“It has been determined that in as little as an hour after the devastating news about the shooting in Parkland, Florida broke across US news last week, Russian bots mobilized in response…”
I rustled awake. Mark had turned the TV on while he got ready and I hadn’t woken up until the 09:30 cycle of the BBC news began. I winced at the throb in the back of my throat. “Sick and watching this nonsense… on my birthday.”
We slowly got ready and made our way down into the lobby. We walked past the sweltering fireplaces and out onto the chilly street — deciding at the last moment to skip breakfast. Instead, we ducked into the Sainsbury’s Local on the corner for a croissant, a raisin scroll, bottles of water — and two ginger shots. After the fiery shots were tossed back and then tossed empty into the bin, we headed down into the Bayswater Station.
“…District Line service currently disrupted, no service towards Wimbledon…”
The tannoy was to the point, at least. The goal had been to avoid the windy walk to Notting Hill Gate (just a stop away) but it was now our only choice. A short trudge, a few moments — and then onto a 31 bus. We clambered up to the top of the old-fashioned double-decker, and sat right in front. It felt like seeing an entirely different floor of the City — the next level up, the roofs, the treetops. Broken crockery and graffiti one moment, crisp white Georgian facade the next. We’d stop for a brief second and then we’d be inserted momentarily into that first-floor life — white linen curtains rippling against an ancient window, a lamp turning off in the distant room — and then you’d be ripped from it, as quickly as you’d arrived.
We stopped-and-started to the M stop at Abbey Road (yes, that Abbey Road) and then just a short walk… to my birthday present.
That present? A wander through the Alexandra & Ainsworth estate, a masterpiece of modern architecture by the inimitable Neave Brown.
Alexandra & Ainsworth (or to the residents, Rowley Way) was built on a disused skinny arc of land next to a busy rail line — usually all characteristics that lend themselves to create a truly inhospitable situation. But Mr. Brown persevered, and created one of the single most important pieces of built work in the City. A central street traverses the entire estate, and the entire building is sloped like an amphitheater away from the rail line — creating a focus and mitigating danger and noise. Residents can safely mingle and meet in this street, as in any village across the UK — it’s just that this village is made out of raw concrete and it’s in the center of London. A disruptive approach to a traditional way of life.
I was emotional, to say the least. It sounds so saccharine here, letters on the screen — but it was a moving sight. We do what we do so that people may live better lives, and this assemblage of buildings was built entirely for that purpose — without ego, without pomp or circumstance. The estates of the greater City of London have been derided (unfairly) as eyesores, or (also unfairly) hellholes full of crime — but when you see what they replaced, you cannot help but be completely overwhelmed. The slums of pre- and post-war London were devastatingly horrible — darkened single rooms with coal-fired stoves and infestations beyond the grasp of any of us. To elevate those people out of that mire, and put them into these egalitarian, functional spaces — that’s heroic, frankly. To give them heating, cooling, sinks, toilets, real kitchens, green spaces, safe places for their children to play… What a glorious thing.
We just wandered, for over an hour. I ran my hands over the board-marked concrete, grasped the perfectly-scaled handrails. We just kept looked at each other, and murmuring, “It’s so good.” The green patina of moss covered the entire estate, and satellite dishes arced towards the glint of the sun, finally appearing after the grey of the morning. Some of the units appeared to have recently been refitted — crisp new frosted glass railings and posh, minimalist plantings of Mexican feather grass and dracaenas. Others were like time capsules — old yellow plastic deck chairs crumbling against rotting wooden-frame sliding doors, gaudy-print curtains swaying in the breeze. It was disarming how quiet it was, how successfully the ziggurat-style layout blocked all extraneous noise. We made our way in silence towards the center of the estate, following the red-brick road. A shuttered shopfront, planters bursting with foliage, a perfect sunken garden… It was just too wonderful.
“We should live here someday…” Mark murmured, as we wandered towards the eastern edge of the estate. “It just feels like home.”
We ambled the few blocks to Swiss Cottage, then took the Jubilee line to Bond Street — we were headed to Marylebone for fish and chips, a British staple that I had not yet had whilst in Britain. The goal was the Golden Hind, legendary for that singular dish — but as we walked down Marylebone Lane, all of the other restaurants looked… well, nicer. “I’m sure 108 Brasserie does a good fish and chips…” I ignored the voices in my head as we squeezed into the Golden Hind, and found a small table by the window. I furiously googled the menus down the block before the waitress could arrive, but didn’t manage to convince either myself or Mark to switch venues.
Boy, was I ever glad of that. “It’ll be right out, love.” And it was. A slab of fresh-caught cod, deep-fried and surrounded by perfect chips, chased by a draft lager. It was exactly what we needed. We ate in near-silence, savoring every bite and letting ourselves dissolve into the conversations around us. British finance bros speaking a different language, French tourists speaking another. It was jarring in the most pleasant way — we couldn’t really understand anything, so the burden of eavesdropping was lifted. We simply sat, ate, drank, smiled, laughed.
After paying the bill and squeezing our way out, we wandered across the street to the Monocle shop — a delightful shoebox full of things we desperately wanted, but couldn’t quite justify all of the way to “needing.”
After a quick browse and a quick pining session, we tipped back out onto the street — towards Bond Street, then to Green Park, then to Sloane Square — the home of Pinch.
Pinch is a completely lovely furniture gallery, specializing in completely incredible heirloom-quality things that we desperately wanted to see and touch in person. We wandered about, agog, and chatted a bit with the sales people. But time was wearing on, and we had an engagement later — so back out into the city we went.
