Published October 7, 2005
The England of the 1980s and 1990s, the conservative England with a manufacturing economy and with sooty buildings and dismissive prime ministers was so incredibly memorable. When I lived in Oxford in 1997, England met every stereotype: it was classist and elitist, it was completely out of energy, and it was only attractive in a “don’t touch it, darling, just take it in” kind of way. If you enjoyed melancholy, if you enjoyed The Smiths, and the idea of partying at cemetery gates, England was the place to be.
As it happened, I ran into the one person I knew from my days of floundering study. “I always thought of Henry James when I was around the Americans in Oxford,” my Irish former roommate informed me. “It was the idealistic Americans surrounded by the cynical Europeans. They were just so stuffy,” he told me, before reminding me that, of course, he was Irish and not English, so he didn’t qualify as the “they”.
Eight years later, the stuffy quality really isn’t there, and the cynicism is much harder to spot. At least on the superficial levels, England has been transformed. First of all, there has been a change in the build, skin tone, and dental hygiene of the typical Englishman and woman. On afternoon strolls and at night at the pubs and clubs, one couldn’t help notice how much the people we passed looked like movie and TV personalities, or, still more, like images from one particularmagazine: Maxim.
While it has slipped under the radar for many, a key British export since 1997 has been men’s culture magazines, and Maxim, founded in 1995, has led the way. With full-frontal nudity and obvious tastelessness, Maxim has brought low culture out in force. On a night out in London, you hear enough references to porn, dildos and illicit drugs to make Old Dirty Bast’d roll over in his grave.
In mixed company, it is now suitable to say “that licks big greasy balls” if something unfortunate has happened: if for example, the brunch special you want for a nice bistro is out. Similar expressions are used to explain frustration at the housing bubble, and how it prevents a young woman from buying her first home before the age of 29.
The New South Bank
The landscape of London has been significantly altered with the last eight years of economic boom. The most prominent example is an enormous Ferris wheel called the London Eye on the South Bank. While a “flight” on the Eye costs 13 pounds, it is well worth it. During the thirty minute rotation, you can see most of London and get a good feel for the city, all while standing in a glass egg that is at first claustrophobic, then vertigoinducing, then awesome, then romantic, depending on which point of the journey you’re on. (If you fear have even a casual fear of heights, the 443 foot ascent is not something you want to undergo—there isn’t one spot in the carriages of the Eye that doesn’t have perfect all-around visibility.)
The South Bank offers twenty- first century England—opulent if often garish, you see the best of international artists, performers and attractions, all slightly anglicized, and most with the Thames and Westminster offering a handsome backdrop.
In trying to take in the disparate cultural attractions, we started at the Saatchi Gallery, which, to our surprise, was not showing much from English artists, but instead an installation called “The Triumph of Painting”—an exhibit so successful that one could enter the gallery without any wait whatsoever, and, if one paid the full nine pound entrance, one got a complimentary t-shirt. From there, we visited an enormous arcade and bar, where we sampled the newest in twenty-first century hi-tech entertainment: an electric chair game. You sit on it and see how much you can get electrocuted.
A historian might smile to see London with a Ferris wheel and an electric chair as attractions—both were debuted at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. I explained this to a local assistant at the arcade who rolled his eyes, pointed to the electric chair and said: “A little girl came by and got 2000 volts. She just kept hanging on. I’d never do it. It’s just stupid.”
I looked at the receipt I had from hanging on to the chair only to 1000 volts and walked away. He shouted after me: “Don’t forget to drink some water.”
From County Hall at the centre of the South Bank, it’s an easy walk to the Tate Modern, which opened at its new location, a massive former brick factory, in May of 2000. Having missed a cocktail party we were invited to there on our first night, we ventured over for a peaceful tour of the “supermarket of museums” as one advisor warned us.
The Tate is free, and it houses a number of singularly important works of art, often well-lighted, but rarely displayed with proper reverence. The notable exception, when we were there in October, was a remarkable display of Mark Rothko.
An attendant from Argentina told us that the Tate “is not like other museums in Europe. Mainly, people who come to the Tate don’t know anything about art. They just come to be cool, and to drink on Friday and Saturday nights.”
That said, our time was not wasted, and the good intent of an enormous free museum was something. And while it is a pick up place on the weekends, many locals do have a fond feeling for at least one exhibit, which has unfortunately passed, “The Weather Project” by Ólafur Elíasson.
Paddington, West End and Camden
Acting on a hot tip, we initially based our trip to London on checking on the debaucherous rock n roll lifestyles in London. For this reason, I had booked us a room at the bizarre Pavilion Hotel, known to be a haunt for Pete Doherty and Morrissey, among others. While we got a room replete with lime green walls, leopard skin carpeted borders, and decorated heavily with pink feathered boas and heart-shaped mirrors, Mr. Doherty… and, for that
matter, debauchery, were a long way away.
The polite innkeeper shrugged his shoulders at our requests to find rock, and simply insisted that we head out to the West End. Against better judgement, we heeded his advice and wandered to the neon lights of Piccadilly Circus and ate donuts until one am. The next morning, speaking with a young journalist, we were informed that “the West End is hell. Nobody
should go there unless you’re doing it as a joke and are properly pissed…maybe if you want to see a burlesque show.”
The following evening, we set off for one of the more respected live venues in London, the Barfly in Camden, where “every night every band thinks they’re going to make it.” The Barfly has this reputation because its owners have a chain of venues, including one in Ibiza—possibly the wildest and most-revered live venue on earth this summer. But the crowd in Camden
seems to create the energy as much as the owners of Barfly do—most of
the people in the packed crowd lived in the area.
On the night we attended, we caught three bands performing extremely tight, audience-conscious sets. The opening band, Red Organ Serpentine from Derry, Northern Ireland proved the most ambitious, if for no other reason than that they used a large number of props and the lead singer demonstrated his flexibility frequently. Four teenagers in a band called Keith who couldn’t lift their amps to get them on stage followed with better song writing. The final band, playing to a blotto and leaving crowd at 2 am were called the Machines, and they featured a singer with a fantastic resemblance to Baby Stewie of the Family Guy.
Most of the music was promising, and the audience was receptive. Comically so. A group of four outlandishly drunk young American women tracked down the limber front man of Red Organ Serpentine.
“I’m going to write about you in my column in the New York Times,” one woman said, while both touching his stomach and licking his ear. “And it’s not because of the band, they were okay, it’s because you really sold it to me. What do you think about that?”
Mr. Red Organ politely excused