Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Pearls, sales, and grails

I like shopping, sure. But not enough to fight my way through the crowds on the High Street to get half off. SkyNews on the hotel telly is reporting this has been the busiest Boxing Day sales shopping ever, and there were hundreds of people lined up outside the main branch of Marks & Spencer's on Oxford Street this morning...at 3:30 AM, six hours before they officially opened. I like my Marks & Sparks Y-fronts just fine, but when you're a little stuffed bull you are wary of screaming, grabbing crowds. I might wind up going home in someone else's shopping basket! And much as I would like to live in London, I would not like doing it that way very much at all.

St. Paul'sInstead, I hopped on the Tube (Circle Line, transferring at Notting Hill Gate to Central Line), and hied my tail over to St. Paul's Cathedral for yet another excellent of the London Walks I've been enjoying so much: the Christmas Cockney London Walk! I had actually taken my big bright orange highlighter and circled the two walking tours London Walks were giving yesterday on Christmas Day—a Charles Dickens walk and a Samuel Pepys walk—but I wound up instead just enjoying walking around Kensington on my own. The two Christmas walks met at Trafalgar Square, and since no tubes or buses were running, my choices were to walk there (about three miles, not impossible) or take a taxicab (easy enough, there's a large rank of them at all times outside the hotel). In the end I decided for a quieter day, and especially after a bellyful of turkey, sausages and Christmas pudding, I was glad I did. But I still regretted not going for a special Christmas walk, so this one looked a treat.

And it was! I've never been disappointed by a London Walks tour or any of their friendly, knowledgeable, entertaining guides, but how could I pass up this tour when I read this description of the guide in the fold-out London Walks brochure:
Your host and genial guide for this morning's walk, our very own Londoner par excellence, Jean, will be decked out in her Cockney 'glad rags'—her splendid Pearly Queen costume. With stories and snatches of popular songs from the nostalgic age of the Victorian and Edwardian Music Halls, she'll be telling you the colourful story of London and its inhabitants. You'll be welcome to sing-along-a-Jean if you want to, and if the festive mood really grabs you, a little gentle knees up Mother Brown would go down a bundle too!
Golly! If you know anything at all about me, it's that I'm a little stuffed bull who believes sing-a-longs are great fun. (Don't you always hate when people are too shy to sing? I like singing as loud as I can.) And a guide in Pearly Queen costume? That's great value for money already, and we're not even taking into account the tour itself. Sign me up for that, post-haste!

Pearly JeanThe tour was one of the busiest I've ever been on in my several trips to London—it felt like closer to sixty people (and a little stuffed bull), but Jean was cheerful and ebullient and kept us marching along merrily as we explored the area around St. Paul's and the old City of London. Jean is not a tall woman, but she was easy to spot as we traipsed along: full pearly regalia and feathered hat bobbing through our crowd made her an easy person to follow. At each spot we stopped she climbed up on steps, benches, or stairs to address us, so her melodious voice clearly rang out even if you were on the outskirts of the tour group. And her voice was indeed lovely, and she did indeed sing: songs and melodies of the Cockneys and costers of London, traditional market ditties and wonderful ballads. She told us a marvelous anecdote of coming with her mother to see a concert in St. Paul's yard after the war, when Jean was seven, and hearing Noel Coward sing "London Pride," which has long been one of my favorite London songs, but when Jean sang it, it was absolutely beautiful. I truly wish I had videotaped her singing that song; when she sings, out flies the spirit of London.

London Pride has been handed down to us
London Pride is a flower that's free
London Pride means our own dear town to us,
And our pride it for ever will be.
Woa, Liza,
See the coster barrows,
Vegetable marrows
And the fruit piled high.
Woa, Liza,
Little London sparrows,
Covent Garden Market where the costers cry.
Cockney feet
Mark the beat of history
Every street
Pins a memory down
Nothing ever can quite replace
The grace of London Town

I did videotape her telling us about the Cockneys and the costers (the street market hawkers) of London, complete with short snippets of their selling songs. If I've done my YouTube wizardry right, here 'tis. It's a wee bit longer than I wanted (I'm having trouble editing video on the laptop), so if you want a shorter version, skip to around 3:40 and start there to hear Jean talk about the costers and then sing some songs. But the whole bit is a bit of all right, mate!:

