The adventure, and by that I mean adventure in customer service, began in Glastonbury. It was around 5pm and we were on our way to London but had stopped for a break. Dinner was required. First cafe was the usually “if we ignore them they will go away as we are shut”, second we managed to insist on an audience. Turns out they were also shutting. Fair enough, so where else was open we inquired. “Other cafes and pubs” was the somewhat uninformative answer. No matter it was a lovely evening and Glastonbury is known for its peace not its 21 century customer services – little did we know then that this was the pinnacle of customer care.
The time is now 11pm and we have pulled off the M4 to services near the M25 turning. Again in search of nourishment – surely now so close to the economic powerhouse that is London with its high expectations and 24hr culture we would be accommodate in our every whim..........hmmm no. Turns out the suggestion of hot food in a restaurant in a 24hr service station is alien and quite unexpected. After looking somewhat confused our server, gatekeeper is closer, came up with the suggestion of sandwiches in the chiller – it would seem the state of the art kitchen behind was only for show.
Arrival at our hotel at 3am (long story) was uneventful. A pleasant receptionist offered to cook a hot meal. By then I was suffering from sleep deprivation so I may well have dreamt that bit. Breakfast was confusing, well it confused us and no amount of looking confused would trigger an offer of help from the staff. Eventually I started foraging through the buffet and was not stopped so deduced this was the modus operandi for this establishment. Suitably fortified we headed for the Underground. I will admit I always find this a little confusing, but I am improving. Of course this begs the question should a customer have to learn by experience? Perhaps there is a course I should attend before attempting to negotiate the finer points of this august transport system? The system makes sense once you work out which line you are on (apologies to those who already know this but I live under the illusion that my words may help others) the difficulty lies in working out which line you are on or need to be on. The much praised schematic, and it is a thing of beauty, only makes sense if you already know where you are much like a conventional map. However, a conventional map has the advantage of scale and position relative to reality. I understand completely why Harry Beck could not do it this way, but still there must be a way of incorporating a location key or, maybe, some helpful staff. As for zones – well anyone’s guess. Approaching the platforms we walked up and down until a wonderfully rotund ruby faced smiling Underground employee pointed us the right way, much to Bethan’s delight it was where she had told me 5 minutes earlier!
The Tube is what it is, dirty, noisy and full of people who seem to so hate their lives they neither smile, look up from the paper, or manage to remove their iPods, no doubt containing motivational recordings, from their ears. However, it would seem our chosen hotel location was in a predominantly Muslim area and this lightened the journey. Although there was little conversation the mothers with their children seemed to connect with us and sympathetic smiles were exchanged all-round.
First destination the Natural History Museum. As two Indian Jones wanabes this suited us perfectly (I know Indy is an archaeologist and not into fossils but it’s the spirit of discovery). Free entry, clean and well presented things are looking up. Plenty to see and do, except the dinosaurs are being enhanced, Jurassic Park style perhaps? No mind there is an animatronics display of dinosaurs’ – at a price. Pester power kicks in and we buy two tickets. Now to this day I am still unsure what I paid over twenty pounds for. Yes there were a couple of robot dinosaurs but the whole experience lasted less than five minutes. Put it this way it didn’t manage to impress an eight year old.
More food required and so it is off to Knightsbridge. Suitable pavement cafe located and pizza and drinks ordered. Now bearing in mind this is one of the hottest days of the year what possessed them to serve my (expensive) bottled water warm with no ice? At least Beth’s Coke was chilled. Another interesting observation here is fashion related. In this more expensive part of London we again saw a variety of ethnicities, a wonderful collage of accents and styles. What caught my attention though was a rather chic form of traditional dress that seems popular. Lots of dark headscarves combined with designer glasses, heels and heavy makeup. For convenience what I will call a Jemima Khan style, although I understand Jemima adopts a different look herself these days. Whilst I am no fashionista I remain interest in purchasing habits and motivations and being in the heart of retail paradise I could not help but be intrigued.
