London Is Dancing (In Thigh Highs to Boot), by Mary Wells


I arrived in London a month ago expecting to see Tobacco Road. If you were born after the ’40s you might not know that means dirt poor. Newspapers on paper or online have been painting pictures of London in desperate shape and in some important ways it may be. But the tourist life has never been livelier. Some Americans are missing but a lot are still in the jammed theaters and restaurants and hotels. And this year there are rich Turks and rich Australians and rich Brazilians as well as the Russians, so there is a multicultural high. A great number of visitors always descend on London for the art shows beginning in October. One, the Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park, where you can buy the art (as you can at Art Basel in Miami), always produces a frenzy of parties.

The Vanity Fair party at Christies had more hip-looking women than I have seen in one place since the financial crash. All of them in thigh-high boots worn with wild and wonderful peekaboo evening skirts.

I stayed with a very good friend who lives on Eaton Square and saw many of my old friends from my own London days. One lives in a small mews house so glorious that it proves you can turn a mews house into one of the smartest and prettiest houses in London. A group of women I have known a long time lunched with my friend and me there. They were all stunning and moving about the world for their foundations or their careers. No hint of Tobacco Road there!

Other friends took me to restaurants that have been revitalized and are jam-packed. The two ladies who run the River Café have finally got it open again and you need to be a visionary to get a reservation there. It is just as worth it as it always was. The Connaught Hotel has finally opened its completely renovated restaurants – one along a string of sunny windows is casual-chic, but the new glam restaurant has just opened and is waiting to be adored. It is light and serene and Zen and comfortable and you can hear one another and the food is fine. It looks expensive and it is expensive but London is still expensive at its top level. And the rich Turks and Australians are dressing to suit and that’s interesting to see.

The Ivy and Sheekey’s and even Caprice have lost a little Q (English for high quality). Scott’s is the place to show off how glamorous you are these days. But I really liked Bellamy’s, a very attractive restaurant run by Gavin Rankin who was at Marks and knows how to make a diner feel like a very special old pal who deserves attention. It’s not wildly expensive either, and the chef is good.

Cecconi’s is still jumping and it has the advantage that it is so close to the Royal Academy of Arts where Anish Kapoor is changing people’s thinking and opinions and cracking open tightly closed minds with one of the most interesting installations anywhere, let alone at the Royal Academy.

If you still have a little money to spend on education or thrills, buy a ticket to London to see this installation. The most-talked-about area is where Kapoor’s canon fires bloodred wax across one of the rooms that hits the wall with a big wet swoosh, a primal act you can read much into including the carnage of war or rape. Viewers line up the 20 minutes between cannon shoots and there is red wax all over the place, which may be a challenge for the RA to clean up one day.

But my favorite room is the one with the stainless-steel sculptures like funhouse mirrors that, close up, make you appear huge – but from a distance fracture you into an eerie pattern. There is a disorientating vertigo about them; you might fall into them and lose yourself. Kapoor says, “It is the contemporary equivalent of the sublime, which is to do with the self – its presence, absence or loss,” according to the wonderful RA magazine. I could have spent the entire day involving myself with those sculptures. There are many marvels in that show and outside in the courtyard. Seventy-four of Kapoor’s stainless-steel spheres appear to stand one on another with some miraculous help from above reflecting the sky as if in thousands of shining spheres – it is quite a welcome to the show!

And there is another amazing show at the Academy that insists you spend the rest of the day there. It is called “The Wild Thing” and is a stunning surprise presentation of the audacious innovative works of three sculptor friends who shocked the world in the 1900s and supported each other. Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. The iconic symbol of the show is a reconstruction of Jacob Epstein’s “Rock Drill,” a machinelike robot that is visored, daring, sinister yet beautiful, armed with an actual drill that symbolizes all the war imagery of today. The sculpture in this show by these three artists is so vivid and even shocking it is hard to imagine it wasn’t created this morning. It is a truly wonderful show.

London, beginning in October, is so packed with great art shows, big, impressive museum shows, important auction events, huge tented shows in parks and expositions in the city’s finest grand palace sites – most are free or cheap – that London outshines any other city with art. As entertainment or as education, it is a good deal to get a cheap, round-trip ticket, stay in one of the city’s many pretty and inexpensive bed and breakfasts and drown yourself in today’s art.