The walk was truly great fun and absolutely delightful, one of my favorite mornings so far on this holiday. The day was in weather cold and grey, but you simply can't feel cold and grey inside when you're seeing and hearing about the history of the Guild Hall and the Old Bailey and St. Bartholomew's Hospital and Smithfield Market, or gazing up at the Golden Fat Boy statue that was erected as a warning against gluttony following the Great Fire (gulp! I guess I had better lose some weight) and the beautiful Church of St Anne and St Agnes. I learned how important the Lord Mayor is, about the real Dick Whittington (maybe he really did have a cat, after all!), that people really do live and don't just work inside the City proper (and that number has been growing in the last few years) and why there's a statue of Henry VIII near St. Bartholomew's...accompanied by Jean guiding us all in a group sing-a-long of "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am." As you all know I am a bull with a very good eye for value and although I've been gushing about every single London Walk I've been on to the point you surely must think I'm a shill for the company (I only wish), I'll tell you that this was the most fun couple hours you can have in London on your feet. The tour itself isn't part of the regular weekly schedule, but Jean does run it semi-regularly, so check the London Walks website or email them if you're going over to London and ask when the Cockney Walk featuring the woman dressed as a Pearly Queen with the voice of a London angel is going to run. Believe me, it was triffic.

After that morning o' delight in the crisp winter air the best way to continue the day is with a hot pub lunch, and I settle in a booth at a pub near St. Paul's and scarf down a pork pie and chips and a pint of bitter. It's not especially healthy food, but I am on holiday, and oh how good it tastes. There is nothing like pub food to warm you up and give you energy and comfort to get through the rest of the day; it knows just where to fill in the hungry spaces and I relax and even close my eyes for a moment, so comfy I am in the warm pub. But I push myself up and back out into the cold; there's much more to do on the London agenda today.

Next stop: Charing Cross Road. I'll dive tentatively into the half-price Boxing Day sales, yes, but with a specific plan of attack. First off: prioritize. What I'm interested in is books, so the top end of Charing Cross Road is the perfect place to head. Within a few hundred yards you have the London main branches of Blackwell's and Foyle's, a pretty-good-sized Waterstones, and even that Borders I warned you against earlier. The Borders is always worth a visit because it has a restroom (or should I say "loo"?) on the first floor. They've got plenty on sale, but when I step across the street I see Foyle's has the books I've been looking for and more. Between Foyle's and Blackwell's I pick up, for a relieving 50% off, Box 18: The Unpublished Spike Milligan, Michael Palin's Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years. There was a Two Ronnies retrospective marathon on ITV-3 telly all day on Christmas and Boxing Day, a show I haven't seen since the 1980s, so I happily picked up Ronnie Corbett's autobiography And It's Goodnight from Him.... Yes folks, I'm a British comedy-obsessed little bull.

Palace TheatreSuitably loaded down with parcels and packages so I could hardly see or walk on the pavement, it was time for a swift drop-off at the hotel, and whew! it felt good to be unloaded again. In the blink of an eye we were all back at Charing Cross Road again, for another special Christmas treat that John had cooked up for himself, me and Marshall: we were all going to see the matinee of Spamalot at the Palace Theatre! Hoorah! What a perfect show for a British comedy-obsessed little bull...see, I told you! We had very good seats up in the dress circle that John had bought on the Internet before we left, as they certainly don't sell Spamalot tickets at the official Tkts Half-Price Booth in Leicester Square. (Not that that stops tourists in the queue ahead of us from asking every time we visit there.) Oh no! Despite the fact that he's booked to play King Arthur, Tim Curry is the aptly named "Sir Not Appearing in This Play" today, and we'll be seeing his understudy. A lot of people at the box office are rather less than chuffed and are trying to return their tickets. I like Tim Curry a lot and am very slightly disappointed we won't be seeing his chiseled chin and hearing his rich buttery voice but his absence certainly isn't going to keep me from wanting to see Spamalot, oh no no no.

