London, England

There's more to London than the Savoy and the Tate -- like erotic exhibitions, cappuccino shops and Dickens' commode.


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Mary Elizabeth Williams
August 5, 1997 11:37PM (UTC)

London, England -- The inevitable deluge started weeks before my husband and I
departed for London. The suggestions. The questions. The advice.
Friends who'd never been there vicariously vacationed via our itinerary;
relations who'd breezed through the city in two days in 1978 assumed an
expertise. "Will you be going to the Tate?" "Oh, you've got to do the
British Museum." "Let me tell you about the National Portrait Gallery."
"Are you having high tea at the Savoy?" "Or the Ritz?" I listened patiently
to all of it, while in my mind, two words kept repeating over and over:
Screw That.

As it happened, I was already on intimate terms with the seat of
kings and Carnaby Street. I'd lived for a year in London during my college
days, and had managed to make a few brief return visits since. But even
though the last time I'd set foot on English soil had been in 1990, I still
had not worked up to wildly missing its stuffy old museums and milky tea.

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So I didn't go to the Tate. Instead I sought out London's more
decidedly eccentric museums. And I didn't drown myself in tea. Rather I
indulged in the daring new flavor sensation the British had discovered
since I'd last visited -- coffee.

Coffee culture took the scenic route to England:
Continental-style cafes had to first catch on here in the colonies before
leaping successfully back over the pond. Frankly, I credit Seattle. I
imagine upstart English cappuccino mavens getting wind of a company called
Starbucks and thinking, "There seems to be a predisposition for latte
addiction in cold, damp cities with lots of bookstores and a hip music
scene. Sayyy ..." Whatever the reason, England's biggest tastemaker right
now is neither Elizabeth Hurley nor Liam Gallagher, but Juan Valdez. In
London, you can't swing an official Manchester United scarf without
whacking into an Aroma -- the hot new coffee bar chain that audaciously
proves that Brits are as adept at foaming milk as they are at blending tea
leaves.

I'd anticipated some changes in the town's terrain, but by God,
this was a new one. And it was at once both oddly comforting and downright
unnerving to find myself in the midst of a java explosion. On the one hand,
I admit that I am powerless over my mochaccino habit, and the fact that I
was able to slake it during my trip probably staved off a midweek freakout.
On the other hand, there is something profoundly disturbing about seeing a
"Seattle Coffee Company" a stone's throw from Covent Garden, or a brand new Bodum superstore being built on Kings Road. French press coffee plungers rolling into the city by the truckload -- I'd have sooner imagined Camilla Parker Bowles becoming queen than this.

If, after centuries of contented, isolationist tea drinking, London
can suddenly embrace the cappuccino-sipping, biscotti-dunking habits of our
Pacific Northwest brethren, perhaps the sun truly is setting on the empire.
I hadn't expected London to stay frozen in time, Austin Powers-style, all
these years -- this after all is now the London of Tony Blair, an
all-but-defunct monarchy, advanced dentistry and even exquisite, non
sausage-based haute cuisine. Even so, if you ever want to rock your
idealistic notions that anything on earth has any permanence, go watch a
Londoner deftly order a decaf Sumatra blend latte with a shot of vanilla
syrup.

Despite the inevitable, times-a-changing mood, it was heartening to
see that some things about London do remain constant. The ravens still
stroll the grounds of the Tower; bushy-capped guards still prance in front
of the Palace; and the Victoria and Albert, the Tate and their like still
reel in the visitors. As my spouse and I sat outside the British Museum
sunning ourselves one afternoon, I couldn't help but marvel at the
Paddington Station-like stream of human traffic coming in and out. Five
million visitors a year pass through the British Museum. This year, we were
not among them. Maybe it's heresy to laze within spitting distance of one
of the world's premiere museums and not cross its portals, but I had other
great works on my mind. Like vacuum cleaners.

