It’s got hallucinogenic properties,” Matt says holding a flame to the silver teaspoon. A lava-like stream runs into the glass of clear liquid Absinthe. “Robin you may do the honors of the first drink but you must do it in one swig.”
I’m at the King William IV Tavern and Inn in London drinking a substance which was blamed for most of France’s ills and the ruin of many like Van Gough who cut off his own ear. It was outlawed in the early 1900’s in all but two or three European countries, including England. Recent studies cast doubt on that association however and absinthe is once again back in favor.
As is London, a city which is busy preserving its past while reinventing itself for the future. The last time London occupied center stage was in the 60’s when it defined the world of music and fashion. Over 10 billion dollars have been spent in recent years in what is London’s biggest building boom since Queen Victoria’s jubilee a century ago. Many of those dollars were spent constructing the Millennium Mile, a walkway along the southern Thames containing the Millennium Dome and the world’s largest ferris wheel.
It’s changed from a mostly Anglo city to one which is a fusion of cultures — of Indians, Colombians, Bangladeshis, Ethiopians, Pakistanis, Russians, Melanesians, and Malaysians. Steve Ricks, travel guidebook author, says that most people are amazed when they come to the 600 square mile urban jungle and find that its 9 million people are so “un-English?”. Fifty nationalities with more than 5,000 ethnic communities like Bangla Town, make London home. Some 300 languages are spoken.
But what about the dreaded cuisine, better known as Pub Grub? I decided to check out the much touted Noord restaurant called BELGO in the Camden Locks area of London. Trappist monks in black frocks served mussels from Brussels and wild boar sausages and true monastic brews. The decor was avant garde, edgy, innovative. And the food? Good, but not great. Some things are harder to change than others.
After lunch, I sauntered through what is one of London’s busiest and bizarre of Saturday markets in Camden Locks. My daughter in Berkeley, I kept thinking, would feel at home there with the parade of fluorescent hair in every shade of the rainbow, hairstyles and clothing that haven’t even made it to California yet, pierced body parts, and retro clothing shops.
Back at the King William IV Tavern and Inn, it’s 11PM — the hour that British law mandates pubs must close. It’s a law that was put into effect during the first World War in an effort to increase war output. Matt shoos all but the hotel guests and staff out of the King William IV Tavern and Inn and locks the door behind them.
“The appliance of science!” the blonde freckled Scottish man says as he prepares the next shot of Absinthe for his wife, Annie, a striking, statuesque South African. Matt and Annie aren’t the first racially mixed couple I’ve seen in London. In fact I was beginning to wonder if hooking up with a different race partner wasn’t a requirement in London.
At midnight Matt suggests we all walk Catia, the young female bartender, home. We step outside and are joined by several of the local boys who were locked out over an hour ago. “Come on you hooligans,” Matt says. They fall into step with our parade along the paved path through the walkup houses under the stars over London to see Catia home safely. The night before, I expressed surprise to Matt about two young men I saw leave to escort an 80 year old woman home. He said, “Are you kidding? It’s what we’ve always done in London.”
Thank God that in London — a city which is a synthesis of old and new — some things haven’t changed.
Excerpted and adapted from “Old is New Again in London” by Robin Spark in Escape From America Magazine, Issue 16