I made an expedition to London the other day and revisited some of my old stomping grounds: as well as the Clapham North area where we still own a house, I walked around bits of Soho, particularly the Carnaby Street area where I once worked, just to see how times had changed, before lunching at Liberty's in an upstairs cafe that certainly did not used to exist.
Here are some observations.
1. Pubs that serve Thai food appear to be a fad that has died a death. At one point there were at least four in Clapham alone. But now, our neighbourhood pub advertises "Bloody Marys and Roasts" outside - presumably trad-British food is now the thing, and it also made me wonder whether the popularity of brunch (a real New York institution ) has followed us over the Atlantic.
2. Restaurants, cafes and gyms come and go, but the old pubs remain. In Kingly Street, round the corner from my old work, the plush, once brand-new Cannons gym I belonged to has been knocked down. Almost all the restaurants are different. But the dark, traditional pubs - the Red Lion, Blue Posts and Clachan - are still going strong. The Shakespeare's Head in Carnaby St, where I remember hanging out as a teenager drinking snakebite and black, looks unchanged. And the newsagent opposite Liberty's where I always used to look at the trade mag headlines still sells Campaign.
3. Austerity Britain does not appear to have made any impact whatsoever on the Carnaby Street area. If anything, it all looks a lot posher than ten years ago, with newly constructed courtyards, even more boutiquey shops than before (where had Boots gone?) and a plethora of fancy places to have coffee. In fact, nowhere I have visited so far looks remotely recession-struck. But what's it like outside of the south of England? Guess we'll find out on the trip to Anglesey...
4. First Great Western trains are now ridiculously expensive. I paid an eye-popping 55 quid for a day return from Didcot to Paddington - a 45 minute journey that I know very well. It's the same length of time as our journey from Long Island to Manhattan, but about five times the price. For this, you get a carriage with safety announcements and a TV screen in the back of your seat, a bit like going on a plane, so that you can browse the news headlines. I can't believe anyone actually wants all this - surely most people would rather pay less for rail fares and read their own book or look at the news headlines on their own smartphone? Seems to me that the privatised rail companies have gone seriously wrong somewhere along the (leaf-strewn) line.
But there's nothing like going away for a few years to make you see your home country in a new light. I came away with the impression that London is a lively, exciting city, with just as much going for it as New York. (There's nowhere in NYC quite like Liberty's, for example - an eccentric Tudor mansion stuffed with scarves and hats and stationery. Americans just don't do that kind of thing.) I'm looking forward to rediscovering the capital again.