The Banality Of Luxury

So one of my British Things to do today was to go to Green And Stone Stationers and Art Supplies on Kings Road in Chelsea.

Green And Stone is a throwback to an earlier time, when people wrote on fine paper with ink pens, used blotters on letters and correspondence, and had actual writing tables. It’s also a place where, if you’re an artist (professional or hobbyist) you will find the best quality paints, inks, pens and such anywhere. (Think: bamboo calligraphy pens in nearly a dozen different nib widths, and you’ll begin to get an idea.) As someone once told me, “Seeing all this makes you want to take up that activity, just so you get to use the stuff.” And it’s true. Even if you’re not a calligrapher or artist, it’s worth a visit; I ended up buying presents for four people, all different, and only two of which were art-related — it’s that kind of a store.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about today.

I took the Tube down to Sloane Square, and walked the mile or so south to Green & Stone because I love Chelsea; the place is full of eclectic, interesting shops and many, many good places to eat that aren’t called McDonald’s and the like (although they can be found there too). Also, just off King’s Road are beautiful, classy neighborhoods (at not-so beautiful prices — whoa, it’s expensive, bubba) and also interesting establishments like The Chelsea Gardener. Best of all, because the area is upscale, the people are too: mostly classy people, well-dressed and carefully groomed. My kinda folks.

Anyway, on the way back I decided to take the No.19 bus rather than the Tube because it was a lovely day and I felt like looking at London rather than at a tunnel wall.

Part of the route was along Sloane Street into Knightsbridge, and of course it’s on this street where you find all the Usual Suspects: Dior, Ferragamo, Versace, Hermès, Pucci, Prada and all those furrin names. As a place of wealth and ostentation, it’s difficult to top Sloane Street…

…except that it’s not. I’ve seen Sloane Street many times before, only it was called “Hofbahnstrasse” in Zurich, “the Golden Mile” in Chicago, “Kollmarkt” in Vienna, “Northcross Mall” in Dallas, “Champs-Elysées” in Paris and “Park Avenue” in Manhattan. It’s all the same stores, the same overpriced merchandise and (pretty much) the same customers, only speaking with different accents and languages.

Phooey. You can keep all that crap. Give me a street with character like King’s Road or Upper Street in Islington (further along on my bus trip) any day of the week. Luxury shopping isn’t just overpriced, it’s banal — and I want no part of it.

Back In The Smoke

So the Edinburgh part of the trip came to an end yesterday with a Virgin train south back to London.

Pro tip: the Edinburgh flight from Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick takes about an hour’s flying time. None of those airports is a quick trip from Central London. Now add the the waiting time to board — about an hour unless the flight is delayed, which it is, often — followed by baggage retrieval and then the travel time from Edinburgh airport to the city, which takes about half an hour because the traffic in Edinburgh is generally terrible. Rounded up, the total time is about four hours. The express train from King’s Cross station direct to Edinburgh’s Waverly station — in the middle of downtown — takes three and a half hours.  And the big deadly secret: there are up to six trains an hour from King’s X to Edinburgh, the regular fares are comparable to air fares (mine cost £180 return), the train seats are far more comfortable than the average airline seat AND there’s no “surplus baggage” charge, “reserved ticket charge” or any of the other little scams the airlines have dreamed up to empty your wallet. Oh, and your train journey is not gonna be delayed by bad weather. Take the train. Life, and more especially your travel time, will be more precious than fucking around in airports or driving in heavy traffic to the airport.

But I digress. So I’m back in London and staying at a friend’s apartment (a couple of stops north of King’s Cross Station, incidentally) while he and his wife are in Corfu on their annual vacation. So I have the place to myself and can do London Things without having my wallet emptied by London hotel fees (which in summer… don’t get me started: this is why I prefer to travel in the fall or even winter).

So what are my London Things? They are, in a nutshell, the things I try to do every time I come to London. This trip, they are (in no specific order):

  • Dinner at the Kolossi Grill (Cypriot Greek food, yum)
  • Shopping at Harvey Nichols (for the reason, see here)
  • A visit to Green & Stone Stationers, to add to my ink collection
  • Tea at Fortnum & Mason. Yeah, I know I’ve already done the high tea thing at the Ritz. Don’t care. Besides, I need some Royal Blend tea for when I get back home (sometime in the next century, the way things are going)
  • Lunch or dinner with Mr. Free Market (if he can break away from tossing little old ladies from their homes out onto the street)
  • Dinner / booze with Mr. and Mrs. Sorenson at a pub TBD
  • Breakfast at Patisserie Valerie. I know, it’s just a chain — but it wasn’t always, at least not when I started going there. Best pastries anywhere outside France
  • Buy Maille mustard. I normally do this when I’m in Paris, but I’m not going to Paris anytime soon, and there’s a Maille store next door to Fortnum’s.
  • Walk the streets of London. I don’t think I need to explain why this is something I do every time I’m here. Those who’ve been to London need no explanation, and those who’ve never been to London need to get their shit together and do it before they’re a year older.

If London isn’t my favorite city in the world, it’s 1a. It should be everybody’s, because very few others can compare. And as I said before, I’m not tired of life yet.

Roadsters (2)

In my first post on this topic, I looked at roadsters in their original concept: simple, economical fun. Today I’m going to look at a development of the concept, which added performance — mostly, it should be said, in terms of speed, but also comfort: bigger, better suspension and so on, all at (of course) a steeper price.

