I think London will always be my favorite tourist destination. I stand in solidarity with Samuel Johnson who said, “No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” But it’s not London’s many attractions that make me love it. It’s the fact that I don’t have to see any of them if I don’t want to. Let me backtrack. I’m an obsessive tourist. I do weeks of research before I go anyplace. Because if there is something famous or worth seeing and I miss it, well, I have to beat myself over the head with the thickest of the many guidebooks I bought for the destination. But London is different. I spent Junior year in college studying here — and visiting EVERY museum, every stretch of pavement that every famous English writer ever walked (with special attention to Dickens and Shakespeare), and every theater venue from mainstream to fringe. Then, not too many years later, I married an Englishman. We’ve visited London nearly every year for the last thirty years. So by now, I don’t believe there is anything worthwhile in London that I haven’t visited. Twice. Even three times. Okay, I haven’t been up the London Eye, but I don’t do heights. So now, when I go to London, I don’t have to rush around seeing all the important sights that subject you to shame if you miss them. Now I can just do The Hanging About Tour of London.
The Hanging About Tour is just what it sounds like. Somewhat aimless meandering with no particular objective. All it requires is a topped up Oyster Card for the Tube and a sense of adventure. On the Hanging About Tour, I might go to a museum or two. But since I’ve seen them all before, I mostly go to special exhibitions, nip in to see two or three of my favorite pieces of art, then leave. This trip I checked out the Museum of Natural History which I hadn’t seen for awhile. I ended up staying at that one for a few hours. I also found myself spending nearly six hours at the British Museum. I had planned just to pop in to pay my respects to Lindow Man and the Elgin Marbles, but ended up getting sidetracked by a special exhibit on the Greek concept of beauty.
I did hit a few more museums. I ran in to see my favorite Turners at the National Gallery. Then I did a whirlwind spin through the British art section to note how many Englishmen looked more comfortable being painted with their dogs and horses than with their families. See you can’t ponder these things if you are too busy trying to tick off every important masterpiece.
The Hanging About Tour involves a lot of just wandering around streets looking at things. In fact, if you are spending more time at museums than lollygagging in the streets, you aren’t doing it right.
Of course, in London, I’m always on the lookout for terriers. I can report that the Roman Britain rooms at the British Museum have a deplorable lack of terriers. Especially considering how many paragraphs Pliny the Elder spent describing the marvelous dogs of Britain — seen nowhere else — who went to ground. Surely someone has dug up a few statues of terriers in all these Romano-British villas they keep finding. Luckily the V&A did not disappoint.
One scheduled activity I do always fold into The Hanging About Tour is a London Walk, but only when led by the first and the original purveyor of same. I love them because the leaders are so passionate, knowledgeable and trivia-oriented. Many are professors, some are actors who will “perform” part of the tour. One memorable tour, Oscar Wilde’s London, is led by a guide who dresses as Oscar Wilde. On this visit, I opted for the Hidden Marylebone Tour. It included a brief foray into the Wallace Collection, not so much to see the art but to hear the scandals behind some of the acquisitions. For instance, the Prince Regent was having an affair with the wife of the Duke who would form the collection. So, in exchange, the future George IV gifted the Duke a portrait of his cast-off mistress — the one he dumped for the Duke’s wife — which is now a highlight of the collection. At the end of the tour, we moseyed on to Regent’s Park where we were treated to the guide’s personal diatribe against the oil rich Arabs who are buying up, but disrespecting, the stately Georgian villas that line the park.
The Hanging About Tour also allows for plenty of time relaxing at the hotel. I prefer the lovely Charlotte Street Hotel in trendy Fitzrovia.
Finally, no London trip, even a Hanging About trip is complete without the theater. I have a strict rule on London theater these days, nothing improving or challenging unless it’s Shakespeare. I opt strictly for the light and lively (Noel Coward, please), the big blockbusters that are prohibitively expensive in the U.S. but ridiculously reasonable in London, or something just plain fun. This round, I picked up one of the few touristy things I’ve never done in London (and I’m someone who’s been to Madame Tussaud’s and the Dungeon of London. Twice!)
My second theater choice ended up being a highlight of the trip: Kristin Scott Thomas playing Queen Elizabeth in The Audience. In it, the Queen, through the years with her dozen Prime Ministers, explores and solidifies her role and purpose through their weekly audiences. As a series of vignettes, out of chronological order, several points/propositions are made:
1. Listen to the fricken Queen! She’s seen governments come and go. In fact, a clever juxtaposition of Tony Blair arguing for joining the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq with Anthony Eden trying to put a good spin his Suez deception illustrates how history repeats itself. In one of the best lines, the Queen notes: “If you hang on long enough, you see the same men with the same justifications — just wearing different ties.”
2. The Queen may be a mother confessor. The audiences are in strictest confidence, not even to be shared with spouses. And the Queen is bound by law to support the Prime Minister publicly. So, the playwrite posits, a PM can tell her of his or her deepest fears — personal or parliamentary.
3. At least according to the playwright, her favorite PM might have been Yorkshire Labour Party leader Harold Wilson whom he has saying: “We’ll make a good revolutionary of you yet.” Her least favorite would be a tie between Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher with Thatcher having the slight edge.
But let’s not get too deep here, there were a lot of laughs and the cast included three Corgis.
So that, in short and in pictures, was my Hanging About Tour of London. I think, if I’m honest, the inestimable Calvin Trillin coined the term Hanging About Tour to describe his tendency to park his family in small French towns with nothing more cultural on the agenda than walking around, eating and playing foosball in neighborhood bars. But as you can see, Hanging About can be just as successfully accomplished in London.