Buckingham Palace

September 23, 2006

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Yes, I’ve been inside Buckingham Palace, and no, I haven’t met the Queen (though I did get to see a fair amount of her closet).  How did I get in?  Sadly, not via any royal invitation.  Since the 1990s, (when she needed to raise money to pay for restoring the fire damage at Windsor Castle) the royal family has offered limited public viewings of the palace’s non-residential areas.  Unlike the White House, Buckingham Palace doesn’t require you to go through background checks and get a letter of reference from your local elected official.  Amazingly, all you have to do is sign up online (provided you can get in before all the time slots are gone).

Another nice bonus is that it’s a self-guided tour, so you aren’t hearded from room to room like a flock of errant sheep, tended to by not-so-Secret Service agents carrying sub-machine guns, and lead by a snippy blonde tour guide… “We’re walking; we’re walking; we’re walking; we’re stopping.”  (See Bonnie Hunt in Dave.)

The Buckingham Palace experience is more like a good old cattle drive.  It’s a steady stream of visitors, routed through the place like a giant mudflow through Malibu canyon.  Even the audioguide commands you to “please keep walking toward the doors at the far end of the room while I tell you about the paintings here.”  Not that you could resist.  The shear mass of people coming in behind you prohibits anyone from standing still to admire the artwork. 

So, what’s it like inside?  Probably about what you’d expect: grander than the White House, but nothing remotely like Versailles.  One of the nicer aspects of the tour was that you got to enter and move through the rooms as if you were actually a guest, by which I mean: through the main entrance, up the grand staircase, through the parlors and into the throne room, then on through the smaller galleries and ballrooms, eventually leading out through the terrace to the private gardens (which you also got to see quite a lot of).

It takes several hours to see it all, even with relentless tide pushing you along (towards the gift shop, of course, where you can buy all manor of hideous “royal” china, emblazoned with the kind of overly-ornate gold-and-pastel patterns beloved of Queens and First Ladies).  Along the way, you learn some interesting things.  (For example, all the dinner menus at the palace are printed in French and must be personally approved by the Queen.  She speaks French fluently and routinely sends the menus back with grammer and spelling corrections.)  On my visit, the most of the women (It was about 80/20 middle-aged British women vs. every other demographic.) were racing through the 200-odd years of history on display in the state rooms to get to the dress exhibit.

This was the Queen’s 80th birthday, and in honor of the occasion, we got to see 80 dresses from her collection.  For whatever reason, they were principally arranged by color: the blue dresses here, the beige ones there, and the yellow ones over there.  You quickly realized that the Queen’s fashion sense hasn’t changed much over the years.  She’s apparently only had three or four main designers, and the only other information about the dresses on display were the years of creation.  So, quickly, the whole thing descended into a game of guessing the year of the dress based on the width of the waist.  Awful, I know.

If you have the chance, I do recommend a visit to the palace.  It’s not often that you get to see the inside of a real, working royal residence.  And, as soon as they fix the last bit of the roof at Windsor, it’s anybody’s guess if Charles will keep letting the rabble trapse through the throne room each year.

More info: Buckingham Palace


Open House London

September 17, 2006

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Every year in the Fall, the government offices and private clubs of London open their doors to the common rabble, who queue up in endless lines to catch a glimpse of a world normally hidden safely behind closed doors.  Museums open their workrooms, offices open their boardrooms, and government buildings open their staterooms.  This is Open House London.

The great news is that it’s free to anyone wanting to go.  The bad news is that everyone wants to go.  Still, with literally hundreds of buildings to choose from, you can usually find something interesting that doesn’t have a line that stretches from here to Afghanistan.

This year, Derek and I teamed up with our walking group to visit four historic buildings.  First up was Marlborough House, which is currently the headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat.  (Basically, a smaller-scale version of the UN for the 53 British Commonwealth nations.)  In previous years, the Christopher Wren-designed house was the home of royals and ex-royals, most notably the Dowager Queen Mary (widow of King George V).  It was here in the drawing room that her son, King Edward VIII confided to his mother his intention to marry Wallis Simpson and abdicate the throne.  Today, the drawing room is still there, but many of the other rooms have become offices.  What was once probably a ballroom now holds a long table, fitted out with international flags, and seating for 53 Commonwealth ambassadors.

Next up was the Argentine Consulate.  This was a nice enough space, a converted mansion in a prime location on Belgrave Square.  Oddly enough, for Open House weekend, the entire place had been taken over by various modern art installations.  There was a large inflated “blimp” that you could stick your head inside (via a velcro-sealable flap).  There was also a pitch-dark room filled with a scattering of chairs and sofas, with small speakers placed at ear-level.  From the speakers, you heard people whispering in your ear about their sexual fantasies.  Seriously.

