The Rules Of Britannia – An American in London

As a best selling British novelist once said, It’s been the best of times and the worst of times. I’ve been kicking ass up and down each coast of this big country…but it’s the country that has me worried. It seems like we’ve just done lost our collective minds. Sarah Palin? Really? Fuck.

Los Angeles, in particular can be one long Groundhog Day of ignorance. The weather is almost always the same and if there’s any pressing matter, there is an abundance of sunshine, drugs, shops or hotties to distract you from working it out. No wonder most of our movies are shit.

I’ve always had a thing for the UK. I love the music and literature. I love the people and the countryside – I only need 265,879 distant relatives to die before I can claim my castle in Scotland. Even my sense of humor (or humour, if you will) tilts quixotically towards the wit and wordplay of the British. It’s more cunning than slapstick. The very American pie-in-the-face has never made me laugh.

I miss cloudy skies and foliage. I miss crunching leaves on cobblestone streets and taking simple public transport. I miss meeting people who read…I need to get the hell out of here and pop across the pond! Passport, check. Pounds, check. Ready or not, England, here I come.

double decker bus
double decker bus

There are some unofficial rules and lessons about the land my ancestors once migrated from. Some may want to heed my advice when they hear London calling. Here are my Rules of Britannia…

1. Fly Virgin Air

It really does make you feel touched for the very first time. Touched in more ways than one – they actually care about your comfort. Seduction starts with a bottomless glass of wine. Next up is dinner and a movie if you want to watch…or just watch the hot guy across from you and flirt with him via on-plane texting. To keep you sighing in bed, you are given socks and a sleep mask. And after taking a ride on them, they’ll bring you breakfast in bed when you wake up. Delicious.

breakfast in bed - London is so totally calling
breakfast in bed for a Virgin rider

Oh how I love London. Arriving on UK soil always makes me sigh as if I’ve come home, in some cosmic, past life sense. I don’t know the country like the back of my hand, but I have explored it a bit. Dating a Brit in the film industry afforded me the opportunity to roam the countryside and see the lush rolling hills and chalky cliffs. And going out with a titled soldier in the Royal navy afforded me a peek into how the upper crust live.

However, this time around was all about the music. A series of meetings, plus some friends on tour coming through, ensured that I’d be sticking to a rock n roll week in the city of London. I was ready to turn it out, tricks and all.

2. Depend On The Kindness Of Strangers

Now, if you take Blanche Dubois’ advice in most large American cities, you will be (as the Brits say) buggered. Asking someone I’ve never met for help isn’t something I’d normally do. Strangers in America will ignore you or scowl at you, if you’re lucky. They’ll rob you blind or take your life, if you aren’t. So, I don’t do the ‘damsel in distress’ thing very well. But after getting scammed and stranded with both a mobile phone AND a laptop that wouldn’t work, I needed some assistance and fast.

I tried calling Film School who were touring the country, but couldn’t reach them. I gave a shout to Dan, the manager of Passenger, who declined with the best excuse I’ve ever heard: he was on his way to the hospital with a burst appendix. I told myself to remember to ask to see the scar for verification.

I was, essentially, buggered.

Well, many strangers in London allowed me to depend on their kindness. A taxi driver at Heathrow lent me his cell phone. A film producer named Frankie offered me a place in his flat, as did a tour manager named Paul. And not the sleazy ‘hey honey come sleep in my bed’ offer – a legit place to lay my head. My eventual landlord even gave me a reduced rate to let his flat, because he felt sorry for all I had gone through. People all over the city offered to carry my bags, give me directions, buy me a pint – it was so very anti-NYC.

In fact, every time I found myself in a bit of a predicament in London, there was always a kind stranger willing to go out of their way to help me. Now, I could be jaded and chalk it up to my blond Americaness, but I truly think it’s a core part of their culture. After months of feeling down on my fellow man, this restored my faith in humanity.

my London room with a view
my London room with a view

3. Watch MTV UK If You Actually Like Music

Or MTV2 UK, to be exact. I was raised on MTV, and I’ve worked there on and off for most of my adult life. I’m not fazed by the prestige – mainly because there isn’t much anymore. A network that once propelled me into wanting to host music shows and direct music videos, now makes me yowl with disgust. It’s been some time now that MTV has been letting me down, whether it’s Johnny Knoxville swimming in a vat of poo, or spoiled kids complaining about their privileged lives – poo is poo.

