Thursday, December 28, 2006

Today is whatever I want it to mean

Looking towards St. Paul'sToday is whatever I want it to mean, sings Beth Orton on my headphones as I step off the Circle Line train at Embankment station and head up the long escalator and out into the bluest, brightest, warmest sky London has had to offer since I arrived. Is this where memories are made? Well, dreams do come true. she sings, and I smile to myself as I step up the stairs to the Hungerford Bridge, heading for the South Bank, happy with my decision about what to do today: I'm going to explore the Queen's Walk, the footpath that runs all along the South Bank of the Thames, from the Hungerford Bridge to Tower Bridge and back. Some of this trek I've never hoofed, but there's stretches of this path I've wandered on many, many times before, and that includes the Hungerford Bridge. I notice for the first time the spider-spun suspension of the "new" Hungerford Bridge I mentioned before actually is on both sides of the railway bridge leading into Charing Cross Station; I was wrong before when I said they moved Hungerford from one side to the other—they've simply put it on both sides. You can get a beautiful view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament from the other side, so I vow to remember to walk back on the other side for more photo opportunities. For the moment I lean against the railing and look City-wards, towards St. Paul's and the Swiss Re Tower on the city skyline, and I sigh in content and take a bajillion photos.

I sat in my hotel room last night and looked at my notes and guidebooks. What to do on Thursday, I'd wondered, What to do? I'm down to two and a half days left in London and I have so many more things I want to do and see. I'd thought about going to Dover one day, but that seems unlikely now. There's a London Walks in my hotel neighborhood this afternoon, strolling up and down the streets of Kensington; wouldn't it be fun to learn about my base of operations? How about that exhibit of maps at the British Library, or wandering over to the BBC Shop, or seeing if there are any Thursday matinees on the West End? I even, for a very brief moment, crazily contemplate the idea of going to Hay-on-Wye, the famous bookselling village in Wales. A few moment's internet research instantly pops that balloon: it's four hours away by train and even so, there's no train station in Hay-on-Wye; the train stops 22 miles away and you then need to take a bus in. Sounds like an overnight visit at least, so not this trip. (And there's a lot of disparaging comments about the multitude of bookstores in the town. I'm not one to let Internet reviews sway my opinion—heck, I read comic books, if I paid attention to what the Internet says about 'em I'd never read any of 'em.) But the idea of finding a treasure trove of used books perks my interest. I've done the used bookstores in Bloomsbury and on the lower end of Charing Cross Road without finding any major treasures: I'm just lookin' for some cool retro 1940s and 50s Penguin paperbacks. A link on one of the Hay-on-Wye sites leads me to a list of secondhand booksellers in London, and suddenly I spot a reference to the Waterloo Bridge Book Fair. Oh ho, a ha! I've been there before and found some lovely and affordable paperbacks. Perfect! And it starts to come together: I've also wanted to go to the Tate Modern and the Design Museum, and both are located along the South Bank, although the Design Museum is quite a hike away. But what more fun way is there to spend a day than wandering along the Thames?

Seriously, if you're only in London for a few days, the best place to get picture-postcard photos is to walk across the Thames to the South Bank and wander up and down. If you turn right coming off Hungerford Bridge you're in a magnificent vantage point to photograph the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. The London Eye is located here. We all know the primary purpose of the London Eye is a transmitter for the Nestene Consciousness, but you can also get some pretty triffic photos from its pods if you want to stand in line for a few hours to ride it. I'm not anti-London Eye: it doesn't disrupt the skyline of London as much as I had originally feared, and actually now it seems to be part of that skyline—I'm just not interested in crowding into a plastic pod with dozens of tourists fighting for photography space. So I wander to the right only far enough to take a few snaps of Big Ben, and notice a series of Gorillaz posters by Jamie Hewlett promoting his award as Designer of the Year and an October event at the South Bank Centre:
Gorillaz poster on South Bank

