Friday, September 27, 2013

Me, Bette Midler and Liam Neeson eat pig and other stories from the City of London...

   Walking is the best - the only - way to really see a city. Herewith an amble through one of the oldest in the western hemisphere that has particular resonance for me:

   GAZING up at the familiar dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, I saw the past - 300 years of British history wrapped up in one glorious edifice built by Sir Christopher Wren - but I also saw my own, very personal connection with London  I lived here in the late 1960s and early 70s, with the ever-present lyrics of the Beatles, the sight of long hair and outrageous fashion - remember Carnaby Street? - and the increasingly loud voices of the antiwar movement. Back then, the whole world seemed on the cusp of a new era, and it was ironic that I returned at another tumultuous time, when the global credit crisis was rocking the city.
     When we lived here, Penny and I had a flat in the West End, on the other side of town from St. Paul's, which now sits among flash new buildings. Kensington Gardens, Notting Hill Gate, and Earl's Court were our 'hoods; our oldest daughter, Jess, was born within sight of Buckingham Palace, but we lived in a realm of expats, artists, hip Brits, and a few old-line families. The financial district was, with the exception of St. Paul's, a mystery to a writer more interested in the pubs of Chelsea and Camden Hill than byways of deal-making.
      I returned looking forward to exploring what I earlier neglected - the narrow, winding streets of the town's oldest district. Walking was a joy when I lived in London and it still is, especially in The City - aka the Square Mile - where famous Threadneedle, Queen Victoria, and Lombard Streets throb with a riot of cabs, cars, and buses dodged by waves of hurrying figures.
      "Here's where it all began," said Peter Wynne Rees, a big Welshman who showed me around. "This was the first human occupation, thousands of years ago. The Celts camped on what were the banks of Walbrook Stream, and now we've got this."
      Behind us was the Royal Exchange, a glittery shopping mall where Cartier, Chanel, and Bulgari had replaced brokerage firms. The Bank of England - the ponderous Old Lady of Threadneedle Street - sat on our right. Mansion House, residence of the Lord Mayor of London, was on the left, and all around the new towers of international finance. Far ahead, beyond all the construction, sat the pale, peeping, blue-gray dome of St. Paul's.
      The City of London was later settled by Romans and has for at least four centuries been the beating heart of England's financial empire. Today engulfed by sprawl, The City's western perimeter is marked by Fleet Street and Temple Bar, beyond which lie the West End and Westminster, and bordered on the south by the River Thames. The eastern boundary is Spitalfields and the Tower of London, the northern boundary Smithfield and Clerkenwell. But The City differs markedly from all these neighborhoods by virtue of its wealth and stylistically daring new buildings.
       I already saw that money was only part of The City's multilayered story. Here also was an astonishing concentration of iconic historic buildings. Hidden in alleyways and covered passages are taverns and shops going back to the time of Chaucer and mentioned in the subsequent works of many renowned British writers. On streets broad and narrow stand various legends in stone, often next to rising new structures.
      In a hurry - unless reading a newspaper in a vest-pocket park at noon, or cradling a pint outside a pub in the angled light of quitting time - are people, many of them young, who work and court here even when they live elsewhere, lending The City an air of youthfulness at odds with its age, and an energy unsuited to its reputation as the stolid soul of British conservatism.
      "Everybody here came from somewhere else," Rees said. "We're truly a city of immigrants, with 300 languages spoken. Young people all over the world are dying to come here, and do you know why? It's one big party. They happen to be at the height of their sexual and intellectual abilities, and we get the benefit of the latter because of their interest in the former."
      Rees was the planning officer for The City of London, run from offices adjacent to the ornate Guildhall nearby, and had about $650 million in annual income and its own police force. Rees, with occasional advice from English Heritage, a quasi-governmental agency, decided if and how the new buildings here got built. He admittedly had "a low threshold of boredom, so it's in the architects' interests to make their proposals attractive."

