It's a chilly day but I'm warmed to the core with the aftereffects, emotional and physical, of my first full day in London.
I always think I won't be able to sleep; like Christmas Day, I look forward so much to diving into London that the excitement overwhelms me. But my tiredness and the comfort of the hotel bed sent me snoring within minutes after turning off the radio last night, and when I wake up it's still pitch black dark out, even though it's seven-thirty in the morning: the sun rises at 8 AM and sets at 4 PM here, making for a short day. So I bound out of bed to brush my horns and polish my hooves, tugging at John's sleeve to get him going. It's London! We're in London! Let's not waste any moment of it!
First up is a fortifying and nutritious continental breakfast in the hotel breakfast room. Continental breakfast usually means a few stale buns and some weak tea, but this is considerably better: a large range of fruits, pastries, cereal, and even ham and cheese. That's not something I normally nosh at before lunchtime at home (well, unless it's inserted in a McMuffin), but here it's part of the treat and I help myself to, as they say here, "a nice slice of gammon" (shh! don't tell Snuckles) and wash it down with bucketloads of hot sweet tea from the baffling do-it-yourself automatic tea machine. Whoops, I think I broke it! Not to worry, says the friendly waitress help, it happens all the time. I leave her a chunky pound coin on the table as a tip for helping out, and for bringing fresh orange juice. Orange juice is essentialI don't wanna waste my London holiday on a cold!
Speaking of cold, it's chilly out, but not as badly as I'd feared. A heavy fleece jacket (plus a natural fur coat) helps keep me warm, and it seems less chill-to-the-bone cold as yesterday. There's still a grey foggy overcast to the sky, and even tho' that's grounded British Air domestic flights at Heathrow, is that going to stop me from getting out and seeing the city? It is not.
A quick stroll through The Sneaky Way brings me to the High Street Kensington Tube station, and warily I pull out my brand-new Oystercard and swipe it over the panel at the entrance to the Underground. It's easier to use than a Metrocard: you don't have to "swipe with attitude," and the gates swing open and I'm stepping down the stairs to the platform before you can say "Hammersmith and City Line."
Within seconds after stepping onto the platform the Circle Line train arrives, and I hop on it and the doors close and we're on our way. I catch my breath and realize with a start my first Underground ride on this London trip has begun; it all happened to fast I barely had a chance to reflect on how exciting it is and how much I love lingering on the Underground platforms. One thing I did notice was that, for the first time since I've started to come to London, there are now trash bins on the Underground platforms. They weren't there for years out of fears of hidden IRA bombs. They're here nowadmittedly clear plastic bags hanging in plain sight so you can see what's in them quickly. I reflect as I settle down on the cushy train seat that that's a sign of the sad times: following the London tube and bus bombings in July 2005, perhaps they've realized there are whole other types of terrorist activities to focus on than a bomb in a wastebin.
I change to the Central Line at Notting Hill Gate, and soon we're shooting across London in an eastern direction. I pull my iPod out of my pocket, snap my little recording iTalk onto the bottom and surreptitiously record a few of the wonderfully crisp London Underground recorded announcements. (Later, I discover I forget to bring the right cable with me so I can't transfer them to my laptop until I get home. Ah well, can't think of everything). I hold my iPod in my hoof and hope no one is thinking I'm recording their conversation or worse yet, setting some sort of odd electronic device on the train. I'm not a terrorist, I'm an Underground enthusiast. It's only a step or so up from a trainspotter, but I can't help myself.
Out of the Tube at Tottenham Court Road station and down the New Oxford Street heading towards Bloomsbury. It's starting to turn into a beautiful day, the sun is coming out, the sky is getting blue instead of grey, and I'm filled with a giddy joy at strolling through London. (Also, filled with beans.) Later on I realize I've wandered straight past noted London graffitist Banksy's holiday installation and "holiday shop" just off Charing Cross Road. Ah well, you can't see everything.
What I am on my way to see is The Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury, London's first museum devoted to the art of comics and cartoons. If you read this blog for the comics content you owe it to yourself to stop in if you ever visit London: it's absolutely amazing. I made the special trek today to see the Museum because they are closed for Christmas holiday for the rest of my stay over here, and I'm extremely glad I did. It's a small but well-designed space split between a permanent exhibition of a history of British comics and cartoons on the top balcony floor, and a temporary exhibition on the main floor on the history of British political and satirical cartooning, with an especial focus on the magazine Private Eye. There's many dozens of original pieces hanging, and unlike many museums, this is one where I actually read all the placards and study each piece intently. You walk out of the museum (much later if you've done it right) with a much deeper understanding and appreciation of British cartooning art, and I actually learned quite a bit. Fun fact I never, never realized: although I knew British comedian Peter Cook was "Lord Gnome", the supposed editor of Private Eye, I never knew comedian Willie Rushton was a cartoonist and satirist for the magazine. I'm familiar with Willie from his running panel appearances on one of my favorite BBC radio shows, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, and I hadn't a clue at all that Willie was a co-founder and illustrator for Private Eye. Upstairs I spent quite some time admiring and examining the history of British comics, including original art and large repros of comics I'd heard of: Dennis the Menace (the British one, not Hank Ketcham's!), Beryl the Peril, Dan Dare, all the way up to Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl, 2000AD work by Dave Gibbons, and beautiful pages from V for Vendetta and The Tale of One Bad Rat. All this for a mere three quid! Many museums in London are free, but honestly I would have paid much more to see the Cartoon Museum (and there's a donation box which I happily plunked down a handful of chunky pound coins). See it if you can, and if you can't, here's my photos of the Cartoon Museum.
