Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Are We Human, Or Are We Dancers

I am taking the title of this post from a song my sister Janet introduced me to because we saw Chorus Line today at the Palladium Theater in London and the cast seemed almost beyond human with the talent and energy they displayed.

But I am ahead of myself...

We had ordered tickets on line that we were going to pick up at the box office and the play didn't start until 3:00, but Don insisted that we get off at 9:15.  When I questioned what the hurry was he seemed a bit astonished.  "We get up at bloody 6:30.  Why would you want to wait around here any longer?"  So Loren and I conceded and we were out the door at 9:15.  We boarded the Tube to the Oxford Circus station.  We had to take the Picadilly Line, and every time we stopped there was this lovely English woman's voice that said, " You are on the Picadilly Line destination is Cockfosters."

Our tickets had not yet been delivered to the box office so we decided to get a coffee and then head down Oxford Street which is the shopping district of London.

My sister, Janet, is a very hip 65 year old and listens to all the "in" singers like Pit Bull, Usher and Adelle.  Through Skype she told me she had just discovered a new singer that she loved.  His name is Labrinth and he is a black English rapper.  She tried to get his latest album but it wasn't being sold in the U.S. and she had to get it from the U.K. so she asked me if I would keep an eye out for her.  I had asked Loren's cousin where I might find this CD and she said at any HMV store which are all over the city.

So I told Don and Loren to keep an eye out for an HMV, and lo and behold there was one right there on Oxford Street!!   It turns out that HMV stands for His Maters Voice and was made famous by a painting of Nipper the dog with his nose in a "gramaphone!"   At any rate we went in to HMV which turned out to be a huge warehouse with thousands upon thousands of CD's and DVD's in row after row.  I went up to a young man and told him I was looking for the latest CD of labrinth.  He said he had heard of it and asked if it were Rock.   Not really knowing, I said yes.  So he led us to the Rock section down the alphabet from A to L.... and no Labrinth.  So he said he was going to go look it up.  After a bit, I see this young man waving his hand.  He had elicited the help of another young colleague, and it turns out it was in the Rap section.  I picked up the CD and asked if it were the only one as I didn't see the song that my sister had specifically asked for.  "What song is that?" the young man asked.
"Beyond Beautiful," I replied.
"Oh, that's on that album," he countered.
"Yes," I said, "I see it now.  And there is Express Yourself too!  That's my favorite,"  I said, speaking with authority, as I had heard this song when my sister first told me about this guy.
"Oh, isn't that a great song.  That's my favorite too!  We Brits aren't very good with Rap, but I think Labrinth is going to go far."
I felt very hip and in and with it conversing with this young Brit, and I have to say I think he was a bit surprised this senior American was so up on a new up-and-coming British Rap artist.

  We continued down Oxford Street with the destination of Covent Gardens in mind.  We wanted to see the buskars and then go to the Box Office of Mama Mia to see about getting tickets for tomorrow.

Covent Gardens reminds me a lot of Fisherman's Wharf.  I can't imagine a native Londoner wanting to go there, but it was fun and lively albeit a bit hokey.

We found our way to the Mama Mia box office and got some great seats for tomorrow at half price- because we were seniors!  Then we saw the theater where Lion King was playing.  Loren and I had been to London about 15 years ago and had gone to see Lion King.  Before the show, we had dinner at a lovely pub, where we had to walk up the stairs, and Loren had a Shepard's Pie that he still talks about.  Before we left on this trip, Loren said he really wanted to try to find that very same pub.  We knew it was in the vicinity of where the Lion King was playing, so we decided to try to find it for lunch.

And can you believe it, there it was on the corner!  The Wellington!
 We went in and asked if there was an upstairs dining room, and there was!  We had a lovely lunch and when we told the waitress we had been there 15 years ago and were so happy to be back, she told the bar tender who came over to talk to us as he had been there 15 years ago too!

