London Calls

Once, just once, I'd like to go on vacation and having nothing at all interesting happen to me. I want to experience the mundane. I want days to pass in which little or nothing worth commenting on happens. I want some time off that will bore me senseless. I hoped for a mindless tourist experience when our family set off for a three-day trip to London this week, but Fate had other plans for me and the O-Folk.

We drove down to London, which I thought was as stroke of genius. I am The Man Most Devoted to Travelling by Rail, and I encourage everybody I know to travel by rail until they're sick to death of hearing me talk about it. However, the newspapers in Britain have been full of stories about how lousy the railroad is since it was privatized, and since I didn't want a repeat of the Denver-Washington rail experience, I figured that avoiding a railroad disaster would be worth the nerve-jolting scramble of driving into London.

London and the surrounding cities, you see, have virtually no straight roads to speak of, and hundreds of years of road-building in this relatively tiny area has made the city's road system look about as easy to figure out as a plate of spaghetti. Add to that the fact that many of the downtown roads are one-way; driving into that mess quickly becomes a head-splitting exercise. With Barb as my devoted navigator -- and I do mean devoted, bless her, sticking with the job even when her driver became shall we say less than cooperative -- we did manage to find a parking garage near the hotel in what I thought was good time, thought we had to make several circuits of the downtown area.

It got really interesting shortly after we carried our bags from the parking garage to the hotel. I had booked a couple rooms in this hotel with no prior knowledge of how to do that sort of thing, which is pretty much a crap shoot under the best of conditions, and what an apt simile that turns out to be. I knew that this hotel was a place for the economy-minded, but my past experience with B&B's is that they can be very easy on the budget and still be clean and comfortable, except, apparently, this place. As soon as I walked in, I got the sinking feeling that we were in a certified fleabag, but for my family's sake I tried to put on the best face I could, and told myself over and over: "Hey, maybe it's not really all that bad." As it became more and more apparent that it was that bad, I tried to tell myself: "Don't be such a wimp." By the time midnight rolled around, though, and I was keenly aware of every jabbing spring in the rock-hard mattress I was not getting any sleep on, I was saying to myself, "This sucks, and we're outta here."

My mother always used to say, "If you can't say something nice..." No, she didn't. Nobody's mother has ever said that, and my mother in particular has always been a rather frank woman when you asked for her opinion. This hotel was, I'm now almost positive, the worst place I've ever paid money to stay in, and some of the places I've been paid to stay in were better -- the roach-infested Korean War-era barracks at Lackland AFB spring immediately to mind. The bathrooms there were clean; we cleaned them ourselves every day. The management at the hotel apparently took the same attitude toward clean bathrooms that the Air Force had: If you want them clean, then do it yourself. It seemed that only one or two people were willing to, and only a very crude cleaning at that. I already mentioned that the mattress defied you to get any sleep, and after a sleepless night the topper to the experience came when Sean showed me that the complimentary bar of soap he got with his towel was used. We got up early -- well, why not; we were already awake -- for the opportunity to bolt out the door of that place as soon as possible.

Moral of the story: Don't skimp on the hotel room, ever.

If that were the only thing interesting to happen to us on this trip, it wouldn't be a certifiable O-Folk vacation. Oh, no. There is, of course, more ....

We hit the town right away, to make the most of our short time there. Trying immediately to wash the first impression of our hotel rooms out of the heads of my family, I figured a mind-numbing tour would be best. Did we get what we paid for. If you're ever an American tourist in London, by all means see the Tower Bridge, take photos of yourself on the Tower Bridge, buy postcards of the Tower Bridge to send to your friend, but under no circomstances ever allow yourself to be trapped in The Tower Bridge Experience, where minutes seem like hours, hours like days, and a day can be (ominous organ music, voice trembles with reverb and echos) the rest of your life!

Trapped! I say. We were literally trapped in The Tower Bridge Experience for more than two hours. First you stand in an interminable line to rider an elevator to the top. "Okay," you say to yourself, "this stinks on ice, but we'll soon be walking along the pedestrian catwalk with a chillingly spectacular view of the Thames and the surrounding Tower Hill area." How wrong you are to say that, you witless, gulible dweeb. The elevator, after waiting the better part of half an hour, merely takes you to the first floor of The Tower Bridge Experience, where you travel back through time! Yes! This seemingly impossible feat comes with the price of admission, and all they have to do to accomplish it is spin the hands of a toy clock backward while they show you slides of the moon landing, the London Blitz, flappers dancing the Charleston, etc. etc. Amazing!

After travelling back in time to the Victorian era, everybody walks up to the third floor where Harry the Hummin' Dummy utterly destroys any last shred of enthusiasm you might still have had remaining for this tourist trap. Harry is one of those animatronic maniquins that, in these days of Star Wars-type special effects, puts on a depressingly pathetic show. For a start, he was broken. The operator kept on pressing his START button, which only made him monotonously hum a short tune over and over while he waved a dry paint brush in the air. When the operator finally got him working, he spent about sixty seconds, which was a virtual hour when adjusting for boredom, telling us a dopey little story about how important it was to build the Tower Bridge. Then, because the show on the next floor was running late, the operator made us wait in the room and filled the time by making Harry hum his cheery little tune a couple hundred times more. When the doors finally opened, there was a frenzied stampede up the stairs to the next floor.

