Saturday, December 23, 2006

An eye-popping grand day in St Albans

I'm not certain if I've said it before, but I'm sure to say it again: one of my favorite activities in London is to just walk around and take in the history and culture of the city. It's been cold, but not as freezing as I'd feared, so it's actually perfect walkin'-weather: brisk enough to keep your moving, cool enough to not make you sweaty (and you folks don't wanna smell a sweaty little stuffed bull), and cold enough so that when you stop for lunch or a cup of tea it's a major sensory delight all of its own. I've come equipped with walking tours carefully Xeroxed out of books (why carry the whole book when all you want is a few pages!), on my little walking-tour cards (handy and clever, but not very detailed), audio walking tour podcasts downloaded to my iPod (here's a great site for those). You learn a lot and you come away with a much deeper appreciation and understanding of the history of the city. Not to mention sore hooves.

London Walks banner

Like ironing shirts and building masonry, however, there's no beating a professional when you really want to do things up right, and a walking tour is no exception. That's why I continually recommend to anyone who is going to London, without reservation, The Original London Walks, a long-running, definitive organization which runs well over a dozen different walking tours of different parts of London most every single day of the year. (Even on Christmas Day they offer two walks, and I hope to take at least one of 'em!) Take a gander at the linked website if you're heading to London: London Walks offer authoritative guided tours, most about two hours and a mile or two in duration for the (cheap) price of around £6, on such subjects as In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, Ghosts of the Old City, The Beatles's Magical Mystery Tour, pub walks, ghost walks, walks that cover nearly every single part of London, plus the most famous and the best Jack the Ripper tour out there. I can't recommend these folks highly enough: in my many travels to London, every single walking tour I've taken has been a delightful fun excursion, and leaves you feeling like you now know some wonderful history and secrets about London you don't learn in the guidebooks. You can't go wrong with 'em.

They also offer special out-of-London "Explorer Day" excursions with full-day tours to Oxford, Stonehenge, Bath, Hampton Court, Leeds Castle, Cambridge, and the proverbial many, many more. (Here's a full list.) They're a little more expensive and involve taking (and paying for) a BritRail train trip out of London, but you still get plenty of value for money. I'm a little stuffed bull who is very careful with his pounds and pence, and yet I gleefully forked over my ten pound note and a chunky pound coin for the chance to have an Explorer Day today in historic St Albans in Hertfordshire, barely twenty minutes out of London but a world away. I mean, how could you resist this write-up in the ubiquitous London Walks brochure?
The most fascinating small city in England is just 20 minutes from London. St. Albans is England in miniature, an essence of England. Here you see it all—from the Legions of Julius Caesar to the dynasty of the Churchills. These streets are corridors in the vale of time. Here's the only Roman theatre in Britain; here's the oldest street market in this sceptered isle—it dates back to the Saxons; round this corner there's a 600-year-old Moot hall; round that one a clutch of mediaeval and Tudor coaching inns; hard by, a rare curfew clock tower; up these lanes a sprinkling of half-timbered Elizabethan houses; over there, streets and buildings that are essays in Georgian England; here, a Victorian prison. Let alone all sorts of hidden, curious places and things—and a skein of enthralling history. Not to put too fine a point on it, St. Albans is London's best-kept secret!
But the kicker was the note just below this:
Ding Dong Merrily on High! This Explorer Day is timed to coincide with St. Albans' Christmas street market—the oldest, longest, bestest traditional Christmas street market in England!
To coin a phrase: holy cow! Sign me up for that!

I hopped on the Underground this morning, heading towards the rendezvous point, and I had a very lovely moment of serendipitous synchronicity when, as the Circle Line train pulled into the Baker Street Underground Station, Gerry Rafferty's classic song "Baker Street" began playing, quite at random chance (well, sorta: it was on my playlist). That's the sort of moment that I take as a portentous sign of a wonderful day: as my "London Song of the Day" features hopefully show you, I place great importance and delight in my London musical soundtracks.