 After lunch it was time to wend our way back to the magnificent Palladium Theater where we went to see A Chorus Line.  We had terrific seats in the fourth row of the balcony.  There was an older couple sitting to my right, and after a bit the woman asked me if I were from London.  "No," I said, "I'm from California."
"California!!"... it turns out that they have three sons and four grandsons (just like me!) and one of her sons married an American and is living in the San Fernado Valley.  I got to talking with the woman who was very nice.  Of course I steered the conversation on to Kate and Will and baby George and she said she had been presented to the Queen.  "You were presented to the Queen," I cried.
"Shhhhhh," said her husband.
I lowered my voice, but found out that he was a councilman from the district of Windsor and they had been asked to dine with the Queen.  The woman told me the Queen was quite delightful and talked to her and asked her about her family.  Her husband, the Councilman, said, "I thought Margaret was far more interesting!!"
Then I asked the lady, "Oh my, what did you wear?"
And she replied, "It's not what I did wear, it's what I couldn't wear.  I was told beforehand that I was not to wear blue as that was the color that the Queen was going to be wearing and no one else must have the same color!"

The play was fabulous.  There was a cast of 18 young, energetic, very talented people.  There was no set- only a blank stage.  The play went for two hours with no intermission and I was rapt for the entire time. Centered on seventeen Broadway dancers auditioning for spots on a chorus line, the musical is set on the bare stage of a Broadway theatre during an audition for a musical.   There were really only two familiar songs:  What I do for Love and One -neither of which you come out humming; yet it is memorable.  What is most amazing to me is that these actors have to do it all again tonight.  Amazing!

A Chorus Line opened on Broadway on July 25, 1975.  The original Broadway production ran for 6,137 performances, becoming the longest-running production in Broadway history until surpassed by Cats in 1997, and the longest-running Broadway musical originally produced in the US, until surpassed in 2011 by Chicago. It remains the sixth longest-running Broadway show ever.  The current West End revival opened just this year - 2013.

Don and Loren also enjoyed it!!!

But it was a long day, and the Tube ride back to Hammersmith was a hot one, so of course we had to have a pint.  We chose The Swan where Loren and Don had a Guinness,  and I had what has become my pint of choice, a Honey Dew.

We came home and had a fabulous meal for dinner.  Don grilled the burgers and sausages we had bought yesterday from John the butcher, and I made a lovely salad.  The sausages and burgers were excellent!   So it's off to be for me, and another adventure awaits us tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Day Off - Staying Local

Over the weekend we had decided to map out what we definitely wanted to do on a calendar so we wouldn't run out of time.  Buckingham Palace was slated for yesterday and the Churchill War rooms were scheduled for today, Tuesday.  Then we discovered that Buckingham Palace is only open to the public from July 2 to early September when Queen Elizabeth goes on holiday to Scotland.  Apparently everyone else knew this way before we did because when we went to get tickets the earliest we could get in was August 27th!  That is why we did the War Rooms yesterday...

... and that is why this morning we all decided that today would be free- unscheduled - and that we would explore the local Hammersmith neighborhood.  After a coffee at the Brackenbury Cafe, we walked across the way to check out the local butcher,  and spent a good forty minutes talking to this wonderful Cockney butcher named John Stenton.
 John greeted us at the door with a "'Ello, 'ow are ya?  And where d'ya call 'ome?"

He was getting ready to go on vacation so he said he didn't have a full stock of meats.  He specializes in catering to a large French population, but the French, too, have left for vacation.   He was an absolutely delightful guy and we ended up buying three hamburgers made with 100% beef and three lamb sausages that he said were delicious.  He said he wanted us to try his pork sausage as well so

he threw in three of those for free! 

We told him we were in search of the Thames River.  He pointed us in the right direction and said told us about a very good pub called The Dove, "if you can find it!"

So we headed towards the Thames and found we had to walk through a pedestrian Subway that took us underneath the highway to the riverside.  We were looking at a map and I was trying to ask "Siri" where the Dove Pub was when a jogger came by and pointed about 20 yards down a walkway and there it was!

It turned out to be a wonderful place.  It was built in the early 18th century.  It was originally called the Dove Coffeehouse.  Coffeehouses were all the rage in the 18th century patronized by scientists, philosophers, politicians, artists and others who came to drink coffee, chocolate, wine and ale and to gossip, read newspapers and transact business.  (Sounds a little like San Francisco of today!!)

