Monday, June 23, 2014


Londoners have a genuine economic incentive to take advantage of the city's bike rental system.  A day's use of a bike is cheaper than a single ride on the bus or the tube--two pounds compared to two pounds forty pence with the pound at $1.70 to the dollar, the highest it's been in a long time.  It may be the best bargain in this otherwise rather expensive city.  Its a much better deal than Chicago, where it is seven dollars for the day, three times the cost of a bus or train trip.

Janina took advantage of the bikes, joining me on my own, two of our three days exploring the city.  We declined our first day until we found a map that showed the location of all 720 stations dispensing the system's ten thousand bikes, so we'd have a precise idea where we could return a bike before the thirty-minute window of use expired and the extra fees started accumulating.  Even knowing where all the stations are located, one can still get frantic as that thirty-minute mark approaches.  Besides the cost and the map, Janina preferred London's rentals to Chicago's as its bikes were somewhat lighter and easier to ride than the tanks of Chicago, which take all of her strength to propel.  The only drawback to London was a five-minute waiting period between returning a bike to a station and then being able to acquire another.

The system will be celebrating four years of operation next month.  It is looking for a new corporate sponsor, as the founding sponsor, Barclay's, will pull out at the end of the year.  The rental bikes are affectionately known as "Boris Bikes," after London's two-term, flamboyant, shaggy-haired mayor Boris Johnson, who instituted the program and is an ardent cyclist.  He once came to the rescue of a woman being mugged as he passed her on his bike.  He is so committed to maintaining the program that in his efforts to convince Barclay's to renew their sponsorship of one hundred million pounds, he offered to change his name to Barclay.

Our first outing on a Boris took us from the hostel we stayed at our first night in Holland Park to the Thames and over to the Tate Museum.  Our map showed several categories of bike friendly routes--bike paths through the city's many parks, streets with bike lanes, streets with minimal traffic and a few stretches of "cycle superhighways," bright blue-marked lanes on the roadway exclusively for bikes.  We were able to fly along on one such superhighway on our final stretch to the Tate.  

We were partially drawn to the Tate, which is exclusively devoted to British artists, to see its several rooms of Turners, as I had just seen the world premier at Cannes of an excellent film about the artist by Mike Leigh that will receive a great amount of attention when it is released in the fall. Timothy Spall justifiably won the best actor award at Cannes for his performance.  Janina greatly respects his work, breaking free of the strictures of realistic landscape painting.

Though the British can be sticklers for decorum, we did not have to check our backpacks, as is the case in many museums.  Nor was there an entry fee, just a box to drop in a suggested four pound donation.  We feared the museum would be mobbed on a Saturday, especially when the nearby Boris rack was near capacity, Janina luckily grabbing the last vacant receptacle.  Most racks were close to empty with the warm sunny weather making it an ideal day to be on the bike.  But the museum wasn't packed at all, making it easy for us to meet up with Janina's friend Ewen who she had met on a previous visit to London.

He's a retired banker who now devotes his life to helping refugees, even housing them while their cases pend. He had some space at present in his four-story apartment not far from the British Library, the reason he chose to live where he does, and invited us to stay with him our final two nights in the city.  He earned a PhD in Arabic from Princeton and taught at the University of Minnesota before going into banking, tired of the politics of academia.  He grew up in London and intimately knows the city and took us walking for hours and hours and miles and miles to all sorts of fascinating nooks and crannies.

From the Tate we walked along the Thames.  We passed behind the headquarters of MI5 with its barred windows.

And we waded through hoards of tourists thronging the main postcard sites--Westminster Cathedral and Parliament and many of the others.  Janina offered to take a photograph of a young Turkish woman struggling with her self-timer.  She had come to London to hone her English.  Ewen told her there was a great demand for translators in London, as there are 360 languages taught at its many schools.  He had gotten his start in Arabic at the nearby Westminster School, where the elite of the country are educated before they go on to Oxford and Cambridge,  Although Ewen lived in London, it was required that he board at the school, though he went home on weekends.