...although not without a typical wry comment on the whole concept:
Gorillaz poster on South Bank

It's a beautiful day for walking the South Bank, the first day the sun is really out in force and the temperature has climbed into the fifties (that's plus-ten in Celsius, as they report it over here). I keep my eyes open and look around, and I'm pleased whenever I spot some little detail that I bet most people don't notice, like it's my own little secret. For example, these colorful long strings of lights around the patios on the South Bank Centre are actually plastic bottles:

There are a lot of people out and about—it's a popular walking district for both Londoners and tourists alike—but it's early yet and not overcrowded. So early, in fact, that when I hit the Waterloo Bridge Book Fair area it's barely even starting up; one vendor is unpacking her wares from the big permanent lockers on the riverside and setting up her folding tables. It's still too soon for them, so I make a mental note to remember to stop by on my way back.

Past the National Theatre, with a quick pop into the bookshop as a detour, and it's off again heading down the river. I'm starting to move into an area I've never walked: I've been along the South Bank between Hungerford Bridge and the National Theatre, and then down by Southwark, but I've never walked the path between those two points, which includes the Oxo Tower—a dandy name for a tower, if you ask this little stuffed bull. One thing I note to my dismay is a large skateboarding area just past the National Theatre; the whole area is covered with tagging graffiti. Not just the skateboarding area, but the buildings, signs, and even trees for quite some distance away. I may sound like an old fuddy-duddy bully when I shake my head at this, but it's ugly and annoying. I've got nothing against skateboarding, and as evidenced by my interest in Banksy a good piece of artful graffiti is always interesting to look at, but I don't see any true skill or art in tagging, and it bothers me that there's spray-painted trees here, so I pick up my hoof-pace and hurry on, muttering like a curmudgeon about those darn kids.

Gabriel's WharfIt's forgotten in a few minutes, however, when I discover a section of the South Bank I've never been to or knew existed: Gabriel's Wharf, a small little picturesque village of shops and restaurants. There's a lovely-looking Indian shop called "Ganesha" with fantastic Bollywood-like painted figures on the shopfront, a bicycles-for-hire firm, several arty-looking jewelry and fashion stores...and except for a lone café, they're all closed for Christmas week. It's still fun to wander around and peer in windows.

OXO TowerThe design shops in the OXO Tower are closed as well, but it's still impressive to wander past the building that features one of the cleverest loopholes in London architecture history: after buying the building, beef-stock cube magnates Oxo were denied city permission to erect advertising signs on their building. They then had the building redesigned and windows installed on each side of the tall tower: two circles, one X. Not coincidentally, they spell out, in illuminated letters shining across the city: OXO. Hee hee!

Tate ModernAnother famous tower on the South Bank is the power station turned into a museum of modern art, and I eagerly trotted up the path by the Millennium Bridge to step into the Tate Modern. It's become one of my favorite art museums in London for a number of reasons: it's one of the best uses of art space in London with an utilitarian but attractive set-up that flows easily from level to level, it constantly has an amazing collection of the best and brightest in modern art straight up to the twenty-first century, they have a dead good pair of gift shops (including an amazing in-depth bookshop downstairs), plus, it's free! For a little stuffed bull who's watching his pounds and pence it's a dandy way to expose myself to art without emptying my pockets—even though there are some fascinating-looking exhibits in the museum that are ticketed, most of it is free. I could happily spend an entire day here, but I examine the "What's on at the Tate" brochure carefully and take in the Media Burn gallery on mass media and the politics of protest. It's all amazing and thrilling and a bit intense and it's nice to calm down in the gift shop after and buy a pencil. As I walk out of the front doors again into the bright afternoon, I notice the absence of the immensely popular artificial snow sledding area they had at this time last year. It's too warm for that today anyway, but I momentarily am filled with regret that I can't step into a rented sled and squeal "wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" as I ride down a big hill in front of the Tate Modern.

