Changed And Unchanged

So today I went to Harvey Nichols to make my token purchase (as promised here), and walked out without making one. Here’s what got up my nose about the place.

Harvey Nicks has changed. It’s no longer the calm, classy establishment I knew and loved from a dozen or so years ago. Now it’s brash, very pretentious and looks like someone in Marketing said, “I know! Let’s cater to parvenu Russian oil oligarchs’ wives and children!”

I was going to make a small purchase — I can’t afford Harvey Nicks’ prices on, well, anything — so I wanted to get something small, a present for a friend, nothing fancy, a beautiful bath soap that would be pure indulgence every time she used it. I walked up to the first salesgirl I saw at the cosmetics department and said, “I’m looking for some luxury bath soap. Where do you stock it?”
Soap?” The little tart acted as though she’d never heard of it.
“Yes… you know, a bar of something fragrant, something sinfully expensive and indulgent?”
Soap?” she repeated. “I don’t know… let me ask someone else,” and she sashayed off to another tart behind a different counter. Much whispered conversation, pointing and even a curl of the lip.

I was being snooted.

What was worse, I soon discovered, was that Harvey fucking Nichols does not stock any fucking bar soap, of any description — at least, not that I could discern or the snooty little shit knew about either.

So I left, and such was my dismay that I had to go to Fortnum & Mason for a recuperative lunch. So I did, hoping that Fortnum’s hadn’t made the same stupid marketing decision.

Bless the Lord, they haven’t. It’s still the same lovely, old-fashioned place that sells stuff like $1,500 carrier bags and $10,000 Christmas crackers, and which offers shoeshine service delivered by a young man in formal clothing.

I felt like I’d come home — or at least, home to Free Market Towers, which is very much like Fortnum’s, only without anything for sale. Anyway, after a frighteningly fine lunch of duck rarebit and coffee, I went up to the second floor (Ladies Accessories) and found… about a hundred different kinds of sinfully expensive and indulgent bath soaps. A delightful young lady — not a snooty little tart — with a charming French accent was only too happy to help me make a choice, showing me all over the floor to the different placements of said soaps, opening packages to let me inhale the fragrance, and in general making me feel like my business meant everything to her — and all this, for a $10 purchase, mind you.

So I ended up buying a lot more than one bar of soap — total purchase well over $40 — and then went down to buy small gifts of tea and such for my rotten, ungrateful and spoiled children.

Which I did. Then, still having not exhausted my ire at being condescended to by a snotty little shopgirl, I went down the street to the Maille mustard store, where a charming, helpful young man let me taste about a dozen exquisite mustards, and such was my self-restraint that I only bought half a dozen small jars thereof.

Such is the power of helpful, sincere and well-trained customer service.

And fuck Harvey Nichols. They’ve lost me as a customer, too.

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.

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).

Bucket List Entry #8: High Tea At The Ritz

So last Tuesday  I met up with on old friend whom I last saw in South Africa over forty years ago (!), and whose two sons (who both live and work in London) very kindly invited us to tea at the Ritz Hotel to celebrate the occasion.

I’ve had high tea before, often, when I’ve been in England, at places like The Pump Room in Bath and at Fortnum’s (to name but two of the snootier places), but never before at the Ritz. Even though I’d once stayed there a couple of days, that was a business trip and there was no time to enjoy the relaxing pleasure of sitting in the Tea Room and having elegant flunkies cater to one’s every need and whim, with no time pressure, no limit (the food and tea are, of course, bottomless) and to cap it all, a glass of their signature champagne.

“More tea, sir? A different tea this time? Of course, sir. And more scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, sir? Right away.”

I know, I know, it’s a bloated plutocrat way of living, but good grief, how I love it. The food is beyond description.

Best of all, though, is that the sheer majesty of the place puts everyone on their best behavior. All around us were people dressed well: jackets and ties for the men, elegant dresses and such for the ladies, no loud chatter or noise — just the murmur of voices, the clinking of silver flatware on china, and in the background, a piano player giving us a tour of the old standards.

And this wasn’t an English Rich White Person event, either; the Ritz has always catered to people from all nations, so it was like 57 varieties in there — but all dressed impeccably, all well-mannered, and all enjoying one of the great treats in life:  tea at the Ritz. I have no idea how much it costs (it’s probably online somewhere) and one does have to make a reservation, such is its demand. Whatever, it’s all worth it once you’re there.

Anyone who goes to London and doesn’t do this, at least once, has done themselves a profound disservice.

And my deepest gratitude to Hamish and Andrew for the invitation. I will never forget it.

The Things We Do For Free

I’ve always thought of myself as a somewhat picky eater, but really, I’m only picky if there’s a choice. Example: if my choices are a Burger King, Applebee’s or local restaurant, I’ll always choose the local guy. If the choice is Italian, Greek or Indian, I’ll pick according to what I feel like eating. If none of the choices seem appealing, or the place looks dodgy, I’ll go without.

This morning I was having breakfast at the Fleabagge Inne, and it was… acceptable. Bacon was okay (better than the American “streaky” type), the fried eggs were likewise okay, if a tad rubbery, the baked beans come out of a can just like everywhere else, and the coffee was, well, British (poor). To my Stateside Readers, it was like breakfast at the Grandy’s chain, only with worse coffee — but I never eat at Grandy’s. So why was I eating such a canteen-style breakfast here in London? It’s not like you can’t find a decent Full English anywhere, of course; so why here?

At first, I thought I was eating it just because it was free, but on reflection, it wasn’t just that: it was also because it was convenient (just downstairs, as opposed to walking around looking for a place) and, as I realized while eating, it was actually no different from the many hundreds of breakfasts I’d had at boarding school as a boy. In other words, while I’ve become a fussy eater, I’ve had far worse breakfasts before. I don’t really mind compromising when it’s convenient — and I’m only here for a couple of days anyway before heading up to Scottishland, so what the hell.

And there’s nothing wrong with “free” either.

Right: I have an open day in my hands before meeting up with friends, so it’s off to the world’s best bookshop: Foyle’s, on Charing Cross Road.

They’ve modernized it, of course, [sigh] but somehow, I think I’ll manage. That’s not going to be free…