Rediscovering London

“When a man is tired of London”, wrote Dr Samuel Johnson, “he is tired of life”.

And isn’t that just bloody typical of a Londonista? Not for a moment does it occur to the unctuous gits that it’s London we’re all sick of, not life.

Actually, the full quote is:

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

Johnson was right: the capital contains all that life can afford, but only if you can afford it, and few can. For the rest of us, it’s a miserable place.

I reckon I’m relatively intellectual – OK, I’m no Peter Andre, but I can often tie my own shoes and have my drooling pretty much under control. And yet I’m more than willing to leave London, and gleefully manage to do it every time I visit, which historically has been far too often. So stick that up your arse, Dr. Johnson. Every couple of weeks for the last two decades I’ve been dragged down to The Smoke by the demands of my clients; and by the beard of Zeus, it’s been tiresome.

In my old job I was in charge of 40-odd programmers (by which I mean 40 programmers who were odd), and they endlessly griped about the “jollies” I was allowed to go on while they sat in a warm office with a foosball table and sly access to a whole internet full of porn that they didn’t realise I knew they were looking at.

So they’d sit in comfort, doing 15 minutes of programming and 45 minute trips to the bathroom for twice-daily wank; and they’d moan about being excluded from my exciting life as a jet-setter. Ooh yeah, how exciting: an 8 hour round trip on a Virgin train containing approximately 200,000 people and one toilet which doubles as a chemical weapons research facility.

The only thing that kept me from passing out from the heat and the crush was coffee that tastes like it’s already passed through a weasel (and not in the good way).

And when I arrive at Euston, I’m denied fresh air or sunlight because I have to ride through a hot, murky tunnel full of farts, crap violinists and would-be terrorists, packed in like sardines with literally the rudest people never to appear on the X Factor’s judging panel.

Then a dull meeting in an anonymous office block, and back to the train for a lukewarm burger that costs me:

  1. £490
  2. my otherwise svelte figure
  3. and the use of my colon for several days

London, frankly, is utter shite (just like that bit about my svelte figure, in fact).

My guess is that there are people in Marseilles saying the same things about Paris right now. To you and I Paris is a dream of romance and beauty, but to the Marseillaise it’s probably just that annoying place that’s always on the telly: a crowded, noisome, expensive, self-regarding shit-pit that gobbles up all the money and joylessly pisses all over the rest of France. It’s London with garlic and gitanes.

I went to Paris once. It’s hard to say this without is sounding like a boast, so I won’t try: I was invited to address the Nobel Peace committee on “the future of online campaigning”. You may fellate me now, unworthy peasants.

I was rather excited about the trip until I made it, when the crushing mundanity of the whole venture finally occurred to me: it was exactly the same as every trip I make to London, and I was going to hate it all. Sure, I got on a plane rather than a train, and there’s always something enervating about flying. But it was an EasyJet flight, so I left part of my soul at the check-in desk, and my seat comprised less space than my hand-luggage.

By the time I got to France it felt like a vein in my thigh had popped, and my legs had the consistency of processed mincemeat being squeezed into sausages. I went straight to an anonymous hotel just outside the airport, gritted my teeth through monumental pins and needles, did my speech, and then came home to flagellate myself for being naive enough to get excited in the first place. I saw nothing in France that was touristy or exciting or romantic. Everything was either concrete or flourescent, except for the rain, which felt entirely British.

Swap Paris for London, and I wouldn’t have noticed.

People who live in London might be offended by all of this, to which I can only say that I’m very, very… what’s the opposite of sorry? Yeah, I’m that.

Manchester. Tuesday. Around lunch-time.

London, to the rest of the population of Britain, is a vast, noisy, ugly mess that gobbles up power and influence and jobs and money and culture, and then vomits out disdain for the rest of the country. In a modern democracy with proper transport links and telecoms I see no reason at all for keeping all of that important, exciting, money-making stuff in one massively expensive place.