When you first enter the Dove there is a door that leads to the smallest bar room in Britain and has a Guinness World Record plaque to prove it.  It measures 33 square feet and has a funny tale to explain it.  In 1911 a new landlord took possession of the Dove and he wanted to acquire a full liquor license.  But in order to serve beer and spirits a pub was required to have two bar rooms;  the Dove had only one.  So Mayes instructed his ship-building brother-in-law to build pre-fabricated bar off site and bring it in in the dark of night.  Suddenly the Dove had two bars and the liquor license was granted with no fuss.

In the 20th century it is said that writers and actors such as Dylan Thomas, Alec Guinness and Ernest Hemingway  propped up the bar.

We had a terrific meal at the Dove, Don ordering his usual fish and chips while I had a wonderful Lamb something which the owner told me was a specialty and very British.

It was a typical cloudy, rainy London day, but we left the pub with our umbrellas and went along the river walk.  There were a number of rowing clubs along the way and several other pubs.

It is always so fascinating to me to see how old everything is in  London compared to places in the US.  This Blue Anchor pub was established in 1722 when "George 1st was King of England and Louis XV was on the throne of France."

This is the Hammersmith Bridge crossing over the Thames River.  It was low tide and we saw houseboats wedged in the mud along the way.

We came back to the house for a bit of a lie-down and then Loren and I set out to meet Loren's second cousin whom he hadn't seen in over forty years!!  Barbara had married a British actor and had moved to England many years ago.  Loren had kept in touch with her brother, Randall, but hadn't seen Barbara since she was a small child.  We met her at a pub and the two of them got caught up with family whereabouts and lore.  We had a lovely time and hope to see her again before we leave.

We ended our day with a pint at a pub!

 Loren's son, Dave is presently in Italy with his wife, Mel.  He responded to my blog with his perspective of having just "done" Rome with all its history by saying, "I've been wondering about the ways in which we are fascinated with the past. Perhaps all of us who are enchanted with the past are, to greater or lesser degrees, uncomfortable with the present. Or perhaps just disappointed by it. Not completely, however; it's not as though we are hopeless or fatalistic. Just not rosy progressives. Just an idea."

He and Mel are continuing on to Florence, and he says,  "Florence is different than it was 12 years ago. Not sure how yet, but I'm going to try to see the "present" in it instead of just the past as we take our walking tour tomorrow. Since last we were here, several events have occurred that must have left a mark: 9/11, the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic crisis and big changes in European immigration and demographic patterns. Curious to see what your take on the "London of Today" will be once you've really dwelt within its customs for a while."

Well, in a way, I felt we experienced the Present Day London today:  walking around our neighborhood streets, encountering John, the local butcher, finding a tucked away "local" pub, meandering in a misty rain along the Thames, and then having dinner with a native family member.  We did nothing that tourists would have done and it felt like a day in the life of a normal Hammersmithian!  And we still have so much more of the people and the culture to take in before we leave.

Tomorrow we are hitting the theater district - going to Chorus Line at the grand Palladium Theater...
stay tuned...

Never was so much owed by so many to so few

This is Whitehall, the Treasury Building which lies just up the street from 10 Downing Street and just across the way from the Parliament Buildings and Big Ben.  What very few people knew at the time was that Churchill had erected his War Rooms in a concrete reinforced bunker in the basement of this building.  People worked there and never told their families;  Hitler never discovered that all the British was tactics during WWII were coming from this hidden headquarters, and none of the English people ever knew of it's existence.  Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the men and women who worked here left one day, leaving everything behind them, and never went back again. The doors to the Cabinet War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when the Imperial War Museum began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible. In 1984 the main war rooms opened to the public.

