Monday, June 12, 2017

A Royal Tour Of England: Imperial College, Royal Albert Hall, Crystal Palace and Raja Petra

I was travelling in England the whole first week of May. On paper it was a gallant end of spring. But on the ground, it was brutal winter. The temperature was tolerable single digits, but the wind wreaked vengeance. The weathermen were blaming an Arctic blow-over or Carbon Effect or Corbyn Effect or something scientific. The wind could well be from North Korea. But who wants to offend Supreme Leader these days?

Our tour troop had grown bigger since my last trip here in March 2010 with the addition of three grand daughters and two daughters-in-law. Time just flew. Those who were loudly complaining about our PM's wife's long luggage on her trip to Turkey last year should see ours. Strollers, car seats, car seat boosters, Peppa Pigs, you name it. If not for the airline industry's extortionate luggage rules, my two boys would've brought along their washing machines.

I've promised myself to depart from my usual verbose and alliterative writing style, at least for this entry. Readers nowadays are readers but in name. They don't read Wuthering Heights. All they do all day is reading half-English messages and watching anything that jumps off the phone screen. So I'll write less and have more pictures instead. If you think that's not exactly a change in writing style, it's fine with me. But let's start.

1. Imperial College London

Of all the famous and familiar sights in London, why this sad structure? We came here to attend my eldest boy's graduation here, that's why. For some unknown reason he'd found enough energy and intrigue to study while working and pandering to his bosses. And even managed to graduate.

The first time I heard of Imperial College was in early 1990's. I had lots of Tiger Lane classmates who left for England after Form Five in early 70's. But all of them went to Brighton. Well, not all. But almost all. It's hard not to confuse Brighton with Britain and Briton. Just remember this: Britons live in Britain, Malays study in Brighton. Repeat this jingle ten times and you'll get this minor mess off your head.

I'd thought Imperial College was an A Level College like the one near Tg Malim. Only quite recently I discovered that it's a full-blown and no-nonsense university with students at all levels except A Level. Its engineering school is purported to be among the world's top and toughest, up there with MIT and Caltech, with half of the students speaking only in numbers and Chinese.

Physically there was nothing to wonder and marvel here. No period landmark or architectural masterwork. The buildings were mostly of contemporary design, huddled tightly with hardly enough space in between for the creative mind to stand, stare, write poems etc. The male toilet can take only five normal-size students at any one time. What came to mind was the sprawling UPM and UTP campuses with lakes and trees and professors and cows roaming freely. To be fair Imperial sits on a princely piece of real estate and, please, don't compare it with Balakong or Tronoh.
Imperial also has a graduate business school as its cash cow preying on unsuspecting corporate warriors seeking the elevated Imperial brand. In truth, the business program here is only slightly more complicated than the one at UPM. But who wants to go to Serdang? My eldest was graduating from from the business school. You guessed it, I know.

Before I forget, Imperial College is in the South Kensington area, in the heart of London, close to Royal Albert Hall, Natural History Museum and  Harrods. Imperial College is an unofficial supporter of Fulham Football Club. Yes, this is funny.

2. Royal Albert Hall

Somehow lots of Malays are familiar with this hall, made famous by our legendary singer-actor-lawyer, the late Sudirman. He performed and won the Asian Music Awards here in 1989. Siti Nurhaliza went one better with a solo concert here in 2005 amidst controversies, like why was it not held at the more iconic Panggung Aniversari in KL Lake Gardens.

Don't ask me how people get to hold concerts at Albert Hall. I'm equally curious. Do they get invited or vetted by the Queen? Do they have to pay a rental? Who pays? The husband? And how much? How old is the husband?  Where are they going to get the audience? Ferried all the way from Pahang? Or Brighton?

My eldest's graduation ceremony was held at Albert Hall. What a place to receive your degree. You need no other motivation to attend. It bothered me somehow that Imperial College called it "Graduation" ceremony, while back in Malaysia we were stuck with "Convocation" or, worse,"Konvokesyen". So where did we get this word "Convocation" from? Shakespeare? As a full-time retiree, I get to worry about urgent things like this.

It was a glittering and glitzy occasion, colourful and steeped in tradition, complete with a string ensemble. The oval and opulent hall was filled to the brim, and the atmosphere just blew me away. The pace and timing were pitch perfect, no hitches or glitches, nothing over the top, just right. And, of course, the music. I almost choked when my name was called (hahaha).

I'll remember this one for a long time.

3.  Peak District

Not Peek District. This is a highland area and a national park bordering Manchester and Derby known for its scenic lakes, streams, farms, villages, sheep (scenic sheep?). We spent a good half-day traipsing round the area, savouring the splendid landscape and gorgeous geography. It's an exhilarating experience, which is really a pity because most Malaysians would rather visit the nearby Old Trafford and waste good money on Pogba shirts.

