Personal stuff

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.

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.

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…

Bucket List Entry #7: Chelsea Football Club

I’ve been a fan of Chelsea since about 1972, so I can’t be accused of being a fan only after they became successful in recent years. Oh good grief, no: I remember all too well the Mediocre Years, when the Blues seemed simply content to be the perennial #5 in the league (after Man U, Liverpool, Arsenal etc). No, having suffered all that time, I’m enjoying their recent successes (European Champions League and English Premier League winners). Obviously, I’ve always wanted to watch The Lads play, and as such it’s very definitely on my Bucket List.

Today I’m going to Wembley Stadium as the guest of Longtime Brit Friend Mr. Sorenson to watch Chelsea play against hated north London rivals Arsenal in what is essentially a replay of this year’s F.A. Cup Final — which Chelsea lost (!) — so excuse me for being a little excited. I even have my old Chelsea hat, bought lo so many years ago.

Go The Blues!!!!

Update: We lost on penalties after a 1-1 tie at full-time. Ugh. But I captured a flag.

Actually, I don’t care about the result. A Bucket List Event with a good friend, with beer and good times: pure gold. Thanks, Sor.

Filling The Old Pie-Hole

One of my childhood comfort foods was the venerable (to Brits) steak ‘n kidney pie (my Murkin Readers can pause here for regurgitation purposes). Basically no larger than a fistful, it’s as advertised: pieces of steak and kidney smothered in gravy, all encapsulated in flaky pastry. As a starving boarding school pupil, it saved me from death on many an occasion when purchased from the school “tuck” shop during First Break (recess).

Most takeout places in Britishland serve these things hot, and they are pretty much a staple snack dish, along with chicken pies, pork pies, Cornish pasties (too much veg., not enough meat) and variants such as steak ‘n potato and steak ‘n onion.

However, if you’re looking for something to eat at home, i.e. something that can be bought at a supermarket, then pickings are slim; for reasons which escape me, the supermarket pies are almost all dreadful regardless of store name — Tesco, Sainsbury and even Waitrose have nothing to brag about when it comes to pies.

I thought all was lost until only a few days ago, when I discovered this magnificent item in the fridge at Sainsbury, of all places:

(“Pukka” is a derivative of an Indian word which means “the real thing” — and is it ever.)

Pukka makes other pies, but I don’t know which or how many, because I only had eyes for this type. I bought one, and took it home without any high expectations — but oh joy, was I ever wrong!

Large pieces of tender meat (no gristle), lovely savory gravy and crispy pastry, warmed in the Aga for only a few minutes: if I’d bought half a dozen I’d have eaten them all in one sitting. The Cook at FM Towers also likes them, and tells me that their other offerings are likewise splendid, so there you have it.

This has been a Public Service Announcement from Kim, and will help anyone traveling to Britishland hereafter. No need to thank me, it’s all part of the service.