Not surprisingly, given that Britain PLC is in the midst of the great shutdown for two and a bit weeks, London was very quiet this morning. Rising early, after a glass of Rioja from the bottle left by the kindly gentleman in red robes last night (we sorted the unfortunate misunderstanding about him being a burglar) I made a few Tweets, emailed a few friends, called my brother, and escaped to wander through London… or part of it at least. The great thing about solo Christmas, as it is for me this year, is that one may do as one pleases and it pleases me greatly. I am staying in Bloomsbury for a week or so to do a small project, so I walked first towards Covent Garden but then changed my mind and made for Trafalgar Square.
For some curious reason I found myself writing very bad French on Twitter this morning and this inspired me to spread some good cheer by talking to tourists, and others I came across, in my even worse spoken French. I arrived in Trafalgar Square, wearing my Australian Drizeabone and sporting an increasingly luxuriant and increasingly absurd salt and pepper Zapata moustache. The square commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) and the main feature is Nelson’s Column (and the four lions by Sir Edward Landseer added in 1867). Checking some facts for my post in Wikipedia, I discovered the heartwarming story that in 1925 a Scottish confidence trickster, Arthur Furguson, “sold” the landmark to an unknowing American claiming it was for sale to pay off Britain’s war loan to the United States. (He also “sold” Big Ben and Buckingham Palace.)
Some years ago I was in a Black cab with a particularly talkative cabbie. He told me, as we drove up The Mall, that the flagstaffs lining The Mall are topped with ships, representing Nelson’s fleet, and are visible to Nelson standing up there on his column. The statue is 18 ft high and the column is 151 ft. I put this knowledge to good use later.
Hipflasks are very useful things, and so it was this morning as I took a shot or two of Rioja straight from the flask. I wandered about, taking in the square and the surrounding architecture. I quote from Wikipedia: “On the north side of the square is the National Gallery and to its east St Martin-in-the-Fields church. The square adjoins The Mall via Admiralty Arch to the southwest. To the south is Whitehall, to the east Strand and South Africa House, to the north Charing Cross Road and on the west side Canada House.”
OK… enough of the travelogue. What did I do? I drank the rest of the wine in the hip flask, roughly a third to a half of a bottle, and just enjoyed the scene, the pigeons, the tourists, the cloudy grey sky and the sharp cold wind on my face. Bracing. It was then I heard two tourists talking to each other. They were Australian… blokes in their twenties. I was wearing an Australian Drizeabone, I had drink nearly half a bottle of wine. My impeccable Christmas morning logic told me that these two tourists were perfect to practice my bad french on.
The conversation went roughly as follows…
Charon: Bonjour, Joyeux Noël à vous. Êtes-vous de l’Australie. Êtes-vous en vacances?
Tourist 1: Hi. Good Christmas to you as well.
Did he speak French, I asked myself, not wishing to lose my confidence in the face of a fluent French speaker. I took a chance and asked a question I did not the answer to.
Tourist 1: No, mate, we’re from Aus. You got one of our coats on…
This was music to my ears. I resisted, at this stage, the impulse to talk English with a farcical French accent and continued…
Charon: Vous profitez de Londres? C’est Trafalgar Square. Cette statue est l’un de nos grands héros naval, Nelson.
Tourist 2: I thought Nelson was English?
I started laughing. The game was up. Two Aussies thought my French was OK to a point they may have even thought I was French… perhaps le moustache I am sporting? I told them that I was, in fact, a Scot, had lived in London for many years but just felt like speaking bad French to tourists as it was Christmas Day. They seemed to find the idea amusing. We talked for about ten minutes or so. They were doing the great Australian trek across Europe and other parts of the world. Nice guys. We talked about cricket for a while… the defeat of Australia and England by India and England”s chances of winning The Ashes this summer. They thought we might do it. Being British, I tried not to let my real view come out (We are going to stuff the Aussies this summer) and said that it should be a good series. I pointed to The Mall when they asked if Buckingham Palace was quite near and told them to look at the flagpoles on the way down – the ships at the top of each pole representing a ship in Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar. They liked that. A most enjoyable way to work up a thirst for my return…