Absolutely amazing trip to London September 7th to the 10th to see Kate Bush perform for the first time in 35 years. The decision to go at all was not an easy one, for a variety of reasons, most of them financial. However, once I committed myself to the trip, I made a list of all the things I wanted to see in the day and a half (or a full three days, if you include the time at Heathrow…more on that later) I would have in London: the National Gallery, Tower of London, the Illustration Cupboard (a gallery currently running an Anthony Browne exhibit), a bookstore (if I could find one), and the concert itself. An hour and a half to Vancouver, followed by a five hour layover. Ten plus hours to Frankfurt. Another hour to London. I thought I was tired. I had no idea.
The carrier for the overseas portion of the trip was Condor Airlines. They are a German discount airline, like West Jet but without the jocularity. All announcements on the plane were in German, followed by an English translation. It struck me as odd that every meandering announcement in German was translated into ‘lunch is served’, but far be it from me to criticize a nation’s love of compound sentences. For entertainment, those of us in the economy seats were treated to one of two choices: What to Expect When You’re Expecting, or an episode of Friends, so I paid the extra seven euros for access to the full roster of movies and tv shows. I selected The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney. It’s about a unit tasked with finding and protecting works of art from the Nazis. A big swastika filled my screen just as one of the flight attendants leaned over and asked, “Sie wollen einen drinken?” I don’t know why I felt embarrassed – they’re the ones that started the war.
I arrived at the Holiday Inn Express Hammersmith around 3:00 in the afternoon. After failing to figure out how to turn on the lights (key card stays in the slot), and apologizing to the hotel staff for accidentally pulling the string for Emergencies, I refreshed my face and body as much as possible, and set out for a walk around the ‘hood.
Hammersmith did not strike me as typical London. Maybe it is. Lots of people, very narrow streets, a little grimy, a little tired, not exceptionally quaint. I did spot the Eventim Apollo theatre, which is where Kate Bush would be performing the following day, straight down from the Hammersmith tube station. In the vicinity of my hotel, a Burger King, Subway, and Pizza Hut. Also, a Marks & Spencer and a Boots, so at least there was some British presence in the area. I had planned to go to the Illustration Cupboard that afternoon, but was too bleary from the 20 hours of flying and hanging around airports. Browsing the potato chip aisle in M&S in search of something weird to bring back to Canada, I suddenly felt like I had a ton of bricks on my shoulders. I bought a package of Cumberland Sausage crisps (the weirdest flavour I could find) and a salad (neglecting to get a fork), picked up a coffee from the nearby Starbucks, and headed back to the hotel. By 8:00, I was asleep.
The next morning, I bought a day pass for the tube, and made my way on the District Line to the Tower of London, which just happened to be engulfed by thousands of beautiful ceramic poppies. Created by Paul Cummins, and staged by Tom Piper, the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red art installation, in memory of the First World War, was really something to behold, but it was not the reason for my visit. I’d been following Chris Scaife, the Raven Master for the Tower of London, on Twitter, because of my infatuation with corvids and the photos he posts of his feathered charges are incredible. As legend goes, there must be six ravens (and one or two spare) in residence at the Tower at all times, or the Queen will go mental and attack Canada, or something like that. As go the ravens, so goes the British Empire. Any way you look at it, the Raven Master holds unrivaled power in the Empire. No wonder they are given such nice hats.
Back at home, I’d sent a message to the Raven Master and asked if there was a raven-centric tour of the Tower, and he kindly offered to introduce me to his ravens (after swearing his hatred of me for being in possession of a highly coveted Kate Bush ticket). Just after 9:30 in the morning, once inside the gate, as directed, I asked one of the Yeoman Warders to contact the RM, who was residing in The Bloody Tower just a few stone steps up from where I was standing, making this the first and only time I’d ever rendezvoused with a person in a bloody tower. The Raven Master couldn’t have been sweeter. As promised, he showed me around the raven’s lair – an area of grass and trees near the White Tower. Two of the ravens were hanging around the green, and as soon as they saw the Raven Master, they hopped over for a chat. For such a dignified bird, they are not especially graceful on foot, and in fact, are rather goofy. Maybe it’s because their wings are clipped, but it was like watching a drunk toddler run toward a cookie.
Ravens are beautiful creatures, but these Tower ravens are truly extraordinary. They are huge, well fed, and in the sunlight of an early September morning, the sheen of their iridescent feathers reflect a stunning array of colours. It is clear that they are very, very fond of the Raven Master. It was wonderful to watch the gentle interaction between Merlina, one of the females, and the RM. I’ve always been fascinated by ravens, and after our conversation, equally fascinated by the person charged with caring for these birds. Technically, the Raven Master is a retired British soldier with at least twenty two years of spotless service under his belt in addition to several years as a Yeoman Warder. As the current RM explained, the old Raven Master thought he showed an affinity for the birds, and so the torch was passed, as it has been passed for centuries, although the title of Raven Master only goes back about fifty years. The RM even gets to live with his family in the castle! Sounds like the makings of a great novel, but unfortunately, this born storyteller is barred by copyright from publishing his stories while in service to the crown. What happens in the Tower stays in the Tower, apparently. Too bad. I’d definitely read that book.
