A. A. Gill, 2012
IF you’ve saved this article for your long-planned trip to London, and you’re now reading it for the third time, circling Heathrow, well, I’m sorry. You’re probably still up there because the queue at passport control has become mutinous. They’re snaking out onto the runways — grim, silently furious visitors, unable to use their phones, forbidden from showing anything but abject acquiescence to the blunt instrument that is the immigration officer at the distant desk.
In half my lifetime this city has become a homogenous, integrated, international place of choice rather than birth. Not without grit and friction, but amazingly polyglot and variegated. I travel a lot, and this must be the most successful mongrel casserole anywhere.
Every national team that comes to compete will find a welcoming committee from their homes. London is the sixth largest French city in the world. The Wolseley, the cafe where I often eat, and where I wrote a book about breakfast, has 24 nationalities working in it, from every continent bar the Antarctic. They’re also all Londoners. And that’s a good thing. Although I understand that, as a visitor, it’s not necessarily what you want to come and see — this department store of imported humanity. 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.
A lot of London’s image never was. There never was a Dickensian London, or a Shakespearean London, or a swinging London. Literary London is best looked for in books, and in old bookshops like Sotheran’s on Sackville Street. One of the small joys that’s easy to miss in London is the blue plaques on buildings. These are put up to commemorate the famous on the houses they lived in. You won’t have heard of a lot of them, but some come as a surprise. There are quite a few Americans and some amusing neighbors. Jimi Hendrix lived next door to Handel, in space if not in time.
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. If New York is a wise guy, Paris a coquette, Rome a gigolo and Berlin a wicked uncle, then London is an old lady who mutters and has the second sight. She is slightly deaf, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Trying to be a tourist at home is tricky. It’s a good discipline, and rather disappointing. I know as little as you do about being a visitor in this town where I have lived since I was a year old, having been born in Edinburgh. We all look at the crowds of tourists on the Mall and think: What is it you see? What do you get out of this? Like every Londoner I know, I’ve never seen the changing of the guard. It’s an inconvenient traffic snarl-up every weekday morning.
With more guilt, I realize that London may be a great metropolis, but it’s not very nice to people. We’re not friendly. Not that we’re rude, like the Parisians with their theatrical and frankly risible haughtiness; nor do we have New Yorkers’ shouty impatience. Londoners are just permanently petulant, irritated. I think we wake up taking offense. All those English teacup manners, the exaggerated please and thank yous, are really the muzzle we put on our short tempers. There are, for instance, a dozen inflections of the word sorry. Only one of them means “I’m sorry.”
So what you shouldn’t expect is to get on with the natives, or for them to take you to their bosoms, or to invite you to their homes, or to buy you a drink. They may, occasionally, if backed against a wall, be rudimentarily helpful, but mostly they’ll ignore you with the huffing sighs of people in a hurry. When you get lost, you’ll stay lost.
We have, collectively, osmotically, decided that we hate the Olympics. It’s costing too much, it’s causing an enormous amount of trouble and inconvenience, it’s bound to put up prices, make it impossible to find a taxi, but most of all, one thing this city doesn’t need is more gawping, milling, incontinently happy tourists.
On the bus recently a middle-aged, middle-class, middleweight woman peered out of the window at the stalled traffic and furiously bellowed; “Oh my God, is there no end to these improvements?” It was the authentic voice of London, and I thought it could be the city’s motto, uttered at any point in its history, embroidered in gold braid on the uniforms of every petty official.
I recently interviewed our mayor, Boris Johnson. He may be the ex-mayor by the time you land. We have an election coming up. We hate the imposition of that, as well, and all the possible improvements it might bring. I told him I was writing this piece, and asked what message he’d like to send, fraternally, to the people of America, should they be optimistic enough to visit. “Ah, ooh, well, this is very important,” he said with a faintly Churchillian inflection. (He was actually born in New York.) “Um, visitors should hire a bike and ride through the parks.” The vehicles are sometimes referred to as Boris bikes after him, and have been an unexpectedly wobbly and careening success — easy to get, easy to use and a really easy way to end up seeing how brilliant the National Health Service is.