Right next door is Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, which I've been to many times before but so dearly love that I can't help but wander through the front courtyard and check out the gift shop. John loves it too to the point of overwhelming joy: he studied Shakespeare in college and grad school and he likes to put it this way: "I've studied the function and layout of this theatre for years, and I never thought I'd actually get to see one for real, much less see a play in one." There's no plays today—they only take place in the summer because the top of the theatre is open to the elements—but it's not without a bit of drama. As I leave the gift shop I'm called by a squeaky, growly voice, and I turn in surprise to see I'm being hailed by a rat:
Plague rat

RAT: Oi! Pretty boy! Where d'you think you're goin' then, eh?
BULLY: ??? Are you talking to me?
RAT: I don't see no one else 'ere, do you?
BULLY: How do you do, Mister Rat? I'm Bully. I'm from America.
RAT: I h'am a rat.
BULLY: Don't you have a name?
RAT: Cheeky lad! Rat's don't 'ave no names. Me mum, she 'ad two million of us. The ol' bird was too shagged out t' give us all names. H'i'm number eighteen thousand 'hand twelve.
BULLY: Golly! That must be a lot of family birthdays to keep track of. Do you live here at the museum?
RAT: I live at the gift shop. H'I'm waitin' fer someone t' take me away from the squalour h'I live in and take me to the squalour they live in.
BULLY: Oh! Oh! Oh! We have lots of stuffed animals living at our house: Snuckles and Blackie and Ox and all the rest. Maybe you could come to live with us. We live in Brooklyn.
RAT: Hmmm! That sounds a bit o' the ol' robin, it does. Is there garbage in Brooklyn?
BULLY: Heaps of it! All over the place!
RAT: Ahhh, luvly. We don' get heaps of garbage like that since the War. You don't think they're been any strife bringin' a plague rat into the States then, do you?
BULLY: Just as long as you don't cough on anyone. I'll get John to buy you!

And that is how a Plague Rat is coming home to live with us. I have wired ahead to Snuckles to stock up on disinfectant.
Plague rat

Our new friend tucked away in John's backpack, where he began gnawing on the Cadbury Fruit and Nut bar I'd been saving for after lunch, we continued on our way down the Queen's Walk. Speaking of lunch, right next door to the Shakespeare Globe, just past the ubiquitous Pizza Express, is a branch of The Real Greek, a delicious souvlaki restaurant we very much enjoyed last year at this time. It's not open yet, so another mental tick of something to do on the way back.

Bridget Jones's HomeAround Southwark Bridge the Queen's Walk veers up onto bridge level and across the road, and it's an easy place to lose the trail, so it's no shame I did exactly that! Distracted by signs leading me towards Southwark Cathedral (Shakespeare's parish church) and the Golden Hind (a docked replica of Sir Francis Drake's famous ship that always brings out the inner Jack Aubrey in me), I veer off the Queen's Walk by a large angle and find myself wandering parallel to the river but a few blocks inland. And there I come across one of the most serendipitous finds of the day as I wander past Southwark Market and into a little quiet street I recognize instantly even though I've never walked its cobbles: it's the street Bridget Jones lived on in the two Renee Zellweger movies. I'm thrilled and excited to be walking the same pavement as one of my favourite fictional British heroines! Bridget apparently lived above the Globe Pub, which a quick peek inside tells me is fairly unexceptional, and there's no Greek restaurant across the street where Colin Firth and Hugh Grant went barreling through the window: in short, Hollywood dress-up tweaked the real site for the purposes of the script. No surprises there, although I realize with sadness it means Bridget will not pop out of her flat in her jumper and underpants chasing Mark Darcy down the lane. There's a Japanese girl taking the same photos I am, and we smile at each other as we shoot pictures, and she points up at the windows and says "Bridget Jones!" And I laugh and smile back, a lovely shared moment from two fans at a pilgrimage point.

