The Getting of Knowledge

Becoming a London Taxi Driver is a mysterious business.

A London Taxi
A London Taxi

For a long time I wondered about those figures in the bright yellow safety vests and helmets, with maps wedged into frames, rather like music-stands, on the handle bars of their motorbikes, who slowly cruise the streets of London, squinting at monuments and peering into buildings. At first I took them for couriers. Yet, somehow their pace (snail’s) and style (cautious) didn’t quite fit with the classic motorcycle courier’s speed and daring. Then I thought they might be tourists but the absence of cameras made that seem unlikely. They were clearly a group or force of some kind, united by a uniform of sorts (vests, helmets, maps, music stands and motorbikes) and certain distinctive behaviours (squinting and peering at monuments and buildings) Perhaps they were security guards ensuring the safety of the city’s landmarks or special agents tracking suicide statue bombers?

I puzzled on until, one day, one of these mystery riders crossed the path of my taxi. What luck! The driver was sure to have the answer to the enigma of the vested, map-reading monument-watchers. After all, London cabbies know everything.

“Excuse me, but that man on the motorbike, what’s he doing? I asked

“He’s getting the knowledge” the driver replied mysteriously.

The knowledge?” I whispered, leaning forward, my imagination fired. This is the home of Harry Potter and you can’t tell me that there isn’t a platform 31/2 somewhere at Victoria Station or a wand shop in one of those dark, narrow, city lanes. So wizards on motorbikes, why not?

“The knowledge is what you must have” the driver went on, “to drive a London taxi”.

Pure muggle, I decided as the motorcyclist puttered past into an alley – no flash of cape or trace of lightning scar.

Still, the study and exams involved in acquiring the knowledge make the programme at Hogwart’s Academy seem like a kindergarten course and A level Wizardry as easy as 1,2,3. The knowledge consists of 400 London routes, including all hotels, hospitals, stations, buildings, businesses, theatres, cinemas, landmarks and monuments as well as all their histories. The aspiring taxi driver spends four years in pursuit of the knowledge; studying maps, reading histories and riding the city streets to master it. Candidates take the first of their formal, collar and tie oral exams after two years. Questions consist of the quickest route from A to B, the location of the nearest hospital to point X or the history of a certain building or landmark. The second and final exam is tougher, with more complex questions and trick scenarios where “clients” change their destinations suddenly from hotel to hospital and the candidate must find the nearest and the quickest way to get there. Having proven that s/he has the knowledge and also that s/he is fluent in English, the graduate can buy the taxi, which costs thirty thousand pounds and begin a career as a cabbie.

“And what about witty banter?” I asked “Surely that’s part of the knowledge too!”

“No, my darlin’”.  The driver’s eyes in the rear vision mirror were inscrutable “That’s something we were born with, you can’t learn that!”

Like muggles and wizards, I thought to myself.

Borough Market

It’s Saturday morning at Borough Market, London’s oldest, most famous and most popular fresh food market. 3376

Produce at Borough Market
Produce at Borough Market

A dense, slow-moving crowd of back-packs, baskets, shopping trolleys, along with wide-eyed, camera-wielding tourists, weaves through the narrow aisles and mills around the chain of stalls stacked with colourful produce. The air is heavy with tantalising smells. The shrill cries of the touts rise above the hubbub of chatter, the distant beat of a busker’s drum, the intermittent roar of a train and the constant rumble of traffic.

There was a market here in Southwark, just south of London Bridge, at the time of the Roman conquest in the 5th century. It survived the subsequent invasion by the Norsemen, who burned down the bridge. After the arrival of King Canute in 1014AD, the bridge was reconstructed and the market re-installed. By the 13th century, however, it had begun to cause access problems and was ousted.

After several re-locations, The market found a home at the meeting point of all the roads from the South Coast into the city of London. Merchants from all over London traded their produce there and travellers stopped there to stock up and eat before resuming their journeys. This was the beginning of Borough Market’s international fame.

By the 18th century, with the industrial revolution, the Southwark skyline was a forest of factory chimneys and its roads were congested with traffic. The market, in its central location was major obstruction. In 1754, it was demolished and re-located to the present site which since has proved perfect for the sale of produce arriving at the Pool of London and at London Bridge Railway Station.

