A Nostalgic Visit To London
Copyright Vladimir Kagan, November 17, 2015
How does one describe a week in London, overshadowed by the recent tragedies in Paris?
Friday the 13th took on new meaning. The shock waves arrived at a quiet dinner in an unprepossessing Indian restaurant. The appalling news came via America. Billy, Jessica’s husbands called to ask “have you heard?” Once we turned on the ‘Telli’, the information flow went viral. CNN is macabre news reporting machine thriving on calamity. Their talking heads keep repeating their doomsday harangue none-stop. My mother used to call it “oral diarrhea.” Thank you CNN – I am brainwashed.
But the subject of this Blog is Good Old London
My sister Tanya had lived there for twenty-six years. It was Erica’s and my second home for years. We both have mutual friends. This was a good opportunity to make a nostalgic visit before the Thanksgiving to Christmas holiday madness, when all our families take off in different directions.
First impression: Nothing has changed. London is still a fuddy-duddy town. The plumbing is predictably archaic. After theater restaurants close their kitchens a mere thirty minutes after the last curtain fall. Traffic comes at you from the wrong direction. Colossal traffic jams are endemic with Über cruisers cluttering the streets. When Obama comes to New York, a few lanes of Park Avenue are temporarily closed; when Mr. Mondi, India’s Prime Minister, comes to London the entire town grinds to a halt.
That being said, the people are unchanged - lovable and friendly. An English Pub lunch is still the best bargain in town and a pint of bitters goes hand in glove with a ‘Steak and Kidney Pie’.
Jessica photographing our delicious pub lunch complete with pork-backs and other munchies. A half pint of bitters never tasted better with a steaming steak pie
Joe, Tanya's savvy driver
Joe has been Tanya’s driver for years. He knows the town like the palm of his hand. He wove us through back alleys and muses, barely wide enough for one car at a time and managed to thread us though London’s endemic bottlenecks.
London weather is always predictable, if the sky is sunny in the morning, rains showers are sure to follows. The weatherman can never go wrong forecasting “showers with intervals of sunshine.” With Daylight Savings time, darkness descends early. To compensate for this, the town is brightly lit with dazzling Christmas lights. You’d think the holiday was next week not next month. Harrods is a gingerbread house lit by garlands of twinkling lights, not just for Christmas, but also year-round. It screams, “Buy – buy – buy.”
My old friend, David Suratgar, as chipper as ever
The Westbury Hotel in Mayfair was perfectly located for the ladies to go shopping and me to visit the galleries around the corner. Gracious top-hatted doormen who can conjure up a taxi in minutes guard the Hotel entrance.
The hotel is home to a superb little Japanese restaurant, Tsukiji Sushi, which can hold its own against any fancy eatery in town. I made the mistake of dropping in at lunchtime with a visiting friend from Belgium, only to be turned away by a supercilious maitre D’ asking if I had a reservation – “DON’T YOU KNOW IT’S LUNCH TIME? WE ARE FULLY BOOKED!” who would have guessed!
However, everything in life has a purpose and we ventured into a most discreet restaurant decorated with wine bottles in glass coolers reaching from floor to the ceiling. The décor was subtle with the rich wood paneling finished in a deep shade of rosewood. Polite waiters and waitresses escorted you to your choice of tables. There were plenty of tables to choose from, as the only visible patrons were two tables with elegant Chinese patrons. We needed no reservation. It was so expensive that no self-respecting English man could afford it. The food was superb. Every dish was brought to the table with a prepared script recited by the wait-staff. It was worth the price of admission. The restaurant: Alyn Williams of Bond Street.
Our hotel had recently embarked on a modernization program– a big mistake. The original rooms had an old world charm, a little shabby gentility but lots of closets, old fashioned bathrooms, ample lighting with crystal lamps and silk shades, drapes reminiscent of a Fortuny print. By contrast, the remodeled rooms were ‘moderne’ decorated with mirrors and inadequate lighting, bathrooms were fitted with the latest ‘English‘ toilets, (they were antediluvian) bathtubs with glass shower doors that only partially enclosed the tub so they permitted water to soak the towels, clothing and flood the floor (there were no hooks to hang anything). The Brits are talented designers when working in the genre of Christopher Wren, but fail miserably when it come to modern.
