Sunday, July 19, 2015

Causing Trouble in London

The Male Trailing Spouse at a book launch in Soho (June 2015)

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."


Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds (1775)

Samuel Johnson was right about England's capital city. But the learned man of letters forgot to mention one thing. London is probably one of the best cities in the world to commit murder, and get away with it. 


The Cow on Westbourne Park Road

So, with Jack the Ripper in mind, and exactly 4,204 miles distance from the wife, I met up with a couple of old chums at the Cow on Westbourne Park Road for a night on the ha-ha-ha. The Cow was first established as a pub in 1858 as "the Railway Tavern". In the 1980s, it was a spit and sawdust Irish boozer with a big picture of boxer Barry McGuigan above its long wooden bar. Then in 1992 Tom Conran, son of Sir Terence, bought the dilapidated public house. He changed its name to the Cow and reinvented the skanky old boozer as a shellfish and oyster pub for the Trustafarians of Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove. 

When I used to drink (2010)

I was always a bit leery of pissing it up in the Cow and much preferred the brackish watering holes of Portobello Road and Ladbroke Grove instead. However, during twelve years overseas as the Male Trailing Spouse, there have been changes galore in the old hunting ground. The Cock and Bottle, an independently run pub on Needham Road, is closed for refurbishment. And the addled scarlet faces of the locality are now lifting pints at the Kensington Park Hotel on Ladbroke Grove. Like so many other pubs in the area, the KPH is steeped in history most sordid. It was once the boozer of choice for British fascist leader Oswald Mosely and the infamous Notting Hill serial killer John Reginald Christie.


Jade Jagger: one of the incomers that fucked up Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove


But what is also funny about the Cow is the huge number of celebs who flock to its cramped saloon bar and dining room for a night on the tiles. My first celeb encounter in October 1996 was with Jade Jagger - daughter of Rolling Stones front man Mick and Bianca the model turned human rights activist. Jade had a bit of a tabloid rep in London as an expelled prep school girl and wild-child-teenage-bride. And she was not in her usual territory.  Chelsea had been her playground in the late Eighties. But here she was, on the razzle, in my upwardly mobile ghetto.  Right there and then, I knew that this was the beginning of the end for Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove.


Expensive in the Cow: a pint of Stella

Her rake thin and unattractive girlfriend knew my pal (a trustafarian musician) and they got to yakking about some posh fuckos whom I had never heard of. At the bar, Jade Jagger was fluttering her eyelashes at me. But this is how it plays in the big city. In Notting Hill, and London at large, it is best to jive cool with wanky celebs and their self important progeny. In other words, you must completely and utterly ignore their regal presence and act too cool for school. Ms. Jagger, for some impulsive and inexplicabe reason, poured her Diet Coke into my pint of Stella. I exploded at the rock brat, "Didn't your parents teach you any manners?" The pygmy sized beauty locked on with a gnarly glare. "You're too sarcastic... Don't get sarcastic with me... Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit." "My dear", I replied, "I save it for the lowest forms of life".  Ms. Jagger made no excuses and left the pub. 


Rhys Ifans exits the Cow 

The green leather chairs and barrel seats of the Cow attract movie stars and literary figures, too. One guy seen propping up the bar over the years is the loutish Welsh thespian Rhys Ifans. He famously portrayed the character of "Spike" in Notting Hill - an ethnically cleansed film (I.E. there were no black people in it) that contributed, in part, to the ruination of the neighborhood in the summer of 1999. Why Mr. Ifans would return to the scene of the crime is anybody's guess. And I am surprised that no one has bottled him. A lot of locals hate that shit film. Me included. On close observation in the saloon bar, Mr. Ifans always cuts a sad and lonely figure. Moody. Miserable. Crying into his pint. He is the worst kind of drunk and should probably check into rehab at the first convenience. 


Alan Rickman: Pisshead.

Another luvvie who likes to knock 'em back at the Cow is stage actor and Hollywood bad guy Alan Rickman. He don't look too good up close.  His face is all busted with spider veins and broken capillaries - telltale signs of excess boozing.  And every time he is in there Shakespeare Fuck keeps giving me funny looks and squinting at me with half recognition (maybe it's because I look a bit like him? I dunno.)  On another drunken afternoon in the Cow, this time with the wife, we spotted Irish-American writer Frank McCourt and companion (female). He is the Pulitzer Prize winning author - best remembered for two controversial memoirs about his childhood, Angela's Ashes and 'Tis. A writer pretty much cuts an anonymous figure in society at large. But, like Rickman the actor with the broken blood vessels, he kept looking at me like he knew me; or, perhaps, once knew some asshole who looked just like me. I get that a lot, you see. 


Tom Cruise and David Beckham at the Cow

But the latest celeb sighting at the Cow tops the lot of 'em. Luckily, me and the lads bagged a good corner table in the Cow under a picture of the prize winning Hereford bulls from 1948. I looked up from Beef and Guinness pie with suet crust on the menu at two glamorous looking figures approaching the "reserved" table right next to us in the dining area of the bar. It was Posh and Becks.  Beckham was wearing a brown suede flat cap and covered in crap tattoos. And though gorgeous in the black garbs of some amazing fashion house, Posh had a trashy looking fake tan and bad skin from wearing too much make up. 


David Beckham in BBC TV comedy show Only Fools and Horses

As said, the rule of the Hill is to play it cool and ignore the super-famous - whomever they may be.  The only people who showed Posh and Becks any interest were a group of grubby looking males sat beside them - a trio of ageing, mockney, wideboy types.  They engaged Beckham, much to the chagrin of pouting Posh, with footie talk and Arsenal's chances against Villa in the FA Cup Final (Arsenal later won 4-0). Beckham, the peoples' champion, diplomatically entertained the ruffians with soccer chat and game analysis. Posh scowled in silence throughout and, almost single handed, devoured a huge plateau of fruit de mers. When they finally left, I asked one of my pals: what were the Beckhams' doing in the Cow? "Slumming it," he replied.


My Mum: Gillian Reynolds of the Daily Telegraph

The following week was a big one in our house. My mother, the radio critic of the Daily Telegraph, was up for an award. Nigh time then to dust down the glad rags for a trip to the Geological Society in Piccadilly- the venue for the Voice of the Listener & Viewer Awards. It was an assembly of the great and the good. I met the Controller of BBC Radio 3. And the Controller of BBC Radio 4.  Professor Brian Cox, another winner, had an amusing story about being cautioned not to ask his American audience to "think"on the Discovery channel. After the awards, we took a late lunch at Fortnum and Mason over the road. I had not been to Fortnum's since I was 12. The last time I was there me and my younger brother caused a lot of trouble and almost got chucked out. 


Professor Christopher Benfrey

From Fortnum's, we marched up to Berkeley Square for a lecture about Rudyard Kipling, Teddy Roosevelt and the future of the American empire from Professor Christopher Benfrey, an entertaining and engaging academic from Mount Holyoke College in the USA. It was 150 years since Rudyard Kipling's birth... why was there no celebration of this at-all in the British media?  You couldn't move for the 150th of W.B. Yeats' birth (what with all the documentary series on BBC Radio) and he was an Irishman who believed in fairies. The learned American academic talked about the friendship between Roosevelt and Kipling, and how politician and poet bonded over deforestation and its threat to the American beaver. “There is only one thing more startling than the noiselessness of a tiger in the jungle,” wrote Kipling in 1899, “and that is the noiselessness of a beaver in the water.”


Teddy Roosevelt: bear hunter

Unlike Professor Brian Cox, Professor Benfrey ended his lecture with a question for the audience of American expats - what is to be the future of the American empire: the responsible beaver or the marauding bear? After his talk, Professor Benfrey chatted about the death of humanities subjects in modern American universities. Too many students were majoring in Economics and Business studies, too few in subjects like English and Philosophy. He mentioned a colleague, an Economics master, who advised students to take a few humanities subjects so that "they would have something to talk about at dinner parties." I pointed out that humanities students were under as much threat of extinction as Kipling's beavers. Professor Benfrey agreed with me.


The RBK&C Central Reference Library


It wasn't all celeb sightings, awards ceremonies and riveting lectures in London town. I had work to do in the smoke. And much time was spent in the local history unit of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea library - scanning images and aged files from the dusty archives. It brought back a lot of memories. When I was a pupil at Holland Park School up the road, I used to do my homework here. And unlike the pubs and restaurants of my beloved patch, it has not really changed that much over the years.


Simon's new book.