We passed the house where Ben Franklin lived not too far from Trafalgar Square and continued on to art museum number two for the day--the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House to see Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere," from 1882, a year before his death.  Janina considers it one of the twenty-five most important paintings and is one of her favorites.   I wondered if she could possibly be rendered speechless by seeing it in person, but no, all her professorial and critical expertise gushed with extra passion as she commented on this depiction of a sad-eyed young woman wearing a low-cut nice dress standing behind a bar selling concessions at a theatrical event attended by the well-to-do.  She is clearly not happy with her lot.  

There was a charge at this museum.  We could bring in our backpacks but we couldn't wear them on our backs.  We either had to carry them or hang them over our stomachs or check them.  We also encountered a school-master of a security guard who wished to be a stickler.  He reprimanded Janina for speaking too loudly as she enthusiastically described another painting even though no one else was present.  In another room as the three of us prolonged our stay discussing the art, he swooped in and ordered Ewen to remove his elbow from a glass display cabinet, followed by a muttered, "Now we're going to have to clean it."  It was a miracle no one pounced on Janina for waving her finger too close to a painting as she pointed out this and that, as often happens.  It has been amusing to experience an occasional example of the prim and proper nature of the English, though it is far outweighed by their exceedingly great friendliness and helpfulness, and hardly causes any stress.

The next day the three of us were joined by my friend David and his girl friend Veronica for a bike ride starting in Ewen's neighborhood.  David too had grown up in London and then gone to America.  Ewen had spent seven years on the other side of the Atlantic, while David lived in Chicago for thirty-four years before returning to London a little over a year ago. David is a fellow cycling enthusiast.  We took a ride around Regent's Park and then climbed Primrose Hill for a wonderful view of the city with both Ewen and David pointing out the significant landmarks and having a wonderful story for each--the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, the Olympic Park from 2012, the Shard and on and on.  Ewen said we weren't far from where Sylvia Plath killed herself, though we couldn't see it.

Ewen and David are certainly two of the most knowledgeable and passionate people in all of London and also two of the friendliest and most out-going, as if it were their mission to brighten and enliven the city, greeting and drawing perfect strangers into conversation.  David had  a cheery hello for everyone we passed.  Ewen specialized in speaking Arabic to those he recognized as speaking the language.  But they also had a bit of the disciplinary school-master in them as well.  David took to task a young father on a bike whose two young children were wearing ill-fitting helmets that would be no use to them in an accident.  Ewen informed an Arabic-speaking woman that she shouldn't be feeding the swans bread as it wasn't part of their natural diet and could become stuck in their throats. 

When we paused for lunch, the meal might have gone on all day if David and Veronica didn't have to attend a wedding.  David said it was mandatory for all tourists to London, though he wouldn't insult us with such a term, to have their photo taken at Abbey Road.  A handful of photographers await them for their own album-cover of a photo.  Since it wasn't nearby, another street would have to do.  It was enough of a tourist area that the street had a warning painted on it for pedestrians unaccustomed to traffic driving on the left-hand side of the road.  Not only was there a Starbucks in the background, across the street was a Pret a Manger restaurant, an English chain of French ready to eat food owned by McDonald's that they are introducing to the US.

In our wanderings back to Ewen's we dropped in on the mother of all libraries, the British Library.  Its new building doesn't diminish its grandeur nor its magnitude in the least.  Its centerpiece is the glassed-in 65,000 volume library of King George III from over two hundred years ago.  It fills a huge space six stories high.  The enclosure of thousands of gilt and leather-bound volumes is absolutely stunning.  Even more so in a nearby dimly-lit  room is the Magna Carta from 1215.  In a larger adjoining room are many other historic books and documents ranging from Bibles to Paul McCartney's hand-written lyrics to "Yesterday."  The library and its contents put an exclamation point on all the history and culture we had been absorbing in our three days in London.  We had seen more than we could have imagined thanks to Ewen, but we also knew we had barely scratched the surface.  We could have spent days more immersing ourselves in London and all it had to offer, but we had friends awaiting us in Ireland and had already booked a train.

It was so enriching I forgot to make time to seek out a handful of Carnegies in the outlying neighborhoods of London.  I had only seen the one in Hanwell on my ride into the city.  It was off on a side street in a residential neighborhood. When a frenzied woman in a hurry directed me down the street to the library I thought she was just trying to get rid me of me.  But there it was in all its shining splendor.

It was accompanied by a plaque just inside the door,

and another on the outside of the building in typical Englishese.

Ireland has a few Carnegies as well.  Here I come.

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