Monday, July 8, 2019

Travelogue: London could be falling down

I just came back from a ~ten day trip to London, which is my first in this part of the world. The following are my impressions of UK from this visit. 

1) London reminded me of a bit of Melbourne and a bit of Auckland, both places that I have seen up close for awhile. After all, that should not be surprising given that both Melbourne and Auckland have fashioned themselves as the London of the East. London is most definitely a multi-cultural city in its truest sense. Pretty much everywhere I went, I saw whites, blacks, browns, as well as people of all colors. No wonder it voted overwhelmingly for Sadiq Khan (an immigrant) as well as against Brexit in the fondest hope of a multi-cultural Europe. 

2) Much of London is a tourist heaven. Every major spot of interest saw a horde of tourists (American as well as otherwise) making for long queues and nightmarish planning. It is almost impossible to make justice to a hop-on hop-off bus tour when you cannot see a damn thing and the bus is fully loaded with tourists to the brim. For sightseeing, there is a famous "London pass" that allows one to see many of the worthy spots such as the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, the Shard (controlled by Qataris nonetheless), Kensington Palace, London zoo, etc. Unfortunately, this pass does not include other interesting places to see such as the London Eye, the Lord's, Big Ben, etc. My general impression is/was that most of the places are worth visiting once, but nothing specifically stuck out as either a sore thumb or as an underappreciated spot (which is often the case for most spots in India). And then there is also a call to the London bridge, which is not really famous or worthwhile except for being a part of a nursery rhyme. 

3) While most of Central London is coverable by walk, beyond that, London is well connected by underground, buses, trains and even the odd ferry (less said the case about much of the non-Northeastern US). I just bought the 7 day travel pass for 34.10 pounds, that allowed unlimited travel on underground and bus. And to be fair, that was good value for money. One weird thing that I realized is that you can get a pass for the underground that also works for the buses, but not in a reverse manner. You tap in and tap out of the underground, but in the bus, you just tap in once. We did get checked for tickets once on the bus, but that was pretty much it. Of course, in most underground stations, you cannot head out without tapping your card on the way out which is indeed a good check. The cost of a single fare is 1.50 pounds on the bus and 2.40 pounds in zones 1-2 on the underground (most of Central London), which makes the use of a single fare option an expensive affair. There are a large varieties of fare options (beyond the 7 day travel pass), so it can take a bit of getting used to (of how to use these options as well as one's footing in London). 

4) London food is similar in flair to American or Australian, but with a much better quality (as is much of European food) than the American fair. There are a gazillion McDonald's and Starbucks of course, but also London peculiarities such as Nando's, Slug and Lettuce, etc., as well a gazillion fish and chips outlets. Most of the "Indian" curry joints are run by Sylhetis. Even eponymous Indian sounding places such as "Rajasthan-IV" are run by Sylhetis, which makes it hard to feel good. 

As a side point, Sylhetis came to the UK in the late 60s and 70s as a part of the mass migration that cannot be really explained (even though I did see the explanation of Bhola, Liberation War, etc.). That brings me to the odd history of Sylhet (aka Srihatta) when it was initially part of the Assam province in British India (despite Sylheti being a dialect of Bengali). Gopinath Bordoloi and most of the Assamese elites were happy to get rid of Sylhet from Assam province and unify Assam under a "Assam for Assamese" model. Most of the Muslim Sylhetis were also keen on joining the then East Bengal/East Pakistan/Bangladesh than to remain a part of Assam/India. So there was a referendum in 1947 (one of the few actually held) and much of the Hindu Bengalis voted for India, and most of the Muslim Bengalis/Sylhetis voted for Pakistan. A lot of water has flowed down the Barak since the referendum and within Bangladesh, there is still an uneasy truce as to the distinct Sylheti vs. Bengali conundrum, which keeps popping its head every now and then. More here: 

5) Historically, London has seen its fair share of violence. Every historical place that I went to such as the Tower of London was described as "xyz was hanged here, abc was hanged there" + a lot of this was built in 1066 after Charles-I came in from France etc. Pretty much the whole of Westminster Abbey is a cemetery to the rich, famous, influential and politically connected + a scene for coronations and marriages. 

That said, modern Britain borrows a lot of history from France and more recently Germany. The latter should not be surprising since German and English are cognate languages. But the French connection would be missed given how the popular meme of France vs. England/Britain is peppered all around us. The surest way to observe this is via the Lion heraldry that makes the British lions ( The Lion came into popular usage as a sign of valor and chivalry from the Count of Anjou, who in his own way had borrowed it from the lion of Judah (an early Christian symbol, perhaps used even before that). In fact, much of Western Europe shares the lion heraldry with the UK. And then there is the fleur de lis ( that is a uniquely French symbol, which exported it to James-I and Scotland and via this approach to the UK. 

6) And then there is the colonial period. Unlike what Indians (ought to) think, the white Britishers are not ashamed of their colonial past, period. Colonialism in their eyes was their duty to "civilize the natives," period. And 100+ years of post-modernism does/will not make them feel ashamed at their past. The parrying aside of a request for an apology of Jallianwala Bagh ought to be seen in that view. In fact, for any sort of contrition to happen, they have to gnaw at their very cores which valorizes the "unknown and forgotten" soldier in the corner of the earth doing his fair duty of holding the Union Jack flying high. They have to rub down Westminster Abbey or the many churches around London and UK which memorialize the forgotten soldier (see four pictures below). 