Of course, if you attempt to spread it out a little bit you get torn to shreds by the same idiotic wankers who think “Manchester” is synonymous with “paleozoic tar-pit”. But why not move the BBC to Salford?

And while you’re at it, why not save the taxpayer a small fortune in offices, and move the civil service to Dundee? And the English National Ballet to Bradford. And the headquarters of BT to Belfast? We could go crazy, and move the entire board of The Halifax to Halifax, or Scottish and Newcastle to Scotland or Newcastle. It’d cost half as much to run the organisations, and you never know: people might actually discover that the rest of the nation has some value, and reduce property prices in London to boot.

If you look carefully at this map, you can just about spot some parts of the UK which aren’t London.

In fact there should be a policy: keep Parliament on a permanent tour, changing venue every 6 months so the MPs who routinely evacuate their bowels full of foie gras onto Llandudno have to actually live there for a while. Well, maybe not Llandudno – there are limits. But is there a single reason why all of that powerful, cultural, commercial, influential stuff has to be based in a 4 square-mile plot? It might be convenient for the Queen, but does she really pop to Parliament that often? I think I go there more than she does, and with a lot less fannying around and expense too (although Virgin Trains are doing their best to make me travel at the speed and price of a gold-encrusted horse-drawn state coach).

Why would you choose to base your business in London, let alone live there? It’s expensive, dirty, over-crowded and has a gloating, nasty, self-regarding shittiness that just annoys the 50 million Britons who don’t live there – which is, after all, the vast majority of us.

So it might seem like an odd choice for me to have a holiday in London. I’ll explain.

I rarely do holidays. I don’t get much from a week in Greece, because I don’t see the point of lying by a pool; my holiday tradition has been to save up for 3-4 years and have a big holiday in a gorgeous far-away land that I can explore, like Cuba (which is brilliant).

So it’s been about 5 years since I had a break of any kind, and I felt I needed one. My girlfriend – who is becoming less and less ashamed of that sobriquet – wanted to go to the Harry Potter exhibit, and had never been to London. So we decided to go. For once, I was going to London voluntarily, and this time I was going to see the sights, not just traipse to some serviced offices in Archway.

And you know what? It was bloody brilliant. I’d still rather iron my own gonads into a salty, blistered, bloody pancake than live there, but it’s an amazing place for a touristy long-weekend. The Harry Potter exhibit is extraordinarily good if you’re a Potter fan, a movie buff, or just somebody who finds interesting things kinda interesting. And my girlfriend and I are at least one of those things each, so it was a joy for us to visit.

And then we pottered (no pun intended, but I’m still not editing it out) down to Kensington to see Natural History Museum, which was amazing and stunning, and still the very finest exhibition in the country. And it’s in one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring buildings too. If you’re coming to London from abroad, and are thinking of a day trip to York Minster for the architecture, don’t: just pop to Kensington instead, and try to tear your eyes away from the dinosaurs and life-sized whales long enough to look at the ceiling.

Also steer clear of York Minster for explanations of how the universe came to exist. The Natural History Museum can do that better too.

We even managed to stumble upon the only nice restaurateur in London, who was hiding in plain sight right opposite Harrods. Every person I’ve ever bought food from in London has either spat on me, spat in my food, stabbed me or called me a “fackin caaaahnt” as I walked away. And even if they didn’t actually do those things, they looked like they wanted to, and it was only the trustworthy presence of the corrupt-a-cop Met Police that was preventing my death by shiv.

But this guy was funny, friendly, generous and – amazingly – a local. I’m from the North of England, where those characteristics are the norm: but to find a Londoner who had, seemingly without any encouragement from his 8 million co-habitants, found it in his heart to be kind and warm and engaging… well, it’s made me reconsider the whole place, leave a large tip, and promise to pop in again next time I’m in town. I hope I can. You should too, if you get a chance.

