Yes, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted. I’m just back from a week in London.
I first visited London in 1972, spending 3 or 4 weeks with a friend, seeing as many bands as possible. I returned in 1984 with my first wife, doing all the standard sightseeing stuff.
In the early 90s, I worked for Barclays and ended up spending a significant time working in London. I had a girlfriend in London for awhile, a beautiful and dangerous punk poetess who damned near psychologically killed me. My boss at Barclays tried to relocate me there, an opportunity I would have eagerly embraced, but it was not to be.
In the 00′s, my work at Warner brought me there several times. But it’s been at least 5 or 6 years since my last visit. This trip was related to a short term IT consulting contract I’ve picked up – several meetings plus the opportunity to photograph a business conference.
My hotel was in Islington, an area I’ve never been to before that I quite liked. A ton of international restaurants and pubs, a small shopping mall and a relatively central location that meant I could get everywhere else I wanted to get to relatively quickly. I arrived very early Sunday morning (flight landed at Heathrow just before 5 AM). I was really hungry (because the food on BA economy is seriously horrendous) but found that nothing was open around there at 7 AM – except Starbucks so my breakfast was there.
It was a beautiful sunny day and so I went to Camden Market, a place I haven’t been to possibly in decades. I walked around and got sick. Seriously. I had my winter coat and soon found a wool cap and gloves at one of the shops but by then perhaps it was too late, or perhaps I was just susceptible being tired from the long flight.
Most of what’s in Camden might remind HKers of Temple Street or Ladies Market. It seemed that mostly people were selling t-shirts – rock, goth and Banksy. Lots of shops with the usual knock-off Beats headphones and zippo lighters and tacky London souvenirs. I saw better, more interesting things, inside some of the market buildings, but nothing that I wanted to buy. Except for the food. Food stalls everywhere with an amazing array of international treats, all at low prices. My original intention was to find a pub but eventually I couldn’t resist the stuff in the stalls. There was this guy carving up an entire roast pig – he told me it had been a free range pig from a farm in Sussex – served on a bun with apple sauce, sweet and hot chili and rocket, I almost asked for a second one. But then I spotted a stand making fresh churros, filling them with caramel and chocolate, so that decision was made for me.
Back to the hotel, my few purchases in hand, and the beginnings of a severe cold. It was even colder at night and, maybe because I was getting sick, I found myself wanting comfort food. There was a branch of a burger chain called Byron right near the hotel, Time Out said it was pretty good, so I went there. It was okay. Burger was big, lots of choices of toppings, tasty enough but just okay.
Yeah, I woke up sick. Crap. I stayed in the hotel until it was time for my meetings. I had a bit of time to kill after that. Somehow I managed to get completely turned around on Oxford Street before heading into Soho. I walked down Carnaby Street and was completely shocked to find out that it was now nothing but global chain stores. It had morphed into a complete tourist trap. Oh, there was a pop up Rolling Stones store there. I went inside, browsed, bought nothing.
Then I went over to this hotel called the Courthouse to meet a friend. Apparently this really was a courthouse before it was a hotel, and it had a bar in the area that used to be the prison. I spent a couple of hours there with an old friend, drinking tea. Really.
Stopped off at a Boots (the London version of Watsons or Mannings) to load up on cold medicine. I have no recollection of what, if anything, I had for dinner that night.
Up early, suit on, camera in hand, over to the conference. I shot for around an hour but it wasn’t pleasant. Sneezing, runny nose, coughing, and I soon realized that it probably wasn’t a good idea for me to be in a crowded area infecting a thousand other people. So I gave up.
I went to a kebab shop. Had to have a real kebab instead of the crap that most of the HK places offer. This was just your ordinary, chosen at random, tiny shop and for the same price as Ebeneezers got something about 4 times the size with about 27.3 times the flavor.
More IT meetings in the afternoon that I coughed and sneezed my way through. Despite being sick, Tuesday night was going to be my one opportunity to meet photographer Kevin Westenberg, an opportunity that I was not about to pass up. (Kevin is an American based in London for more than 30 years and he’s shot almost every band that matters – Zeppelin, Arctic Monkeys, Nick Cave, Coldplay, Paul Weller; his current obsession is a singer well worth recommending, Jake Bugg.) (I remember when I came across a photo he shot of Scott Walker in 2006, I asked him if I could have his life.)
I got to Soho way too early, hit a couple of record shops and then took refuge in a place called Yum Chaa. From the name, I thought it was going to be a dim sum place but it turned out to be a hipster tea shop, with about 37 types of tea and some cakes and scones and stuff. Then Kevin and I met up in a restaurant specializing in soba and udon and talked for a few hours. He had an interesting perspective on the state of the photography business, at least the corner of it that he’s in. The virtual collapse of the music industry means there’s less money to be made and smaller budgets for shooting – but creativity trumps all, just check his recent Jake Bugg photos.