Peak District might not be as famous as Lake District, but equally enjoyable. No romantic poets and writers have chosen to live and die here though. The closest I could think of would probably be RPK, the refugee blogger now mired down in Manchester. Read his prolific tales of trysts and machinations and you'll understand why he's a romantic writer.

4. Manchester City FC

The 50 year-old dream came true. I finally got to watch Manchester City in the flesh at the Etihad, right before my very eyes. I'd been having these visions ever since I followed the team in 1969.  The feeling was simply unbelievable, shouting and swearing with 55,000 City freaks, watching David Silva waltzing and Yaya Toure bursting out, just twenty feet away.

But there was a downside to all this. Every time Aguero had the ball in the box with only half-decent chance of a goal, the whole stadium would stand up and cheer on. While this spontaneous act ramped up the atmosphere, it totally blocked my view since I'm physically challenged (political for short). Anyway, City ran out 5-0 winners against a hapless Crystal Palace. I completely missed the first four goals.

5. Hotel New Inn, Gloucester.

Gloucester was our last stop before our return flight to KL. Nothing special about this town, except that it was a medieval city only two hours away from Heathrow Terminal 4. It's cheaper and more convenient to stop here than going back to London (with all our bags and Peppa Pigs, remember?). It was Sunday and the town was deserted and it took us some time to find our hotel, the New Inn, although it was smack in the town centre.

The New Inn Hotel wasn't new. It was built in 1450. Just like Gloucester, there was nothing extraordinary about the hotel, except for a footnote in Wikipedia "The New Inn is supposedly haunted with at least one unexplained event captured on CCTV in 2010". It was too late to change our plans.

Stepping into the hotel you'd notice the intricate 500-year old timber and masonry. The toilet came with modern soap and flushing system. It took us some time to really settle in. We hardly talked.

Nothing happened. Sorry.        

6. Breathless Bread

What's more boring than bread? I love bread, and England is a bread heaven. Walk into any supermarket you'll see one big section with bread brands and varieties in full cry, from Allison's rustic white to Hovis wholemeal and all the way to Worburton's superseed. I had to catch my breath. And it's bloody cheap. A 600 gm of high quality multi-seed variety sells for only 79 p (RM 4.30). A plain white is RM 7.90 at Isetan KLCC Sun Moulin bakery. Gardenia or Massimo is RM 2.50 for 400gm of mind-fogging gluten and yeast.      

I bought plenty of bread and enjoyed every slice. Fabulous stuff. As to why it's so much cheaper in England, I don't have a ready explanation. Maybe the market there is bigger, while I am the only bread market in Malaysia.

7. Ah, Malaysia Airlines 

I flew Malaysia Airlines this time. I'd not flown long-haul on Malaysia Airlines for almost twenty years. Air Asia or some Arab airlines were always 50% cheaper. This was also my first flight on the A380. It was certainly big, with more space and air to breath, but nothing beyond my expectation.  

With plenty of empty seats, it was hard not to notice the flight attendants (male and female). They all had the real knack of appearing busy at all times. Those in the idle oil and gas industry can learn a thing or two from these guys. But I must say that they were a bit of a let-down. I mean, the aircraft was all fresh and spanking, but the attendants looked older than Gloucester. A couple of them even had reading glasses. I thought it was an exception and I should be seeing something different and more inspiring on the return flight. It was different set, but from the same period.

I suspect these people were highly-paid holdovers from the platonic Malaysia-Singapore Airlines. They were nice and pleasant enough, but I'm sure there are eager and younger ones among the 120,000 Malaysia Airline staff with more energy and better eyesight to take over the job.

Sorry for this Trumpesque turn, but I'm sure most of you are with me on this.


8. A Final Word

It's been a brief and productive family outing, a mishmash of business, fun and ghosts. I guess my three granddaughters also enjoyed it. They didn't complain about the cold wintry air. They didn't complain about anything. Either their benchmark was low or their tolerance threshold was high. Maybe both, who knew. I'm not sure what they think of Peak District.

England is easy. The locals drive on the left and speak good English or good Indian, unlike the Italians who drive on the right and speak only loud Italian. And food is friendly.  Manchester has more halal restaurants than Subang Jaya on per Muslim basis. What immediately comes to mind is an old and intrepid friend named Yusof Hashim. He travels only to strange and difficult places, like Antarctica, Patagonia and Atlas Mountains, where locals don't drive. He's 70 now. I'm not sure how he copes. I don't think there's a halal restaurant in Antarctica.

Did I promise you plenty of pictures? Here's two more, shot in York. Spreading out on the steps like that, what a clever improvisation.