Heading back over to the City, we came to the Vintners’ Hall.  This is a sort of private club that is part of the Vintners’ Company, which is essentially a lobbying group for the wine industry.  I’m a member of the Rainier Club in Seattle, and I can tell you that the interior of the Vintners’ Hall looked fairly similar (although obviously steeped in a lot more history).  The membership is mostly hereditary and limited to about 500 people, including Margaret Thatcher.

Lastly, we visited the Bank of England.  This is the English equivalent of the US Federal Reserve.  Unlike the other buildings we toured, here there were huge lines and metal detectors, and tour guides, and security guards.  You’re truly getting into a privileged place when you get in here.  Inside, there are courtyards and impossibly long stairwells. (The building looks to be only a few storeys tall from the outside, but actually sinks five or more storeys underground.)  There are also some absolutely breathtaking “meeting rooms” that are easily grander in scale and decoration than some of the rooms in Buckingham Palace.  I can’t imagine working here day in and day out.  Do the gilt ceilings and the Thomas Chippendale chairs and the Grinling Gibbons fireplaces ever get boring, I wonder?

When the Bank isn’t open for visitors (ie: the other 363 days out of the year), you can still visit a small museum about the history of the British pound, and the role the Bank of england plays in the international economy.  I know, that sounds dead boring, but there is a real solid gold bar you can hold in your hands (through a glovebox, with an armed guard standing next to you), and the history of the design of the money is  pretty interesting.

More info: Open House London


Reading (Redux)

September 10, 2006

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It’s official: Derek and I moved to Reading.  I guess this blog should no longer be called “A Yank in London”, but I haven’t gotten around to changing it yet.  The truth of the matter is that I kind of hope we move back.  Nothing against Reading, but it’s a pretty boring town.  I thought that wouldn’t matter much because I never seemed to get out much in London anyway.  Mostly, I just stuck to the two blocks between our apartment and Paddington Station.  But, like they say, you never realize what you’ve got until it’s gone.  Maybe I never went out, but it was nice to know I could’ve if I’d wanted to.  In Reading, you don’t have the choice.  So, stay tuned.


Hampton Court Palace

August 20, 2006

If you’ve never seen the film Anne of the Thousand Days, you should go out and rent it (or stay in and add it to your Nexflix queue).  The 1969 film is about the brief reign of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIIIGenevive Bujold plays Anne, Richard Burton plays Henry, and Anthony Quayle plays Cardinal Wolsey, the senior Church official in England at the time.

By all historical accounts, Wolsey was a master diplomat.  Rumor had it that he was aiming to become Pope.  But, everything changed when Anne entered the picture.  At the time, Henry VIII was already married to Catherine of Aragon, but Catherine had a problem bearing healthy children (5 out of 6 died in infancy; the survivor was Mary I).  Henry was already having affairs, but without a male heir from Catherine, he turned his attention full-time to Anne Boleyn.  Anne was, by all indications, a savvy politico in her own right who often used her gender to gain the upper hand with men who underestimated her. 

Back to the movie…  Anne, Henry and Wolsey are taking a stroll and Anne tells a story about her girlfriends playing a “game of titles”.  While she insisted that the king had more titles and land than the cardinal, her “friends” weren’t so sure.  She lists off the myriad orders and honors bestowed upon Wolsey as well as his large array of opulent palaces.  Wolsey, of course begs off, telling the king “Everything of mine is yours my lord.”  And, without missing a beat, Anne turns to him and says, “We’d rather like to see your palace at Hampton Court.”

It probably didn’t happen like that in real life, but the fact remains that Wolsey “gave” his most luxurious palace to Henry VIII in 1528.  It probably had more to do with the fact that Wolsey wanted to keep the king happy while he was failing in his diplomatic task of securing Henry’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon.  Within the next five years, the Pope refused the divorce; Henry essentially fired Wolsey, married Anne anyway, got excommunicated from the Catholic Church and then turned around and created his own church (the Anglican Church of England) instead.  And, if you want to see a movie about all of that, go rent A Man for All Seasons, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1966.

Walking around Hampton Court today, it’s easy to forget that all this went on nearly 500 years ago.  What you see there now is a meticulously preserved palace surrounded by some of the most beautiful gardens outside of Versailles (including arguably the most famous hedge maze in the world).  Of course, it’s changed quite a lot since the days of Henry VIII.  Each successive king and queen has built, demolished and rebuilt large portions of the palace.  For the past 200 years, many of the rooms were converted into “grace-and-favour” apartments for friends and associates of the royal family.  In 1986, some of the most historically important rooms (including the King’s Apartments) were destroyed by fire.  Luckily for us, a full restoration was completed in 1995, and the palace has never looked better.