But MTV UK! MTV UK is a beacon of hope. They have the Gonzo show with Zane Lowe which plays a lot of indie rock and covers events and festivals like Glastonbury. A day before my meeting they had managed to get Oasis into their office for a live performance, and better yet, the staff members were excited by this. No jaded production people here. They seemed to be honest-to-god music fans. Plus their lobby cafe made me such a nice little latte.

MTV UK
The lobby at Hawley Crescent: MTV UK

It seems to me that the Brits take their music a bit more seriously than we do. They still have Jules Holland on the air, which is truly all about the music. Their BBC channels champion new music and seem to want to push the boundaries. No offense to good old American rock n roll, it just seems less crassly corporate in the UK. The MTV UK offices are even in Camden Lock, where the streets are lined with vinyl pants, sex pistols shirts and doc martens. As opposed to the MTV Ship in Los Angeles, which floats in a yuppie office park and is built on a toxic waste dump.

BBC television seems to have an interest in televising music – all kinds. The BBC puts on Electric Proms, a series of live shows which feature a rock band and some form of classical or world music mixed in.

After my MTV meeting I went to the famous Roundhouse to meet up with my friends in Film School. I arrived during sound check and caught a BBC camera crew setting up. Tonight they’d be filming the show for when British Sea Power were joined on stage by the London Bulgarian Choir. How cool is that?

As the time for the beginning of the show approached, there was an excitement in the air that is usually missing at the average Angelino gig. The show itself was electric, and the capacity crowd hung on every note. Clapping and cheering seemed to increase when the choir appeared on stage. If a choir came on stage at Spaceland in LA, I highly doubt anyone would bother to raise their heads from their lighters or peer out from under their long hipster bangs.

the London Bulgarian Choir onstage with British Sea Power at the Roundhouse
the London Bulgarian Choir on stage with British Sea Power at the Roundhouse

Maybe it was the fact that the Roundhouse is a fantastic venue. Perhaps it was the excitement of BSP and Film School’s final show of the tour. Or perhaps it was the backstage shenanigans before the show that brought on my goosebumps. But the show was amazing. For a major television station to want to film a unique musical event like this gives me hope. There are people out there that want to see good music. Music without a cheesy hook. No Cyrus or Simpson girls being followed by a ‘documentary crew’. No Hinder/Seether corn field rock blocks. No crap. Just pure beauty and good music. I know that TV has a bad reputation, but I could stick up for TV like this. I could work for a place that makes television like this. And I would even show up on time.

packed house at The Roundhouse
packed house at The Roundhouse

4. British People Don’t Have Therapists…They Have Pubs

America has a lot of problems. And for every problem, we have seventeen possible solutions. Which basically causes more problems. Who can really fix your problems: Your therapist? Your yoga instructor? Your pastor? Your colorist? Scientology? Oprah?

The British have seemed to narrow it down to one solution they keep going back to over and over again…sometimes on the same day. The pub.

The pub is not just a bar that serves alcohol, though that seems to be the main appeal. It is a meeting place, a town hall, a diner (if you dare), a respite from the cold and rain, and most often than not, a mating service. Now, I’m not trying to downplay the charm of the pub’s overflowing tap. Where else can the lads go to drink eleventy beers? And by the way, they will drink more than a case per person, per night here. What would make frat boys at a kegger party blanch with horror, is a typical night out at the pub for most British guys. They can get their drink on. And on. And on.

Oh and a word to the wise for the ladies – these men are often like goldfish. They won’t stop until the pub throws them out, or until their stomachs’ burst. So if you’re hoping to get a bit of ‘rumpy pumpy’, then you’d best do so before you nip out to the pub. A ‘nip out to a pub’ isn’t a quick drink. It’s an all night drink fest which will leave sex virtually impossible until the next morning.

