Christmas shopping, and festive markets review
Fortnum & Mason is the closest that a shop ever gets to being a 5-star hotel. The staff dress up in red tails and shiny shoes at Christmas, with a bit of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra on the speakers -- proper Christmas music.
Harrods is more of the same. The rooms are probably nicer but the prices are nicer as well (higher!), but I don't think it's quite as homely as Fortnum's. But if your partner is partial to a bit of champagne fudge instead of Quality Street, then this is the place. If she likes sherry jellies instead of wine gums, then check it out. They make sweets out of saffron and sea salt, cinnamon and goats milk. You can tell that they're expensive because they sell them individually. You see people at the counter saying "I'll have two of those and three of these," and then they say, "that will be fifty pounds, please". It's pick 'n' mix for millionaires.
You can get ginger sticks, berries in a wicker-style box, dates and nuts in a picnic basket, and fruit jams in a glass jar that should really be for roses. They've got teabags in a silver caddy that I'd happily have for my grandmother's ashes.
Their Christmas decorations department isn't a patch on Fortnum's, but they've still got some nice items. A lot of it looks contemporary, though -- and too much like modern art. I see giant eyes on copper-coloured balls, and huge glass orbs with a dollop of purple paint on top. They've got silver moons and chiselled squirrels, duck's heads and dalmatians. Where are all the reindeer? Where are the snowmen? If you're looking for a ball of partridge feathers, or a porcelain relief of an unnamed queen, then Harrods is your place.
If you want to buy some toys for your kids, then there's only one place to go: Hamleys. Hamleys is the biggest toy store in London.
The ground floor is where they keep all of their stuffed animals and teddy bears -- I've never seen so many cuddly toys in my life. It's a bit like visiting the zoo, or the Natural History Museum -- they are just sitting there stuffed, spilling off the shelves. Cats and dogs, frogs and bugs, lions and tigers, monkeys, donkeys, snakes and snails, seals and penguins, dragons and unicorns. They've got sheep, stuff that goes cheep, stuff that growls, howls, owls, hand puppets, Paddington Bears... they have basically got everything, for all ages. From toddler toys and little girl's dolls houses, to board games, spaceships, railway sets, remote-controlled cars, PlayStation games, robotic dogs, bathtime frogs, ping pong guns and jigsaws. Downstairs is where they keep all of the boys toys -- gadgets and electronic gear (I wouldn't mind some of it myself).
Hamleys is always cheerfully chaotic because they encourage the staff to play with the toys -- people blow bubbles outside the front door, and chuck hovering helicopters above your head. You'll find people doing card tricks and zooming around on neon roller skates. And amongst all of that are the parents and drooling kids, running around from shelf to shelf with eyes like lightbulbs and touching everything they can see. Picking up stuff, dropping stuff, kicking stuff (and peoples' shins), crying and whining and begging their mums to buy whatever they want. I want this! I want that! To sum it up in two words... it's a f*cking nightmare (excuse my French). It's the kind of place that makes you swear in French -- that's how busy it is at Christmas.
I'm not a big fan of their Christmas grotto, though. It's obvious that they don't want kids sitting on Santa's knee anymore (not after Jimmy Saville), so you have to book a breakfast or dinner with him instead, alongside fifty other kids. Then they all sit around the table for thirty minutes whilst his six-foot elves serve them bread rolls and biscuits. It doesn't seem very Christmassy to me.
Do you remember the fantastic grottos that we used to have as kids? We would walk through a dimly lit cave studded with fairy lights and snow, and then step through an icy tunnel into his red velvet throne room, where Santa would be sitting with some genuine 'short persons' (I'm pretty sure that's the correct PC term to use). And then you'd tell him what you wanted, and he would look at your parents for a confirming nod, before saying something like, "Well, er... how about this instead?" And then he'd give you a wooden whistle or a Kinder Egg and tell you your two minutes is up, and point you towards the door. Those were the days! And you went home genuinely believing that he was real -- because you just met the fella. But what do the kids get these days? A couple of sit-down sandwiches with him. They've turned him into a glorified waiter.
Liberty is another shop worth visiting... you can find it on the junction of Oxford Street and Regent Street. It's worth a visit just to stare at the front. It looks like something out of Tudor times (it's not genuine Tudor, but it still looks great). The inside is all wood and worth a look too, but it isn't quite as grand as Harrods and Fortnum's.
Selfridges is another big store worth looking at, but it's a bit too posh for me. You come through the front door and straight into their perfume counter with its forcefield of smells. Women in tight ponytails are standing behind brightly lit desks, wearing white lab coats and filing their nails. Every ten steps is a demonstration desk, where the staff do their best to tart up anyone who comes along. It's always the ugly ones who sit down first, hoping for a miracle. They sit down looking like a scarecrow, and want to walk away looking like a Barbie doll. The staff are good, but they're not that good -- jeez!
When I think of a Christmas market I think of a Bavarian mountain. I think of an alpine forest with little ski chalets made out of wood, lit by a string of fairy lights round the door. We don't have many of those in London (we don't have any Bavarian mountains either). The really big one is down Southbank, stretching from the Hungerford Bridge to the Royal Festival Hall. They line them up along the river -- about fifty huts with decorations. But they are basically sheds with a bit of tinsel on top, so don't expect too much. There is usually a big area set aside in Jubilee Gardens as well. That's where they do most of the food -- mulled wine and German sauerkraut, burnt sausages, pancakes and jam. Waffles and hot dogs and chargrilled burgers. They've got a big cider house as well -- I think it's supposed to be a German-style beer hall. It makes a change from going down the pub.
There is a similar sort of thing outside the Tate Modern this year (the same sort of stalls selling the same sort of tat), and there's usually another little market further up by Tower Bridge. They stick it outside City Hall so the Mayor can pop out on his lunch break and buy some Christmas gifts for his mistress (allegedly).
The other big market is in Covent Garden. They spruce it up with some decent decs at this time of year, but the shops inside the piazza are what I call 'arty shops'. It's where you buy knick-knack presents for twenty quid a go. If you want some proper high street shops then you need to head down Oxford Street, Regent Street and Knightsbridge, or Piccadilly and the area around Sloane Square in Chelsea.
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