Today, Borough Market is administered by a Trust composed of local residents. It is a centre for food excellence and attracts customers from all over London and tourists from all over the world. Merchants come from all over England and Europe to sell their produce. Delicious local fruit, fish, meat, milk, cider, beer, fruit juices and preserves take their place alongside olives, olive oil, pasta and sauces from Italy, cheese, wine and bread from France, a thousand and one wursts from Germany, and oranges from Spain and Portugal. It is still totally dedicated to food and drink. The only things on sale which are not edible or drinkable are charming plates, bowls, cups, glasses, tea-towels, oven cloths, aprons and mouth-watering pictures of food.

Borough Market has recently celebrated 250 years of trading on its current site. Although threatened by a plan to extend London Bridge Railway Station, the Trust and the local residents are determined to see it survive another 200 years of trading.

An evening at Ronnie Scott’s

Although we booked a week in advance for Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in Gerrard Street, Soho, London, there were no tables left for either the 6p.m. or the 11 p.m. show. This was not surprising. The band of the night, the Ronnie Scott Legacy Band, rarely performs and the club is always heavily booked. So for 20 pounds we reserved places “at the bar” or “on the side”. Imagining a rush for a few square inches of standing room in mosh-pit crush, or two inches of elbow room at the bar, we arrived ahead of time and with a sizeable queue of other early-birds, ran the entry gauntlet. First we passed the front door security where our names were checked against the guest list and we were warned off using phones and cameras, then through the cloak-room check-in, then through a reception team, where our names were checked against another list and lastly to a charming waitress who showed us to our places “on the side”.

Ronnie Scott's
Ronnie Scott’s

Low ceilinged, dim and small, the club has the feel of the classic jazz basement but with none of the smoky closeness or the worn, shabby look. Ronnie Scott’s is chic, plush, hip and very, very cool. Its colours are black and red with the occasional hint of chrome. The dark walls are hung with black and white photos of the stars and superstars who have made Ronnie Scott ’s an icon among music clubs. There are two semi-circles of tables, lit with red lamps, at the centre of the room, close to the stage. At the back of the room, the bar is small and discreet with low lights and tones. The seats “on the side” are tiered in rows, behind benches, also lit with red lamps, for drinks and for those who choose to dine.

Ronnie Scott’s offers two menus, one for each show, and three courses. The choices are good, with four or five options for entrees, mains and desserts. The dishes we chose (the cod and the duck) were excellent. The wine list looked tempting but we by-passed it for the cocktails, which were simply irresistible. The Fitzgerald and the Mojito, each with a little cube of absinthe soaked sugar fizzing away in their depths, tasted delicious and were very potent.

The evening’s support band, the Ronnie Scott All Stars, consisting of drummer, bass player and a brilliant pianist/vocalist, were very, very good – a powerful build-up and a great lead-in to the main performance. The audience was peppered with people who looked as if they might well have been around in the days when the club was a basement in Gerrard Street and snippets of over-heard conversation behind and beside us suggested that most were devout fans of jazz and of Ronnie Scott. The anticipation was palpable and the sense of occasion awesome. When the Legacy Band appeared, there was a roar of cheering, whistles and long applause. With Mark Fletcher on drums, Tim Wells on double bass, Pat Crumley on Saxophone and that stalwart of so many of Ronnie Scott’s own quartets, octets and combos, John Critchinson, on the keyboards, the music was magnificent. In a voice that is cultured English at its smoothest and, yes, sexiest, John Critchinson introduced the band and the numbers, reminisced just a little, tossed out some of those one-liners and asides and re-told some of those old jokes that Ronnie Scott was famous for. For everyone, club debutants and old lags alike, the magic of Ronnie Scott’s the club and Ronnie Scott the man was alive again.