Next stop, the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. I was feeling kind of meh about the gallery, but it was close by, so I thought I’d pay my respects to the old painters. I was actually more excited about visiting the Illustration Cupboard later in the afternoon.
However, as I approached Trafalgar and its bazillion people (and pigeons), I spotted a Waterstone’s. That got me excited. I made a quick tour through the National Gallery, stopping for Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey and Friedrich’s Winter Landscape, and then headed over to the bookstore, where I bought a bunch of English novels, at all times sadly mindful of my small suitcase. After a delicious lunch of fish n’ chips and mushy peas, I took the train to Green Park, winding my way through the narrow, beautiful streets of central London, eventually
finding the tiny Illustration Cupboard around the corner on Jermyn Street. More on this in my other blog 32 Pages, but suffice to say, it was thrilling to see Anthony Browne’s original gorilla flavoured illustrations in all their exquisite detail. I bought three picture books, far fewer than I would have liked, and headed over to Fortnum & Mason, the gorgeous, old department store. Never has candy been more provocatively displayed.
By this time, my feet were killing me. I took the train back to my hotel for another forkless salad dinner from M&S, and then donned my sparkles for the Kate Bush concert.
London was surprisingly hot and humid. I’d brought t-shirts and capris, but I was still boiling hot the entire time I was in the city. When I arrived at the Hammersmith Apollo theatre (and its ridiculously circuitous queues), I was shocked that it wasn’t air conditioned. I bought my program and t-shirt, and squelched up to my seat among the throngs of slowly cremating people. The view wasn’t great, and in hindsight I wish I had tried for a closer seat, but the truth is I was gobsmacked to be awaiting the arrival of Kate Bush on stage. I think part of my indifference to the trip was that I was in a state of disbelief. I’d never wished to see her in concert, because it was never a part of the conversation. She barely promoted her albums! I was content with the riches drawn from her music alone. And then all of sudden, there she was, barefoot and relatively unadorned. Her first song was Lily, followed by Hounds of Love. And still, my disbelief persisted. How is it possible that I’m sitting here?
The first part of the concert was a collection of songs from the last five albums. Her voice was soaring and beautiful. After King of the Mountain, a person came on stage and started swinging a bullroarer (as one does) ending with a cannon shot sending thousands of pieces of paper into the audience, each a Tennyson quote from The Coming of Arthur. (Yeah, I was too high up to get one of those.) It was a stark demarcation from one part of the concert to the other and heralded the beginning of The Ninth Wave, the concept piece on the second half of Hounds of Love – so near and dear to my heart for 30 years. A screen dropped with filmed imagery of Kate floating in the water, singing And Dream of Sheep. In this song, and throughout the entire Ninth Wave, she is drowning; flirting with death, remembering life. The staging of this concept piece was spectacular, with skeletal ‘fish people’ heads, rolling waves of white sheets mimicking the North Sea, a floating buoy, and a thrilling helicopter simulation. I was moved to tears many times. After concluding with The Morning Fog, there was a 20 minute break.
She returned with A Sky of Honey, the second half of Ariel – again, a concept piece and a close second to The Ninth Wave in my esteem. Lots of twittering birds and bird imagery, Kate trilling her own bird song (eventually sporting a blackbird wing), a strolling painter (her son, Bertie), trees, snow, and a strangely evocative wooden painter’s mannequin, who was a sort of stand-in for a child, probably Bertie. This section of the concert was slower, pastoral, and absolutely gorgeous. Ariel is an album that I am still absorbing, and it was incredible to have this visual interpretation staged in front of my eyes. After playing Among Angels at her piano, the last song of the night was Cloudbusting. The whole thing is hard to put into words. Listening to Kate Bush for the last 35 years has been largely a private thing. Very few people in my life share this passion for her words and music (feeling, in fact, just the opposite), and so it’s a strange thing to step out of this solo journey and be surrounded by others equally affected by her music. And yet, it still feels so personal. I walked back to my hotel in a kind of dream.
