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.
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
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
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
“Of course, sir. Sparkling or still?”
“Here you are.”
“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!
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
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
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
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.