Thursday, 27 November 2014

London: Day 3

Our third day in London started off very slowly. The evening before I had managed to hurt my knee—presumably because I’d been traipsing around the joint in rubbish shoes—and, as such, I decided to buy some shoes that offer me more support. So after a bit of googling, off I limped to Black’s, a shoe store in the UK.

We went to the Blacks on Regent street where we were enthusiastically greeted by a man who I imagine was the store owner. It was our first time in a proper British store—one that didn’t sell food—and I must confess that it was a tiny bit of a culture shock. He warmly welcomed us and then outlined the process of getting me my new shoes. “Take a seat, and we’ll have a shoe specialist come a long do an expert fitting, then we’ll discuss your needs and blah blah”. It was all really bizarre.

The man who actually did the fitting was a little less enthusiastic. He was an immigrant from France, named Kevin, of African origin. I have never in my life met someone who more clearly hated their job in my life. When the shop owner asked him to do the fitting, Kevin asked “do I have to?”. We then did the fitting and got some shoes. In the interim, however, we got chatting with Kevin and decided that the shop owner was actually a bit of a dud. At home, there’s generally the expectation that when you do walk into a shoe store, for instance, that the assistant will give you genuine advice and try to help you out. From the store owner, I really did get the sense that he was trying to game us into making a more expensive purchase. It’s hard to describe, but it was quite a stark difference from home, where people are generally honest.

The store owner is a pretty good example of how the British seem at times. There’s a lot of kindness and politeness in their words. Their way of speaking is far more polite. Where we may say “thanks”, the Brits would offer something more along the lines of “thank you so kindly”. It gives the impression that the British are far more polite than us. Though their words may be, I don’t really believe this to be true. With notable exceptions, overall I experience the British to be quite rude on this day in particular. Their words are polite, but their actions often aren’t.

After the shoe store, we decided to visit Primark. Evelyn had suggested it the previous day as a place to buy an umbrella. Stupidly, neither of us had packed one so we decided to pay the store a visit. Primark is pretty similar to Target or Kmart. It differs in that all it really offers is fashion and little tidbits. There is no toy department or electronics department for instance.

Our experience in Primark was quite a poor one. It was horribly busy. There were people everyone. Clothes were strewn all over the floor because of the crowd. It was hot and stuffy because of all the people in close proximity. Indeed, the best way to describe our experience in Primark would be to compare it to Boxing Day sales. It was that kind of busy. When we made our purchases (an umbrella and some presents some friends), I got talking with the cashier, who told me that this was a pretty standard day; one that she wouldn’t describe as busy at all. It scares me to think what Primark would be like on Black Friday (the British and American equivalent to Boxing Day sales).

Tara decided to take us on to the residence of Sherlock Homes, where there is also a museum. Being tight arses—both in respect to money and time—we decided to take a few quick snaps out the front rather than enter the museum. It was mildly amusing going and seeing that. It was even more amusing watching the locals crack the shits because of the crowds staring at a random building.

Next door was a Beatles merchandise store. It was somewhat surprising that this, on the third day, was the first reference to the Beatles that either of us had seen all trip. Naturally, London isn’t the city of the Beatles—they came from Liverpool—but it was surprising that there wasn’t more Beatles “stuff” about the place.

We rushed away from Sherlock’s joint and headed back to the tube. The previous day we (read: I) had led Evelyn on a Cook’s tour to purchase tickets for a tour of the Palace of Westminster, which acts as the UK’s houses of parliament. Our tour was booked for 4.00, and we were very nearly late.

Because of the amount of time I had taken to find the ticket office, we had only managed to book an audio tour. We very nearly didn’t book it because of the price (£17), which would have been an enormous mistake. Without a doubt, the Palace of Westminster has thus far been the highlight of my trip.

We were ushered through security and into a grand entrance hall. The hall was enormous, with a beautiful oak roof and statues scattered around the hall. Various plaques appeared on the floor to mark the place where a significant leader had spoken, such as Nelson Mandela. The hall itself was somewhat marred by the scaffolding within it. Unfortunately, at this time of year it appears to be common for the UK government to do restoration works on their significant tourist attractions, such as the palace and the Westminster Abbey next-door.

Leaving the entrance hall, we made our way into another hall, which, if memory serves me correctly, was named St James’ Hall. This place was truly breathtaking. The hall was much smaller, but far more beautifully decorated. Numerous statues and beautiful murals depicting significant moments in British history adorned the walls, whilst the floor was made of polished marble. Truly, there are no words to describe how pretty this room was.

This was the case for the next room we entered, which was a domed chamber that connects the House of Commons with the House of Lords. It is the area of the palace that sees Lords run into MPs so that they can have some form of contact. The room was high domed and ornately decorated with yet more statues and murals. Most notable in this room though were the four enormous paintings that represented each of the components of the United Kingdom. There was one for Ireland, one for Scotland, one for Wales and one for England, with each being decorated with symbols synonymous with those countries. Truly breathtaking.