The only thing left was my trip back to Edmonton. I’d booked a flight through Condor Airlines for 9:30am, but when the confirmation email arrived, the departure time had been changed to 7:30am for some reason, which would have meant getting to Heathrow by 5:00 in the morning, before the trains begin their daily service. I requested a change back to the original 9:30 departure time, and again, they confirmed the rebooking (for a fee of $100usd), and emailed a revised itinerary. When I got to the airport on Wednesday morning, after several failed attempts to check in, I was told by the Lufthansa (my connecting airline) that I was still booked on the original flight, and that it had already left. They had no record of the revised booking. Thus started a journey into the seven circles of airline hell. After numerous calls back and forth to Germany, admissions of wrongdoing, and several unmet promises, my flight was finally rescheduled – for the following morning. Condor did not offer a hotel, and by the time my return flight had been secured, I was far too stressed to make any demands. My choices were limited: stay in the airport until my departure time, or drag my suitcase around the crowded streets of London, with no particular place to go, and with little money to spend. I found myself a chair, and settled in for the night.
It’s virtually impossible to sleep in an airport. I bought one of those neck pillows, which became my only friend in the ensuing 55 hours it would take to get home, but in spite of our deep emotional bond, this pillow could not simulate the feeling of lying in a bed. I watched flights come and go. I read a gloomy novel called A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli, one of the books picked up at Waterstone’s the day before. I shifted from one position to another, then another. I fought a bad case of ‘jimmy legs’. With only 45 minutes of wifi every 24 hours, I relied on texts to friends and family for entertainment. Around 1:00 in the morning I moved from a darkened corner near a food kiosk to the other side of Terminal 1, where I discovered all the other losers waiting for morning flights. Finally, around 4:30, I was able to check my bag and head through the doors to an even bigger selection of uncomfortable chairs, and a restaurant serving coffee. In Frankfurt, five hours later, my adventures with Condor continued.
I got to the airport with more than two hours to spare, so I figured I’d have lunch and check out the various stores. A long-time Germanophile, I was looking forward to immersing myself in all the German art and culture a Hudson News could offer. However, within a few minutes, there was an announcement calling all passengers on Flight DE 4048 to come to the gate, where I was faced with jumble of people and two long lines. I asked the airline person are we boarding already, and she said, very sternly, yes, and so I joined the line verifying passports. The other line was for those whose passports had already been checked. Most airlines had mastered the art of checking passports and boarding passes at the same time, but not Condor. After going through security, we were hustled into a room with three vending machines, a small kiosk selling cheap German trinkets, and one unisex bathroom. And there we waited for more than an hour.
Once on board, I squeezed into my window seat, my beloved pillow clasped tight to my chest. In answer to an unspoken question, I explained to the somewhat horrified young woman sitting next to me that I had been up for almost 40 hours (by that point), and would be sleeping for most of the flight. She nodded in relief, but as it turned out, sleep would come in brief, near-comatose episodes, ending in full body jerks and one particularly loud snort. Also, by the time lunch was served (white pasta, white bread, white salad), I was beginning to feel the first rumbles of a blossoming intestinal situation. This too, I was prepared to blame on Condor, along with global warming, furballs, and the ever-growing threat of colony collapse in world bee populations.
As with my previous flight on Condor, the announcements in German were long and cheerful, the English translations inevitably short and terse. Although not outright hallucinating at this point, it is true that my attention to detail was failing, and yet…I am certain I heard Mein Kampf not once but twice in the captain’s mid-flight announcement. Hitler’s aforementioned autobiography translates as My Struggle in English, and I could not wait to see how these words, or indeed, how this book, could possibly be relevant to a group of sleepy passengers on a transatlantic flight to Seattle. “Dinner service will begin shortly.” That was the sum of the English translation. Nothing about the pilots’ personal struggles, or any struggle, just the banality of a food trolley about to set forth on its journey down the aisle. It was clear that the English speakers among us were getting an entirely different story, and worse, the crew were offering copies of Mein Kampf to their German passengers. Never again will I travel Condor Airlines.
In Seattle, with a four-hour stopover, things started to get weird. After yet another visit to the restroom (the cramps were not abating), I bought a magazine and a plate of Vietnamese salad rolls. Several bites in, I realized to my absolute horror that my book (The Martian by Andy Weir) was not with me, and worse, the passport I’d been using as a bookmark was also missing. This was it. Just like Weir’s stranded astronaut, I would be stuck in this godforsaken hellscape forever. I grabbed the remains of my salad roll and frantically lurched from one place to another, revisiting all the stops I’d made since my arrival in Seattle. Finally, at the Hudson News, the clerk said, ‘the book in your pocket?’ I looked down at the book-shaped bulge in my jacket, which in turn triggered a memory of my passport, safely tucked into my purse. “Yeah, that one.” I knew then that my thinking was severely fucked, and that I should probably find a place to sit and not move until my flight was called.
The flight home on Alaska Airlines was unremarkable, other than the windows and doors opening and closing mid-flight. I wasn’t sure how this was possible, but I was too tired to care.
70 hours of flight time. 13 thousand kilometres, and thousands of dollars. A ton of walking. Ravens. Gorillas. Cold pretzels and warm weather. A minor intestinal bug. And Kate Bush. The fastest, weirdest, and most fabulous trip of my life.