It began almost at the same time as MG were bringing out their early TA model, when the SS Motor Company (later Jaguar) produced their SS Jaguar 100 model, which unlike the earlier Mercedes SSK was designed not for the track but for touring.

It had a brute of an engine (3.0-liter inline six-cylinder, compared to the TA’s 1.3-liter four-banger) and a top speed of just over 100mph. The popularity of these cars, by the way, can be seen by the fact that almost every one you see nowadays is a replica, not a rebuilt original.

Of course, these cars could be raced, and they were. Sports car racing was big at the time, so there were all sorts of cars like this: Bentley, Mercedes, Alfa Romeo (to name but some) all had a hand in the game, and in the U.S., there were Duesenbergs, Cords and Auburn (to name but some of them).

I’m not a fan of big, brute cars; I prefer the smaller touring models to the racers: modestly sized but still with decent performance. Hence I tend to prefer the SS 100’s successor, the exquisite Jaguar XK 120:

I also prefer the smaller German models like the later 190 SL:

…which is really the budget version of racing monsters like the 300 SL Gullwing.

In the U.K. again, the little MGA sports car begat the Austin-Healey with its powerful 3-liter engine (but with the same legendary unreliability of its smaller cousin):

Now on to the present, or rather, the recent present. One of the problems of car manufacturing is that it’s so damn expensive. Only large corporations can build cars profitably, because of both economies of scale and the fact that they can subsidize their more interesting (and less popular) models with mass-market versions. And sadly, performance touring cars are a niche market. Even BMW can keep their excellent 650 touring models in production only because they sell boatloads of 330s, 530s and 750s.

And with a lovely segue, we come upon Wiesmann touring sports cars. Started by the two eponymous brothers in the late 1980s, Wiesmann produced what I think are some of the most beautiful cars made in the modern era. Here’s their MF-3, which uses a BMW M3 3-liter 6-cyinder engine:

…and if you’re thinking that it looks rather like the Jaguar XK 120 above, you’d be correct. Unlike the older XK, though, which had a spartan interior, Wiesmann gave the lucky driver this cockpit to play in:

Note the manual transmission, which is the default offering (you could get an automatic gearbox, but that would be a gross betrayal).

Later versions had the monster 4.4-liter BMW engines, which didn’t add that much power, but did turn an already-expensive proposition into an exorbitant one — which limited their market.

Sadly, Wiesmann went out of business in 2014, because their cars required too much money to convert them into US roadworthiness and the high (hand-built) cost limited their European market — these are people who want to tour, not race, so you’re not going to get the Ferrari-Porsche Set to buy one.

The same can be said for Aston Martin cars, by the way:

They’re ridiculously expensive and yet (still) a little too unreliable for people who want to (say) drive from San Diego to Maine, or Free Market Towers to Naples.

But because Aston Martin is a British company, they will always have wealthy customers in the UK who don’t want to drive a European (read: German) car, and who also don’t mind a little bit of unreliability because remember: one shouldn’t have too much fun while enjoying oneself.

Bucket List Entry #9: The Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo

I’m not sure that anyone does pageantry like the Brits. For one thing, some of their spectacles have been going on longer than many nations have been in existence, and for another, they take place in the setting of Britain, the country with a history that dates back well over two thousand years.

The Tattoo isn’t one of the former: it’s only been going on for just under seventy years — a veritable child compared to, say, the coronation of the new monarch.

But of course, the Tattoo takes place in front of the storied Edinburgh Castle, one of the oldest buildings in the Western world, and the theme this year was “Splash Of Tartan” which harkens back to the mid-17th century, when Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite Scots were defeated at Culloden, whereafter the wearing of the tartan was forbidden, bagpipe-playing was banned, the Scots were disarmed and the Gaelic language was suppressed.

So of course, the official welcome this year was given in Gaelic, a ceremonial toast of whisky was taken by the guest of honor — a British officer who served the drinks to the clan leaders:

…and then came the massed pipe bands, playing, amongst others, the mournful Skye Boat Song:

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing
Over the sea to Skye;
Carry the man who was born to be king
Over the sea to Skye.

I am not a man with Scottish roots, and in fact there are many things about the Scots of today that I deplore; but even I had a tear running down my cheek.

I talked about my previous Bucket List item (tea at the Ritz Hotel), which I enjoyed for so many reasons; but the Tattoo was unbelievable. Everyone who goes to Britain in summer — during the month of August — should make a point of going. The crowds are immense, the atmosphere electric; and when the ceremony finishes with the Lone Piper playing his melancholy melody atop the battlements of Edinburgh Castle, I promise you that you will never forget it.

Bagging It

One of the things which catches U.S. tourists out here in Britishland is that retail outlets frequently do not offer bags to carry out any purchases — or, if they do, they charge 5p each for the wretched things. And it works, if the goal is to reduce trash.

Now Tesco is apparently doing away with the cheap flimsy ones, and is going is issue sturdier bags — for 10p each  — which can survive multiple uses.

Now, as Doc Russia reminds me, this is all very well; but it should be noted that the number of disposable bags may well have gone down, but that has been offset by a concomitant rise in sickness from e. coli bacteria infection. Yup… traces of bacteria from fruits and especially fresh meats will stay behind in the bag and be transferred to future purchases.

So if you’re going to do the Green Thing, wash that bag, y’all. And by the way, I’ve been doing this for a long time and let me tell you: canvas bags work better than any of the sturdier plastic things, which don’t handle the washing machine experience well at all. You just have to remember to put the damn things back in the car before you go out to do their shopping (something I fail to do quite often).