The flight to Heathrow turned out to be one of the more pleasant transatlantic crossings. I was on the end of a middle block of 5, but there was an empty set next to me, which makes up for a lot. There were 6 films to choose from, but the choice was sucky. The only one I attempted to watch was HGttG, which I thought was crap. It took source material that was alive with wit and turned it into something that some reviewer somewhere no doubt described as "zany hijinks". Ugh.
Once in London, the boss-fella and I were picked up by the staff of our European office, i.e. a Swede named Lars. He’s a great guy, and I’m glad there was someone there who could drive on the wrong side of the road, since we proceded to rack up 600 miles or so over the next few days.
First, we headed down toward Southampton, but we ran into some severe traffic delays as apparently an accident had spilled a large number of fish onto the motorway. After getting set up in our economy motel, Lars took us off to the seaside for a bit. From there, you can see the Isle of Wight. The marina bustled with activity, from people hauling their sailboats in and out of the water, to kids hauling crabs out of the water.
Thence back to the motel, which I believe had more fire doors than rooms. Given the warm spell in the UK and the lack of A/C, this meant that getting to the room involved walking a gauntlet of superheated air. The shower system was also interesting. The faucet had a temperature dial marked off in centigrade. The funny thing was that it was nicely lubricated so that it slowly slid toward the hotter end of the spectrum as one's shower progressed.
The next day, we went down to our client’s offices and I made about 80% of our presentation. It went really smoothly and without incident. Things might have been different had some of the VC’s been present (by which I mean venture capitalists as opposed to Viet Cong, who also might have made the presentation significantly more challenging). After a three-hour meeting or so, we drove roughly northwesterly to Worcester, where our next lodgings awaited us.
Since I knew we would be traveling kinda sorta near the Welsh border, I took along a Phil Rickman book to read. Midwinter of the Spirit, which is one of his Merrily Watkins books. On the whole, it was a disappointment, with far too much reliance on the literary technique for revealing villains that was pioneered by Scooby-Doo. But it was still fun to be driving through Leominster and Hereford while reading about them. On the other hand, the area appeared to be full of cheerful green hills and white fluffy sheep, rather than malevolent spiritual phenomena.
The next day, we drove through increasingly tiny roads into the hinterlands, where the town names rapidly descended into typical English silliness: Chipping Sodbury, Hope-under-Dinmore, Shavington Ho, Craven Arms, Much Wenlock. Eventually we reached our objective – Church Stretton. Lars and I walked the town as the boss conducted business. It’s a cute village with plenty of antique stores and antique residents tottering along the streets. You’ll have to wait for the inevitable picture post to see the funniest storefront in Church Stretton.
It doesn’t take long to do Church Stretton, so we ambled back to the parking lot, where I befriended a local feline. The boss’s business concluded, we made for Swindon, where the boss and I caught a train into London. There was a convenience at the Swindon railway station that I had never previously encountered. It was an automated handwashing system. It’s a metal-lined alcove and you insert your hands, which are immediately assaulted by a squirt of goop. Then the faucet turns on and gives you a good 15 seconds to remove the goop. Then, the piece de resistance, the hot-air blowers come on to dry your hands.
Got into London and settled in the hotel near Westminster. We took an evening stroll and took in the sights. The Millennium Eye is very very large, and rather dominates the scene if you’re facing it. The Palace has Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest, the Woman in White, based on the Wilkie Collins ghost story. The boss and I ate at a really excellent Italian restaurant near the Strand, where we shared a good bottle of Orvieto, based on my recommendation. I’ve become the company sommelier, I think.
The next day we spent the first half on a hop-on hop-off tourbus. We did our hopping off at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s. I’d been in the latter, but not the former. St. Paul’s may have plenty of famous dead people, but Westminster Abbey is simply littered with royal dead people. Oh, there’s Mary Queen of Scots. Oh, that’s Queen Elizabeth. My, there’s Henry the frigging Fifth. Stepping down to the commoners, there’s Newton, Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Rutherford and JJ Thomson. Chaucer and Kipling. Handel and Purcell. Garrick and Olivier. Not to mention the building itself, which is gorgeous. I was amused that they have a full set of practice regalia for coronations – fake Crown Jewels.
St. Paul’s was much as I remember it, though Admiral Nelson was not receiving visitors, as his monument is being refurbished in preparation for the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar.
The bus-tour took in a lot of other things in passing. The tony area where Sean Connery and Christopher Lee have their homes. Benedict Arnold's lodgings. Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire. The Gherkin. The Stack of Pizzas. And other edible architecture.
Since we hopped on and off, we got treated to different styles of tour guide. Historical and Dry to you-should-be-doing-stand-up. Harley Street (home to doctors and specifically plastic surgeons) – “the only place in London where you’re allowed to pick your nose and pick your bum”.
After the bus, we took a boatride on the Thames, where the tourguide was nearly as funny. “In the event of emergency, don a lifejacket and proceed to an emergency exit. The emergency exits are located… well, anywhere really. The jackets will inflate on contact with water; if it doesn’t, jump back in and we’ll give you another.”
As the boat neared the dock, we got pelted by the first rain of our trip, which curtailed our shopping plans. We made a brief and mostly vain attempt at going to bookstores in Charing Cross Road, but it was not at all how I imagined it. I wanted ancient and grimy fire-traps with piles of dusty tomes threatening to collapse and entomb the unwary. Instead, there was a freaking Borders. And Blackwells. And a couple other new bookstores. There were only a couple used bookstores at all. I came out of it with a signed Iain Banks book, so it wasn't a total loss.
Then the rain drove us back to the hotel. We ventured out later for a last meal in London. I had some fine bangers and mash. The sausage was, I think, manufactured in some special English fashion. Not only were no spices added, but I think they’ve invented an anti-spice that turns the sausage into a sort of bland and undifferentiated matter not seen since shortly after the Big Bang. The mash and gravy, though, were delicious.
I made a last drizzly walk through the streets of London and I had another of those pleasant moments where you feel like you’ve become a native. Sensing the confidence in my stride, some foreign tourists asked me for directions to Victoria Station. What’s more, I was able to give them.
Next morning, off to Heathrow. As you may have heard, British Airways had a brief strike that threw Heathrow into disarray. Although service had resumed, there was still two days’ worth of passengers living in a tent city at the airport. We were on United, which is in a different terminal, so we were basically unaffected. However, people were leaving BA for any alternative, so there were no empty seats on the return flight. Perhaps because of all the airline switching, the line to get boarding passes was ridiculously long. Fortunately, the boss took me into the Premier line, which was considerably shorter. He also took me into the Red Carpet lounge, for a taste of how the other half lives. There’s free food, drink and booze in there! And comfy chairs!
I had a window seat on the flight back, and I was wedged in by a 280 pound bald guy in the aisle seat. I watched about five minutes of Madagascar, before I wanted to pierce my eardrums. The animation looked lovely, but the story and voices were not compelling. There was a stick-thin six-foot-tall German waif in the row ahead of me. She did not eat anything for 10.5 hours. I got a few nice views out the window: Lake Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, the Great Salt Lake, Vegas and (closer to home) the Puente Hills Landfill.
Bleargh, that’s more than enough. Pictures next, when I work up the energy.