There were some disappointments, such as my banging headache the night we arrived, which prevented me from”doing a sex” on my girlfriend the moment I arrived at the hotel. It was something we’d promised each other, but instead I fell asleep face down at 10pm, and snored until she wanted to murder me. Not a jury in the land would convict her, folks.

And the hotel itself was disappointing, but managed to be so in a way that was mostly hilarious. We stayed at the Grange Strathmore, which on the surface looks just like a real hotel, but is actually an elaborate charade to fool you into taking part in a hidden camera show about how much shit a British tourist is prepared to take.

They were OK before we got there: they told us of an arrangement with a nearby hotel, where we could park in central London for only £5 per day, and they were kind enough to offer to help with our bags. It all seemed to be going well, except that we were given a room that seemed to be in an “I’m smaller than you” competition with the closet, and losing. It was literally so small that we couldn’t walk around the bed; we had to change rooms or I’d have been forced to climb over my hot naked girlfriend all weekend… hold on, what am I saying?!

So we moved to a better room, and thought we’d ironed out the only snag with the hotel. We woke the next day, filled up on coffee, and had a brilliant day of museuming and distracting scientists by waving at them gleefully. The Natural History Museum is heaven for nerds and overgrown schoolboys, and I’m both. We walked about 10 miles around its corridors without a moment that was less that utterly fascinating; and when we got back to our room we so tired we had to limit our sex to only 2 hours and 9 positions. Then we showered and decided to be lazy and eat at the hotel.

I can now confess, dear reader, that this may have been a poor decision.

Our waitress. Naked. She’s just that hairy.

It was a nice-looking restaurant, with high ceilings and proper linen tablecloths, but it was almost empty: we were the only couple when we arrived, and then another couple were placed at the next table while we were choosing our food. The waitress had what I’m charitably calling a shaving cut on her lip, but an uncharitable person might have said she had an open, weeping cold-sore. She also appeared to be from a strange eastern-European nation where everybody is born in misery and then starts searching for more. I asked for a beer, and she said…

Hold on, I don’t think she said anything. Saying seemed to be beyond her. What she actually did was juggle experimentally with some randomly selected English phrases, sway slightly, and intersperse some grunts, hand signals, and apologetic shrugs into her performance.

I asked for a beer, but I wasn’t allowed one: “No. Is no in this room. For. Not… mmm… beer in other… bar… Him. Room”. And then her (possible) shaving cut flapped open a little as she smiled. I assume it was a smile. It might have been wind.

She brought us a bottle of water. It was warm. We asked for cold water instead, although it took about 5 minutes to get the concept across to our waitress, and we had to rely on my girlfriend’s experience in mime and amateur dramatics.

She took the bottle away, and then brought it back, approaching us sideways like a crab to indicate that she was sorry: “We no… hmmm… cold… fridge, no”. We took this to mean they had elected, in a brave departure from the norm, not to serve cold drinking water in their estabishment. She brought some ice instead, which appeared to mystify her. I suspect she thinks the ice machine is witchcraft.

I dare you to lick this man. I double-dare you.

Our starters were described as grilled brie in breadcrumbs with an orange jelly dressing and salad. It was actually microwaved brie out of a box, with a scoop of actual Robinson’s breakfast marmalade, and slices of raw carrot. It was grisly, disturbing and hilarious, like a car crash involving an octopus and John McCririck: you’d laugh, but you wouldn’t want to have to lick any of the mess up.

For our main courses, I ordered a steak, medium rare, with peppercorn sauce on the side; my girlfriend chose the cod with mediterranean vegetables.

It was the oddest steak I’ve ever had: it looked like it had been cooked on a low heat for about 2 days, until any texture and taste had been utterly eradicated. It was almost white inside. Perhaps it had been bleached. And rather than peppercorn sauce on the side, it was served with Bisto onion gravy poured over it, and a slab of butter. It had the traditional steak accompaniment of wet, pale, boiled potatoes and an entire field of parsley.

