Alone with my penses

I sat at my elevenses

At sixes and sevens-es…

About what?  You may ask and take me to task

For writing bad rhymes in these trying times

Okay okay enough bad poetry. I’ll stop now and explain the phrase that began this and go on to give a brief account of my second London walk on which my cousin Renuka accompanied me much to my delight and as I will explain later, gustatory gratification .

According to a dictionary, to be at sixes and sevens  is to be in a state of confusion over something, although I always understood there to be an element of rivalry between the parties that were at sixes and sevens with one another. I was not completely wrong, as it turns out. According to Peter, our guide on the Thursday night walk called the “Ancient city at night,” the phrase came to be as a result of  the confusion or rather competition for precedence between the trade guilds of the merchant tailors (excuse me, taylors) and the skinners in the City of London. The guilds were formed circa the twelfth century A.D. to protect member’s interests and were ranked according to their seniority. They were called livery companies incidentally for they got to wear a special distinctive livery or uniform too but that’s another story I got from the net not the walk. Anyway,  the livery companies for taylors and skinners (who traded in furs and were NOT tanners, who had/have a separate guild) being founded the same year were apparently at loggerheads over who got to be in sixth place. A year later it was decided in court no less, that they would alternate in ranking each year and thus they remain at sixes and sevens to this day.

Now there are other possibilities for the origins of the phrase – websites (including Wikipedia) give Chaucerian, Biblical and Shakespearean possibilities, but this was Peter’s story and I’m sticking to it! Moving on.. or rather back, our walk began at the Royal exchange at the base (and rear) of a statue of Wellington, where we were surrounded by these columned buildings that try so hard to look Grecian. The Royal exchange, the top part of the Bank of London and the Lord Mayor’s Mansion, all have this same architecture.

Thank goodness for the quintessential red double-decker buses that are so characteristic of London to remind you where you are, other than Bombay of course. From this busy hub we walked past the Lord Mayor’s where ladies and gentlemen dressed to the nines (I wonder where that expression came from?), at least one with a dress that was sweeping the cobbled streets before she entered the house, for some fancy event, and then (back to us now) down a narrow little alley along St. Stephen’s church to view another church, the one that transcended originality according to Eliot (who despite his American-ness I always thought of as English and after wandering in London I can see why).

And now my memory is getting fuzzy on the exact sequence of spots we paused at, to listen and learn, but my camera shows me a pair of original 16th (?) century houses as well as the London Stone before we stopped at our first watering hole. Here are glimpses of the Stone – stored behind a grating and marked with a plaque, which I thought was capturing since it gives the story so much better than I could…

Our first watering hole – this walk included pubs etc – was a little wine bar tucked in the middle of this financial area – and possibly one of the well-kept secretes of the city. Before we went in, we passed a mystery box on the side wall, about which we played guessing games over our drinks, mine a glass of the house red, a nice claret, a wine that I will not stick my nose up at unlike those Regency Bucks. Most of us thought it was an oven or furnace or coal storage-bin of some sort. We weren’t even close! Turns out it was a safe in the bedroom of the adjoining house. The prize for that one went to this Italian lady in our group. Fortified with our libations we walked on to the site of the original bridge and saw the livery house of the fishmongers and the site of the original London Bridge and learned about sixes and sevens, before heading out to the site of the gild-topped Monument (capitalized on purpose) and heard Peter’s account of the Great Fire.

Lovely names those streets had and thank goodness they haven’t changed… Pudding Lane & Fish  Street Hill. We saw the corner with the plaques commemorating the place where the infamous fire began, and Peter told us where it ended and why. The Monument for which the eponymous underground stop is named, designed mostly by Wren (who else) but crowned with a creation of that unsung and deeply weird hero of those times, Robert Hooke, is around the corner and you’ve seen pictures galore I’m sure or can elsewhere on cyberspace and so I won’t bother here. We passed another Wren church, which was once according to our regretful guide, one of the most  sumptuously-decorated interiors until about 30 years ago after which some catastrophe destroyed it and now he finds it heartbreaking to enter. We also passed an old building on Eastcheap (another lovely name)  bearing a boar’s head on its facade, which may well have been the inspiration for Falstaff’s drinking break.

From Eastcheap we headed to our next pub nestled in the marketplace that posed as  Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter movies. Lovely pub but unfortunately by that hour they were serving drinks only and no munchies and so I held my peace while we went to the site of the famed Lloyd’s whose modernistic and very original-looking exterior still houses a part of the original interior I believe. Standing in front of this building is an odd feeling for you really do see the old juxtaposed with the new here on four corners. There is Lloyd’s of course (photo on left), and London’s new iconic building, the one our guide so charmingly labeled the crystal phallus (right side). But then you can also see the stone medieval church (in the same picture with the crystal), which has an interesting association with one of the longest continuously-in-print histories of the City of London. There is also in another corner (not photographed) the inner city’s own Westminster Abbe-like church with headstones etc, which has been newly restored.

This was nearly the end of our tour. We ended at a pub called Dirty Dick’s whose banner I shall end the account of the walk with, and whose story is tragic indeed! But rather than repeat it I’ll exhort you to take the walk yourselves and learn about it yourselves, leaving you only with this teaser, He may have been the original Miss Havisham, of Dickens’ Great Expectations fame, who was mimicked in glorious detail by Jeanne Arnold last Hallowe’en.

Postscript: The walk ended at Dirty Dick’s but the evening was not over yet. One of the attractions of this walk was that it promised us a possible dinner at the best and best-value curry houses in London. This would be the famed Brick Lane. Nobody from the walk chose to join us, even the guide, but Renuka and I trudged down the way Peter told us and wound up at Brick Lane which at first glance with its flashing neons and pimp-like guys outside each restaurant brought to mind well, a red light district minus the gals. It also reminded me a bit of 6/7th st in the East Village in New York where the entire block between 1st and 2nd Avenues is full of Indian restaurants with near-identical menus. Same deal here with an offer for free drink etc. etc. Nothing seemed attractive – very generic chicken-tikka-masala places they all appeared to be. But we persevered and walked past all of these into one which had no over-anxious welcoming committee (in fact no one even greeted us on entry) and no menu on the window either. The folks were Bangladeshi and they seemed to my delight to have lots of different fish curries and the staple Bangla egg curry as well. We decided to eat there and our instincts served us well. I loved the fish – good and spicy – and Renuka liked her eggs, even asking for extra gravy, but the star of the show was a daal cooked together with mutton (but it was not Dhanshaak) which we both loved. We ate and ate and spent less than 25 pounds altogether, which is cheap by London standards. Then we rolled our very tired selves into the tube and home stopping to pick up ice-cream en route, only to find the man of the house already in bed, though he did get up for ice-cream.

A further postscript – Renuka & I did have our elevenses (albeit at one) aka high tea at Fortnum and Mason’s the next morning where I got a taste of a smoked Earl Grey that was delightful, along with all sorts of delectable canapes and scones and cream and lemon curd. For all that I turn my nose up at British cuisine, I do love their customs and idiosyncrasies concerning food. Enid Blyton worked her magic on me very early and it has proven indelible I’m afraid.  Viva Britannia, I write even as they lost today to Germany in the World Cup rounds and are out of the tourney this year.

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