We’re on the Tube. It’s a busy Monday morning, and the train’s nipping along at a good speed - nice and smooth. I, hanging on to a steel bar along the inside, stand and watch the tube stations whiz past. The train, although nowhere as full as what I’m used to back home in India, is crammed--but the crowd’s quiet and well-organised. They step on and off the train in a relatively silent mass - black skirts and high-heeled shoes, dark suits and briefcases, laptops and newspapers.
As the crowd surges past, I catch a glimpse of the tube stations through which the train makes its swift way: Baker Street, its walls decorated with huge black-and-white line drawings depicting the adventures of the legendary Sherlock Holmes; Paddington, with its large mannequins of the lovable bear; and Pimlico, near the Tate Gallery, with its walls decorated with copies of the paintings which hang in the famous art gallery... "Ah, this is London," I think. The stuff that legends are made of - historic, dignified, stately. Not infallible, obviously, but perhaps close...
My gaze wanders down to the girl who’s sitting, hunched up in a shapeless overcoat, next to the door. She’s reading a book, neatly covered in brown paper, and I can read the precisely lettered title on the cover: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Poof! There go my illusions. London is, after all, just as human as any other city. As vulnerable, as mundane, as prone to mistakes - as delightfully interesting.
The thought returns again and again. We’re walking through the British Museum when I turn to see a woman stroll past - resplendent in red velvet cloak and mini, all of it liberally covered with huge gilt buttons. And one night, after a long and leisurely Chinese dinner in Soho, we’re standing on the pavement waiting for a cab when a definitely tipsy guy strolls up, looks dreamily up at my friend, and whispers hoarsely, "You wouldn’t have a pound to spare, would you?" My pal, a quiet, bespectacled Sikh with few pretensions to beauty, shakes his head. And the other, after a silent and painful look of disappointment, gazes into my friend’s face again - this time beatifically, almost rapturously - and murmurs, "You know, you’ve got the most beautiful eyes." And then he’s gone, lurching down the street while we stand and stare, not quite sure of anything. And that, actually, is the joy of being in London - of not being quite sure what awaits at the next corner, what delicious surprise will spring up and enfold you in its warm embrace, when you’ll come across something you’ve only read about in books.
Our first day out in the warm spring sunshine takes us to pigeon-flooded Trafalgar Square, where Nelson’s Column towers above the imposing lions at its foot. We dart deftly about, taking photographs and trying not to step on the birds milling around our feet, and then walk on, up to the fascinating National Gallery and its neighbour, the little-known National Portrait Gallery, a fairly comprehensive collection of portraits of Britain’s who’s-who across the ages.
From there, it’s a leisurely stroll to busy Leicester Square, spilling over with tourists, some of them being sketched by artists, others waiting in line for tickets to theatre shows. We lounge around in the central park, sitting on a bench and sipping hot mochas, nibbling at luscious blueberry muffins, and watching London go past.
Another day, another time - and we walk, along with a horde of other tourists, following a red-uniformed Beefeater on a tour of the Tower of London, the ultimate tribute to London’s tumultuous history. Grey and brooding, the fortress - or rather, its oldest building, the White Tower - was constructed in 1078 and has seen everything from the imprisonment and execution of Thomas Culpeper, who scratched a brief, despairing inscription into the wall, to the haughty Queen Elizabeth; from the impressive Henry VIII to his unfortunate wives. We are shown the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, below the floor of which 15,000 headless bodies of traitors - proven or otherwise - had once been buried; we are shown the chopper’s block and the axe used to behead Anne Boleyn, and we are shown the Crown Jewels. Solid gold, heavily bejeweled, there is a glittering, dazzling array of scepters and crowns, jewellery, weapons, and chalices, as well as a solid-gold punch bowl the size of a small bathtub.
Equally dazzling - in a different way - are the huge, hallowed halls of Harrod’s. We wander around the famous store, clutching our thin wallets, gawping at the brocade upholstery, the glassware, the fine porcelain... everything we’ve read about in all those period novels still exists here. There's Sheffield cutlery, Waterford crystal, Wedgwood - "Ooh, look at that vase," I gasp. "Isn’t it fabulous?" The vase in question is a rippling, glorious piece of art, a foot high and swirling like the waterfall it’s supposed to represent.
"Fabulous," agrees my husband, and we step closer for a look at the price tag... and retreat really fast. 2,000 pounds.
We’re more in our element at busy, raucous Petticoat Lane, which we visit on a warm Sunday morning. The wares on sale here are more like what we’re looking at: shoes, 'Been there, done that: London' T-shirts, London snow globes, tiny models of everything from the Buckingham Palace guards to Beefeaters; yes, this is where we’ll buy those souvenirs we need for friends and family back home. It’s a bustling place, stalls squeezing in on both sides, the space between so narrow we sometimes need to walk in single file, but it’s fun - loads of fun. There’s a guy frying huge prawns with garlic and butter while his neighbour tosses popcorn and someone down the lane sells caramel-coated peanuts. The fragrance wafts in the air, making us hungry all over again, even though we’ve just had a hefty breakfast.
We do a round of high-profile Covent Garden too, more for the experience than for actually savouring any of what it offers - which comes with a price tag too high for us. The restaurants here are the type for which people need to book a year in advance; the shops here are the variety where they sniff disapprovingly as we back out, red-faced with embarrassment.
Maybe we’d better stick to the places which don’t need us to spend precious pounds - places like the British Museum, with its amazing Greek, Egyptian, and God-knows-what-else antiquities, which we spend two and a half days in exploring. Or the Tate Gallery, where works of art by all my favourite English painters - Reynolds, Whistler, Constable, Gainsborough, et al - hang alongside Impressionist art, contemporary art, even stuff we don’t really understand but stand and peer at anyway.
And then there’s the quiet picnic in St James’ Park, with wide golden swathes of nodding daffodils all around and the pigeons staring foolishly up into our faces as we bite into our sandwiches. There's the walk across the murky grey waters of the Thames, into the sepulchral gloom of the magnificent Westminster Abbey and its neighbouring church, St Margaret’s, where Winston Churchill was married. The stroll through the impressive St Paul’s Cathedral, and the quiet sit-down in the garden behind it, where pretty cream tulips bloom. There's the 'authentic' steak-and-kidney pie, which I’m warned against but which turns out to be pretty good nevertheless. The trip to Hounslow, where the local tube station has signs in English and - wonder of wonders - Punjabi, the amazingly colourful Chinatown...
Yup, London has a way of getting under your skin. Once you’ve been here, you can never quite get it out of your system. Or stop wishing you could go back - again and again.