Our tour then progressed on to the house of Lords. We got to see the various chambers where the Lords do their work, as well as the robing chamber that the Queen visits when opening parliament each year. By our audio guide we were told a lot about the history of the palace and the functions of the House of Lords. I must confess that I have since forgotten most of this; though interesting I’m sure, the audio guide really was just a distraction from the beauty of the place.

In the area dedicated to the Lords, we saw many more statues and some of the most beautiful paintings I have seen in my life. The scale was incredible. Thinking about the amount of work that would have to have been done to produce such a pretty building is simply boggling on today’s standards.

The House of Lords itself, which we were permitted to enter, was also extremely pretty. It was, however, surprisingly small. There were a few tidbits that we heard about that were particularly interesting. Indeed, to Australians the House of Lords would appear somewhat odd. It’s not an elected body and, for most of Britain’s history, has been about inheritance more than anything else. Nowadays the House of Lords is comprised of some members of the major political parties, as well as various distinguished persons as well as members of the Church of England. The inclusion of Bishops from the Church of England is particularly bizarre in Australian standards, as we, sensibly, have separated church and state. With the ultimately undemocratic and churchiness aside, I was really taken back by the House of Lords. It was beautiful.

After the House of Lords, we were escorted through the people’s house: The House of Commons. For the most part, the House of Commons is extremely similar to our own House of Representatives. Indeed, there is little different at all: even the chairs are the same colour. Most striking is the size of the Commons. It is far, far smaller than ours and yet, there are more than 4 times the number of MPs in Britain than in Australia. During important debates, it is common for MPs to jostle for a position in the House of Commons.

The room itself wasn’t as nice as the House of Lords, and the various chambers off the side weren’t as nice either. There was one particular chamber, however, that was decorated with statues of 20th century British Prime Ministers. It was a tiny bit cool being able to identify a few; such as Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Somewhat concerned by the fact that all those I could identify were Conservative Prime Ministers; bugger Labour I guess!

On either side of the Commons are chambers called the Yes or No chambers. They have the same in the House of Lords; except for the fact that they are called “content” and “not content”. If a division is required, MPs go to these chambers to register their vote. If an MP wants a bill to be passed, they go to the no chamber (a lord would go to a content chamber) and conversely, if he or she wants to oppose the bill, they would go to the no chamber. I must confess I did take a sneaky photograph inside the no chamber through the gate where one records their vote.

Inside the house itself, I did allow myself some time at the despatch box, wondering what it must have been like to stand there as a politician. I stood at the government despatch box, where the next day David Cameron—the Prime Minister of the UK—would deliver his speeches during Prime Minister’s Question Time (the British version of question time). It was quite a nice moment.

Leaving the House of Commons concluded our tour of Westminster Palace. We took a few more photos and made a detour through the gift shop, where I bought some presents for myself and friends. The shop was surprisingly cheap, which was a bonus.

After the palace, we decided to go on a bit of an explore. Tara had been talking about going to the Milleneum Bridge, so I decided to take us there. The bridge is somehow significant, though I must confess that I don’t know why it is. All I know is that it’s the bridge that the Death Eaters decide to destroy in the seventh Harry Potter. In truth, the bridge itself was a little underwhelming. Compared to London Bridge or Tour Bridge, for instance, it was actually quite ugly and quite bland.

We did take a walk over the bridge, however, and to our surprise found that the Tate Modern was on the other surprise. Tara had been urged to go here by her mum, so we were even more happily surprised to find that, at 8pm, it was still open.

The gallery itself was kind of cool. There were some nice pictures there. It was particularly cool to get to stand in front of a Picasso and the soviet era posters were also a highlight. Some of the works were breathtakingly ridiculous though. One, for instance, depicted the Australian desert. The painter had done a pretty shit job of painting the desert, so he decided to brand his painting an impressionist work, that combined reality and imagination. Perhaps this was his aim, but I’m liable to think that he was just a shit painter.

We didn’t stay in the gallery too long—mainly as a result of tiredness—and made the short walk up to the Globe Theatre. The Globe Theatre is the theatre at which many of Shakespeare’s plays were shown whilst he was still alive. We had a bit of a look around, though tours had finished for the day. It was a bizarre feeling being in the same place that he had worked. Personally, I’ve never read any of Shakespeare’s work—though I once played some bloke in Macbeth and was a jury member in a trial of Macbeth that our teacher ran—but it was still quite significant to be there.

After leaving the globe, we had a stroll through the Borough markets—which were closed—and through some sketchy back streets to the underground station. On arriving home, we completely collapsed into bed, ready for the next day.

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