My girlfriend’s cod didn’t arrive because the waitress, clearly confused by the crowds, had managed to deliver it to the only other table in the place which was occupied. There were literally 4 people in the restaurant, and only 2 meals to deliver: she still got it wrong. I sat slack-jawed as she attempted to explain her mistake with what sounded like a Ukrainian nursery-rhyme, some folk-dancing, and elaborate hand-movements that suggested she was attempting to guide a light aircraft in to land.

The cod was finally redirected to my girlfriend, although it was hardly worth the wait. It turned up, as described, with traditional mediterranean vegetables: peas, carrots, brocoli, cauliflower and (you guessed it) wet, pale, boiled potatoes. If any of those vegetables had gone to the mediterranean, it was on holiday, and they clearly wished they’d stayed.

This cod is cooked better than the one at the Grange Strathmore hotel. It is also better qualified than the manager.

As with every dish on the menu, it was served with about an Imperial pound of parsley, to the extent that no other flavours were detectable. On inspection, we found that the lonely slice of lemon which had found its way onto the plate was coated with parsley too. On both sides. I began to suspect the chef had actually dunked every item of food into a vat of parsley before, during and after cooking them.

Oh: and the cod was raw.

At this point my sense of absurdity left me, especially as I realised I was being asked to pay almost £60 (plus tips) for this fiasco. So I asked to see the manager or the chef.

The manager was nowhere to be found. I’m not surprised: none of this seemed managed in any sense. So the chef came to visit, looking like he’d only just been unchained, and was surprised to find his misguided culinary experiments were actually being served to humans. I quietly listed the multitudinous failings, and he nodded in servile acceptance. He almost certainly already knew that he was shit.

Olga, the Dumb Waitress with the suppurating lip, then did a small ceremony involving a yurt and some chanting, which we took to mean that she was offering the desert menu. We declined. We’d experienced what they could do to a steak: Christ alone knows what horrors the crème brûlée held.

And finally, to add insult to injury, they delivered a bill for the full meal. Honestly, I very nearly added insult to injury in return: writing “you’re a twat” on the plaster cast the manager was about to receive. But instead I got hold of the duty manager, told her there was no way on God’s clean earth I was paying, and we left it at that.

You’d think, having given us a shit room and a shit meal, that the hotel would make a special effort to cheer us up. But the bar had no staff and no beer; so we found an off-licence, got pissed in our room, and turned in around 1:30 am, hoping for a lazy lie-in on Saturday.

The next morning I was haunted by a strange dream in which a brass band, of all things, was tuning up in the room below me. And then I woke to find a brass band, of all things, was tuning up in the room below me. It was 8:00 am, and the hotel, in an almost bloody-minded act of commercial suicide, had allowed a 40-piece brass ensemble to practice “as long as they don’t disturb anybody”.

Since the days of Euterpe herself, not a single person has uttered a more idiotic sentence than “You can practice your 40-piece brass band in my hotel… as long as you don’t disturb anybody”. After my girlfriend undertook a brief, noisy, satisfying discussion with the receptionist we were told they’d ask the brass band to be quiet until after 9am, which I think is very civilised. I’m sure they’d offer the same service in the Dorchester.

A brass band, one of nature’s most silent and elusive phenomena.

After that we didn’t need to eat, sleep or in any way be in the hotel any more, and our experience of it improved. These things always seem better when you don’t actually have to go through them. But as a final, steaming turd in our shoe, they had misinformed us slightly about the cost of parking. Remember they said £5 per day, and we were surprised and delighted? Well that’s because it was actually £39.50 per day, and the Grange Strathmore Hotel, Kensington, London, is actually the worst hotel since Fawlty Towers.

Fortunately, it’s also very nearly as funny, as long as you’re very forgiving, have a little spare cash, or are off your fucking face on heroin the whole time. I managed 2 of those 3 requirements, so I got through it unscathed. And fortunately, it didn’t ruin my otherwise wonderful long weekend in London.