A yearning for some Bauhaus-based pleasures led me London's Design
Museum -- a temple to the magnificence of form and function that brims with items both practical (dig that Tupperware!) and ridiculous (a Phillipe
Stark teapot that originally came with the warning "Do not touch while
hot"). The Design Museum, housed in a former warehouse in the rapidly
yuppifying Butler's Wharf neighborhood, could never be accused of not
upholding the image its name implies. The gift shop sells trash cans too
elegant to ever throw any actual garbage into, and even the toilet paper
dispenser in the ladies' room is a paragon of crisp efficiency.

The museum is a haven for the kinds of exhibits you won't find
anywhere else. When I visited, the institution was hosting an extensive
tribute to a fabulous new vacuum cleaner, currently only available in
Japan. I educated myself about how expensive and wasteful vacuum bags are
and how the arduous process of creating a reusable dust repository had
baffled designers for decades. As I at last feasted my eyes on the chic
little pink and gray final product, I felt a fascination with vacuuming
that has never once encroached upon my own domestic Hoover pushing.

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But the highlight of the Design Museum was the special exhibition
devoted to "The Power of Erotic Design" that's running through Oct. 12.
Here were all manner of sexy household goods for my consumerist
delectation. Some were subtly sensual -- a fluidly designed Carlo Mollino
coffee table that vaguely suggested a woman's back, a curvy crystal perfume
bottle reminiscent of a pair of pouty lips. And some designs were a little
more obvious -- like the leather-clad mannequin serving as a hat rack, or
the impressive array of ancient dildos. My favorite item was Sigmund
Freud's chair -- supple, broad on top, plumply cushioned. It was the kind
of thing I can't imagine anyone resting his body in all day and arising
again without absorbing a whole lot of Mommy issues. Could the National
Portrait Gallery offer such insights? I think not.

Further along the Thames, right near the National Theater,
is another museum that's not your usual Rembrandtfest -- the big, brassy
and excessively playful Museum of the Moving Image. "Whoever designed this
place must have been completely out of his mind," whispered my spouse as we
stood in the glow of a "Spitting Image" puppet display. Indeed, the museum
oozes loopy charm. That sacred cow of film students, "Potemkin," is
screened in a proletariat-friendly meeting room while a museum employee
waxes enthusiastic in a hilariously fake Russian accent. A D.W. Griffith
clone brandishes a riding crop and barks choreography instructions to a
group of young visitors, who obligingly offer their best shuffle-shuffle-kick steps. There's memorabilia from the earliest days of cinematography to
"Star Wars," even classes in creating your own cartoons. And everywhere you
go, staffers dressed as movie ushers, inventors and casting directors pull
you into the action in truly cinematic style. Of course it's hokey. But
wouldn't the Smithsonian be so much more entertaining if instead of just
displaying the Fonz's jacket, it
had its own Fonz to "Ayyy" all day at the passers-by?

The MOMI and the Design Museum may exude a hip, modern allure, but
London's more unusual museums aren't necessarily the most cutting-edge. At
Charles Dickens's small, inauspicious-looking house in Bloomsbury, we
sought inspiration from the vibes off the desk at which he wrote "Oliver
Twist," we peered out the window at the same view the author once enjoyed
and we got close to his private side. Plenty close. "Look at this," sighed
my husband as he lovingly ran his fingers along a dark wooden chaise. "I
can't believe I'm touching the same chair Dickens sat on." "He did more
than sit on it, honey," I replied, lifting the seat. "That's his commode."
Once you've peered into a great man's chamber pot, you've seen all you need
to see.

What is so appealing about London is all that is constant about it
-- the chimes of Big Ben, the bookshops of Charing Cross Road, the
cholesterol a-go-go rashers and eggs breakfasts. But equally enticing is
all that's novel about it. I came to London and asked it to surprise me.
And it did. Instead of the Rosetta Stone I found oversexed household
appliances; instead of tea at elevenses I found afternoon espresso.
London's got a brand new bag -- and it ain't filled with Darjeeling.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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