More info: Hampton Court Palace


Edinburgh Fringe Festival

August 14, 2006

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I’m not sure if it was by design or just a happy accident, but our visit to Edinburgh coincided with the famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Lots of cities have “fringe festivals” these days. Usually, they feature an assortment of painfully wretched theatre and dance “performances” that feel so far off-Broadway that you wonder if they’re from another planet. If you’ve ever had to sit through a university drama major’s senior final project, then you know what I’m taking about. But, the Edinburgh Fringe is different.

Far from being a small batch of “underground” performances, the Edinburgh festival dominates the entire town for a solid week. Every available theatre, bar, loft, spare room and garden shed is rented out for performances. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Edinburgh had more theatre seats than New York City during this two-week festival.

The catalog of events describes literally hundreds of performances, ranging from Shakespeare to stand-up. Yes, there are some awful-sounding “performance art” pieces in there, but the emphasis here is on comedy. That’s what really sets this festival apart. And, as a result, Edinburgh has become the make-or-break venue for every aspiring British comedian or comedy writer for the past ten years. A good review here can launch you into your own TV sitcom.

I wish I could’ve spent more time here, checking out more of the shows, but as we were only in Edinburgh for the weekend, we settled on four.

First up was a play called The Gaydar Diaries. I have to be honest here. We were both expecting it to be awful, and our main reason for seeing it was the hope that the hunky shirtless guy on the poster was featured in the play. Terrible, I know. As it turned out, the poster boy wasn’t in the show, but it didn’t matter because, to the entire audience’s surprise, the play was actually good.

Gaydar.co.uk is Britain’s premier “dating” website for gay men. Of course, by “dating” I mean “chatting online and arranging to meet up for casual sex”. It sounds simple (and more than a little sleazy), but the reality is more complicated than you’d expect, and the play relentlessly mocks the (usually disappointing) experience.  My favorite bit was a recurring joke: “…meanwhile, on Gaydar Antarctica…” Cut to a lone scientist in a giant fur-lined parka, sitting at his icy computer, typing “Hellooo?  Hellooo?” in a futile attempt to meet someone at the South Pole.  Eventually, the only other gay man in Antarctica invites him to chat, and the response is, “Ugh, not you again!”

Our second show was called Die Clatterschenkenfietermaus vs. Malcom & Miriam.  No, I’m not making that up.  Earlier in the day, we saw a guy (one of the dozens handing out fliers for shows) holding a sign that begged, “See Germany’s worst pop band tonight!”  And really, who can turn down an offer like that?  What we got was a two-part comedy act that echoed elements of two great Saturday Night Live sketches: Sprockets and The Culps.  The idea was that Die Clatterschenkenfietermaus (gibberish German, if you’re wondering) is a legit German new-wave duo that can’t get it’s own time slot at the festival, so it has to share billing with Malcom & Miriam who are essentially bad motivational speakers (they have a Powerpoint presentation) on the subject of love and relationships.  And all four people are played by the same two guys.  If you’re thinking this sounds painfully bad, you’d be right… under normal circumstances.  But, here at the festival, in a  claustrophobic room-above-the-bar-turned-theatre, it wasn’t half bad.  There were even hecklers.

Unfortunately, there were no hecklers at the only actual stand-up comedy show we watched.  There wasn’t much of an audience, period.  The show was called Bent Double, and featured three gay (mostly lesbian) comics.  For some bizarre reason, this show was held not in a club or cabaret setting, but in a small theatre.  And, even though it was midnight on a Friday, only about seven people showed up.  The emcee for the evening (lesbian again) did her best to try to liven things up, but it was really a lost cause.  As each successive comedian came out to tell their stories and jokes, the audience sat there completely unmoved.  The jokes weren’t bad; they just weren’t very funny.  In a room full of 100 people, you could expect a smattering of laughs from some part of the audience at least some of the time.  But, with only seven people, the silences get a lot more pronounced.

I really can’t remember when I’ve spent so much time notlaughing at something that was supposed to be funny.  I mean, it’s one thing to see an un-funny movie where there’s a celluloid barrier between you and the actors on the screen.  After all, Tom Green and Pauly Shore will go on doing their lame shtick whether you laugh or not.  But, when it’s just you and a live comedian, standing four feet in front of you, and you can see the sweat dripping off her forehead as she realizes this is the third joke in a row that’s bombed… well, as an audience member, you just feel uncomfortable.  You kind of wish a polite way existed to say, “Really, if you’d rather just cut your act short, it’s okay with us.  You don’t have to torture yourself like this.”  Things weren’t helped by the fact that the stone-faced silence from the audience was intermittently interrupted by loud rock music seeping through the walls of the theatre next door.  Faced with the competition from the unseen metal band on the one hand, and the barely-there audience on the other, one performer lost her train of thought, took forever trying to remember where her humorous anecdote was going, and eventually gave up and walked off stage half way through her act.  Sad, yes, but unfortunately not as much as if she had stayed there.