Finally –Architecture: London has radically changed, not for the better. Monstrous shards of glimmering glass reach into the overcast skies. It is a litmus paper for the experimental flim-flam by the world’s leading architects. Norman Foster’s ‘Gherkin’ is no longer the tallest oddity on the horizon, but still looks like a pickle. Much of the architecture borders on weird – modern is not an English idiom.
Having moaned so seriously about my beloved England, there continues to be one praiseworthy constant, the LONDON TAXI! They are the best in the world – both vehicles and drivers! It takes three years of studious studying to pass the test; the drivers are responsible for their car’s appearance so they are meticulously clean. The cars can turn on a dime, the passenger cab is commodious with jump seats to accommodate the four passenger legal limit but there is room for more. The luggage space is generous and accommodates my walker, my wheel chair and four pieces of luggage. Handicap access is thoughtful with handgrips at every possible location. Finally, the passenger entrance provides a retractable platform for wheelchair access. There is one caveat: THEY ARE STAGGERINGLY EXPENSIVE!!!
Highlights of the week:
• We were invited to Christies Auction House to watch a sale of ‘Chinese Jades and Bronzes’ selling at extravagant prices, all to Chinese bidders on the phone.
All the audience was Chinese except for a handful of visitors
• A visit to the new Carpenters Workshop Gallery on Albemarle Street featured one of my Serpentine sofas. In the spring they will be launching my limited edition bronze furniture (See a preview of the designs in my new book VLADIMIR KAGAN on page 240 - 241)
My Serpentine Sofa is in good company with a Wendell Castle chair and lighting by Nacho Carbonell
• While Jessica and my sister went shopping and did their cultural thing by visiting the Ai Weiwei one-man exhibition at the Royal Academy, I perused showrooms and vintage galleries that featured my designs. It was fun walking in unannounced and discussing the authenticity of my designs.
• There were endless teas and dinners with old friend. One noteworthy discovery was a small Italian restaurant run by a bevy of adorable Italian daughters called ‘Pizzicotta’ in Kensington on High Street.
• A delightful lunch with Zaha Hadid in her new Gallery at 101 Goswell Rd, her private museum until she can move it into the abandoned London Design Museum she had purchased a few years ago. The Gallery is a collection of her far-reaching diverse work. There were exquisite models of her newest buildings, (Buck Roger’s dream cities from the 50s come to life), her unique sculptured furniture, cars, boats, shoes, handbag – Zaha leaves nothing untouched. Each item bears her unique signature style. Zaha is a genius.
A jovial lunch with Zaha and a selfie by Jessica
test-driving one of Zaha's sofas or is it a love-seat?
Zaha's Louis Vuitton handbag
A concept car and the staircase in Zaha's gallery
A display of Zaha's high-rise building concepts
This a "molten glass table" carved in clear acrylic
A concept model for an architectural sculpture
Me telling Zaha that she should make her seating more comfortable - ha ha!
• A visit to Wallpaper Magazine, who likes my work and me. Their creative director Sarah Douglas is as pretty as she is bright. Look for future collaborations.
• Commuting toward the eastern reaches of London is quickest done by boat. A half hour high-speed ferry up (or is it down) the Thames to the Isle of Dogs.
We were invited for an English tea by our friends Michael and Jenny Barracloughs. Though Michael is a medical doctor, he has a dual degree in architecture and has spent most of his life dedicated to turning the Isle of Dogs from a wasteland into an attractive habitable place. There are low-rise residential buildings occupied by young families and often their parents who were the original occupants of the island.
Michael has made certain that not all the island be built on and managed to preserve 60 acres of land for a park not devoted to Cricket Pitches, but to a working farm for city kids to feel and enjoy the county. Some 50 years ago, when Michael and Jenny built their cantilevered house over the Thames opposite Greenwich, they were the only occupants on the island.
The view from Jenny and Michael's house: Greenwich and the Cutty Sark
Michael and Jessica standing in front of a World War II Ack-ack gun that helped save most of London from the German bombings.
Jenny and me clowning around at tea - I'm trying on one of her exotic necklaces as a head decoration
• No trip to London is complete without Jessica perusing the Portobello Market. She chose a rainy Saturday to discover hidden treasures. Rain obviously doesn’t deter the English – the market was filled to the hilt.
Farewell at the Westbury -Tanya and 'Issy' her friend - Joe our driver, and the friendly top-hatted doorman
The week evaporated into a kaleidoscope of events. Now back in New York I’m trying to decipher them for your entertainment.