       Preserved open space is important to most Londoners, for whom green grass and sightlines to places like St. Paul's are sacred. But so are the byways that can only be explored on foot. Rees led me up Lombard, the historic thoroughfare of Lloyd's, Barclays, and other banks. "The whole thing started, you know, in the Black Spread Eagle pub in 1690. That's why some banks' logos still look like pub signs. So many people began trading at that time that they had to build a stock exchange to hold them all."
      Outside the Jamaica Wine House, men and women were having noontime drinks. They could be in the West End in 1969, except that instead of bell-bottoms and paisley they were all wearing dark suits and ties. I overheard a pinstripe say to a vest with a watch fob: "Can't do gold- too expensive. Can't do bonds- too unpredictable."
      "This is where business has always been done," said Rees, "in alleyways outside pubs, by people standing around with pots of beer, talking. One reason The City works is that there are so many places like this to go to."
      As we parted, Rees suggested that I visit the top of Tower 42, The City's tallest building and home to Vertigo 42, a hangout for traders that has one of the best views of the financial district. It was so popular I had to make a reservation - just for a place to stand. Unfortunately my spot was behind a column. All I could see through the tall windows was a bit of Tower Bridge to the east, and to make matters worse, I was charged $35 for a glass of champagne.
      I made my way up Cornhill Street to the Leadenhall Market, the labyrinthine open-air emporium designed in 1881 by Sir Horace Jones. It was built on what has been a market site since Roman times. Today, occupants of the old shops are mostly restaurants feeding workers spilling out of the looming towers roundabout, or purveyors of clothes, gifts, and spirits that are part of larger retail chains. "We sell more champagne than any of our other stores," said Diosa Podda, a clerk in Oddbins, a wine shop. "We get people pouring in here buying bubbly when the market rises, and we get them when it falls."
      Next door is A Booth, Ltd., florists, the oldest continual business in Leadenhall. Owner Terry Dawson told me how much he misses the old poultry and game bird shops. "The last to go were the fishmongers. They're gone because the financial houses no longer have their own chefs and butlers, who used to come down here every day to buy. Now everybody eats out"
     The passageways were full of people, many text-messaging or glued to their cell phones. But stop and ask for directions and they were invariably helpful, as agreeable as they were in a hurry. Traders taking a pint outside the Lamb Tavern talked with colleagues while watching other suits go up and down the side of the Lloyd's building in mesmerizing glass elevators. When the international insurance giant built this headquarters in 1986 it was a sensation, with what look like stacks of gigantic silver cans and exposed pipes and ducts, a structure straight out of The Matrix.
      None of these new buildings existed when I lived in London, and they take some getting used to. When I asked a security guard about the Lloyd's phenomenon, he said confidentially, "Some like it, and some think it's bloody hideous." The City's most controversial new building was the 40-story 30 St Mary Axe. Designed by Foster & Partners, one of Britain's star architectural firms, it's known locally as the "Gherkin" (Londoners love their culinary nicknames), but to me it looked more like an upended black blimp encased in steel bands. Its double-skinned exterior is designed for maximum insulation, London's most environmentally sound skyscraper.                              
      Nestled between Lloyd's and 30 St Mary Axe is a modest little 16th-century church, St. Andrew Undershaft, a reference to the maypole that once stood out front. St. Andrew draws the eye away from the looming giants around it with its economy of scale and textural contrast of weathered stone. Part of the genius of The City's preeminence as one of the world's foremost financial centers has been the preservation of older buildings that soften the new and offer a historic complement. St. Andrew, like the more than 40 other churches here, two of them at least 1,000 years old, minimizes the discordant qualities of competing contemporary styles and reminds us of the aesthetics of an earlier age.
      Postman's Park provides an unexpected, grassy conduit to King Edward Street. I took Little Britain behind St. Bartholomew's Hospital until I found myself before the magnificence of the oldest extant parish church in England, St. Bartholomew the Great. Founded in 1123 as an Augustinian priory, it's intact, as is the little cemetery shaded by ancient trees and bordered by the Cloth Fair, a moribund fabric market. Inside the church, the dark timbered ceiling, massive stone arches, and clustered pillars support one of the two remaining Norman churches, redolent of incense and the mysteries of medieval faith.
      I was slightly nervous walking over the stone floor in the presence of the ghost of William Hogarth, the 18th century artist who was baptized in the preReformation fount. Gordon Furry, the verger at St. Bartholomew and a former Benedictine novitiate, told me the church was "one of the best-kept secrets in London. We have lots of weddings, and the annual service for the Worshipful Company of Butchers." Once a year the Worshipful Company of Butchers carries its flag past the Butcher's Hook & Cleaver pub and across St. Bartholomew's Square to the Smithfield Market, where fresh meat of all sorts - whole pigs, most manifestations of cow, venison, ox tails, ducks, grouse, partridge has been sold for the past eight centuries.
      I decided to try out some of those imaginative meat renditions at St. John Bar and Restaurant, a former smokehouse with long tables, just around the corner from the market. I sprang for roast bone marrow with parsley salad, ox tongue, and a fig tart with Jersey cream. I wasn't' the only one enjoying the spectacle of three roast suckling pigs marched out to groups of diners: Bette Midler sat with friends behind me, and on my way out I passed another actor, Liam Neeson, discussing his bill with a waiter.
      The butchers of Smithfield Market represent just one of London's liveries, organizations of tradesmen that over the centuries have become almost sacrosanct. On Upper Thames Street, I stopped to admire the Vintners' Company (see                

