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London

Covent Garden

From time to time, Pathé Tuchinski in Amsterdam screens plays live from the UK. A recent production of King Lear, with Ian McKellen in the lead role, left us wanting more. It just so happens that Royal Shakespeare Company were staging a production of Macbeth at the Barbican and that was excuse enough for us to plan a trip to London.

Some observations and pictures from the trip in no particular order:

This was the first time we were flying to the Gatwick Airport. Getting to the city center involves a train ride from the Gatwick Airport railway station. We were a bit taken aback by how crowded the station and the platforms were. The trains were packed too - not quite Tokyo rush-hour full - but close enough. The first day of our trip happened to coincide with a protest march in London demanding a people’s vote” against Brexit. Guardian reports that over 600.000 people took part. That was the reason for the rush and the unusual number of placards per capita.

The announcements at the station kept reminding us to report any suspicious person, object or activity. They ended it with this catchy alliteration: See it. Say it. Sorted. At one of the newly renovated stations, the gate read: Reimagined. Renovated. Reopened. or some combination of three R words with similar import. A sparkling water advertisement at a bus stop read: Beautifully Balanced Bubbles. Is there a new law in UK that requires all copy to be distilled down to a pithy three word alliteration?

The traffic in London seemed a bit out of hand this year. The meagre number of electric cars I saw was quite dismaying too.

Having lived in Amsterdam, I find the lack of proper cycling infrastructure in cities like London quite baffling. It isn’t stopping a few brave souls from trying to cycle though. I had my heart in mouth each time I’d see a cyclist sharing the road with cars, lorries and double decker buses. Some rudimentary laning for cyclists is beginning to take shape in some parts of London but it all seems put together in a very desultory way.

Cyclists and a vintage car wait at a crossing

That said, public transport in London in simply amazing. The network of buses and metro1 must surely be one of the best in the world. And it’s definitely cheaper than here in Amsterdam. While we have a couple of Oyster public transport cards we always carry on our visits to the UK, we were surprised to find that our contactless Dutch bank cards worked as transport cards in metro, rail and buses. The charges would be debited from our accounts in Euros the next day. Though on a couple of occasions I had trouble swiping in with one of my cards and the wife with one of hers. So on the whole, as a foreign visitor, it’s still worth having an Oyster card on hand.

Another thing that baffles me about a city the size and density of London is the number of ongoing large construction projects in the city center and beyond2. In central London, glass and metal skyscrapers already loom over streets comprised of squatter, more historic buildings.

Construction cranes

Skyscrapers looming over streets

Skyscrapers looming over a street

The old and the not so new

In some of those streets, I felt a little claustrophobic.

Claustrophobic

Came across some incredible graffiti across London, especially at Brick Lane. This one could be a commentary on global warming, or simply an endorsement of the curry restaurant next door:

Head on fire

Entry to most museums in London is free. We allotted a good chunk of our time to them on this visit. One lazy evening at the hotel, BBC was showing a documentary of some celebrity from the 1970s who had climbed Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. We had tuned into it and soon I had fallen asleep. On emerging from National Gallery, thanks to remembered fragments of footage from the documentary, Nelson’s Column seemed to loom even higher.

Nelson’s Column and Trafalgar Square

We enjoyed the production of Macbeth we were here for3. All the Shakespeare productions I’ve seen in the last three years, tend to dress the cast in present-day costumes. They also make use of present-day props. They don’t carry this all the way through. For example, Macbeth might wear a camouflage military jacket, but he’d still fight with a sword. I find this jarring. The wife isn’t as bothered. She reminded me that the setting of many Shakespearean plays, predates their first performance by several centuries. So the original’ costumes were 17-th century British impression of an era several hundred years before, i.e. quite anachronistic to begin with. And if we wanted to uphold the original performances as the gold standard, women wouldn’t be cast. She has a point.

Shakespeare

Even in this age of selfies, people occasionally ask you to take a picture of them with their cellphone. There is something quintessentailly quaint and human about it that I find endearing. Anyway, this old couple who stopped me to take a picture of them on London Bridge, had their iPhone set to take picture in Live mode4. Which means all my prompts to smile were duly recorded along with the pictures. Strangers you ask to take your pictures, cease to exist the moments after they’ve handed you your phone or camera back. In this instance, my voice will travel with them and become a part of their holiday album.

We left London on an afternoon on a working day. With no scheduled protest marches or morning rush hour traffic, the stations exuded an air of leisurely calm. Even the train announcements sounded like commentary for a test match headed for a certain draw about to break for tea on the 5th day.

I love how easy it is now to visit London. I hope that Brexit doesn’t cause UK to erect bureaucratic hurdles that make it harder for people from continental Europe to visit. That said, I am not counting on the free of charge mobile roaming between EU and UK to continue working after Brexit.


  1. It was unseasonably warm during our visit in October, but the metros felt like they were still reeling under this summer’s heat-wave. I was reminded of this article about the Transport For London project to cool down the London Metro tunnels.

  2. And not everything is being built upwards.

  3. The play was at the Barbican Center. Personally, I am not a fan of the Barbican. They call this architecture brutalist but my private term for it is mirthless.

  4. Live mode records a few seconds of audio and video before and after the picture is taken.

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