Ronnie Scott’s

On October 30, 1959, in Gerrard Street, Soho, London, saxophonists Pete King and Ronnie Scott opened the modest basement jazz club which was to become a major influence on British music and survive for over half century as a mecca for jazz musicians and fans from all over the world. 2030

Soho, London Travelstripe
Soho, London Travelstripe

When the club opened Ronnie Scott was already a jazz legend on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the earliest British musicians to adopt the bebop style of Charlie Parker, he had played for over a decade alongside such greats as Johnny Claes, Ted Heath, Cab Kaye, Tito Burns, John Dankworth, Jack Parnell, Victor Feldman, Hank Shaw, Phil Seaman and Tubby Hayes. He had won the approval of great jazzmen like Charles Mingus who said: “Of the white boys, Ronnie Scott gets closer to the negro blues feeling, the way Zoot Sims does”

From the start, the impact of Scott and King’s new club on the British music scene was enormous. Not only did it expose the local musicians and fans to Trans-Atlantic influences such as Zoot Sims and Sonny Rollins, but it also promoted domestic artists like Tubby Hayes, Dick Morissey, Ernest Ranglin and Stan Tracy. Ronnie Scott’s rapidly became legendary. When the lease ran out on the Gerrard Street basement in 1965 and Ronnie Scott’s moved to its present location it continued until 1967, under the name of “The Old Place”, as a venue for emerging local talents, among them Eric Clapton.

Meanwhile, the reputation and success of Ronnie Scott’s, Frith Steet grew. Duke Ellington played here. The Who’s Tommy premiered here and tragically, it was at Ronnie Scott’s that Jimmy Hendrix gave his last public performance. Music videos, films, TV shows and radio programmes were recorded at Ronnie’s , earning Scott his 1981 OBE “for services to jazz”. In May 1995, Van Morrison and Georgie Fame, both frequent performers at the club, recorded the album “How Long Has This Been Going On” here, with Pee Wee Ellis on the saxophone.

Throughout this period, Ronnie Scott played on in various groups, most of which included keyboards player John Critchinson. As the clubs Master of Ceremonies, he was famous for his repertoire of jokes. At this time he also did session work, including the solo on The Beatles Lady Madonna.

Ronnie Scott died in 1996 and Pete King continued to run the club until, finally, in 2005, it was sold to theatre impresario Sally Green.

The club’s reputation and popularity continue. It attracts music lovers and jazz aficionados of all ages from all corners of the world. It is still a popular haunt of many old patrons from its early years including big names of music and show business. Ronnie Scott’s has recently re-opened after extensive renovations and re-organisation, to accommodate the hundreds of patrons who cram into it every night. It now offers 2 sessions, from 6 to 10.30 p.m and from 11p.m. 3.a.m. There are mutterings out there among the old guard that the ambience, spontaneity and spirit of Ronnie’s have been lost in renovation. Is it true, I wonder?

Find out in Travelstripe’s next post – A Night at Ronnie Scott’s.

Soho, London

With its cosmopolitan mix of people and its many diverse bars, restaurants, clubs and cafes, Soho is one of the most interesting corners of London. It is also one of the oldest areas of the city.

Soho Travelstripe
Maison Bertaux

Soho was part of Westminster Abbey’s lands until was appropriated by King Henry VIII as a hunting ground. The name comes from the hunters call to signalthe sighting of a prey.

The first Soho settlers were aristocrats, driven from the city of London by the Great Fire of 1666. As its popularity with the gentry declined, Soho saw its first wave of migration, mainly from economic and religious refugees, like the French Protestant Huguenots who settled there in 1685. By the 1800s, Soho was home to many different ethnic groups from all parts of Europe, as well as political fugitives like Karl Marx. Many of the descendants of these first settlers still live in Soho and new migrants have continued to arrive over the ensuing centuries to make their homes alongside them.

The prettiest and most peaceful part of Soho is undoubtedly Soho Square. The Square centres on a shady green pocket handkerchief park, with a statue to Charles II and a wooden summer house, built in 1875. The first houses on the square were built by the city aristocrats. St Patrick’s and the French Protestant Church, both established in 1893, are the legacy of 19th migrants.