By now I’m completely sick. I don’t think I’ve got any fever but I’m otherwise feeling at death’s door. Back to Boots for more drugs, one IT meeting during the day, and otherwise spending the day in bed. Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t put more videos onto my laptop. My hotel room’s TV has 17 channels. One seems to have nothing but reruns of Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Two seem to be running constant adverts for Jersey Boys. Another one seems to be 24 hours a day of Adam Richman’s Man vs. Food. As a result, I spend too much time playing Fieldrunners 2 on my iPad. For dinner I want something hot and there’s a branch of Wagamama right near the hotel so I go there for a steaming bowl of ramen.
My cold is starting to subside but I’m feeling weak. One meeting in the morning, one in the afternoon. Lunch is at a nearby branch of Indian chain Masala Zone. Their big thing is thali but I choose something simpler and smaller from the set lunch menu. They’re kind of fusion-y with their Indian food, at least the stuff I order, but it’s tasty and filling and the price is right.
My buddy Luke (aka The Fat Photographer) agrees to come and meet near my hotel. We go to a nearby pub where I start out on tea but soon move to cider. Magner’s Irish Cider, to be precise – spiced apple with honey to be even more precise. This was a splendid beverage. Can it be found in Hong Kong?
It’s my last day so of course my cold is starting to subside. No meetings today, I have the day to myself. I head back to the same pub from the night before and have maybe the best pie I’ve ever had in my life for lunch – steak and mushroom sauce, the pie had this amazing light flaky top, served with mashed potatoes and a great salad, for under 10 pounds. I know it’s a thing that the day of the independent pub in Britain seems to be gone and this one was part of the Nicholson’s Pubs chain, but jeez, the place looked like a proper British pub, they seemed to have at least 20 beers on tap (even San Miguel – I spotted someone drinking a bottle of Sol, god only knows why, I suppose it’s seen as an exotic import there?), the food was fabulous and relatively cheap, I didn’t mind it at all.
I’d thought I might spend the afternoon in a museum – perhaps the Tate Britain or Tate Modern – but at the last minute thought I’d just do a bit of touristy walking around. It had been 30 years since I’d visited any of the tourist spots and I was in a mood to see them again, so first a walk around the Tower of London and Tower Bridge and then a walk around Parliament and Westminster.
On my way back to the hotel, when I went to turn in my Oyster card at the Tube station, the guy there acted as if no one had ever done that before. He wanted me to show a picture ID and proof of address, apparently to prove that I hadn’t stolen the card from someone. It then took him 15 minutes of typing away at a computer, touching the card to a terminal 38 times and printing out a yard of receipts for me to get back my 5 pound deposit and the few pounds of stored value remaining on the card.
Back at the hotel, there were no taxis to be had. They called a mini-cab for me. A Mercedes Benz showed up. ”That’s a hell of a mini-cab,” I said to the driver. I told him I was going to the Heathrow Express train and he told me he’d heard it wasn’t running that day. Was he trying to push me to have him drive me all the way to the airport? Wasn’t going to happen. He called someone, talked for a few moments, then told me okay, it’s running, just congested. When I got to Paddington Station, it was of course running just fine and dandy.
So that was pretty much my trip. Mostly spent being sick in my hotel room.
I love London. I still wish I had moved there back in ’92. And it seemed actually improved over my past few visits. It seemed more open, more friendly, more multi-cultural. Not to mention all of the choices that a city like London provides – music, shows, museums – none of which I took advantage of during this short trip. I find myself still wanting to live there.
I know that despite going there for 40 years, I’m seeing it from a tourist perspective. One hears about this issue and that issue, but I’m not confronted by those everyday realities on short visits. It’s the way tourists see New York, the place I’m from and have no desire to return to.
Or maybe it’s just my current pessimism about Hong Kong. Not having a full time job, dealing with the increasing China-fication here … well, I always get this feeling when I return from a trip to a place I like. A feeling of, “I’d rather be anywhere than here.” Except wherever you go, there you are.
Photos? Kind of random, I’m afraid, as I was too cold to take anything other than quick snapshots walking around. But here’s a few.
Let’s start with the kebab. Here’s the “small” chicken kebab I got:
All of that was around 5 pounds. Just goes to show what good food can cost when you’re not being raped by your landlord. (Did you see that thing last week that some Hong Kong restaurants are actually upset that they got Michelin stars because they figure it means their rents will go up?)
Here’s a shot of that pie:
A Chinese restaurant in Camden:
A restaurant called Hong Kong in Camden:
No, it’s not all food-related shots, here’s “Evil From The Needle”:
Carnaby Street, brought to you by the Rolling Stones:
Wanchai Corner, in London’s Chinatown:
Maybe the best of my touristy walking around shots (haven’t really looked at all of them yet):
And that’s about it. I’m home. Job interview Monday. Seeing The Hobbit in IMAX 3D on opening day. Shooting headshots for a client on Thursday. Shooting an Underground show on Saturday.
And don’t forget, this Friday, Open Show launches in Hong Kong at PASM. Here’s the Facebook event page.
It’s free and it’s going to be fabulous – come check it out!