Cool Britannia

Photos by Ted SoquiI don’t hang out much with other British expats. Why move all the way to Los Angeles if all you’re going to do is sit around with other pasty-faced Angloids and bang on about how superficial, crass and unschooled in irony Americans are? Still, there are times when I need the comfort of at least the idea of being close to home, and if there’s no squishy Masterpiece Theater (which resembles no England I ever knew) to cuddle up to, that’s when I sidle over to the Continental Food & Gift Shop, which brings back all sorts of memories. Tucked next to an Indian restaurant on a stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica as yet unpoached by the generic chains of the Third Street Promenade, this guilty pleasure of a store looks a lot like the London sweetshops in which, armed with sixpence from my esteemed mum, I lurked after school every Friday in the 1960s — a homey clutter of the candy, cookies and comics that, according to the headmistress of my all-girls high school, poisoned her “gels’” bodies and minds for life. Like most of my friends, I was sent to school every day with a packet of molar-destroying Rowntree’s Fruit Gums, and the Continental stocks, albeit at heftily elevated prices, most of the deliciously evil items — tart pear drops, barley sugar sticks, butterscotch drops, the laughingly named Quality Street chocolates individually wrapped in brightly colored foil ­ that led one waggish American dentist to inquire whether I was able to tune in the BBC via the quantities of metal plugging all my cavities. For the more discerning palate, there are bangers and mash, tinned gooseberries in syrup, green fig jam, anchovy paste, bulbous jars stuffed with pickled onions (a condiment to be downed with the Colman’s Chip Shop Curry), tinned Scottish haggis and, of course, the deathless Marmite, a public-convenience brown spread allegedly stuffed with vitamins and fed to kids during the food shortages of World War II that survives to this day on morning toast all over England. Ninety percent of the Continental’s customers are English exiles, many of whom can be seen propping up the shop’s front desk while trading lines from the 1950s television Goon Show (every episode of which is available for rent or purchase) with the unflappable store manager Robert Brown, who’s actually Australian but is a walking encyclopedia of British popular culture. “We have all the Inspectors, from Morse to Tennison,” Brown offers, and he’s only too willing to walk you through the store’s proudly whimsical collection of British books, audio and video, among whose choicer items is the complete Coronation Street at a bargain 99 cents for six months of episodes; just about every movie featuring the late Sir John Mills; a signed copy of Ken Annakin’s So You Wanna Be a Director? (the old gent still comes in to potter now and then); a dust-encrusted video titled The Old Man of Lachnagar: Prince Charles (pictured en kilt) Tells His own Children’s Story; and, for a mere $59.95, Classic Fighters of the Luftwaffe. A very good-natured man in back will transfer any PAL tape to VHS for you, and if the tape ends before the film does, he’ll look up the running time on the Web to make sure that all you missed were the credits. I invariably leave the Continental comforted and amply stocked with goodies that are full of bad cholesterol. Only this time I was also galled to learn that the store’s in-house travel agency could have gotten me to London and back for two-thirds of what I paid on the Internet. The Continental Food & Gift Shop, 1619 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 453-8655.

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