The Incensed Professor at Sea 7: What to Do in London
I walk. Lots. My trips to London in the past were for academic research with original documents, but their extracurricular emphases were based on the friends I met there. If I met up with friends from Sewanee, the emphasis was on the theatre. They would chivvy me along to go with them just to see if we could get tickets on the night. We always did. Without them, I would not have got to see Ralph Fiennes in Ibsen, or later as Richard II.
Time spent with an old English friend would be musical, centering on the opera at Glyndebourne or the Proms. With her I heard the Bach B Minor Mass with David Daniels, the celebrated countertenor, in the Albert Hall. The Proms are wonderful, but the Albert Hall is not invariably a good venue, though it is better than St. Paul’s, particularly if you under the glorious but unmusical dome. The best seats in the Albert Hall may actually be in the huge choir loft at the back when it is unused. From there I got to watch Ton Koopman conduct Purcell, and it was great fun! I also understand it is also great fun to be right at the top when they play The 1812 Overture with the sound rolling all around.
It was also in the Albert Hall that I heard that magnificent huge slice of Parma ham, Pavarotti. At the end of each piece, he would hold out his hands wide with a white handkerchief threaded through one of them. He would lower his head to nod, as if to say, “Yes. I know. I know.” At the time the Queen Mother was sill alive; it was a Pavarotti gala in her honor. However, she was, probably for the first time and last time, actually upstaged by her Lady-in-Waiting. The poor woman tripped as she went toward the rail at the bottom of the stairs, and had there not been a man there to catch her, there would have been one less Duchess in the land. (I think she may have been the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, but if I were that familiar with the Court, I would hardly be writing a blog about it.)
The most interesting concert I heard in London when I was at University, aside from the Japanese Imperial Court musicians and dancers, was the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus of Vienna. There were a large handful of musicians, but they spread out across the front of the stage every three feet or so to play one of the Bach Orchestral Suites, with the continuo (harpsichord and a string player) right at the end of the line. When I saw them enter and setting it up, I thought they were bonkers. How could they possibly play at all so strung out across the stage? Well, this was the Concentus Musicus, so of course they played superbly! The thing that made it fascinating was you could follow any part simply by concentrating on that player. It was a revelation. (By the way, Harnoncourt, the descendent of the Emperor, was an Austrian Count in his own right. While the fall of the great imperial dynasties after World War I may have been a tragedy for the ruling families, it let us have a great conductor. I doubt the Hapsburgs would have allowed it otherwise.) Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt were responsible for the splendid Teldec recordings of the Bach Cantatas using almost exclusively men and boys singing to instruments Bach would have recognized, but Harnoncourt was not doctrinaire about historically-informed practice. I am more rigid about it than he was! His brilliant recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies used early brass instruments, but I think the rest were modern. For him, it was how the music sounded that mattered more than purist principles. While I am mad keen on original instruments, I don’t think I could entirely disagree!
If my principal companion was an old American friend who moved to England years ago and lives with his family in London, he and I and a mutual friend concentrated on eating. The last time I was in England, his wife and daughter (now there are two daughters) were away so I stayed in his townhouse, in which as a Southerner, he actually had installed air-conditioning. I approve. Heat in London is not pleasant with its damp, and it provokes the English to shed clothing, which is not a Good Thing. Anyway, my friend is an oenophile, and the wines and provender at his wedding banquet at Brown’s Hotel made it my favorite wedding banquet. Anyway, the three of us would always head out to restaurants and pubs for food and booze, and I always was sure that I would be well served.
You may think that English food is not great cuisine, but you would be wrong, at least nowadays. Eating is a big deal in London. True, in earlier times an Indian restaurant would be your best bet, unless you were particularly keen on newspaper-wrapped fish and chips (now with plainer wrapping). Of course, there was always the famous roast beast at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, and English cheese is wonderful! (Paxton and Whitfield on Jermyn Street is a cheese-lover’s paradise. By the way, I get Stilton at Christmas from Williams-Sonoma as Paxton and Whitfield costs a fortune to ship. I have found wedges of Stilton can be frozen successfully, if you actually have any left.) At those London clubs with the longest waiting lists, I am told the food is often like the food eaten at a Public School (i.e. boarding school), which does not seem all that enticing. Somehow “Spotted Dick” rarely appears on menus in the States. Less aristocratic clubs are said to have better food, which is a little worrisome as the food in my club is very good indeed. I shall console myself with Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester.