If Charles Dickens were alive today, I think he might agree with my assessment of modern day London. The capitol city of the United Kingdom is, without question, two cities in one. The past and the present coexist in this bustling metropolis and one doesn’t need a great imagination to recognize it.
Perhaps the most obvious example is found in the crossbreed government. On the one hand, there is the British Parliament where the members – representatives of the people – meet in business attire to enact legislation. The Prime Minister is often seen being chauffeured to various meetings in a Rolls-Royce. In the meantime, the Royal Family, and appointed officials such as the Lord Mayor of London, are commonly seen in their royal trappings while riding in magnificently ornate horse drawn carriages.
A bit less obvious is the English cuisine. After more than a month in London, I have found only one restaurant that specializes in English food. If I included the pubs, that number would be much higher. Italian, French, Indian, and Chinese restaurants are everywhere. There is even a sampling of Australian and Mexican restaurants. America is well represented by T.G.I. Fridays, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Japanese and Thai restaurants can also be easily found. You name it… London’s got it. That is, except for English food. Porter’s Restaurant is the only place I’ve found. And it’s a shame. English food isn’t bad.
Porter’s menu offers many traditional dishes such as Steak and Kidney Pudding, Bubble and Squeak, Yorkshire Pudding, Spotted Dick pudding, and a wide assortment of meat pies. Naturally, I’ve tried them all. If anything, I’d say the Brits go a bit light on the spices. Other than that, the food is hearty and flavorful. Some of it, especially the puddings, is also loaded with fat and cholesterol.
The cafeteria at the office where I’ve been working has also given me an opportunity to try various English delicacies. For instance, I’ve had Shepherd’s pie, Bangers and Mash, Onion Bargies, and Pork Pie. I have yet to find Toad in a Hole, but am bound and determined to do so before I leave. I have also been told I should be able to find an excellent Steak and kidney PIE near the city of Leeds which is about 100 miles north of London. I’m this close; I have to go see if that is where my family originated.
Which reminds me, while I’m here I’ve decided to go to Kent and reclaim the Leeds Castle. Of course, the biggest problem will be getting it back to Georgia.
Getting back to the two cities… in talking to the English people, I’ve discovered that many of them still eat the traditional foods in their own homes. Thus, the old and the new coexist in the everyday diet.
Above all, the most obvious sign of the coexistence of the old and the new London is in the architecture and streets. The Olde Curiosity Shop sits on a narrow winding alley just as it did when Charles Dickens wrote about it. Only a few blocks away, glass enclosed skyscrapers house busy offices. One end of London resembles any modern American city, while most of the rest of the city appears unchanged – the same as it has been for hundreds of years. Any damage done to the buildings during World War II has been repaired and the ornate facades have been restored to their original luster. If I ignore the new cars, buses, and taxis, it is easy to imagine myself in London more than a hundred years ago.
The countless narrow lanes crisscrossing throughout the city are also a reminder of the London of Charles Dickens. I often find myself wondering which little shop was occupied by Scrooge and which small flat was the home of the Cratchet’s.
As Christmas approaches, more and more stores are hanging their decorations. I find myself wondering if the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present aren’t looking down on the city trying to spot the next Scrooge who needs to be straightened out. As far as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is concerned, I’m praying that he or she will see to it that I’m safely home in Georgia to celebrate it with my friends and loved ones.
(This article was written in 1997 while I was working in London.)