One of the friends housesitting for us says her bad fortune on overseas flights is to get sandwiched between two hale, hearty Australians. I can see my bad fortune while we wait to board our red eye. Not two former rugby players, but a red-headed toddler who is hopping like a cricket, shouting excitedly.
DAY 1: HACKNEY
Our Airbnb is in a council flat, which I know from all the class-signaling English detective novels I’ve read is government funded public housing. Cue a big-bellied man smoking cigarettes in his slippers, smells of frying food, the dole. But the apartment is charming, a bookish, well-traveled thirty-something’s actual home. There’s a little balcony, and ravens. Kids play basketball in a court with no nets, their joyful shit-talking bouncing off the surrounding buildings.
We (my partner and me) have an ugly jet lag nap and stagger out into the streets to explore. We make our way to the Museum of the Home, which is distinguished by four things:
- The placards for a series of diorama-like rooms from different eras, which invite you to imagine the lives of the inhabitants with lines like, “Cecil has a hangover.”
- A small chamber full of special objects in which my partner beelines for a vintage Apple computer and I admire a Victorian chest full of tiny, secret drawers.
- A sound installation of something called “Mob Speak”—the upstairs/downstairs sound of servants (mob caps!) speaking, coal being shoveled, bells chiming, floorboard groans.
- A perfect little English garden under the groomed sprawl of a wisteria.
Dinner at Ottolenghi in Spitalfields. It is delicious.
DAY 2: THE THAMES
A walk along the Thames, starting at Westminster. I take a picture, but why bother? There it is, right in your mind’s eye, reflected on the water. We cross over to the South side, pass through the midway near the London Eye and Shrek’s Adventure! (Exclamation point not mine.)
We’re in Austin Friars, where Thomas Cromwell began building his ambitious home in the 1500s. A time period and history I had no knowledge or interest in, until I read Hilary Mantel’s novel, WOLF HALL. Thanks to Mantel, I can imagine the Cromwell household: the herb garden, the staircase, the cellar, his offices. I know already that Cromwell’s home was demolished, but I look it up again, just in case I was wrong. Nope. Gone.
We find a pub, empty except for three staff members, one of whom is stringing party flags along the already highly celebratory walls, which are decoupaged with various celebrities. Signs (also decoupaged) urge patrons to watch out for “nasty purse snatchers.” As the decorator staple guns a giant foam finger to the wall outside the men’s room, I ask what they are celebrating.
“What aren’t we celebrating?” is his answer, which pleases us.
ROCK & ROLL, PART 1: MEATBODIES
Later, I am tired and out of sorts. I drag myself along to see two bands, Predeceased and Meatbodies at a venue called The Moth. I’m not really in the mood, but the ceiling in what appears to be a former armory is entirely covered in lamé, so, there’s that.
Onward to the Tate Modern, where my partner meets his new best friend, a huge saltshaker-shaped tower made out of radios by the artist Cildo Meireles. He circles it, eyes aglow. We watch a short film by Yto Barrada, “A Guide to Trees for Governors and Gardeners.” We walk over the Millenium Bridge, where I admire a towboat hauling a barge full of shipping containers.
DAY 3: THE TOWER
Hideous oversleeping, missed appointment to visit the Tower of London (Mantel again, only this time, it is BRING UP THE BODIES.) Melt down on street corner, while my partner tries to rustle up a ride share and gets hosed for twenty pounds by an app. I will never see the Tower, I will never see Austin Friars. I will never get any closer to Thomas Cromwell and his rapacious brilliance, or to Hilary Mantel’s.
We get there.
It is nothing like I imagined it. Cromwell and Henry the VIII’s second wife, Ann Boleyn, are just footnotes in the bloody history of the place, built by William the Conqueror in 1066. They are interred in a crypt alongside the tower chapel, alongside the bones of a long list of short-lived luminaries.
The walls are scratched with the names and glyphs of prisoners who’d been held, and in some instances, tortured. Feast hall abuts jail. Last year’s guest is next year’s prisoner. The ravens are pets.
Oddly enough—or maybe not so, given that I’m a military brat—my favorite part is the barracks alongside that houses the Yeoman Warders of the Tower. The Beefeaters, like the gin. After twenty-two years of service at the minimum, these guys elect—on leaving the military—to wear a uniform and live in a barracks for the rest of their days. We see several off-duty Yeomen tidying up their outdoor seating areas, a little four by six patch of cobble where each house can express the personality of its owners via a blue metal or teak café set, a series of potted plants, a topiary.
ROCK & ROLL, PART 2: OCEANATOR
That night we go to The Victoria in Dalston to see Oceanator play solo. She’s gut wrenching, as ever—the emotional weight of her songs intensified by the absence of other musicians or really, in this instance, much of an audience. She delivers the same level of performance for a handful of people as she does a crowded hall.
DAY 4: HACKNEY, PART 2
Working. On vacation. No Bueno. But remember the large-bellied man in slippers, smoking? He’s on the other side of the balcony divider, huffing butts and talking loudly to a friend about whether or not it is time for the friend to face up to the fact that he can’t control his drinking. His accent makes everything sound like a chin-up, fists cocked challenge. I stop working to eavesdrop, and then worry that my not typing is giving me away. I type some nonsense, listening. They work in a restaurant. The neighbor is the manager. He stops his AA exhortation to unleash some colorful profanity about another co-worker.
THE LANGHAM, LONDON
That night, we go to meet a friend and her new partner at a swank hotel bar in Kensington. A friend, I say—when what I mean is one of my very favorite people on the planet, currently in what another friend calls “the love coma.” Closed off behind the screen of a new relationship, unreachable. We fill in the gaps with impossibly ornate cocktails, in which ingredients have been extracted from their sources and rendered as passing moods.