I, personally, don’t drink beer. I am allergic to it. Oh hell, I guess I’m allergic to most alcohol as it seems to make me very drunk. But for me, beer brings on a head cold with the fury of a three headed harpy. When I happen to mention this at various establishments in London, i.e. the Defector’s Weld, the King George, The Lock Tavern, Barfly Camden, The Monarch, Punch and Judy, Fuel Bar, The Social, The Masons Arms, Cro Bar, etc., you’d think I had admitted to the Myra Hindley murders.

the answer to all your problems
the answer to all your problems

I actually don’t drink much at all anymore except a glass of red wine here or there. And though I’m enough of an individual to always scoff at peer pressure, while in London, I found myself trying to keep up with the Brit boys at the bar. It wasn’t really to save face, I just wanted to join in on the fun.

I even trying to stay up to par with my Irish friend, Stephen’s, historic drinking abilities. This is the same man of iron-clad tolerance, who rolled with laughter when I asked whether I should order him a half (pint) or a pint. I seriously don’t know where he puts it. He’s like a beer camel.

One night, the two of us went for a pre-drink at a pub before going to see Film School play the Sonic Cathedral at The Social. A pre-drink turned into three or four, and we were both drinking on empty stomachs. We had a brief reprieve as we walked to The Social, but then consumed several more rounds. I stopped drinking at some point, mostly because my mouth muscles became incapable of sipping liquid and swallowing it. But the more I slurred and drooped, the more Stephen seemed stimulated by his hops. He kept drinking, loooong into the night. In my drunken stupor, I began picturing him as a pub version of Popeye. Yet instead of spinach, Stephen’s superhero alter ego was energized by pints of ale. The beer gave him magical powers; he was able to vault over tube turn-styles or climb drain pipes with a single bound.

Matching my mates drink for drink is one thing…but there’s also the ‘kindness of strangers’ factor. If a blond woman raises her voice above an audible whisper in an English pub and her American accent is detected, a round of drinks invariably appears at the table. I wouldn’t dare decline a free drink here, in case it might cause some type of international incident. Americans have much to overcome and live down when it comes to our ‘ugly’ behavior. To refuse some British kindness would be, well, rude. Right?

free drinks courtesy of some British blokes
free drinks courtesy of the British blokes at the table over there

Despite the liquid gluttony, most of these people seem to be happy drunks. At least they seemed to be at the pubs I went to. Any muttering of the term ‘AA’ in their presence would garner either a whoop of laughter or a rather withering recount of how Americans don’t know how to enjoy their lives.

If you had asked me prior to my first trip to England, I would have whispered about British emotional repression and tried to introduce them to Bill W. But I now know better. No matter how much damage they do at night, they seem to be perfectly well adjusted the next morning. It’s an amazing phenomenon that doesn’t seem medically possible. I don’t know if I can chalk that up to British stoicism or just fattier livers with more powerful enzymes, but on many morning afters, as I struggled to drag my sorry ass around the city, my UK counterparts seemed un-fazed by the previous evening’s deliberate alcohol poisoning.

Drink number one - still sitting upright
Drink number one - still sitting upright

5. Keep A Stiff Upper Lip

The stiff upper lip is the quintessential British quality to have, along with the demure self-deprecation quirk. These people live in constant rain and cloudy skies. Many of them come from ancestry that featured cold, harsh weather conditions, peasant uprisings and possibly disembowelment. Comparatively, modern day for them is a breeze. It is just an innate quality that they don’t complain much. In fact, it’s their downplaying of the most heinous events which makes me find them so comical. Conversely, Americans complain about everything. I was once challenged to go a day without complaining. I can be a rather stoic individual sometimes, but even I couldn’t do it. I think it comes from the American ideal that we can do anything, have anything, be anyone. If things don’t work out to be god-damned perfect, we open our mouths and voice a loud, brawling dissatisfaction. There are, however, some things that the British use get by…

a. Tea

Over in the UK, major issues can be solved quite easily. The pub is one solution. Tea is another. Previously when visiting a UK boyfriend, I contracted pneumonia and had a fever of 104. For days I couldn’t keep down ice chips and my throat was filled with pus. My boyfriend suggested I have some tea.