In the books, Bridget lived in Holland Park, not too far from where I wandered on Christmas Day, but as I work my way parallel to the river I see some more of the sites that the movie transplanted her to: here's Southwark Market, where she wandered through dejectedly after discovering cowardly cad Daniel Cleaver with a naked American woman (and the world's biggest book). The market is buzzing even as it approaches noon, but I step through it quickly lest someone take it into their head to start selling some beef.

I start to wander into Bermondsey, home borough of Margaret Thatcher, and while it's not as dodgy as that stretch of Shoreditch High Street I shied away from on Sunday we're definitely getting out of tourist territory. One last gasp is the London Bridge station, where first I spot what must be quite the most brilliant match of advertising product and location:
Fergie ad

Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, a few yards down the road you can spot this sign:

The last sputtering gasps of tourism can be spotted in front of London Bridge station where an immense queue (that's "line" to Americans) of tourists stretches down for well over a block and a half to get into the London Dungeon, quite possibly the crappiest tourist attraction in London. And I've been to Madame Tussaud's. Me and the Plague Rat shout derisively at the crowd, who is apparently keen on waiting well over a couple hours to get in, but that doesn't dissuade them. "Bloody berks," mutters the Rat, and ducks back down into the backpack and starts snoring in a few minutes. There's less of a queue down the street at "Winston Churchill's Britain at War Experience," which is another poor excuse to suck pounds out of the pockets of gullible tourists. Seriously, people, if you want to see Churchill at war, head to the completely excellent Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum or the Imperial War Museum, both amazing, intense, and authentic explorations of England and London under the terror of World War II. You may note that I gave you links for those two but not for the London Dungeon or Britain at War. That's because friends don't let friends go to the London Dungeon or Britain at War, and I'm certainly not going to make it easier for you to see crappy rip-off museums. John has done them when he was much younger and foolish; let his poor example serve as a warning to you all.

When we pass by the end of Tower Bridge that no one ever sees (street level from the south end), we're nearly at the Design Museum, which is what seems like miles from the nearest tube stop (even with the Jubilee Line Extension now coming into Southwark and Bermondsey), so it's always a surprise to see how busy it is: a whole gaggle of Japanese students in most of the galleries and a lot of tourists and school groups. It's a wonderful museum that I always enjoy making the extra effort to get to. Running right now is an amazing exhibition of the work of Alan Fletcher, the recently late but always great designer who worked a lot in the book industry (take a look at your favorite Phaidon art book; he probably had a hand in it). There's lot of great commercial and design work on display from his personal archives, and it leaves me buzzing with a sense of a need to create tempered by the fact that I'm a dead rotten artist. There's a lovely gallery of impeccably-designed Swiss books, and the usual history of British design that is always a delight to wander through for a Anglophile like me. And, as always, the gift shop, the rich fudge treat at the end of the cool creamy ice cream of the museum. Those Gorillaz vinyl figures are taunting me, for there they are, posing on a shelf. I settle for buying a beautiful limited edition poster of Noodle celebrating Jamie Hewlett as designer of the year, plus a wonderfully quirky book on the Ten Commandments of Typography. Rule #1 is "never use more than three fonts in a document," which is something I'll have to timidly remind Aunt Carol of, but what's this? Flip the book over and it becomes the Devil's Handbook of Typography, which tells you how to break the ten commandments creatively and effectively. It's a wonderful book for a font-obsessed little bull like me.

My hooves are aching as I make the trek back down the Thames, returning towards Hungerford Bridge. The Queen's Walk is a lot busier now, and I weave in and out of tourists and City folk, hungry and eager for Greek food, pausing only to take several dozen more photographs on the way. You get the best views of St. Paul, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, and, as you get closer, HMS Belfast, moored permanently in the Thames as a floating museum. I've been on the Belfast before and highly recommend it; it's run by the Imperial War Museum, the same museum that runs the Churchill War Rooms. There's no better trilogy of military exhibitions in London than those three, and I'm pleased to see it doing good tourist business, which at least proves not everyone is fooled by cheap rip-off tat exhibitions by London Bridge.