Next stop Harrods. Not my first visit and Beth had no idea what it was, and again it did not fail to disappoint. I think my view is jaded somewhat by a belief that this is a world class department store that can supply anything. Perhaps it can. But on entry it seems a parody of itself, shelves full of baubles and tat. I can see an episode of The Apprentice where contestants try to pass off Harrods product as market stall wares – I think they would easily succeed. Plan of action required to save the visit. Off we go to the outdoor and sports section, surely here two budding explorers and extreme sports aficionados can be wooed with the best the world has to offer in survival gear and sports equipment? It would seem not. Rows of football strips, spy gear (even Beth wasn’t impressed and I did try) and one saving grace a mini submarine – at last something that makes me feel I am not in the love child of Tesco Extra and Pool market.
Off again via Buckingham Palace, Number 10, Palace of Westminster (always seems small) and Victoria Embankment – clean and well presented as you would expect. We chance across Michael Portillo filmingnear the Thames and he gives us a quite warm and genuine smile, I can only assume his career as TV presenter and pundit brings him greater happiness than politics. Eventually we arrive in theatre land and hunt for a show. Shriek the Musical – ideal for an 8 year old and a tired economist. Tickets a reasonable £25, show magnificent but theatre very tatty and why do adults go to these shows? Through risk of sounding out of touch I can quite understand a trip with your partner, why not, but groups of young adults watching a children’s’ show – I’m sorry I’m lost.
Ah the tube late at night – what an experience. Gone are the miserable workers to be replaced with a collection or tourists and drunks. This is a Monday I should add. We have three of London’s most trendy next to us, covering generationally the 1960s through to today, who are debating whether heroin is more of a health problem than alcohol. Various other substances are ‘cut’ into the conversation. The odd celebrity name was dropped, not sure who this was aimed at impressing.
Back to base and my earlier dreams relating to hot food seem not to have been a result of sleep deprivation. Two hot meals in the room and a bit of TV. Tomorrow was to be another busy day.
We decided to shorten our Tube journey and got off at Tower Hill. This was a great idea as, in addition to some excellent service from two characters in a hot snack van, we got to tour the Tower. A free lecture from a Yeoman, sight of the ravens, a look at the Crown and various other historical artefacts in a spotless enclosure made this a highlight of our trip. However, Beth’s aunty had informed her that such a thing as Hamleys (shouldn’t that have an apostrophe?)existed and Beth has a memory like an elephant with a Filofax.
From the street outside, Regent Street I believe, we are greeted by entertainers. The store is colourful and dramatic. In we go and select our floor, choosing to start at the top. There are toys to play with, magicians to entertain and row upon row of toys to browse. I notice on our way through that the carpet is worn and the paint scuffed, I ignore this and put it down to my background in construction making me overly critical. We find some demonstrators (toys not activists) to play on, and by this time I am happy to join in, except they don’t work. It seems bits are missing. No worries there are others, which also don’t work, batteries this time. Never mind we carry on. I find some radio controlled cars that interest Beth for a minute, but only that she finds the one she owns already and we salvaged from eBay. Then, as welcome as a beacon to two lost sailors, we spot a display case in the distance. Not just any case but one containing Indiana Jones merchandise, of course there are other heroes there as well and other heroes are available as the say on the BBC, but Beth is fixated on the illuminated signs clearly stating her hero has objects with which to dent dad’s wallet. We rush over. This next part I still find impossible to believe. There are about six themed cabinets; but in each cabinet is a collection of Harry Potter wands. Did I desperately want to buy some Indy merchandise, was Bethan inconsolable? No. What shocked me was the laziness, the lack of professionalism and the contempt for consumers shown by what is meant to be a flagship store. Surely it is worth getting signage correct?
We ended our trip with a visit to Ferrari, which didn’t contain any, and Natural Geographic’s store. Did we have a good time? Of course we did but then we have a good time in the local Tesco. Beth has memories of police motorcycles tearing through the streets and ‘the Queen’s house’ and is more than happy. I am left again wondering with what am I meant to be impressed. Dirty streets and public transport, shabby shops selling tat and indifferent staff leave me underwhelmed but at the same time energised. Not energised with the positive vibe of the city, that is clearly missing, but energised by its negatives in comparison to the wonders I have seen beyond. Do not come here seeking best practice, do not come here seeking inspiration, do come here to remind yourself that this is not the centre. For fans of Douglas Adams it’s a Zaphod Beeblebrox and Total Perspective Vortex thing, for fans of Catatonia we come alive outside the M25....