As many of you know, I am NOT a museum person, but we arrived here at the Churchill War rooms at 10:15 and didn't leave until 3:30 and I was totally enthralled, infatuated and  entranced for the entire time. 
In addition to an audio tour, there were hands on displays where we could listen to Churchill talking on the phone to Roosevelt, or watch a video or various employees reminisce about working there.  There was a demonstration showing where Churchill traveled during the war years - over 100,000 miles in all; a time line where you could pick any day during the war and it would say what Churchill was doing.  We learned of his courtship with Clementine, saw such realistic dioramas that I felt I was sneaking in on the actual operations.  Here is a brief tour:

An actual German bomb responsible for such devastation in London


 This is the room where Churchill met with his Cabinet.  Until the opening of the Battle of France, which began on 10 May 1940, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's war cabinet met at the War Rooms only once.   Following Winston Churchill's appointment as Prime Minister, Churchill visited the Cabinet Room in May 1940 and declared: 'This is the room from which I will direct the war'.  In total 115 Cabinet meetings were held at the Cabinet War Rooms, the last on 28 March 1945, when the German V-weapon bombing campaign came to an end.

Here a guard stands outside of the Cabinet Room.  (He's not real!!)

This sign was changed daily to let people in the underground bunker know what the weather was like above ground!

Although most people who worked with Churchill had the utmost respect for him, he was not an easy many to be around.  He often disagreed with his war team, and let them know in his gruff and often crude manner.  But it was said, unlike Hitler, Churchill never overruled his Military Command.

This was a small room where the BBC broadcast all the Churchill speeches. It was very important that the BBC be in the bunker so that the "truth" could always be available to the people and not be in jeopardy of being bombed and destroyed.  Churchill made four wartime broadcasts from the Cabinet War Rooms.

 Many women were employed to send messages to the front.  What can't be seen very well in this picture is the gas mask that rests in the box on the table.  These communicators were expected to continue their work no matter what.

Many of the personnel and officers slept in the bunker.  Here is a typical bedroom with a desk of an officer.

Once operational, the facility's Map Room was in constant use and manned around the clock by officers of the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force. These officers were responsible for producing a daily intelligence summary for the King, Prime Minister and the military Chiefs of Staff

Note the telephones along the desk.  The ones with the green tops were used for encryption while the white phone was a direct line to Churchill.

 These rooms were left exactly as they were after everyone went home the day the way was over.  Thus, they were able to replicate it very accurately and to great detail.  On the desk of the man to the right are four sugar cubes placed carefully on a piece of paper.  After the war when they began to explore the abandoned War Rooms they opened up the drawer on this very desk and found a stash of sugar cubes which were being coveted and saved by this officer.
The Map Room

This is Churchill's bedroom in the bunker.  Although he only slept here three nights, it was said he took an hour's nap every afternoon.  It was from this bedroom that he broadcast his speeches that were transmitted by the BBC.

Churchill's trademark was his cigar and he loved his drink.  He was quoted as saying to a top Saudi Arabian leader,  
"Booze and cigars are my religion!"

He was also know for his honesty and sense of humor:

A lady went up to Churchill in a bar and said, "Sir, you are drunk."
Churchill responded:, "Lady, I may be drunk, but you're ugly.  I'm going to wake up in the morning and I will be sober, but you will still be ugly."

Lady Astor wanted to let Churchill know he had gone too far and said to him, "Winston, if I were your wife, I'd put poison in your coffee."
Winston replied, "If I were your husband, I'd drink it!"

Spending this day in the War Room bunkers underneath the corner of Whitehall was an amazing experience.  I felt I really go to understand in a small way what the British people, especially Londoners, had to go through during the war.  Starting on 7 September 1940, London was bombed by the German Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights.  More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 civilians were killed.  Over a period of 267 days (almost 37 weeks), London was attacked 71 times.  Yet the British were determined to "carry on."  They continued to go to work, navigating through the ruble of the previous night's bombings.  The Germans were ruthless; the British seemed doomed.  Yet Winston Churchill embodied and emboldened the character of his people:

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal:  it is the courage to continue that counts."

 "If you're going through hell, keep going."

It is so clear that England and the Allies could have so easily lost WWII.  It is also clear that Winston Churchill is one of the major reasons we won!

Leaving Whitehall we had to go and take a look at 10 Downing Street which was just around the corner.  There is a guarded gate so you can't get very close, but it was fun to peer in along with other curious tourists.

Then of course we had to go get our daily pint.  This is The Red Lion directly across from Whitehall and diagonally across from 10 Downing Street.  They claim in their menu to have served many a PM.

One of the best days so far...