But all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. I had an invite to the Soho book launch of Simon Napier-Bell's new tome about the music business. I was the +1 of an artist once on Mr. Napier Bell's books. En route to the rendezvous (the French on Dean Street), I felt a pair of eyes boring into me like laser beams. It was my gorgeous and glamorous former literary agent (2009 - 2013). No greeting of air kisses: as soon as I was clocked, she ducked into a bar to avoid my loathsome presence. Tee-hee, I laughed to myself. I must remind her of her own failure. And she hates me for it. 

Working the room at Simon's book launch


After a few drinks at the French, it was time to hit the book party. "This looks like a BBC sitcom version of a Soho book launch," said my pal. And then came the caution, "Don't dog at the girls... some of them aren't girls." There were a lot of folks on the make and network at Mr. Napier Bell's book launch. And complaints. "I went to the last one," a guest said. "That was at the Groucho, why isn't this one at the Groucho? It was better at the Groucho. I didn't have to pay for drinks and there was loads of coke in the bogs." I noticed that the book was published by Unbound, a new, crowd funding publisher (egad!) After a few drinks, we strayed off to a private drinking club called Trisha's (aka The Hideout) opposite the Pillars of Hercules pub on Greek Street. Soho is changing. And dingy little clubs like Trisha's might soon be a thing of the past.


Trisha's on Greek Street, Soho.

Some girls came into the bar and started to drunkenly dance to ancient mambo muzak from the tinny speakers. "I am invisible to them," slurred my drunken pal, the ex pop star turned award winning photographer. "They aren't even looking at me. I feel like Alan Partridge. I'm fucking invisible!" I pointed out that even though he felt "invisible" the bright young things were transparent. Then I pointed out to him that he was shacked up with a hot-to-trot dame who was almost half his age. Men... Some of them can't even see the Norwegian Wood for the trees. 


Mrs. Mary Morrison: Perdita (1781)

One thing I miss about home is culture. Plays. Galleries. Exhibitions. Atlanta does not have that much in comparison to London. What city does? And Atlanta doesn't have anything like the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square.  I always come to the flock papered halls and rooms of Hertford House to pay homage to the ravishing portrait of Mrs. Mary Robinson by Thomas Gainsborough. Mrs. Robinson was the lover of the Prince of Wales - the future George IV. And I often find myself getting lost in her romantic beauty and the portrait's misty English countryside. Tinged with ardor, this is often considered to be Gainsborough's masterpiece. 


Dominique-Louis-Féréa Papety, The Temptation of Saint Hilarion, 1843–44.


The Wallace Collection is home to other favorites, too. The Temptation of St. Hilarion by Dominique-Louis-Féréa Papety (1843-44) is one of them.  I love the tempting Satanic bosoms of the comely siren. Not to mention the steadfast resolution of the monk in the face of such temptation. It always takes me back to the time I was a novice monk in North Thailand. A lot of new age yuppie types (females) often showed up for meditation courses. They always used to come courting at my kuti (abode/cell for monks) for an enlightened bullshit. Whenever they talked at me (and they always talked at me) I used to think of this picture. It kept me on the sacred path. For a short while, at least.


A Dance to the Music of Time by Nicolas Poussin (1634 -1636)

A Dance to the Music of Time by Nicolas Poussin is the picture that I spend the most time with at the Wallace Collection.  Considered by art critics to be Poussin's masterpiece, it was painted between 1634 and 1636. It is widely accepted that the painting represents the passing of time, and the different stages of life on the wheel of fortune: poverty, labour, wealth, and pleasure. Poverty is the chap at the very back of the circle. He dances humble and barefoot and looks towards Labour, his dancing partner on the right. Labour, whose bare shoulders indicate hard work, eagerly twists to grasp Wealth's hand. Wealth, dancing in golden flip flops and robes, takes Labour's hand. Finally, Pleasure gazes knowingly at us with a wry smirk. In short, this is meant to represent the Wheel of Fortune: if a peasant works hard, he can gain wealth. Once wealthy, he can lead a life of pleasure, but pleasure enjoyed in excess can lead him right back into poverty. You can learn a lot about your own life, and the lives of others, when you study this painting.


So I didn't commit Murder. And I didn't die of boredom. I could never tire of London. If only the same could be said for Atlanta.


Until next time...


The Male Trailing Spouse