There is a kiosk just inside the theatre simultaneously selling souvenirs and lining the pockets of Eric Idle. John says that we can buy a programme and that he will buy us one souvenir each. What a treat! Marshall and I rush up to the kiosk and examine each Pythony toy in turn. For a while I am tempted by the can of French garlic SPAM with the Terry Gilliam cartoon on the can, but eventually Marshall chooses a pair of half-coconuts so she can pretend she is riding a horse in the house, and I pick the Vicious Rabbit Stuffed Toy with Pointy Pointy Teeth. He immediately takes to me and we soon become quite attached. I still can't get him off me:
Fierce Rabbit

The play is dead brilliant! We larf and larf. Even though I have memorized Monty Python and the Holy Grail by heart, and much of the play's action and dialogue comes straight from the film, there is still plenty of new jokes, twists, and hoof-tapping songs, plus the fabulous Laker Girls. The scenery is straight out of a Terry Gilliam cartoon, and our replacement Arthur is pretty good—not quite up to Tim Curryish levels, but certainly an Arthur that holds his own even alongside the late great Graham Chapman. Eric Idle's script additions to the movie's dialogue are often quite silly rather than the usual Python Dadaism, but in this venue it works perfectly, and the audience is roaring along in laughter. Plus, there's a triffic audience bit at the end where they find a clue to the Grail in the form of big Gilliamy stone letters that say "DONE." The kniggits eventually deduce (I'm hope I'm not giving away a valued West End stage secret, like telling you that the murderer in The Mousetrap is the Inspector...oh dear. Don't pay any attention to that bit) that it actually means D-One, and that the Grail must be under the seat of the audience member in lucky seat number D-1! And guess who that was! Yes! It was yours truly, the little stuffed bull! I got invited on stage and got to get an award for helping King Arthur and his brave knights find the Grail, and they all sang a little song in my honour and said I was quite the best stuffed bovine they have ever had in the show, and that included the big stuffed cow they toss with a catapult at the end of Act 1. I went back to my seat to the sound of applause and (Editor's note: As usual, at any play in which a specific audience member is chosen to participate on stage, Mister Bull often projects himself into the role of the actual winner and attempts to paint a portrait of himself on stage receiving acclaim. Please humour him.) everyone was...oy! Quit interrupting me! A little bull can dream, can't he?

Now we are back in the hotel room relaxing after our busy day. ITV is running two of the movies based on the bawdy and silly but still funny comedy series On the Buses, and it makes good background while I blog away, looking up periodically to see authentic long-gone London Transport Routemasters in action around mugging British comedians. It certainly makes the blogging work pass by faster, and it's not easy blogging with hooves. And with a vicious rabbit's jaws clamped firmly on my arm.

Before I climb into bed for the night I fire up the website for the BBC 7 "Listen Again" schedule and note to my delight that yesterday's programmes are available for download and listen, including Christmas episodes of I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue and "The International Christmas Pudding" episode of The Goon Show. It is lovely lying in bed with the lamp off and the glowing lights of London shining through the window, listening to Humphrey Littleton give Tim Brooke-Taylor, Stephen Fry and company silly things to do on radio, but around the time The Goon Show starts up, I'm starting to yawn and nod, and by the musical Max Geldray number eight minutes into the show, I'm asleep and dreaming of my busy day, dreaming of pearls, sales, and grails.

Also, I have the oddest dream I have my arm caught in a bear trap.


SallyP said...

For heaven's sake Bully, rabbits are always trouble. Don't let it breed!

Jonathan Miller said...

Bully, having seen Spamalot in NYC, I'm curious--did they include all the various jokes and the song "You can't succeed on Broadway..."? If not, what replaced the song?

By the way, you're welcome for the links (on livejournal I'm "morganminstrel"), it was my pleasure. :-)

Bully said...

Pretty much the same book, Jonathan (I've got the Broadway soundtrack album)...they've simply changed it to "You'll never succeed on the West End without a Jew."

PAUL said...

Tried to watch your video of the London lady but...would you Adam and Eve it...
I could not get it to play.

This is almost certainly because my computer is steam-powered - but if I find out that it is someone's fault...
I will kick him in the Hamsteads.

(Hamstead Heath = Teeth.)

(Or the Alberts...Albert Halls...you can guess what that rhymes with.)