The parks, though, are wonderful, with a wildness that is artifice. Like the English, they appear casual, but involve a great deal of work. Go to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, where Peter Pan comes from. You should see his statue on the banks of the Serpentine. One of the most charming sculptures in any city, it was made by Sir George Frampton, paid for by J. M. Barrie and erected in secret overnight so that children out with their nannies would think it had arrived by magic.
London is one of the finest cities for public statuary. The great and the eternally forgotten glare down at you from horses and morality. When you get to Trafalgar Square, as undoubtedly you will, you’ll look up at Nelson’s Column, where Adm. Horatio Nelson peers down the Mall, either into the bedroom windows of Buckingham Palace, or to review his fleet; there are small ships on top of all the lampposts.
You might also like to pay your respects to George Washington outside the nearby National Gallery to pay your penance to fine art. He was a gift from Virginia, and stands on imported American earth because he said that he’d never set foot in London again. And don’t miss Charles I on the west side of the square. This is the finest equestrian statue in the city. Just down the road in the Banqueting House, you can see where his head was cut off, and also the brilliant Rubens painting of the Apotheosis of James I.
The Thames is London’s great secret, hidden in full view. We do very little with it, or on it, except complain how difficult it is to get over and under. It is the reason London is here at all, but the people stand aloof because we have long memories and longer noses. The Thames was so disgustingly noxious and pestilent that Parliament would abandon the Palace of Westminster when the weather got too hot in the summer, because the smell became dangerous.
London was the biggest city in the world, and the river was the biggest sewer on earth. The Victorians finally built an underground sewerage system that was so efficient we still use it. But they also made the Embankment, which lifts the city above the river. Getting access isn’t easy, but if you only do one thing while you’re here, you should take a boat from the center of town and go either downstream to the maritime museum at Greenwich or up toward Oxford and get off at Kew Gardens and Syon House.
The river is the best way to see the city. London glides past you like human geology. It is not a particularly impressive city seen from above; not like Paris or New York, although you can go up to Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath and look back, and it has a dreamy loveliness brought on by distance. And Wordsworth said that earth had nothing so fair to show as the view of the morning from Westminster Bridge. Two hundred years later he wouldn’t recognize it, but it’s still pretty impressive.
The great problem for visitors to London is size. This is a big place. It’s not a walkable city; there are great walks but you can’t stride from everywhere to anywhere. And it’s easy to lose any sense of where you are in relation to everything else. So it’s best to do what the natives do, and think of London as a loose federation of villages, states and principalities, and take them in one at a time. The oldest bits are in the east. The Tower of London and the Roman Wall mark the beginning of the city. To the east are the docks and the working classes, and what is now the trendiest and most youthful, fashionable bit of London. As the city grew rich, it grew west. Mayfair, Chelsea, Kensington, Notting Hill are mostly Victorian.
You will do all the big-ticket tourist things. I doubt there’s anything I can say that will convince you that the best way to see Tower Bridge is on a postcard, and that the Tower of London is a big, dull box packed with Italian schoolchildren, or that Harrods is much the same. But while the living Londoners are to be avoided, the dead ones should be sought out. St. Paul’s Cathedral is London’s parish church, the single greatest building in Britain, designed by Christopher Wren. It’s light, civilized, rational and humane — everything Londoners aren’t. It has monuments to J. M. W. Turner, the Duke of Wellington and, of course, John Donne, who preached there. Behind the altar is a little memorial chapel and stained-glass window dedicated to America and the help it gave London and the nation in World War II.