It’s not that he was an unfeeling lout, it’s just that he honestly thought tea would fix me. Tea is used as a medicinal property for just about everything: the flu, broken bones…brain cancer. And not a special type of Chinese herbal root tea or Native American peyote laced, spirit journey tea. No. They offer up normal, garden party variety Earl Grey tea to cure everything.

When I insisted the boyfriend take me to the hospital, the professionals there didn’t sound that much different from him. These med school graduates didn’t do a throat culture or blood work. They didn’t attempt to get my temperature down or keep food in my stomach. Even though I tried to explain to them what strep throat was and how dangerous it could be, they didn’t seem that concerned at all. They just patted my hand, prescribed me paracetamol and hot tea and sent me on my way. I later found out that paracetamol is basically Tylenol. Tylenol and tea. That’s what I take daily, when I’m in the prime of health, and I here I was most definitely dying of some mad cow disease.

the British antibiotic
the British antibiotic

b. Marching Shoes

The idea of complaining of discomfort is simply not done in ‘jolly’ old England. It didn’t go unnoticed that the man in the hospital stall next to me complained far less, even though he was suffering from multiple stab wounds. I suppose you could say that everyone’s pain is relevant, but pain you cause yourself is inadmissable. Which is probably why every single British bloke I’ve known looks at me blankly when I complain about walking far in punishing shoes…as Frankie told me on day one of my trip: “better buy a pair of good marching shoes, love.”

Now, this isn’t news to me or any other woman in the US who has fallen prey to the Sex In The City trap. The fictional thing about that television series was not the abundance of casual sex. It was the idea of four women in Manhattan running around in sky high Jimmy Choos heels. It’s not practical and it’s nearly impossible. Yet there is a vanity (or insanity) that keeps us mortal women trying to attempt it.

I wore my most comfortable boots to London, but they weren’t hiking boots or nursing shoes, therefore, they were impractical. The boots in question are normally only good for a few hours at a time in the best of circumstances, which is fine because nobody walks in LA. But wearing these boots to criss-cross London from meeting to meeting, on and off the tube, and then into the clubs for hours of late night gigging and partying – they were the equivalent of metal spikes in my soles.

No one felt sorry for me.

In an attempt to defend myself, I must point out that a rock n roll woman, such as myself, has the responsibility of looking both effortlessly cool and somewhat dangerous. However, after a few days the only danger I was really conveying was the possibility of becoming a double amputee.

walking the streets of London
walking the streets of London

One enchanted evening, one of my tour guides decided it would be fun to take the long route back to my flat. Why? To see the city at night. The streets seemed to glow and the shop windows beckoned. The night air was the perfect crisp temperature and my walking partner was dashing and witty. It was like a scene from some Audrey Hepburn movie…except each step I took was complete agony. Add to that the wobble of cobblestones, and I had tears welling under my boho fringe.

I didn’t dare say a word which would inevitably cut our lovely jaunt short. The upper half of me was completely enjoying myself, so I kept my upper lip stiff. I must’ve seemed like a super slow poke the way I stalled at corners and feigned interest at snapping pictures of street signs and lamp posts. Or possibly my guide thought I was trying to lag behind and lure him into a very public, moonlit snog. Really, whatever worked was fine with me…anything to get off my feet and ease the pain.

Now I know why Sienna Miller goes on and on about the Terry De Havilland wedge shoe – the benefit of added height with no stabbing pain. Heels are no good for the city of London. And if you must wear it, you must bear it.

pretty, not practical
pretty, not practical

c. Quease-ine

Another thing to bear in mind is the food situation. Bring power bars, luna bars, balance bars or any other type of meal replacement bar with you if you can. I wish I was the type that could eat anything, whenever. It’s not very rock n roll to be a picky eater…I’ve always fought hard against being labeled as high maintenance, but here, I am officially going on record: Yeah. OK. I’m sorta high maintenance. I need a bed to sleep in, a shower to wash in and I need food that is good for my body.