This year there was a new fair that focused on the 20th century for collectors that was my favorite of all. The Art and Design fair in a temporary pavilion erected in Berkeley Square presented the finest from 43 galleries from Europe and America. I need much more space to tell you about this fair. I wanted to own everything in it. I wanted to rent New Yorker Barry Friedman’s space and move right in and live with his offerings. I returned over and over again to see Max Ernst’s “Fleurs coquillages” and Ingrid Donat’s “Dark Commode” and Mr Friedman’s Cristallo Sommerso pieces. Oh, so much to say about this show. And so little space or time. The fair was a big hit though so next year I will go armed with a better camera and do justice to it.

I need more space! But I have to mention Damien Hirst at the Wallace Collection. If you want to start up a noisy scene at dinner, just bring up this show. People who were cool cats about his shark in formaldehyde go absolutely crazy when they discuss Damien Hirst’s new paintings.

Finally – the Frieze Art Fair! Frieze is such a draw it has become a brand name. It exists in a huge tented bazaar in London’s Regent’s Park and it has major influence. It is a magnet for the world’s art buyers, viewers and artists themselves. It also has a new addition called “Frame” with exhibitors from developing markets and works that are affordable by new and younger artists. This show and its influence and its wham-bang effect on London is a drama. You see everybody there, even politicians, even hedge fund billionaires, even kids not yet out of school. You can buy books on each year’s Frieze. You can find Frieze in many places on the Internet. It is worth knowing about, understanding, thinking about. It has so much to see, good and bad, marvelous and boring, that it takes time and, in fact, it is not up long enough. This year it opened on October 12 and closed October 15. Not nearly enough time to digest such an event.

If October is the beginning of the art season, it is also the beginning of the theater season with a lot of excitement filling up theaters. The consolation is that so much of the theater in London finds its way to America. Prices are better in London though. But some of the theater buildings are ghastly. We saw “Warhorse” in a theater we agreed must have been a jail! One of the ugliest and most uncomfortable theaters I have ever climbed. And climbed. “Warhorse” was a fine performance staged by a genius. I guess it was worth the climbs. Not sure.

One last theatrical event I have to tell you about is “Westfield London,” a new mammoth glam shopping mall in Kensington/Chelsea that is bigger and more high tech and more attractive and more comfortable with better restaurants than any shopping arena in the world that I have seen. It still smells new. And it’s sparkling clean. It has every new tech development so that even though you are stunned by its size, you cannot get lost and your car is never lost in the car park with its 4,500 spaces – big enough for half of London’s cars and all easy to reach wherever you are. There is also luxe valet parking. And your children have play zones and little gyms. And there are comfortable chairs, plenty of information booths, concierge desks where you can arrange to have everything carried for you, easy home delivery, cash machines, taxi lounges and chauffeur drop-off areas, bus courts and easy underground travel.

Almost every famous retail name for men or women or children is in Westfield. You look down the tall corridors with the theatrical lighting and decorations and you realize you should have preplanned your visit, you should have studied the maps – there is so much to see.

In London’s long stretches of iffy weather a visit to Westfield could give you an interesting and satisfying day – the word is that the many restaurants (all kinds) are serving excellent food.

My only warning is that temptations are simply nonstop. When the world’s financial troubles are over, that will be a thrill. Right now you may need more will power than you ever needed on the London shopping streets you are used to.

The trouble for tourists in London today is (1) there is a mail strike, which won’t bother a tourist – but it is all anybody wants to talk about there, and (2) construction is booming, unlike what you may have read, and traffic is so snarled around it and is so slow you will frequently want to get out of your taxi and walk. Bicycles are easy and cheap to rent. And there are so many art shows you can easily walk from one to another. Walking in London is a joy. But if you have to travel by car, add 30 to 45 minutes of frustration to your plan.

There are a lot of smiles on faces. There are a lot of stars about. There are a lot of great prices for great stuff on the lower floors of dramatic Selfridges, where you also have to go up floor to floor to know what’s in and what’s out in the world of style; there are Topshops on almost every corner of London; Anouska Hempel’s hotel, Blakes, is worth checking out; Lady Bamford’s fun café, Daylesford Organic, is a must if you are in Belgravia and Pimlico; Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor bar and restaurant are fantastic; the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens is a another must; the Saatchi Art Gallery is really good; David Linley’s Shop for little perfect Christmas gifts – he might be there and he is lovely. Worth it: tea at Claridge’s and the Blue Bar at the Berkeley. Good time to go if you can.

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