Making of UK Edition: My 9-day London stay

We were in London to explore the possibility of setting up the UK edition of HindustanTimes.com. A day before we were to leave for London, Forbes winter rating further boosted our spirits. Our portal that was thrice ranked as the seventh best foreign newspaper website in the world was ranked number four in the recent listing. This was just a perfect setting on the eve of the London visit.

I was visiting after 11 years, after being a resident in 1990-91 at Wimbledon Park and even though I didn’t have a particularly eventful stint at London, I was filled with nostalgia. The Tube was beckoning me and the West End held an enduring spell. But before we hit Heathrow, I have an interesting tale to tell about our experience of flying Virgin Atlantic Upper Class.

We were received with customary bubbly, to begin with. A beauty therapist on board greeted us just as we had begun to be comfortable in our seats. Nicky Taylor, a petite blonde with an hourglass figure, informed us that her repertoire of services include Stress Busting face and scalp massage, Full Back Up massage to unwind at 38,000ft, Helping Hands special zone therapy, manicure, and Armed Force, the ultimate stress-relieving shoulder massage.

She saw me a trifle nonplussed, perhaps struggling with my Indian prudery (some people would call it sensibility), and reassured me that all that is done ‘through the clothes’. “You wouldn’t like to strip in air, would you!” she said. I asked her what form of massaging she practices. She said she had her training in a Swedish school. She also said that she does about fifteen people in Upper Class and would appreciate if we book time with her, failing which she cannot be sure whether her services would be available or not. My colleague quickly grabbed the opportunity and booked his ticket to paradise or something close to that feeling that I presume he must have expected.

There was a bevy of airhostesses with the flight supervisor being Jacqueline King, called Jacky, who led by example. As we savoured potato crisps and Panchrattan namkeen, by none else but Haldiram's, the flight took off with minimum of fuss and no rattle. AS 340 is a nice big plane and I wondered why it didn’t rattle or shake its posterior like a crazed woman, something we are quite accustomed to when flying Indian Airlines. May be it’s got to do with airworthiness and maintenance or may be it’s the good old Indian habit of jiggling our butt.

At 38,000 feet up in the sky, I was enjoying sunshine falling into my champagne glass, making one alluring picture after another - a fantastical interplay of light, liquid and air. The bubbles were heady and confident in their flight and the pictures that were formed were like a shimmering golden skyline of a city welcoming the first light of sunshine.

I was immersed in my thoughts when the airhostess jolted me with a menu card. “Do you know about our Freedom menu?” she asked. Yes, freedom to choose what I want, when I want. "Oh, my God! she blushed, "you know all about it." Little did I tell her that I speed-read the tagline on the menu cover as she was handing it to me. Anyway, what followed was a feast in the sky. I resisted the temptation to ask for scotch and I wanted to go slow on the drinks.

The first slice of fine life went something like this: Can I have some water, please?

“Of course, sir. Sparkling or still?”
“Still, please.”
“Here you are.”
“Thank you.”
“You are very welcome.”

The water exchange over, I asked for Champagne Devaux and a warm croissant filled with Cheddar cheese and tomato.

“Do you serve nuts?” I asked the Indian hostess who was to indulge us. Sonal Chinna is from Delhi and is flying with Virgin for over two years. She said, “No, gentleman, it’s a nuts-free flight.”

Having a weakness for roasted cashews and almonds, I thought it was funny that nuts were not part of the menu. Nuts-free as if it was by design, but I doubt if there is any other reason for it besides cost-effectiveness. But you can’t ask for the moon, especially when you were being treated like mini royalty.

After this, my light meal consisted of seekh kebab, murgh malai tikka and a lache paratha which was followed by paneer served with lemon scented rice, all accompanied by a classic dry white wine which had restrained notes of lemon and green apple. In dessert when we went for mango rasmalai Sonal couldn’t help chiming: “You guys are hardcore,” whatever that meant!

The in-flight entertainment had personal 10 inches television screens, but I preferred to spend most of my time tracking the movement of the aircraft through various countries. One image that remains with me is of the black, soulless mountains of West Pakistan - a place so remote and severe that it was intimidating by its starkness. It was nothing but miles of desert punctuated by barren mountains.

We were sitting next to the bar and I was struck by the drinking capacity of a tough British chap who was downing red wine by the gallon. We don’t even drink so much of water during the day.



I thought I would try the lovely English tea served in the evening but the temptation got the better of me and I asked for Champagne. By now the scorecard read: Champagne –4, White wine-1.

Meanwhile, my colleague went for his back and shoulder massage. He returned after about 10 minutes, pretty rejuvenated but a bit disappointed. I asked him how it was. He said, “Nice, but a little too short. And she wouldn’t do lower back." Pity, ain’t it?”

After some time, the lights dipped and then I noticed the mood enhancing adjustable lighting system. A warm glow creates an intimate restaurant, a subtle low blue eases one to sleep while a simulated dawn wakes you up gradually.

We don’t know how nine hours passed. The Captain informed us that we would soon touch down at London. The outside temperature was 10 degrees, which was perfect. From my window, London looked like a gold-plated city, not in a clichéd way but in an opulent manner that set it apart from the pale glitter of Delhi or Mumbai. It was as if a giant necklace is spread on the bosom of mother earth and she is shining in all its resplendent glory.

At the immigration counter, a British Indian gentleman asked me the purpose of my visit there. He then quizzed, almost embarrassingly, if I will be writing in London. “I am a management guy, we don’t write,” smiled I. “Good”, said he, “otherwise, you would have needed an entry clearance.” Small mercy!

At the airport, the first thing I did was to activate the mobile, only to be disappointed. The international roaming that I had got activated in Delhi, which was confirmed by an email from Airtel, refused to work. I was left high and dry, cursing the mobile phone company. Thankfully, my colleague who had a Hutch phone and who had it activated could send the message to my home that we have landed safely. I think Airtel should do less of advertising and concentrate on improving its product, as I lost about 24 hours before frantic SMSs and calls to my office next day helped the international roaming to be restored.

Our head of bureau in Britain, Vijay Dutt received us with a warm welcome. Vijay is a friendly bloke. He is full of tales about his journalistic life, its adventures and misadventures. He stays in North London at Golders Green and that’s where he had booked us.

Golders Green Hotel. A Kosher hotel, it was Spartan yet elegant. Though my room had a small TV and a telephone, it had a minimal and utilitarian look about it. To be frank, I was a bit disappointed on the first night. Later, the hotel’s cleanliness, its warm and personalised service was to change my view. Its loo was spick-and-span. In the morning, I discovered the shower worked like a dream and the full-bodied gushing of water worked wonders. Its dining room wore a fresh yellow paint and its flooring had clean-cut cedar wood. So, I guess it wasn’t a bad deal at 45 pounds a night. As it turned out, the first impressions are not always the lasting ones!

After we checked in the hotel, we were out within 5 minutes. Where did we go? Pubbing, of course. Welcome to The Old Bush and Bull. Favourite with the locals, the writing with white chalk on the blackboard inside informed us that it is one of the most respected public places in the world. Besides the cosy interiors, the pub has history at its side. Charles Dickens used to be a frequent visitor to the pub.

I had a white wine with peanuts and we were off to Local Friends for dinner. It turned out to be a Chinese eatery that served absolutely delectable authentic Chinese food. We had chicken in chilly garlic sauce, vegetarian egg rice, Singaporean noodles and a lamb dish. It was a sumptuous meal and capped an eventful day. By the time we hit the sack, it was 11.30 pm UK time and 5 am IST. We clearly made the most of the five and a half hours we had gained due to the time zone difference.

 
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