Greek Street, named after Greek refugees from the 17th Century Ottoman invasions, still has buildings which survive from that period. Also sited here is the House of St Barnabas for destitute women, which dates back to1746. Soho’s most famous establishment is La Maison Bertaux. Established in 1871, it is the oldest patisserie in London. 1663

Soho, London, Travelstripe
China Town

Gerrard Street, now the location of London’s China town, was originally won in a duel by Baron Gerard of Brandon and developed as part of the first aristocratic settlement. As they drifted away to the more fashionable West, rents dropped and migrant communities, including French, Italian and Jewish moved in. After World War II, thousands of agricultural workers from Hong Kong arrived. In 1985, in recognition of the significance the Chinese Community the City of Westminster renovated Gerrard Street in oriental style and made it a pedestrian zone.

Old Compton Street is Soho’s high street. The buildings, bars and restaurants in and around Compton Street are steeped in history and in stories of the people who lived and visited there, including great artists, writers and musicians. Its oldest shop, now the Algerian Coffee Stores is here. Next door to Bar Italia, in Frith Street, is the house where Mozart stayed with his family from 1764 to 1765. Above it is the room where John Logie Baird first demonstrated television in 1926. Ronnie Scott’s, over the road, has been the venue for nearly all the big names of jazz since it opened in 1959. The French house in Dean Street was a haunt of Maurice Chevalier and General De Gaulle.

Soho is a fascinating area, easily walkable and with hundreds of great spots to take a break, both indoor and outdoor, when you can walk no more . There is always something to do, see and learn in Soho.

 

London’s Burning

At 1 a.m. on Sunday September 2, at the end of the particularly long, dry, hot summer of 1666, fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane in London City. Fanned by a fierce easterly wind, it spread quickly to the warehouses on the riverbanks. Filled with pitch, ropes and timber, they exploded and fuelled the fire’s race through the crowded wooden houses which overhung the narrow streets.

London's Burning
London’s Burning

Pandemonium followed. People fled in wild panic before the advancing flames. The streets were soon packed with carts stacked with household goods and people laden with whatever treasures they could carry. Carters, exploiting the situation charged outrageous prices. Thieves and looters ran through the abandoned houses seizing whatever they could. Vigilante groups hunted down scapegoats among the city’s long distrusted foreign communities.

Others bravely fought the blaze, including the King and the Duke of York. In a desperate attempt to stop the advancing inferno, forces of soldiers and sailors were organized to blow up houses in its path. Finally, after five days, the wind dropped and the fire died down.

It took the city years to recover. Slowly some people moved into the city, rebuilt their houses and re-established their businesses. Others never returned, choosing to remain in the new settlements further out. Witch hunts continued and foreigners were held in suspicion. However, in the end, the blame was placed on greed, as the blaze had started in a bakery on Pudding Lane. A golden statue of a fat little boy stands on the corner of a building near Smithfield Market as reminder of the fire and of the wages of the sin of greed.

The Museum of London, in Aldergate Street in the City, has a wonderful exhibition on the Great Fire of London. It tells the story through the real life experiences of famous writers, like diarist Samuel Pepys and also of some ordinary citizens. It explores the questions; How did people cope? Who caused the fire? What were the lasting effects?

The museum, which sits alongside the ancient city wall, also explores the history of very early of London and Roman London.

 

London City

The City of London, generally referred to as “The City” is London’s business and financial centre. It stretches along the north bank of the Thames from the Old Bailey, at the west end, to the Tower of London at the east.

Although there has been a settlement on the site since the 8th century Roman fort of Londinium, it has been razed and rebuilt many times. Most of early and mediaeval London was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. Again, during World War Two, bombing attacks took levelled many18th, 19th and early 20th century buildings.

Today, the city is a showcase of spectacular, towering modern architecture. Ever-rising scaffolding and the din of jack-hammers speak of constant renewal and the criss cross of cranes against the sky of the continual upward climb.

Contrast of old and new in London City
Contrast of old and new in London City

The city is the domain of the safety helmet, the yellow vest, the suit, the briefcase and, even sometimes, the bowler hat. It is a powerhouse of construction and commerce, a busy, vibrant place, which hums with daytime activity during the week and pumps on Thursday and Friday nights. Most of the rest of the time it is empty and deserted. Very few people have actually lived here since the 19th century.

Yet, still, threaded through the construction sites and dotted around the twentieth and twenty-first century monoliths are traces of old the city and the lives of the people who lived there. Plaques indicate the homes of famous figures from history, like prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry’s on Threadneedle Street.

