|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 LondonFrommer 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.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.
All you've heard to the contrary, Londoners are among the friendliest people of Europe, and London itself is an inviting town.