LONDON, England – I had barely hung my Stetson in London before Texas began calling. Not through the mooing of cattle, the jingle-jangle of spurs on the Tube or the dreaded work email, but the familiar name of Renzo Piano, the self-same architect of the Kimbell Art Museum’s latest building.
“Who’s heard of the architect Renzo Piano?” our tour guide bellowed.
Yes, we were in London to get away from home for a bit, to clear the red dirt from our weary minds. But Texas kept calling out, roping our minds and bodies as if to remind us that, really, there’s a little Texas everywhere in the world.
We were on one of those double-decked tour buses. And we were there because we were dead tired. It was early, London time, and our hotel room wouldn’t be ready for several more hours. Our bodies were ready, however.
The plan – originally – had been to sleep on the eight-hour-plus plane ride over, but fate – in the form of airplane seats built for some form of life other than humans – intervened and made any thoughts of Morpheus unlikely. The seats were as comfortable as those that Alex (Malcolm McDowell) was strapped to in A Clockwork Orange – minus the incessant Beethoven. Why aren’t airline executives strapped into the damned things for eight hours then asked to sing Neil Diamond karaoke wearing sparkly tutus in front of their parents? It only seems fair.
So, instead of our planned day of touring on foot, we settled for a more relaxed seat aboard the tour bus and the company of our tour guide, who promptly reminded me that renowned architect Mr. Piano was known for more than just the Kimbell building.
He had helped revive the whole Southwark area near London Bridge, starting with the landmark structure known as The Shard, a 95-story building that is the tallest in London. It opened in 2012 and it’s impressive. Though Piano met with criticism, he countered that the building was designed to resemble the church steeples around the city.
If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you may recall the building being used in the 2013 episode The Bells of Saint John, where the Doctor rides a motorbike vertically up the side of the building, If you’re not a fan, that sentence just sent question marks flying through your skull.
Piano and/or his company also designed some other buildings in that area, with high-profile tenants that include Hospital Corp of America and another American company, recruitment group Robert Half International, taking spots in an unforgettable building near the London Bridge.
While The Shard has been a success, it has, of course, led to other less remarkable versions such as the Walkie-Talkie buildings and the Gerkin.
But what Texan can cross the London Bridge without thinking of Gary P. Nunn’s song London Homesick Blues and the lyric, “Even London Bridge has fallen down and moved to Arizona, now I know why”?
The London Bridge, at least the one built in the 1830s, did indeed get moved to Arizona in 1967. Our bus guide repeated the oft-told story that the bridge purchaser thought he was buying the much more scenic Tower Bridge with its turret-like structures. The story got a good laugh on the bus, even though it is apparently not true. But who doesn’t like to take the piss out of a rich American?
My next encounter with Texas was at a Tube stop. I noticed a stray bottle in the station. Generally, the stations are very clean – the British have this very quaint notion that you ought to have enough people on a project to do the job right. I mean, really.
A stray discarded bottle is rare. But this one in particular – to my Texas eyes – shouldn’t have been there. It was an empty bottle of Corona beer. Say what? The British have beer everywhere. Even the smallest pubs have dozens of choices. I shrugged it off as a fluke, but sure enough that night in hipper-than-hip Soho I saw a couple of British lads downing bottles – sans limes, I noticed. No limes for the Limey Corona drinkers, I guess.
The next day, I checked a Marks & Spenser and there they were: 12-packs of Corona. I haven’t seen an advert for the beer yet, but I’ll bet they’re out there.
You can drink a bit of Texas here, but can you chew it? Sure. The British foodie scene is exploding and along with it some Texas flavor. Twenty years ago, when I was here, there was next to nothing. A place called the Texas Embassy Cantina was a nice place to meet fellow Texans, but the nachos and margaritas were pale imitations. Now there’s a restaurant here: The Big Smoke, touting Central London Barbecue. I admit I didn’t try it. I didn’t come to London for the barbecue.
But I did go to Homeslice Neal’s Yard near Covent Garden, considered to offer one of the best pizzas in the city. One key ingredient in the pizza I had was finely chopped jalapenos. A rarity when I was here two decades ago, the key ingredient to Texas cooking is conquering London taste bud by taste bud.
Even the location, Neal’s Yard, reminded me of the Lone Star State. The area got its name recently, in the 17th century (recent in British terms, anyway), from developer Thomas Neale. More recently, in 1976, a health food entrepreneur started a Whole Food Warehouse in the area, which reminded me of Whole Foods Market. And yeah, there’s one of those in London, too.
The eyes of Texas, as the song says, are upon you, all the livelong day.
Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.