There. I said it.

A recent switch to organic foods and gluten-free this and that, not to mention changing from soy to the further elusive almond milk, makes me a pain in the ass to dine with. I’m owning it, okay? Now, I’m not always strict about it, and traveling is always a time to bend the rules a bit…but, Holy Krishna the comfort food here is out of control! If you want to eat something that has not been deep fried or made in butter in London, then get thee to a Japanese noodle house. Seriously, if you’re thinking about eating even 1% healthy, then Wagamama is your only friend.

Now, I will grant, some of the food is delicious. Scones and clotted cream or fish and chips are a nice little treat and a one time must when in the UK. But I dare you to try to eat healthy on a daily basis…I did manage to dine at one of the better vegetarian restaurants, Food For Thought, in Covent Garden, but even that food seemed to be laden with carbs.

This is a land where the concession stand at the Roundhouse venue features gravy on the menu. Gravy gets it’s own freaking headline on the big sign. And it’s free! Now, in America, we certainly have our fatty foods, processed sugar turds, and fried crapola at our venues and ballparks. In abundance. But I can also get sushi at Dodger stadium if I so choose. Am I spoiled? You bet.

gravy is free at the Roundhouse
gravy is free at the Roundhouse

One Sunday, while poking around Portobello market, Lorelei and I stopped in to a cute pub for Sunday Roast. Being a pescetarian, and seeing as the vegetarian roast wasn’t available, I decided to go with the fish and chips. A plate arrived piled high with fried things that seemed worthy of a Dr Seuss cartoon. It was quite a feast…for five. Someone took Oliver Twist’s plea for more way too seriously over here. Lorelei and I were overwhelmed as we contemplated trying to finish our plates.

I’ve heard over and over again from our British buddies that America’s super size portions are ridiculous…but this was just absurd, unless we were lumberjacks training for a decathlon.

fish n chips for five
fish n chips for five

Despite any set backs on your English adventure, whether it be fried foods, fucked up feet or the bubonic plague, make sure that you don’t seem like an American ingrate. Whatever problems you have can be saved for your therapy session when you return to the States. Until then, make a self deprecating joke about your mini to horrible situation and keep a stiff upper lip.

***********

As the song goes, ‘she had to leave Los Angeles. All her toys had worn out…and her boys had too.’ True dat. Plus, I was completely mental over the state of the presidential campaign and not feeling the parties or gigs I was getting. I needed a respite from the daily frustrations of traffic and being trampled by the less evolved. London seemed like the perfect spot.

6. Heartbreak Is Commonplace.

If you’re coming to London to forget your troubles, you’ve come to the right place…in the sense that you’ll be in great company. Whomever you meet here has had your troubles in spades.

Londoners are people of hearty stock. Some you meet can remember the Germans bombing the hell out of the city. Others remember more recent IRA bombings. And if that’s not scary enough, most have hoses plugged into faucets, which they humorously call a ‘shower’. These are people who don’t live with their heads in the clouds. And to them, heartbreak is completely commonplace. Sure, you can warble on about your broken dreams or lost love here, but don’t even try to one-up anyone. After all, this is the birthplace of Morrissey, and heaven knows how miserable he is.

A visit to the awe inspiring British Library will prove that they’ve had heartbreak for centuries before our little colony even existed. From the Magna Carta fight for simple human rights in the 1200s, to Shakespeare’s sonnets on unrequited love, to Jane Austen’s pining for men with titles, these people know all about the heart being a lonely hunter.

Hell, even the music that pours out of the UK today points towards a society that has seen it all. Case in point: David Ford’s attempt to lighten things with “Cheer Up You Miserable Fuck”, or Snow Patrol’s constant request for us to lay by their side to ‘just forget the world’. You can even look to Chris Martin’s Schroeder-like banging about on the piano, or my beloved Radiohead’s bleak take on the future for mankind…the UK does sad romanticism very well.

it was all yellow
it was all yellow

And even though I can hear the British male population rolling their eyes as I type this…the struggle and the heartbreak, not to mention the struggle not to show their heartbreak, is most palpable in their movies. Their films are teeming with tough, uptight men, hiding soppy souls underneath…the Mr. Darcy complex is conveyed over and over, in almost every way possible, in almost every role…save for any part Jason Statham might play.