Westminster Abbey is the great church of state. It has the Grave of the Unknown Warrior, the Coronation Chair, which is surprisingly Ikea and covered in graffiti from Westminster schoolboys, and there is Poets’ Corner, the marbled hall of fame of Britishness. Just down the street from St. Paul’s there is another Wren church, St. Bride’s, by tradition and practice the journalists’ church. Dryden and Pepys were parishioners. Above the font there is a little shelf, and on it the bust of a girl. She is Virginia Dare. Her parents were married here and then emigrated to the Roanoke Colony. On Aug. 18, 1587, Virginia arrived, the first child of English parents to be born in America. No one knows what happened to her, but this is an immensely touching little memorial in the Old World to the promise of the New. Not one Londoner in 1,000 knows who Virginia was, or that she’s there.
There are thousands of these odd moments in London. You will discover your own, like the alley that has the original Embassy of Texas in it. It’s like opening the drawers in an old house, where so much was put away for safekeeping and then forgotten.
Of course, you should go to the pub. Like the bistros of Paris, the pubs of London are having a hard time of it. Their role as the working classes’ living room can no longer compete with cable TV and supermarket beer. But still there are plenty of beautiful and elegiac pubs, and you should come upon them serendipitously. But I might commend the Mayflower on the river in the East End. This is older than the ship that shares its name, which set off from here. And the Windsor Castle in Kensington is a pretty West London pub. If the weather is fine, it has a charming garden.
I suppose I ought to recommend places to eat, as London has such a Babel of palates and lexicon of digestions. It boasts the most diverse cuisines of any city. But given that you didn’t come all this way just to eat Chinese or Moroccan, you can also get good English. It will be meaty and Victorian, long on pork and the extremities of cows, pigs and offal. Three I recommend. Anchor & Hope near the Old Vic theater on the Cut, has great food in an energetically noisy pub. Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill off Piccadilly, and St. John, a restaurant that has become a point of pilgrimage for visiting chefs. And you really should eat Indian here. Curry is England’s favorite dinner, and our national dish.
Plenty of people come to shop, but it’s expensive, and Bond Street and Sloane Street are pretty much what you’d find at home. It won’t have escaped your notice that the avaricious first world has become a branded and cloned airport lounge.
One thing that is singularly British, and specifically London, is men’s tailoring. This is where the suit was invented, and where it is still made better than anywhere. Savile Row is a very London experience, satisfyingly and shockingly costly, but also dangerously addictive. I’d recommend Brian Russell on Sackville Street, which is now run by Fadia Aoun, a rare female tailor.
You need to see London at night, particularly the theaters. But not just the night life. London itself looks best in the dark. It’s a pretty safe city, and you can walk in most places after sunset. It has a sedate and ghostly beauty. In the crepuscular kindness, you can see not just how she is, but how she once was, the layers of lives that have been lived here. Somebody with nothing better to do worked out that for every one of us living today, there are 15 ghosts. In most places you don’t notice them, but in London you do. The dead and the fictional ghosts of Sherlock Holmes and Falstaff, Oliver Twist, Wendy and the Lost Boys, all the kindly, garrulous ghosts that accompany you in the night. The river runs like dark silk through the heart of the city, and the bridges dance with light. There are corners of silence in the revelry of the West End and Soho, and in the inky shadows foxes and owls patrol Hyde Park, which is still illuminated by gaslight.
Now the Olympics has come and dragged us all into the bright light, and a lot of attention is being given to London, and we’re not used to it. We’re not good at showing off. We’re not a good time to be had by all, we’re not an easy date. London isn’t a party animal by nature, it doesn’t join in or have a favorite karaoke song. It does, though, have a wicked, dry and often cruel sense of humor. It is clever, literate and dramatic. It is private and taciturn, a bit of a bore, and surprisingly sentimental. And it doesn’t make friends quickly, is awkward around visitors. We will be pleased when all the fuss and nosiness has gone away.
So come, by all means, but don’t expect the kindness of strangers unless you decide to stay, in which case you’ll be very welcome indeed. There’s always room for one more on top, which is what they used to say on the buses when the buses had conductors, which they don’t anymore. And that’s another bloody improvement.
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES APRIL 29, 2012