Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to London — screamed the colourful t-shirts in shops around the famed Piccadilly Circus. Hmm! What did that make me, I wondered. And almost as though taking a cue, a gent who happened to be a professor from the University of Westminster doffed his hat and uttered something about how much he’d love to have a little chat with me. Concerned at being slotted in the latter category even by a rank stranger, I hastily muttered some silly excuse about a dinner meeting, and walked on. A friend who I met soon after, put my suspicions to rest and informed me that it was, really, almost commonplace for strangers to strike conversations around Piccadilly, one of the most touristy areas in London.
Another cliché about Piccadilly Circus which tour guides will often let drop is that bit about the high probability of a visitor bumping into someone they know, unless, of course, they added helpfully, they’re from the Galapagos. A week went by and I did not run into any familiar faces and then, lo and behold, the heavens smiled and I ran into an old friend at the Royal Academy of Arts where works of Rodin, the master sculptor, were on display. In keeping with feminine traditions we oohed and aahed and made enough noise between the two of us to make the otherwise pleasant and companionable gallery attendants appear as though they were seriously contemplating blue murder.
Unfortunately, my good luck of bumping into people did not extend beyond that fateful day or I could have had an accidental meeting with the very charming former United States President Bill Clinton who walked the very same street and even sat down to sip coffee at a Starbucks just a little distance from the Ritz. The stars had been more favourable with other women particularly one, who was, by all accounts so stunned at making eye contact with him that her knees gave in. Ah well! The Brits were clearly excited to have Mr Clinton amid them though they did not spare him their brand of clever wit.
Cab drivers, I think, are a good barometer to a city’s character. In India, it is the friendly and usually helpful Mumbai cabbie who wins in the popularity stakes. Their London counterparts don’t fare too badly either. I was, upon arrival at Heathrow airport, greeted with a public announcement of my name over the microphone. Soon enough I discovered the person responsible — a friendly young cab driver of Pakistani origin who had been assigned by a very concerned friend to fetch me. As it turned out he was running late but he more than made up for it by giving me a quick brief of the city, telling me all about his life — running the family business and his interest in computer engineering. In fact, he did some assembling by the day and chipped into the family business by ferrying passengers when extra help was required. Shadab was an avid adventurer too — rock climbing was a passion though he admitted sheepishly that it had all started off as an attempt to impress the fairer sex. Surprisingly enough, he was gallant too — he helped me drag my extremely heavy suitcase right to the doorstep.
Pubs, clubs and gardens
To say that Brits love their tipple would be an understatement. Liquor anytime is de rigueur which explains the assortment of delightfully quaint pubs all over the city. The best part is that the prices for liquor don’t vary wildly, whether it’s a five star-type pub you are sitting in or a more modest one. Among those I recall are On Anon, Spaniards Inn—where highway men of yonder days tied their horses when lurking around Hampstead Heath awaiting a quarry, day after day — and Old Bull & the Bush once frequented by Charles Dickens and which now resembles a family restaurant. But what fascinated me were the names that ranged from Dog & Duck, Lamb & Flag, Ye Old Cheshire Club and other such incomprehensible combinations. But, as goes the famous line, what’s in a name?
Shakespeare as you like it
A visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon, the Bard’s birthplace revealed that ol’ boy Willie was quite a man in love, or a man cornered. His marriage to wife Anne Hathaway, explained a helpful guide, is in the town records: the Bard was just 18, his wife 26 and preggers too. This bit of information gave me and fellow tourists some amusing food for thought as we ambled along for a look at some 16th century wooden furniture in Shakespearean times while an American gentleman (that according to a Brit friend is a bit of an oxymoron) made intriguing observations about the size of the beds used in the Bard’s house. Clearly they were small people, or, as some explanations went, they slept upright for fear of the devil claiming their souls. Among other fascinating memorabilia attached to the Bard’s life was his chair, a simulated study, caps, the family crest, maps of London in the 16th century and a replica of the theatres in which Lord Chamberlain’s and, later, The King’s Men performed.
My visit to the quaint town also helped me understand Will Power. The William Shakespeare brand has sure withstood the test of time. Mugs, compilation of verses and quotes from his plays and sonnets, Shakespeare chocolates, packets of flower seeds for your garden, fruit preserves for your table, pens, pencils, erasers (the ‘out damned spot’ variety) and some tea too! The pitch to sell these wares, with little or no relevance to the old boy was clever, to say the least. The label on a packet of tea on closer inspection had this to say ‘Tea became a part of English lifestyle almost 50 years after the Bard but what would Shakespeare have said if he had sipped the brew!’ How’s that for a spot of quick thinking?