Sloane Square to South Kensington, to High Street Kensington, then…
“…there is a signal failure at Edgware Road, service disruption on the District and Circle lines…”
Again. We sighed, and heaved our way out onto the street with a mass of other frustrated commuters. A quick look at an app or two, and it just so appeared that the no. 70 bus would weave it’s way right through the city and stop right in front of our hotel — and one was pulling up at that very moment. We hopped on, crammed in with the others who left the station, and made our way back to Notting Hill one lurching stop at a time.
A quick relax and refresh, a shave and a shower — and yet again, back on the street we were. Queensway to Liverpool, a few blocks walk, and then our destination loomed above us, aglow — 30 St. Mary Axe, or affectionately, the Gherkin.
The Gherkin divided the City when it was built — a totally novel and different way to build a skyscraper to some, and a ghastly phallic monument of excess to others. To me? I just wanted to see the nitty-gritty. I had managed to get us a reservation at the bar in the dome — at the time, quite a feat as it was only open for tenants of the building (now just about anyone can go). We anxiously approached the entrance, showed our reservation to a guard, awkwardly made our way through a metal detector — and then we were in.
The finishes screamed 2004 — endless brushed metal and polished stone. We zipped up 40 floors via lift, then up a flight of stairs to the bar. We were sat at the bar that circled the entire space, just a foot or so from the iconic latticework façade. We were nearly alone — the seemingly endless field of empty Philippe Starck Louis Ghost chairs (again, so 2004) mirrored against the jet-black polished stone floor. We ordered drinks — gin, fittingly — and gazed out over the entire city of London, as it stretched beyond our view. The Gherkin was quite tall when it was built, but now it’s surrounded by friends — and cranes operated what felt like mere feet from us, over the chasms created by the streets below. I kept looking up, through the purple-washed “lens,” halfway expecting to see a jetliner swoop overhead.
“This is… so early two-thousands.” Mark gestured towards the sole decoration — three stone pillars of differing heights, grouped in the middle of the space and crowned with large bowls full of ornamental grasses. “Yeah,” I chuckled as I swigged my drink, “and at £20 a cocktail, maybe we only need one?”
He nodded in agreement, and only 45 minutes after arriving, we headed downstairs to the lift — and again back out onto the street.
Bank to Waterloo to Green Park via a series of totally packed trains — and towards Mr. Fogg’s, a famous bar, hopefully for another round of drinks before our late dinner reservation. We’d texted our friend Binai for a recommendation (and hopefully a tag-along) but she had been headed home already. We approached Mr. Fogg’s — and it turned out to be entirely rented for a private party, as explained by two giant bouncers dressed as beefeaters.
We were still dreadfully early for dinner, and lagging a bit — so we popped into Starbucks on Carnaby Street for a double espresso. It was extremely and suddenly discordant — the achingly bright corporate interior, the smell of coffee, the cackling of drunk young people outside. We sat awkwardly on tall stools and drank our fuel as quickly as possible, whilst looking for alternate venues on our phones.
We ventured back out, towards dinner at Bao. We wedged ourselves into the tiny foyer and checked in an hour before our reservation, hoping for an early seating. No dice, so we went next door to the Rising Sun pub — perhaps the antithesis of our minimalist dinner destination. The Chelsea v. Barcelona football game was on, and the place was riled up. Cheers and yells, music in the background, pennants draped over every surface, the smell of stale beer wafting past our faces. It was a total sensory overload, and we anxiously checked our watches while we sipped our obligatory pints of lager. We felt completely out of place, not in a bad or dangerous way — it all just felt so alien, so completely outside of our bubble.
The minutes crept past, and it was finally time for dinner. Pints down, bill paid, out the door — almost in a sprint in the bitter cold night, from a cacophonous football match to a quiet minimalist temple of bao buns in a matter of minutes.
We hurried down to Tottenham Court Road, swiped our Oyster cards… and were met with chaos.
“…there’s a person on the track on the Central Line, and as such no service between Liverpool Street and Leytonstone… severe delays and disruptions on the rest of the line…”
People piled up on the platforms as the service boards clicked even further into delays. We were pressed together, all of us in warm coats to face the winds on the street — and as such, it got humid and hot quickly. Sweat beaded on my forehead as we waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, a train arrived — packed to the gills already. We squished on, with a group of German businessmen. One of them lost his footing and stumbled into a tall, lanky Brit who was very engrossed in a solitaire game on his shattered Android phone.
“You FUCKING PRICK.”
The man’s Cockney drawl shattered the silence in the car as the German man tried to apologize, mere inches from the Brit’s face. “I don’t give a FUCK, you FUCKING prick!” The German man rolled his eyes and turned his back to the Brit, as the Brit muttered something unintelligible under his breath.
We watched as couples bickered, children screamed at their parents, tube employees argued… It felt like we’d all devolved, become something other than human in that hot tunnel. I turned pale as I thought of the reason for the delay — a person on the tracks. “Are they alive? Was it on purpose?” I kept thinking. It felt as if that negative energy just flooded all of us, and we were acting it out on everyone around us.
We finally made it to Queensway and heaved our way out of the train. We waited in line at the lift for just a brief moment — enough time to watch a young lady push against the crowd, heading the wrong way with a massive suitcase out from the lift. She kept rolling her eyes, huffing and puffing — a quintessentially English way to display just how miffed she was that all of these people were inconveniencing her, and so personally.
“What the fuck is wrong with these people?!” I muttered to Mark as we hiked up the endless stair to the surface. “These are not British people — they’ve been turned into demons!”
We made our way across the street, and then up the lift, and then down the hall to our room — to our safe haven, free of disruptions and disturbances. Our little bolthole, with crisp white sheets and ice-cold sparkling water and tiny bites of chocolate — we were whole again, seamless and complete.
Alexandra & Ainsworth Estate — Rowley Way — Swiss Cottage
The Golden Hind — 71A-73 Marylebone Lane — Bond Street
Monocle — 2 George Street — Bond Street