Finally, for our forth and last show, Derek and I chose someone we knew would be dependable, because we’d seen him before.  This was drag artist Joey Arias, who’s probably best known as the emcee for the “adult” Cirque du Soliel show Zumanity in Las Vegas.  In the Vegas show, Arias appears as a stout leather-bound drag-queen dominatrix version of Joel Grey’s creepy androgynous emcee from the musical Cabaret.  But in the Edinburgh show, Strange Fruit, Arias had a slightly softer look, and performed an absolutely spot-on vocal impression of an older Billie Holiday (after the drugs kicked in in the 1950s).  He says he’s “channelling” her, whatever that means.  I’m pretty sure it involves studying endless hours of video and audio recordings.  In any case, the result is pretty amazing.  It’s also a little disconcerting, hearing Billie Holiday’s voice coming out of a 6-foot tall white man in drag.  But even the hand and body movements are those of Lady Day.  And, just to let you know he’s not lip-synching, Arias drops a few “extra-naughty” lyrics in here and there.  In all, it was a great way to end the festival.

More info: The Edinburgh Fringe Festival


Edinburgh

August 13, 2006

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The first time I’d ever heard of Edinburgh was when I was in grade school.  It’s the setting for the opening scenes of one of my favorite movies, 1959’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring James Mason and Pat Boone.  In the film, Edinburgh is a picturesque city where cobble-stoned streets lined with stately stone-clad buildings wind around hills, capped-off with a medieval castle.

And, 47 years later, I’m happy to report that not much has changed.  They have Starbucks now, of course, but otherwise it’s still as beautiful as it was in the film. 

Getting here, however, was another story.  Being Americans, our instinct was to fly up.  It’s about the same distance as the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and it takes about 4 hours by train from London Euston Station, or about 1.5 hours by plane from London City Airport.  The plane should be faster, no?  Well, as it turns out, the answer is no.

First, you have to be at the airport 2 hours before your flight leaves, and getting to the airport involves an additional 1/2 hour commute.  Then there’s the 1/2 hour you spend in baggage claim on the other end, gazing intently at the non-moving carousel, willing it to spring into action.  After you survive the rugby-style scrum and retrieve your bags, there’s the additional 1/2 hour taxi ride into town.  So that 1.5 hours on the plane is really 5 solid hours of trip time.  And, by the time you get to your destination, your friend who took the train has already checked into the hotel and had a 30 minute massage at the spa.

Or , that would’ve been the case, except when Derek and I got to the airport, we noticed something odd.  Everyone was carrying plastic bags from the Daily Mail.  What was this?  A free giveaway?  A promotional tie-in?  And, what’s with all the cops carrying machine guns?

We were handed a hastily-printed leaflet which informed us that due to that morning’s terror alert (which of course we hadn’t heard about until we got to the airport, given that we left home at the crack of dawn), all carry-on luggage was now banned.  To put it nicely, Derek was not amused.  He needed to work on his computer during the flight, and now we were not being allowed so much as a crossword puzzle.

While Derek was silently fuming, a team of French TV journalists came up and asked us what we thought.  Derek, of course, launched into some restrained American outrage about business travellers not being able to work on the plane, while I just rhetorically asked what women were going to do without access to all the crap they keep in their purses.  On a more personal note, I also wasn’t happy about carrying around free advertising for the Daily Mail.

The flight itself was uneventful (that is, once it got off the ground after several hours’ delay).  It was also extra-boring.  There are only so many times you can read the in-flight magazine before losing consciousness.  But, it was all worth it (at least that’s what I keep telling myself) once we saw Edinburgh.  It really is a beautiful city. 

First, there’s Edinburgh Castle, perched atop a hill overlooking the center of town.  It’s exactly the type of medieval castle you think of when you think of medieval castles.  Inside the castle lie the Scottish crown jewels (which sound far more impressive than they actually are).  There are also a few period rooms, including the old military jail (complete with hidden-speaker sound-effects of murmuring guards and clanking shackles).  There’s a deafening 25-pound gun they fire every day at one o’clock.  And finally, there’s the amazing view (see picture above).