There are streets which recall neighbourhoods of another age, like Bread Street, Cornhill Street and Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire started. Some districts are as old as Shakespeare, like Billingsgate, one of London’s oldest quays and home of its fish-market for 900 years until its 1982 re-location to the Isle of Dogs.

The Ornate Victorian Leadenhall Market, on site of the Roman Forum, was designed by Sir Horace Jones in 1881 but has housed a food market since the Middle Ages. Today it offers additional gourmet fare; wine, cheese, chocolates and delicatessen. At breakfast and lunchtime it is crowded with shoppers, stalls and diners.

Nine of the 52 beautiful churches built by Christopher after the Great fire still survive. The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, completed in 1708, still dominates the city skyline. The bells of St Mary Le Bow still chime and the tradition still holds that anyone born within their sound is deemed to be a true Londoner or Cockney. Still standing, also, is Wren’s 62m stone column commemorating the Great Fire. The tallest isolated stone column in the world, it goes by the unassuming name of Monument.

Many public buildings remain too. The Royal Exchange building, 1844, is the third on its site between Threadneedle and Cornhill Streets. The first was founded by Sir Thomas Gresham, Elizabethan merchant and courtier in 1565 and was given its Royal Title by Queen Elizabeth I. It is still one of the sites from which the new regent is announced. Britain’s first public (men only) lavatories, a symbol of the country’s sanitary enlightenment, were built in the forecourt of the Exchange. The Mansion house, official residence of the Lord Mayor of London, designed by George Dance the elder, was built in 1853 and of course housed such legends as Dick Whittington. Also “housed” in its concealed prison was the suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst.

The City of London is many ways a hodge-podge of new, old and older still, with tiny sunless pedestrian alleys curving off at odd tangents and roaring streets full of traffic, intersecting at strange angles. It is a mess of differing heights, styles and media with no architectural uniformity whatsoever and no apparent plan. But, yet it is the contrast of the old and the new, the high and the low, the stone and the glass, the plain and the effusively decorated that give the city its distinctive character. It is the scarred stone church against the gleaming steel diamonds of the glass tower that give it its charm. It is the tall, pale, angular, planes of the skyscraper behind sepia stained statues, friezes and neo-classical pillars or the glimpse of a pristine, white cathedral dome between two dark walls that give it its drama. And it is the reflection of elaborate Victorian façades in the stark steel-framed windows of the modern office block that gives it its magic.

 

Bula Massage

The Bula Massage Centre is a modest establishment, tucked away in a small, narrow shop at the back of the Pacific Harbour Arts Village in Fiji. Within its humble walls, however, is a force of healing hands, which every day, works minor miracles.

Bula Massage, Fiji, Travelstripe
Bula Massage, Fiji, Travelstripe

A winter shackled to the laptop and the TV, a long plane flight, followed by a flurry of unaccustomed activity in the first day or two on holiday  inevitably results for my poor darling, in the dreaded “crook back”.

I’ve seen it many times during our years together and I must confess that when I found him, prostrate and groaning in agony on the couch, on our second morning at the Uprising Beach Resort in Fiji, I could only bite my tongue, shake my head sadly and suggest that he “try to walk it out”.

Was it chance, fate or divine guidance that put us on a path that led straight to the Bula Massage Centre?

The good ladies of the Bula Massage were on their lunch break when we arrived, but as soon as they caught sight of my darling, angled like an allen key, with his teeth gritted and his face contorted with pain, they put their plates aside and hustled him through the door.

An hour and a half later, after head to toe treatment on every muscle and joint, involving hot towels, soothing oils and of course the Bula ladies’ healing hands, he emerged, with all signs of pain erased from his face, standing straight and ready to resume his holiday.

The cost of a one and a half hour massage at the Bula Massage Centre, Pacific Harbour Arts Village, Fiji?    $80 Fiji dollars.

After effects? – priceless!

 

Fifty Shades of Paradise in Fiji

I’m at the Uprising Beach Resort, about one hour out of Suva, on the Coral Coast, at the southern end of Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji. It’s paradise.

