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Jo'Burg Days: Six Hours In London - January, 2006

Barbara Durlacher enjoys herself while visiting some of London’s newer landmark attractions.

For a flavourful taste of life in South Africa read Barbara’s weekly columns. Click on Jo’Burg Days in the menu on this page.

Deep snow in the French countryside and -14C outside, the legend that it never snows in Provence was not holding true. “Pity that you have to spend so much time at Gatwick airport waiting for your connection,” she remarked.

“Yes, I would love to get up to London to see the Tate Modern or the National Gallery, I wonder if I could make it on my own with my bad legs.”

“Tell you what. I’ll hire a car and take you up there myself,” rejoined her daughter, “it would be a lot more fun than staying in the hotel for thirty hours on your own.”

Over the Christmas and New Year holidays the daughter regaled her with stories of recent exhibitions at the Tate Modern – one in particular was a video made by the artist of the lady enjoying multiple orgasms, and although no prude, she felt distinctly uncomfortable to think of viewing this ‘museum-quality’ creation in company with voyeurs and shabby rain-coated strangers with their hands in their pockets. Not quite what she had anticipated for a sober Saturday morning. The daughter’s blandishments were strenuously resisted, until commonsense prevailed and she agreed with pleasure to accept her generous offer.

As it happened, through taking a wrong turning, they came into London through the long boring streets of lower suburbia and when the daughter said “Look, as we’re so close, If I can find a parking space, why don’t we go to the Tate Modern afterall, as it would be a pity to miss it?” she felt she could no longer resist, and belatedly agreed.

She’d never seen it. The last time she had been in this part of London was in the early 1970s when she first came to Britain; long before this clever conversion and utilization of a defunct power station was even a twinkle in the architect’s eye. So it came as a real surprise to see how skillfully the space had been used and what a wonderful venue it is for rather avant guard work unsuitable for the more conservative galleries. Instead, no orgasmic lady; but an excellent exhibition showcasing the work of Henri Rousseau; definitely worth seeing.

Those marvelous spaces lend themselves to large paintings and displays. The light is lovely, diffused yet subtle, and there are headsets with recorded information on all the artists and their work. The coffee shop on the 7th floor has a wonderful view of the Thames and St Paul’s Cathedral, which sadly, now charges an entrance fee.

She found it a real pleasure to be in one of the important London Galleries again and enjoying a hurried gulp of culture, as well as feeling part of the London scene once more. And, for the movie fans, as she waited for the daughter to return with the car, who should arrive by taxi but Kristin Scott Thomas, one of the actresses she most admired. To be honest, if a turn of her head had not struck a chord of memory she would probably not have recognized her, as Scott Thomas [without meaning to be unkind] looked just like a bag lady, with a scruffy knitted hat scrunched down around her ears, a boring jacket and jeans, totally unremarkable. She would have passed her in a crowd without even a glimmer of recognition, but then... probably that's what she wants, to be able to pass in a crowd, to do her own thing and be her own private self without her adoring fans stopping her at every turn.

On the same side of the river is the development at St Katherine’s Dock and Canary Wharf – although they did not really get close enough to see this properly, just brief glimpses as the vistas opened up, but how farsighted and clever to utilize the defunct docklands so effectively by bringing big business to this area of London.

It was here that she enjoyed a tiny glimpse of “the Gherkin” as they drove through the City – what an extraordinary conception that is. What could have the architect* been imbibing to give him the hangover which resulted in that?

The Embankment and Cheyne Walk, then across Tower Bridge with a brief view of HMS Belfast, the last major warship to have fired its guns in WWII and now a naval museum, then over Blackfriars Bridge and across to the Embankment again.

Opposite was the old Battersea Power Station due to be turned into an enormous convention center and shopping mall, just glimpsed before they ducked through a tiny secret passage under the Savoy Hotel to emerge into the Strand, past Charing Cross Station and into Trafalgar Square, crowded with the usual tourists, including her, all clicking away like mad. Up Pall Mall to Buck House, passing the beautiful London parks, where everybody was out jogging and walking their dogs. Wonderful to see people relaxing and having fun right on the Queen’s doorstep in one of the most imposing parts of London. Wonder if she’s gratified to know that people enjoy it so much?

Down Park Lane to Chelsea, [did you know that the old King George VI Hospital for Officers on the corner is now a classy up-market hotel? It’s the one where Michael Jackson hung his baby out of the window; and as it’s so prominent it’s no surprise that all the paparazzi were there snapping his antics.] Then lunch in Chelsea at a tiny Lebanese restaurant throbbing with young people, life, and the latest vibes.

Passing Harrods the daughter pointed out that Mohammed Al Fayed [Dodi's Pa] has replaced the Royal Warrant with an extraordinary mockup of some kitsch armorial shield [trust him not to be put in his place by a mere QUEEN]. She would have loved to stop for a few minutes to see the inside of that great store where [as seen on TV of course] al Fayed has created a sort of Pharanoic representation of himself with enormous reproductions of the Sphinx with features curiously similar to his own, but the crowds for the last week of the January sales made parking impossible.

So they cruised the main drag past Chelsea Barracks which has been sold to some developer and will soon be a forest of cranes and high-rises; probably a good thing, as horses permanently stabled in London must be a confounded nuisance. Sad that the gracious roof lines of Europe’s most beautiful and majestic cities are being changed by these monotonous steel and glass towers, but there’s no stopping progress.

Back over the river across from the majestic Royal Hospital and opposite Battersea Park to see an area of new residential flats where the daughter has an investment apartment. In an area formerly never considered fashionable, these ultra-modern housing developments south of the river and beyond World’s End in Fulham have radically changed this part of London and it’s very different to the bleak and dreary city of the 1970s. However commonsense told her that her rose-coloured specs were firmly in place, and no doubt she was viewing the scene through a haze of sentiment and nostalgia. But what an enjoyable slice of reminiscence after so many years, and what a different London to the one she remembered!

* Later information says that Norman Foster, one of Britain’s most prestigious architects, created the Gherkin.

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