Category Archives: London

See You at Ricks

“Therefore I appeal… to your experience Age, whether these Nocturnal Assemblies have not a bad Tendency, to give a loose turn to a young Lady’s Imagination.  For the being in Disguise takes away the usual Checks and Restraints of Modesty … and I am apt to think too, that the Ladies may possibly forget their own selves in such strange Dresses, and do that in a personated Character which may stain their real ones.”

– The Guardian, 1713

“As leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca, I am a very influential and respected man.”

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“Do you mind if I join you?”

Signor Ferrari sits down at our table. He is tall, slim and genial with grey hair sticking out from under his Fez. He chats for a bit – the music, the business at Rick’s, the good food at the Blue Parrot – and then he cuts to business.

“Are you looking for exit visas?”

We nod yes.

“Five of them?”

Inspection on the backstreets leading to Casablanca
Inspection on the backstreets leading to Casablanca

Yes. I note that my lover, Nikov, has been taken ill. He cannot continue the journey with us. He’s watching Take Me Out in his track suit bottoms in Battersea.

“Look, there is something I want. Have you seen Miss Marie? Beautiful girl – dark grey skirt and jacket, long, curly black hair, a little hat with a flower, just here,” he gestures at his forehead, “She’s a lovely girl – romantic. She is passing on lovers notes. She carries a black bag – in it she has a necklace – a gold charm on a gold chain,” he smiles, “I would like that necklace. Get it from her, I will get you the exit visas. You seem like a persuasive gentleman,” he tells Alfie, “find a way. Enjoy your evening at Rick’s.”

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Within an hour Alfie has lured Marie to our table and I have bargained away my family heirloom – a snake ring with emerald eyes – for her necklace. Ferarri has procured the visa. Alfie and Claire met Ugarte in the casino and took his winnings when the cops marched him out. Laszlo is being marched out of the Blue Parrot, and four hundred of us are singing the Marseillaise in an east London cinema.

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Just your typical Sunday night, really.

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One of my favorite things about visiting Britain is a seemingly national fondness for costume parties. That the Guardian Saturday Magazine includes ‘fancy dress costume of choice’ among only a couple dozen questions for celebrities – right up there with ‘what are do you most fear?’ and ‘what makes you happy?’ – says it all.

Future Cinema is an outcropping of this, and a very elaborate one at that. Run by the people behind Secret Cinema (which is, incidentally, coming to New York), Future Cinema calls itself “live cinema.” It creates experiences based around a film, which sounds better for some movies than others (I am glad, for one, that I picked Casablanca, not Shawshank Redemption). A cinema emptied of seats and filled with cabaret tables, Morrocan food, casinos, live arrests, Sam tinkling the keys, “Knock on Wood,” champagne cocktails and four hundred people in full costume.

I may be much mistaken. Perhaps there are places in the States where this kind of thing happens. But if so, I have never heard of it.

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After the closing credits (“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”, thunderous applause) Rose and Jenny head for home and Claire, Alfie and I grab a glass of prosecco and dance in our fedoras and pearls until its time to go back into the chilly night and hurry down some backstreets to Shadwell for the last overground out.

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“Now who’s lucky?
We’re lucky!
Just how lucky?
Very lucky!
Well smile again and once again lets
Knock on wood!”

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North by SW

“Queen Elizabeth would not allow the boiling of woad within 5 miles of a palace.  Fact!” – our septuagenarian, barbour-and-wellie-wearing tour guide at the Chelsea Physic Garden.

For more facts, visit the place.  It’s worth your time, I promise.

garden overview

Last weekend was spent in the posher bit of SW – Sam and I wandered up to Chelsea from his house in Battersea.

There is a new, actual marketing scheme in which realtors are listing him as living in “Chelsea South.”  Ways in which Battersea resembles Chelsea: it’s near a river; more terriers than average.  Ways in which it doesn’t: real humans live here; everything.

Chelsea South - aka Battersea Park
Chelsea South – aka Battersea Park

We had breakfast at Colbert in Sloane Square – where we could only get a reservation at 9am and eggs cost £14, because, by the laws of Chelsea, the more expensive something is the better it must be. (Although, unlike a disastrous visit to the snobby and mediocre Botanist, this time it was actually really good.  Even if it was, as they say in Northern Minnesota, real spendy.)

Full, fully caffeinated and happy we wandered down past well-dressed women, tiny dogs and expensive strollers to the Chelsea Phsyic Garden, where they are currently open early for snowdrop season.  The garden is a compact, beautiful little place, with beds divided by use – headaches, gastrointestinal, dying fabric, culinary, and my favorite – poisonous, which had precisely no protections against errant children stuffing their mouths with wood bane.

Snowdrop Stand (use this)

The whole thing was dreamed up by Hans Sloane (whose square we had gazed out at over £4 lattes and artisanal bacon only an hour earlier.)

Back in the 17th century, Sloane was just an upstart physician trying to make a name for himself.  He went to Jamaica (where names are made, apparently) and came back with three invaluable things for making it in Restoration London: two plants and a rich wife.

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One plant, Peruvian Bark, was a source of quinine – although it wasn’t actually used to treat malaria in his lifetime as, for obscure reasons, the King didn’t like it.

Another was an apparent cure-all for stomach ailments: chocolate mixed with warm milk.  It was sold, in London, on a pretty strictly medicinal basis until the Cadbury brothers bought the formula in the 19th century.  It seems singularly unfair that I never got to live when hot chocolate and cocaine were the only medicines a girl needed.

The rich wife was the most helpful at the time, though.  It was with her money that he made his name, and gave Londoners two great ways to spend an afternoon.  The first was a collection of specimens from across the world – the founding collection of the British Museum.

The other was a training garden for apothecaries.  He bought the land in then semi-suburban Chelsea and leased it to the apothecaries (emblem below – no one had actually seen a rhino when the apothecaries – real title: The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London – were founded.  This was their best guess.  I want him as my best friend) in perpetuity for £5 a year.

The "rhino" atop the Apothecaries shield
The “rhino” atop the Apothecaries shield

Which is, this being Chelsea after all, significantly less than you’ll pay to see it.

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