Greek foodAt last I'm back at the Greek restaurant and it feels lovely to get off my hooves for a while. I've built up the perfect hunger for a souvlaki sandwich, and like last year when I ate at this restaurant, it's absolutely delicious. I know I sometimes get criticism that I rave about chain restaurants when I'm in London, like this and Pizza Express, but I have to point out that one of my London rules is not to eat at restaurants I can eat at in New York (no Pizza Hut, McDonald's or KFC...what a waste of London to eat there!), so any place I eat at is new or different to me. Besides, the lamb is as tender and savory as I remember it last time, and the chips golden and crispy, with delicious creamy tart katiki yoghurt cheese dipping sauce, and oooh, how that pint of Alfa beer goes down smoothly.

Fortified and warm, back out into the sunshine, but moving a little slower now. I'm not certain if it's tired hooves or the beer. I pause to take my umpteenth photo of St. Paul's and have another little serendipitous moment when I discover something I bet most of the passers-by are missing: some wonderful chalk drawings on the pavement by (presumably) schoolchildren, several of them in a row, of St. Paul's Cathedral across the river. Now this is the kind of graffiti I like!:
Christian Wall

I imagine it would be a deep disappointment to those children if no one had even noticed their artwork, so here I am to say that at least one little stuffed bull noticed it and was delighted by it, especially this one by (as far as I can read) the artistic Christian Wall. Well done, Christian! I'm hoping some day he Googles himself and is surprised to find that I've preserved his artwork.

Book fairThe book fair is open when I return, and it's a Persian bazaar for bibliophiles: tables stuffed tightly with used paperbacks and hardcovers (and a nice selection of etchings, engravings, and prints, too) at prices more affordable to a little stuffed budget than the used shops on Charing Cross Road. There're only four dealers open, but their long tables have plenty of delights, and I carefully count out my chunky pound coins for a few classic Penguins in lovingly-worn condition to give them a new home on my bookshelves in Brooklyn. Clutching my purchases to my chest (I'm afraid the Rat will gnaw them if I put them in the backpack), I'm delighted to see, as I pass by the South Bank Centre again, that a couple has noticed and is photographing the lighted plastic bottles strung up over the patio. Today has been a day of found surprises and shared secrets, and I like that it ends the way it began: by noticing something different and delightful.

To the theatre tonight? I wonder, and I actually do brave Leicester Square to check out the Tkts half-price booth, but nothing catches my eye and I'm happy with my decision when I decide to head back to the hotel to relax for the evening. Tonight I get Cornish pasty take-out and nibble on it in the room. There's a special on Morecambe and Wise on ITV tonight, followed by a special on Benny Hill, that one then followed by a special on Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. What a perfect night to stay in, then! And the voice of Beth Orton is still in my head, singing, and I decide on the spot this is my London song of the day, to celebrate a day I didn't plan out but which has wound up being one of the loveliest:

I'll step through brilliant shades,
Every color you bring,
Cause this time, this time, this time,
Is fine just as it is.

And today is whatever I want it to mean,
Today is whatever I want it to mean,
Today, today, is whatever I want it to mean,
Today is whatever I want it to mean.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like you're having a great time, Bully! Grats on the new friend, hopefully Plague Rat will make a great new addition.

Take it and run.

Anonymous said...

Again...Probably a problem at my end...but...there are no visuals comin' over.

Bully said...

Paul, what browser are you using? I've noticed Blogger's layout and visuals are very fussy with Internet Explorer for the Mac, for example.

It's not an ideal solution in that case, but if you're getting a blank box with a question mark in it, right click and open in a new window, and the image should open then.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading 'Tragically I was an only twin' - a collection of Peter Cook's writing.
There is a wonderful piece in it as follows:

A desperate smoker goes up to someone in a pub and asks for a light.
The man replies "sorry, I don't smoke."

The irritated smoker says - "I asked you for a light, not your F***ing life story!."