You'll also see a handful of photos in there from my visit to Gosh!, the best comic book shop in London bar none (I find the Forbidden Planet megastore a great place for toys and vids and less so for comics). The store is tight (two small floors) but crammed full of American, British, and European comics, graphic novels and tie-in-toys (boy oh boy would I love the Gorillaz action figures in their front window!) The staff is pleasant and patient, especially to a little stuffed bull running about the store exclaiming wheeeeeeeeeee in sheer excitement and joy.
I didn't buy any American comics (I can get those when I get home!) but I did pick up a beautiful slipcased edition of The Broons 1939 Annual, a repro of a classic Scottish full-page comic strip that I've heard of but have never seen: 128 pages of beautifully detailed artwork chronicling the adventures of an outlandish Scots family (it reminds me in some ways of Sidney Smith's sublime The Gumps.) If you enjoy classic comic strips you'll like The Broons: the art is wonderfully manic and energetic, the Scots dialect is thickly delightful, and there's a bellylaugh on every page. In other words, in the parlance of this blog, this comic is fun. (US fans: you can mail-order The Broons from Gosh! direct. This is a case where I won't give you the Amazon.co.uk link: please order it from the Best Comic Book Shop in London!)
Popping out of Gosh! (with one last longing lingering look at the Gorillaz figures in the front window) and turning a few steps around the corner takes me to Playin' Games, the best board game and gaming shop in London (well, I certainly think so coz I've never seen another!). I have a specific goal in mind: I'm looking for what surely seems like the best new board game in the universe, On the Underground, which challenges players to create new lines on the London Underground. You know how much I love the Underground. You know how much I love board games. (You might remember my post on the London Underground board game "The London Game" a few weeks back.) Sadly, my Christmas wishes of sitting on the hotel carpet playing this new game is dashed when I find out that although they've had it in stock, they're sold out now. The friendly clerk and I talk a while (about the much-missed but a few-years-gone New York City game shop Game Show), and he offers to order it for me to get it in sometime in the New Year. I sigh aloud I'll be home by then, and he slips me his card and offers to set up a mail order transaction. Whoo hoo! I may get to play this game yet.
I step back out into the bright cold day and momentarily consider heading into the British Museum, right across the street, but I'm not quite in the mood. It seems more like time for a wander and stroll through Bloomsbury, and I have a very pleasant couple hours only vaguely following the path on one of my handy pocket-sized London Walking Tour cards. There's plenty of personal side-trips and wanders off the dotted path, however, which is the best way to take a personal walking tour. I check out some cool used bookstores near the University of London, wander through Russell Square, and jus' generally circle around in the well-turned footsteps of Virginia Woolf. I'm not afraid of her!
In the afternoon I hop onto the Tube again at Russell Square station and zip on the Piccadilly Line down to Leicester Square. I have spent a lot of time in this area in past trips and it gets more and more touristy each time (there is a fun fair set up almost perpetually in the Square), so we don't linger. John busies himself for a few minutes at the Half Price Ticket Booth at the far end of the square but when I ask what he has been doing he just smiles and won't tell me. (Do you think this set-up will pay off later, folks? Hmmm, we'll see.) We then make another circular wander through the back streets towards Covent Garden (interrupted by a welcome pause for a hearty Christmas sandwich luncheon). Yep, Covent Garden is even more touristy than Leicester Square, but it's part of another tradition on my trips to London: I always make a visit here on my first full day, mostly to visit the London Transport Museum Gift Shop. Like last year, the Museum itself is still closed for renovation (it'll be open again in 2007) and the shop is still relegated to a tiny two-story storefront in Covent Garden market itself. Like last year, I'm excited to go on the shop but somewhat disappointed because it's a mere shadow of what it was in the Museum itself. I've described the old shop as The Best Museum Shop in London, which is probably no surprise when you consider what a big little stuffed London Transport fan I am. No, the surprising part is that I actually find very little to spend my pence on in the shop: it's still a very small selection compared to the old big shop, and I pick out a few postcards and a keychain and cross my hooves that the next time I'm in London the new shop will be back to its old glories. I'm tempted, very badly, by a set of beautiful Underground Tube scale models, either in a set of four or available individually. Oh my oh my, wouldn't these look lovely on my shelf next to my Underground book collection? Sticker shock brings me back to reality: each train model is £27.95. That's fifty-six dollars! The whole set is available for a hundred quid (close to two hundred dollars.) Yes, these are clearly models geared for hardcore collectors and enthusiasts (they have several hundred bus models in the same price range). I quickly put them back on the shelf and back away, my little hooves trembling. I loves me the Underground something fierce, but that's a bit pricey, or "dear" as they say over here. And oh dear, that's dear. Ah well, maybe Father Christmas will bring me one.
