19 May 2010

Rip-off London

It's not often I get to spend a day out in London purely for fun, but I managed to have one yesterday that showed the best and the most annoying sides of the city. I had a gig to go to in the evening, but thought I'd spend the day going to the museums I rarely have the chance to explore at a leisurely pace.

First up was the Science Museum, which I hadn't been to for about 15 years. It was swarming with schoolchildren, of course, but their enthusiasm was infectious as they threw themselves into the hands-on exhibits with great glee. The sea of children carried on to the Natural History Museum, which I just popped into briefly to marvel at the impressive great hall with that fantastically massive dinosaur skeleton. I was saving myself for the V&A, whose beautiful marbled interior and elegant gardens almost eclipse the exhibits. Then managed to squeeze in 45 minutes at the National Portrait Gallery, where the room exhibiting the great and the good of the 20th century is one of the most enthralling of all gallery rooms.

Ended up in Soho, as I was going to the album launch at Ronnie Scott's for my friend Sarah Class. (Have a listen at www.sarahclass.com.) This is where the annoyance comes in. London drinks prices being what they were, it made more sense to order a bottle of wine than individual drinks for the two of us. A bog-standard merlot for £17 was just about palatable.

Then the bartender gave my change, which came to 87p rather than the expected £3. I asked him what was going on. "That's the service charge," he said, obviously in a huff. "What service charge?" I asked. "Since when does it apply only to drinks?" He pointed to the tiny print at the bottom of one page of the drinks menu, which was barely visible in the gloom of the club. "But it's discretionary," I said. "Why do you add it automatically?" "You have to tell me not to add it before I run it through the till," he said, as if it were the most sensible thing in the world. "But I didn't know it was there!!!" "Yes, well, this happens all the time," he shrugged.

It happens all the time, but the club insists on maintaining this sneaky policy and robbing the punters of any goodwill that might exist. On the one hand, London gives generously with its world-class free museums, and on the other it takes it back with cynical practices. This happens all over the world, I know, but it's more irritating when you can't even escape it at home.

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