course, before Tussad's became ubiquitous in tourist hotspots around the world). And Parliament, for “the ritual, the pageantry and the brilliant debate.”

What's especially interesting about Frommer's 1963 list of attractions is what it doesn't include. It was a city of tradition, not cutting-edge culture. Many of AA Gill's listed stereotypes have to do with London's arts and music scenes: The Beatles, the punk rockers. But when Frommer was finishing up his introduction in March 1963, the decade hadn't had its formative moments; the 1960s were not yet The 1960s. By the end of the year, Lennon and McCartney and company would release their first big album, and "She Loves You" would top the singles charts. JFK would be assassinated.

The war was over--and Frommer doesn't mention it at all in the chapter, although the ongoing effects come through loud and clear in the Berlin chapter and elsewhere--but the big cultural shifts hadn't begun, at least not in a way that was apparent to the everyday tourist. Frommer's recommended music clubs offer jazz and ballroom dancing.

And hippies and counterculture types, far from being an everyday part of big-city life, were, to this visiting New Yorker, an odd tourist attraction in their own right, over at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park, which Frommer calls "a Sunday must." “Soapbox orators of every variety: Communists, violent racists, vegetarians. They undergo the finest heckling in the world, a vicious repartee, by professionals who've known the speakers for years and vice versa.”

1 comment:

  1. Mrs. Reese's Boarding House was found via The Book, although the name might be spelled wrong. A room for women - about 12 across on our very own mattresses, and a similar one for men. VERY cheap. Agree with Frommer on Speakers' Corner - not very anonymous, I need my own category.


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