I do a little Christmas shopping for John and Marshall and thoroughly enjoy it. Covent Garden isn't as crowded as I thought it would be (actually less busy than Leicester Square was), and it's fun to pop in the shops and look at the craft stalls. There's live musicians and jugglers and I love the smells: cooked sausages, cookies, sticky buns are on the air. A shopgirl walks by wearing jingle bells on her shoes and I burst into a wide smile: it's Christmas, Christmas in London. I clutch my little shopping bags and try to keep from giggling in joy out loud, but it's hard to control it.
From Covent Garden I ramble over to nearby Seven Dials and head down Earlham Street, and that is as crowded as I expected Covent Garden to be. My goal is right ahead, though: the amazing design shop Magma, which I discovered last time I was here and bought some brilliant Chrimble gifts as well as some treats for myself. (It's the shop where I was able to complete my collection of the brilliant Simone Lia comic Fluffy, a simultaneously funny and sad comic about a fluffy bunny who lives with a human. Is it any wonder I relate to it?) Magma the store is packed to overflowing, though, and it's tough to see the shelves, even when you're standing on tiphooves. I very nearly buy myself a stuffed Moomintroll and then decide against it, but what's this, mocking me with their Jamie Hewletty presence? Those Gorillaz vinyl figures again! Man, I want those! But the Bully-budget doesn't permit it, and I when the crowd thins for a brief moment I slide sideways out of the shop and resume my window-shopping and wandering.
It's fourish, and you know what that means: the sun is going down and it'll be dark quite soon. Not only that, but my dogs are barkin'...well, if I had dogs instead of hooves, that would be the way I'd describe it. I decide on one last familiar stretch of London to explore: walking up Charing Cross Road, which will give me the chance to pop into a handful of the second-hand and specialist bookstores along the way, culminating in the two great chain superstores at the top of the street: Blackwell's and Foyle's, both of which are like wonderlands for a book-obsessed little stuffed bull. (Ignore the Borders superstore across from Foyle's, if you will: it may be just personal taste, but I've never felt they got the feel and style of a British bookstore "down" since their entrance into the UK market. It's disorganized and unsightly, and like spinach, I say the hell with it. There's a lot more happy fun to be had first in Blackwell's and then in Foyle's, and I discover what surely must be one of the most brilliant yet insidious ways for a publishing company to get out of paying a cover designer: blank-covered Penguin Classics marketed as "Do It Yourself Draw Your Own Cover" editions. It's a brilliantly eccentric idea, one of those "wish I'd thought of it first" concepts, and I probably would have bought one if there had actually been a book in the series I felt an affinity towards (Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray is in fact the only one of the series so far that I've read). With my rudimentary art skills I would be intimidated to send in my result to Penguin anyway: check out a whole slew of the fantastic entries sent by clicking at the link above. In my defense, it's much harder with hooves. Hey Penguin! Do a P. G. Wodehouse book in this series: I can draw a pretty good Empress of Blandings!
Happy and overwhelmed from the day we lift our aching feet and hooves to carry us to the same tube station the adventure of the day began at: Tottenham Court Road station, and the Oystercard comes out again and zip! We're back on the Central Line and heading back to the hotel. A couple entries ago I mentioned how one of my favorite times of a London day is night. What's the favorite? Twilight. I don't know quite why, but I feel a wonderful warm contentment come over me as the sun goes down in London, as dusk falls over the city, even if it's happening at a few minutes past four in the afternoon. Maybe it's that glorious delicious feeling of a wonderful day behind us and relaxation ahead: the promise of a good hot meal, getting off your hooves and looking at the stuff you've bought that day, sliding them out of their plastic carrier bags and cooing over them like treasures. Maybe it's the feeling of coming home in a city that feels like home anyway. In any case, I'm gloriously happy, if not a little worn out, and I close my eyes a couple times on the Underground and almost miss the station to transfer for the last leg home. I'm comfortable here, so comfortable I trust the Tube to take me where I need to be.
Dinner is spicy curry noodles from the Thai restaurant on High Street Kensington, and while it's nothing spectacular it tastes amazing. I'm hungry and eager for something hot and filling, and it fills in all the spaces nicely, especially with a half of lager. So I'm nodding again a little when we return to the hotel, and I'm ready to stretch out on the bed and relax, to get into my little pyjamas and zone out in front of BBC-2, when John rouses me and tells me to wake up, put my coat back on, we're going back out. He has a special treat for me and Marshall tonight, and refuses to tell us what. How exciting! I'm instantly awake and both Marshall and I are pestering John about what the treat is, but he's smiling and refusing to tell, although he says I'm going to like it...and to save my voice for the treat, I'll need it. "?" I think. But no more clues from John.
Off we go, so I'll tell you all about it later!
PS: You can see my photos of today here, and a separate album of the Cartoon Museum photos here.