...where you get to watch another show! A bunch of actors debate whether or not the bridge should be built, you're treated to some drawings of rejected designs -- which could have been somewhat interesting and fun but was instead about as interesting and fun as being hit in the head with a stick -- and then the ghostly head of one of the actors appeared and said something like, "To see how my design finally appeared, follow me ... " By this time the O-Folk were all so giddy from the boredom that we chanted "Follow the bouncing ghost head" as we marched out of the room.

Finally we were on the pedestrian walkway that spans the distance between the two towers of the bridge. There are plenty of sights to see, and this is an excellent vantage point, but I'd venture to say that most of the people who remained milling around on the walkway were trying to put off passing into the next tower for fear that they'd be subjected to another performance. How right those fears turned out to be.

An animated sign at the top of the stairway informed us that the show on the next level was in progress, and advised us to wait. "To hell with this," I said, "let's just blow right on through and get out of here." The rest of the family was with me in thought, but were somewhat hesitant to practice civil disobediance until I lead them defiantly down the stairs. But once again we were trapped! At this point, they were actually locking doors to make sure we didn't get away without inflicting every penny's worth of The Tower Bridge Experience on us. In this show, we were to learn how the drawbridge worked. First they explained how they were going to explain it, then they explained it, then they explained how they explained it, and finally in what I thought was one of the crassest demonstrations of torturing non-English-speaking tourists I've ever seen, a model of the drawbridge counterweight came down from the ceiling, threatening to crush everybody in the room as the over-amplified sound of a steam engine prevented any kind of an explanation from being heard. When the counterweight stopped and the lights came up, people were cowering on the floor in terror. What fun.

Now and only now did they release us from The Tower Bridge Experience, inviting us to stop at the engine room to see the steam drive that powered the drawbridge when it was orignally built. Not on your life am I going to let you trap my family in yet another demonstration, buddy. We beat feet down the riverside.

This trip to London was partly a continuation of our family summer vacation, partly to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and partly to celebrate Tim's birthday. For Tim, then, we spent one whole day in Legoland. That day unfortunately began the morning after we got practically no sleep on The Mattresses of Mengele. To Tim this made no difference. He's nine years old! He was in Legoland! With the boundless energy of a kid who's spoken of Legoland as if it were Kingdom Come, he bounced from one themed exhibit to the next, his parents dilligently trying to keep up. I'm ashamed to admit that I was less dilligent than his mother. I lamely blame a bad hotel experience for that, but conceed that Barb was similarly afflicted and managed to deal with it with much more fortitude. She's always been a great mom.

On the night of our wedding anniversary, Barb and I attended a showing of Miss Saigon at the Theatre Royal. I've seen just three musicals ever on stage and I still think Phantom of the Opera is the best, but Miss Saigon was still very good, and what an exciting experience it is to go to a show in London.

The rest of our tourist excursions can be summed up in a laundry list:

The Cabinet War Rooms
During the Second World War, the British government operated almost entirely from the rooms of this bunker, and when it was all over, they locked it up and ever since have kept it exactly as it was. This is the kind of thing that I enjoy quite a lot but interests almost nobody else in my family. They indulged me this once, though, followed me patiently through the whole thing, and didn't mind the way I gushed over it.

Harrod's
It's a big store. They sell thousand-dollar Cartier sunglasses in there. Way outta my league. Way outta the league of most of the tourists who flock to the place. I'll never figure it out.

The Changing of the Guard
We learned the hard way that you have to get there early or you won't see a thing.

A Tour of London by Night
I'd give this a miss if I were asked to do it again. The sights were without a doubt worth seeing, but when I chart a ride on a tour bus, I expect the guide to do a little more talking than he did, and when he spoke, what he said was pretty forgettable. When we stopped at St. Paul's, for instance, I noticed that almost everybody on the bus was completely ignoring was the guide was saying and instead watching the couple having sex on a nearby streetcorner.

Pubs

The Shakespeare
It's right across the street from Victoria station, and they have the tastiest fish & chips I've eaten in Britain so far.

The Lamb and Flag
This was a pub I visited many years ago, after I bought a guide book that mentioned it used to be known as The Bucket of Blood. I don't know whether or not that's true, but I after reading that I just had to visit it. I don't have that guide book any longer and couldn't have ever found that pub again -- I didn't even remember what it was now called, but I've always considered it one of the best pubs I've ever visited, and felt somewhat sad that I'd never see it again. While wandering through the Covent Garden neighborhood, though, trying to find the Leicester Square tube station, Barb and I turned down a road and there it was! Fate's a bizarre one, she is. 1