                                              (Not my cover)      
      When I lived in London I was writing my first novel, The Big Easy, set in a place about as far from the City of London as one could get. The story's set in the seamier side of New Orleans. I was the first to use the name, which was later borrowed for the movie with Dennis Quaid et al (titles can't be copyrighted), but more about that later.
     For days I had been looking, from a distance, at the dome of St. Paul's. Now I was standing next to Wren's masterpiece, one of the world's most famous cathedrals. It shares Paternoster Square with postmodern office buildings, and the eastern horizon with the Gherkin. I joined a group exploring the vast interior, which was lit by light from Wren's celebrated dome. The ceiling of the long nave is an intricate curvilinear blend of gold and predominantly blue and green mosaic tiles; the towering stained glass behind the altar is richly illuminated. Here's a structure, I thought, that can compete with any new one, not in height, maybe, but in the moderating effect on the sights and sounds around it- a sort of architectural tranquilizer.
      A young priest was praying for those affected by turmoil in global finance, "particularly those here in The City." Visitors moved silently along the walls, wearing headphones; I took the staircase leading heavenward for an encompassing view of the unique urban experiment that is The City, climbing first to the gallery at the base of the dome, then up to the Stone Gallery. The crowd gave way to a determined few clinging to an iron spiral staircase. Taking the 528th step, I emerged onto the open-air Golden Gallery for a 360-degree view.
      The wind was blowing, but the rhythm of untold hydraulic tools was louder. A small army of proverbial ants labored far below in bright yellow vests and hard hats. I felt the full visual force of 30 St. Mary Axe and its competitors, and the dwindling of the romantic associations of the past. All those historic churches, pubs, mercantile exchanges, parks, and shops I had visited seemed to have been swallowed by the accumulation of the new, to accommodate numbers of people a Dr. Johnson or even a Dickens could not have imagined.
      But cities are best appreciated close-up, from the pavement, not from this nosebleed perspective. Down there, the past and present coexist admirably, I've found. The City's new architecture may be brilliant and imposing, but we also need those old buildings and open spaces, to ease the mind and make urban intensity tolerable. Without them, we can't begin to understand the present.
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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Whiskey and the South

I was proof-reading the manuscript of my memoir, Memphis Afternoons, soon to be available as an e-book, when I came across the passage below. It's relevant to this blog but also to my past and, I think, the cultural power of alcohol that can transcend its immediate effects. (I will be excerpting more of the book later.)                        

     Much has been written about whiskey in the South. It was often talked about when I was growing up, and used at odd moments. Frank once heard our uncle, in the alcoholic blush of Christmas, cradling fifths of his two favorite bourbons, proclaim to all present, "These are the standards!" The idea was that good things followed if you knew what and how to drink, and kept in practice. Boys going off for the first time to Ole Miss or UT or Chapel Hill took with them an intimate knowledge of the mysteries of drink and were known for it. Dad traveled with a quart of sour mash and he kept one in the desk drawer at his office and another in the cabinet above the refrigerator. I often saw him extract and uncork a bottle on a tedious afternoon, an act that required neither apology nor explanation. The effect was palpably mellow, even to a boy looking on, a pleasant lengthening of Dad's self-imposed deadlines, a softening of the hot Memphis light.