Further down the road sits Holyrood Palace.  Once upon a time, it was home to all the kings and queens of Scotland.  Now, of course, it’s home to Queen Elizabeth II… for one week a year.  The rest of the time, it’s a museum, roughly the same size and scale as Kensington Palace in Hyde Park.  The ruined abbey clinging to the back is it’s most spectacular feature.  Sadly, the rest of the palace is upstaged by the uber-modern Scottish Parliament building across the street.

On the other side of the huge ravine that divides Edinburgh in two is the Georgian part of town.  Here, the narrow, winding cobble-stone streets give way to large tree-lined boulevards.  The quaint ye-olde-shoppes become designer-label boutiques.  And the museums are preserved specimens of enormous Georgian mansions.

Derek and I visited one of them.  We had to.  Shortly after we moved here, we purchased a joint membership to the National Trust.  Every historical house in Britain was now at our disposal.  And, how many had we visited?  Zero.  So really, we couldn’t afford to pass this one up.

It was a handsome house, complete with most of the original period furnishings.  Every room was tended to by middle-aged docents who seemed to know the history of every speck of dust in the place.  In the dining room were original copies of period newspapers that you could paw through (never mind the gloves), including one that detailed the storming of the Bastille, and the fledgling government of the former American colonies, led by some guy named Washington.

But, more than any of these individual tourist traps, Edinburgh is just a cool city to hang out in.  It’s scenic, steeped in history and beautifully maintained.  Edinburgh is also home to several of the greatest theatre and comedy festivals in the world.  And, we were lucky enough to be there for the best of the best: the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  All about that next…

More info: Edinburgh


Blackpool Pleasure Beach (Part 5)

July 2, 2006

Aside from the beach itself, the casinos, the “family” bars, the “rock” candy, the Tower and the various other tourist traps, Blackpool is also known for live entertainment.  Specifically, old-school vaudevillian entertainment of the type that you’re unlikely to ever see in America (outside of Branson, Missouri anyway).

There’s the usual staple of aging stand-up comics who would probably be working resorts in the Catskills if thay had been born on the other side of the Atlantic.  There’s an oddly popular female-impersonator show called Funny Girls.  And, Blackpool Pleasure Beach offers it’s own selection of not one, but three shows for the whole family.

There’s Hot Ice, which is a Vegas-style (we’re talking Downtown Vegas here) show featuring scantily-clad showgirls on ice skates.  There’s Mystique, which is essentailly the same thing, minus the ice.  And, then there’s Eclipse, which is basically their attempt at doing Cirque du Soleil.

“A stunning circus musical”  is how they describe it.  Well, there was music, and there were circus jugglers, and I was stunned (in the “set phasers to…” sense of the word).  So, I guess it delivered, technically speaking.  But, Cirque du Soleil, it ain’t.

They’re really trying, and I give them credit for that, but the result is what you’d get if a travelling Cirque show (say, Quidam) had lost all of it’s drama, most of its talent, and only had $1.95 for sets, and three laser-pointers for lighting.  Oh, and a broken gas pipeline, capable of emitting enormous fireballs at the finish of each “act”.  And, there you have it.

The “acts” are the standard Cirque fare: tumblers, acrobats, aerialists, trapeze artists, and one of those guys who stands in a big metal hoop and can spin around the stage like a quarter on a tabletop.  As in Cirque, there are “clowns” who are mainly there to distract the audience while the trampolines and whatnot are brought out or put away.  In this case though, the “clowns” didn’t do any tricks or try to make us laugh.  They just did a sort of odd jazz-dance routine, which you could tell by the looks on their faces, they weren’t enjoying.  Jazz-hands, spirit-fingers, and a look that said, “Yes, we know this is the lamest show on the planet, and we’re very sorry you have to sit through it.  We’re not this lame in real-life, honestly.  Please don’t throw things at us.”

Sadly, we only saw half the show.  As we took our seats, we were informed over the loudspeaker that, “Due to injuries sustained during rehearsals, Vladimir will not be appearing in today’s performance.”  Who’s Vladimir, you ask?  Only the producer/director/star of the show!  He’s the one on the poster, in the acrobatic pose, wearing only a thong.  Apparently, when he’s not down for the count, he’s flying over heads of the audience, suspended on ropes, the thong within whiffing distance.

The (mostly female) crowd seemed genuinely disappointed.  And, rather than call up an understudy (“Nobody could possibly understudy for Vladimir!” I hear his fans shouting.), they just skipped over his act.  Never mind that part he’s supposed to play in the finale, when the cast all point in awe to an empty spotlight that I’m pretty sure was supposed to be for him.  Oh well.  The show must go on… even if it makes no sense.

More info: Blackpool Pleasure Beach