Uprising Beach Resort, Fiji Travelstripe
Uprising Beach Resort, Fiji
Travelstripe

I’m sitting on a deserted beach under a palm tree looking out across the smooth blue lagoon to a bush covered island. On the horizon is the white line of the reef. The sun filters through a light cover of cloud. The air is warm. There’s not a soul in sight. There’s no sound but the soft swish of the waves on the sand, the occasional rattle of leaves, the snap of a branch, the thud of a falling coconut or a snatch of bird song. Beside me there’s a bottle of Fiji water and on my lap is a copy of a notorious best-selling novel.

When it gets too hot I can slip into the sea or walk ten paces over the sand, across the lawn and into my spacious, airy Fijian bure-style villa. I can take another ice-cold Fiji water, (or something stronger) from the refrigerator, and enjoy the view from the shady verandah, or through the wooden-shuttered doors of the bedroom or lounge. I can cool off in the indoor or in the outdoor shower where there’s generous supply of delicious coconut-scented soaps, shampoos and lotions. When the the sound of the ocean isn’t enough I can plug my ipod into the bedside dock and when the book is a bit much I can flick on the TV.

If I tire of the solitude, then just a short stroll through the gardens are the pool, the bar and restaurant. I can luxuriate in a deckchair either poolside or on the lawn, under a palm. If I absolutely must reach the outside world, I can access the internet in the bar. But I’d probably prefer to order an Uprising cocktail (the Mango Daqueiri, which looks like an ice-cream sundae and tastes like a fruit smoothie, is divine) Then, I can people-watch or strike up a conversation. There’s always someone to talk to – a fellow guest, a visiting local (always a good sign) or the Uprising staff, who are truly lovely and always up for a chat and a laugh. In the Uprising restaurant I can look out through the open walls, across the garden to the sea as, depending on the time of day, I breakfast, lunch or dine. At breakfast, I can have either cooked or continental, with tropical fruits and home-baked breads, buns and muffins. At lunch and dinner I can choose from burgers, parmas and steaks or curries, and pizzas and pastas. But I’ll probably opt for a delicious local dish, full of the flavours of the sea and the resort’s own gardens, like kokonda (raw fish) with cassava chips or fish salad.

If I feel like action, I can ride a jet-ski out across the lagoon to the island, or paddle across in a kayak. I jog up the beach or canter along it on horseback. I can snorkel, scuba-dive or take a fishing trip. I can bat a few balls over the net on the volleyball court or kick a few goals on the Ruby field at the front of the resort. And if I want to see some action, on certain evenings I can watch the Uprising Rugby team in training.

If I need rejuvenation after all this, I can enjoy an invigorating traditional Fijian massage, down beside the sea.

And then, at the end of the day, I can sit at the beachside bar, sip a long Vono beer and watch the sun sink below the little island at the western end of the lagoon.

It’s paradise – Fifty shades of paradise.

 

 

Crossing Fiji’s Viti Levu

Stepping off the plane at Nandi Airport in Fiji was like a homecoming; a ukulele band was plunking away in the distance, there were lavalavas and bright island prints, there was  ululating Pacific language and a warm breeze blew through the arrivals hall.

A roadside stall in Fiji
A roadside stall in Fiji

The two hour drive from Nandi to the Uprising Beach Resort took us from one side of Viti Levu to the other and then around the coral coast to the island’s southern side. We slowed for road works, police and military roadblocks, flooded fords, washed out bridges and lumbering trucks laden with long sticks of freshly harvested sugar cane.

The long ride was worth it for the close and slow insights into Fijian life. When we first set out in the late afternoon, the countryside was busy with workers cutting and ploughing, some with machines, but more than a few with bullocks, and the roads were blocked by trucks. We passed roadside stores with thatched rooves and groups of women with selling fruit and vegetables from baskets spread out on mats while their children played in the shade of the trees.

Then, as the sun began to sink, the roadsides were lined with workers filing home and kids running back from school. Later still, in the twilight, we passed villages where people sat in clusters under trees. We took an enforced detour through the town of Sigatoka, with street markets, crowded shops and crawling traffic.

At sunset we reached the coast and followed lines of palms, stands of dense bush, the high fences of luxury resorts and a long stretch of sea, to Pacific Harbour and the welcoming lights of the Uprising Beach Resort.