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Saturday, September 7, 2013


   Few clouds in this bay...


  I love New Zealand: small, manageable, mountainous, trout-dense, agricultural, hospitable. I’ve just taken part in an extraordinary blind tasting here of 18 pinot noirs from four continents, and the good news for everybody (except maybe the Burgundians) is that New Zealand’s pinots surpassed most of the other wines and at least held their own with those of fabled Vougeot.
   If Lord of the Rings was real it would still take place  in New Zealand because no other place has so much natural enchantment. But the ring wraiths would be searching for grape clones instead the gold ring, and Frodo would be uncorking a 2010 vintage pinot noir and not sweating the small stuff.
   Americans should know that kiwi pinot noirs cost half as much, at most, as the French ones and are a lot more consistent. In short, you know what you’re getting with New Zealand pinot, a notoriously tricky varietal, and these are likely to be rich, nuanced, and lasting. The wines tasted were all 2010s. In continental order they were:
   New Zealand’s Black Estate, Waipara Valley, Canterbury; Cloudy Bay Vineyards, Wairau Valley, Marlboro; Cloudy Bay Vineyards Te Wahi, central Otago; Huia Vineyards, Marlboro; Kusuda Wines, Martinborough; and Two Paddocks’ First Paddock, central Otago.
   Argentina’s Bodega Chacra Trienta Y Dos, Patagonia (from vines planted in the 1932!).
   France’s (all Bourgogne) Chateau De La Tour, Clos Vougeot; Domaine De La Vougerai, Vougeot 1er Cru “Les Cras”; Domaine Drouhin-Laroze, Clos de Vougeot; Domaine Gerard Raphet, Clos de Vougeot; and Henri Boillot, Clos Vougeot.
Australia’s Ashton Hills Vineyard Reserve, Adelaide Hills: Bass Phillip Premium, Gippsland; and Freycinet Vineyard, Tasmania.

   Canada’s Foxtrot Wine, Foxtrot Vineyard, Okanagan Valley.

United States’s Cobb Wines, Diane Cobb Coastal Vineyards, Sonoma Coast CA; Thomas Winery, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley OR.
This wasn’t a competitive tasting but inevitably comparisons were made - and delight discernible among the denizens of down-under viticulture, which is expected.
I was struck by the earthy power of the Cloudy Bay Vineyards’ Te Wahi, a new release (“deep color, closed nose but mouth-filling, with round dark fruit flavors and a long, savory finish. Big, moderated tannins”). It costs $75 a bottle, more than Cloudy Bay’s other excellent pinot but half the cost of, say, the Chateau de la Tour Clos Vougeot, also a wonderful wine with great aromatics and a similar bright finish.
Among the surprises in this tasting, the fifth such annual event held at Cloudy Bay Vineyards outside the town of Blenheim, were Kasuda ($50), with dark fruit flavor, a luscious, mouth-filling wine; Bass Phillip (only $18), bricky, complex, “silky”; Cobb ($115), bright with dark fruit flavors and a good finish; and Foxtrot ($70), a plummy offering from British Columbia built to last. 
The tasting concluded with a mere four-hour lunch over-looking Cloudy Bay Vineyards and a smidgin’ of New Zealand’s Alps, my table mates one of Cloudy Bay’s clearly talented winemakers, Nick Blampied-Lane, and a wine merchant who moves much high-end product among the growing cognoscenti of Hong Kong. Lobster, lamb, a crisp blood pudding, fermented garlic sauce, puree of spinach, all prepared by Des Harris of Cloony’s Restaurant in Aukland, who is a great rarity - a fine and also modest chef.
All those bottles mentioned above were left open for our continued perusal while a band played and the concerns of the world hung far out there beyond snow-dusted peaks and white lambs contentedly nibbling weeds among the patient vines.
              (Photo by Katie Kelly Bell)