As much as Shahshi Tharoor or a Madhusree Mukherjee can scream at the top of their lungs, the stiff upper lips in the elite class will not get it and will remain oblivious of their offenses. There is no way to shame the unshameables, and that is a sad lesson for all! That said, most of the white Brits I saw (that did not belong to this elite class) were mostly ok. I did not encounter any sort of racism or anything even remotely close. 

7) An odd thing I noticed is that it is hard to find elevators (except in airports, underground stations, train stations, etc.) as well as air conditioners in London. Along with France and Germany, this seems to be a general theme in Western Europe. I was told that it hardly ever gets/got hot in these places that an air conditioner was ever needed. And then there is the German theme of Durchzug (, which is a different category altogether. While most days in London were pleasant, one awful day made the lack of an air conditioner a painful experience. Plus, the buses and underground without an air conditioning/circulating system makes it a hot boiler plate. Slowly, as the heat waves and wider variations made possible by global warming make their way into Western Europe, one would hope that fans and air conditioners/coolers will make their way into normal Western European lives as much as they are in Asia and the US. Also, for someone like me who has seen the 5 AM - 8 PM sun out period, the 4 AM - 9 PM sun out period in London was surreal. Surely, I would be freaked out by places such as Norway or Finland. After checking out the latitudes of London and NYC, things became much clearer to me. 

8) And then onwards to what I went to London actually for... Wimbledon, which is quite an oddball tournament primarily because it has some strange customs that make life excruciatingly hard (and quite unnecessarily). In the garb of tradition, they do make life more messier than it should be. As a comparison, I have seen the US open quite a few times (up, close and center), so I can indeed make a fair comparison between the two events. At the US open, one can buy "grounds admission" passes online (from Ticketmaster, for example) and just walk into the Billie Jean King NTC on the day of your choice. At Wimbledon, unless you are willing to pay a huge price and buy tickets from an official seller or are just lucky to get the debenture tickets (perhaps cheaply), it comes down to queuing at the AELTC. This means waking up early/late and walking in to a loooooong queue. 

If you arrive at the AELTC at 6 AM, you are sure to meet a whole bunch of stewards and honorary stewards and the famous yellow flag, and be presented with a queue number around 2000-3000. Walk in at 9 AM and expect to see a number around 9000. At 11 AM, perhaps 15000. In any case, if they do give you a queue card, you are expected to get in "eventually." With a seating capacity (of a guesstimated 39000), I am not sure if anyone will not get a queue card at all! But then, ask the stewards about the wait time, and you will get a blank, "it is supposed to be a state secret!" pithy response. That is baloney, even by English standards!! 

I walked in at 9 AM on two days, picked a queue card number around 8500-8800 (quite consistent) and walked in to the arena at 12+ish (as consistently). That is a miserable waste of 3-4 hours waiting in a queue for what is a simple grounds admission pass (all in the name of tradition). But then, I also heard of people who had tented themselves for days on end to catch a Center court ticket (one of 500 perhaps) opened on the day of interest. That is clearly not tradition, but one of joblessness. At BJK NTC, I would have walked in at 9 AM and hoped to be inside by 9:45 AM for a 10:30 AM start. I would have parked my derriere in a half decent seat at either Louis Armstrong or the Grandstand and hoped to see a decent match (even though I might have been galled at the self-pity and propping up of classless/relatively talentless American tennis players only because they are well, American - cue in on Madison Keys, Coco Vandeweghe, etc.). 

All that said, there are a lot of differences between the two Grand Slam events. Unlike the US Open, Wimbledon-ers do not make an ass of themselves regulating the size of your water bottle or the backpack you carry. Or the food you can carry inside the arena. They do whine if you try to bring in your tent inside though! You go through security at both places and reasonable items are fine at Wimbledon (not so with the glorious US open). 

At the end of the day, the event in itself was uneventful. As in, you get to see what you came to see (slower grass notwithstanding). You also get to see stranger things in life: strawberries and cream, white vs. colored clothes, ryegrass vs. asphalt/concrete, food style differences, Henman hill/lawn vs. flat ground of Queens, roofed vs. roofless courts, Middle Sunday vs. both Sundays, Southfields vs. Mets-Willets, etc. Overall, it might have been far pleasant if only I could get grounds admission online instead of having to suck up with the cold breeze and then a heat wave and basically crawl my way in after wasting a good 4-5 hours.  

9) Speaking of life beyond tennis, as far as I know, London has two famous cricket grounds: Lord's and the Kia Oval (aka Kennington Oval). The latter stadium was the scene of the spin triumph of Ajit Wadekar's team in 1971 (India's first in England), as well as the scene of the Pakistan team forfeiting their test match for delays taking to the field after being accused of ball tampering. It was also the scene of the first test match in England (2nd overall after the Melbourne one in 1877). I could not get in and see the ground tour itself due to the odd ball timings of the tour, but a weird thing one notices as one enters the neighborhood of Lambeth (around the Kia Oval) is the suburban ethos in contrast to how London and Lord's are like. Then, there are the huge gaslighters outside the Oval itself which makes it look like an old-school industrial town surreal-ly suspended in real-time. In any case, if it was not for the colored's interest in cricket, much of the English cricket scene would be like the attendance in their churches - sporadic and falling with time. 



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