Sure, we have our Elliot Smiths, and many bands under the influence of the Emmit Rhodes California frown. We have our Love Story tear jerkers and our bleak beat poets. But the Brits cornered this market long before America popped up with ‘shiny, happy people holding hands’.

So that must be why that saying about going to London seems so profound. You know the one: Find a lover, pick him up. All your trip you’ll have good luck.

It’s true. Finding a UK man who can voice his feelings of affection is like finding a four leaf clover. Think about it: all the lovelorn books their headmasters forced them to read, all the films where the girl dies of consumption, all the sad songs that say so much…If after being raised on all of that, they can still risk looking soppy for you, they’re golden. If they can demonstrate it in public, especially when bad ass Daniel Craig lives around the corner, then you’ve found a gem.

London's resident bad ass
London's resident bad ass

Alas, if they aren’t the type to let down their guard, or if they dash your hopes with Darcy snark, don’t worry. You are not alone. No, really. If you raise your voice a bit, a group of hungry Brit blokes will send over a round of drinks. The new boys will tipple with you and tell you, to ‘boot the grime of this world in the crotch’ while hoping you’ll put your hand on theirs. If misery loves company, then the British provide some of the best.

7. Top Shop

Go.

I don’t really need to explain this one, do I? Top shop is a fashionista girl’s mecca. In a jam packed week with not enough time to see every show, play or museum planned, Lo and I managed to go to Top Shop twice. This place is a Wonka-esque factory of shoes, accessories and threads. It’s a nirvana of dresses and jackets. It’s a salon. It’s a restaurant. It’s a lifestyle choice. And it makes Fred Segal look like a white trash meth lab.

Mecca via Oxford Circus
Mecca via Oxford Circus

Why would I blog about this place here? Two words: Kate Moss. OK, so you may not be impressed with a supermodel and you may be surprised that some one with my brain cells would be…well from the former Pete Doherty and Oasis sidekick, and the future Mrs. Hince of The Kills, this girl has made her sleepy headed, bohemian slap dash style into a freaking empire. She’s brought back the Janes (Asher and Birkin) and Anita Pallenberg in one fell swoop. Kate’s Top Shop collection continues to sell out even when she’s placed next to collections by Ossie Clark collaborator Cecelia Birtwell and Aussie party gals Sass and Bide.

Carnaby street move over. Kate has helped make Top Shop the place for the rock and roll chicks to get their frock on before hitting the gigs. We ladies know how the men love us in our little dresses with eyes rimmed in raccoon eyeliner. We also know that many men don’t want to try to understand why.

That’s OK, boys. We won’t force you to come with us to Top Shop. All that we ask is that when you are peeling the rocking frock off us at the end of the night, don’t throw it in a ball on the floor. Treat the Top Shop with the same reverence you would our heavenly bodies and the rock gods will shine upon you.

Anita Pallenberg
Anita Pallenberg - rock chick goddess

***********

With several gigs, drinks and museums under my belt as well as a suitcase full of frocks in hand, it was time to say good bye to my soul home and head back to America to Barack the vote. After all, I can dream of being an ex-pat, living and loving in London, but I still feel the need to defend my country’s future with my single ballot. Though the thought of moving to the UK is tantalizing, I’d still like to be from a country that doesn’t prompt Europeans to point to a newspaper headline and say “WTF?”.

I will be back, dear London, for another lengthy visit. Or, depending on the election, perhaps to stay if you’ll have me. I’ll even try to follow my own rules of Britannia. Like a really popular British author once wrote: Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life in London, or whether that station will be held by me in the States, this blog must show…

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8 thoughts on “The Rules Of Britannia – An American in London

  1. Hi Ali, I’m a Development Producer in televsion and I web surfing on something completely unrelated and happened upon your page and have just spent the last hlaf hour reading your page.

    You’re funny as hell and pretty damn cool. Fancy a chat ?

    best
    Greg

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