I met up with the rest of my group at West Hampstead Tube Station (on the Jubilee Line), including two very friendly and pleasant people I got to talking with on the train out to St Albans, Chinese-Australian Vivian and Australian Peter. It was quite fun chatting with them (they did not at all seem surprised to see a little stuffed bull on the trip) and we swapped tales of travel and our lives back home. I let them know a lot about New York City and they told me all about Australia. Now I want to go to Sydney on my next vacation!

HilaryOur guide for the day was the cheery and knowledgeable Hillary, her professional tour guide blue-badge proudly displayed, and she guided us into the town with periodic pauses to tell the history and evolution of the town. As I'd never even heard of St Albans before it was all fascinating new info to me, including the fact that St Albans was once the number three Roman city in Britain (known then as Verulamium). I'm a big fan of all things historically Roman, especially the Lindsey Davis mysteries featuring Marcus Didius Falco, the Asterix comics, and of course all those gladiator movies, so this was a great delight to me. The town looked incredibly sleepy, however, as we wandered in from the station. Where was everyone? Had we stumbled upon a deserted ghost town? Where oh where were the denizens of St Albans?

St Albans street marketEvery man jack of 'em was at the St Albans' market, of course! It stretched on for street after street after street—crafts and food and gifts and books and toys and drinks and clothing and jewelry and more of everything else every step you took! Holy (again) cow! I'm not certain if it's the biggest street market I've ever seen, but it certainly was one of the longest. Everyone was out Christmas and holiday shopping, and our group slid our way through the crowds. Hilary warned us "Don't start shopping now!...we'll never find you again!" (She did tell us there would be plenty of time to shop at our leisure after the afternoon portion of the tour.) Reluctantly I tore myself away from a booth featuring some football club scarves (including the team I back, Chelsea...Blues forever!) and trotted along to follow the rest of the tour.

We broke for lunch and I wandered off with Vivian and Peter for a hot meal in a busy and bustling town centre pub: it felt great to get out of the cold, off my hooves and shovel some savory bangers and mash into my hungry stomach. I don't eat or like peas at home, but there's something about having them in a big bowl with sausages, mashed potatoes and gravy that make them perfectly palatable to me, and I cleaned my plate of everything, including little round green vegetables, and washed it all down with a pint of bitter. We had a grand time talking about ourselves and each other, and suitably rested and fortified, the tour group reassembled and Hilary led us ever-onwards.

St Albans streetSt Albans is crowned by a cathedral on a hill, which made it beginning in medieval days a leading destination for pilgrims and because of its proximity to London, a major stop-over location for travelers of all kinds, both religious and secular, heading in both directions. (Even today it's mostly a commuter town; mainly populated by people who work in London and commute in on rail. Oh, so it's the Croton of Hertfordshire, then!) It was for many centuries the first overnight coach stop to and from London, which explains why in those days, Hilary explained, seventy-two coaches a day passed through St Albans! All those coaches need lots of coaching inns, and she guided us down a picturesque and gently sloping road leading in/out of town and pointed out all the sites of many, many inns: they're evident by their arched entrances leading to the back or inside lots. (Now serving as garage access for everyone's Austin Minis.) Many of those inns are still extant today as pubs; I counted more pubs in a quarter mile than most everyplace else in the British Isles I've been to (Well, except for some sections of Dublin).

Asterix: RomansWe come to the bottom of the sloping hill and make a gentle curve back towards town to discover a tiny stream that was once a river so large Roman ships came up it from the Thames. I look over the bridge and find it hard to believe; it's barely the size of Mud Creek way back in Clay, New York. Either there's been some serious setback to the size of the river or these were mighty tiny Romans, perhaps along the size of Asterix. These Romans are not only crazy, they're absolutely microscopic! Hilary assures me the river was much, much wider and deeper in those days, and walks us all down to the reason it's so much smaller now: a peaceful long artificial lake built by the unemployed marchers from Jarrow to London protesting the loss of their jobs in the North, but who stayed behind to create the lake on their way to London—sort of a British version of a WPA project. That's why there's still so many families in St Albans who can trace their heritage to a Geordie North: they are from the Jarrow men who stayed behind because they were offered work, and never left St Albans.

Hillary points over the lake to the last remnants of the Roman wall that surrounded the vast settlement of Verulamium (it was the largest and most important Roman city that wasn't a military garrison). She shows us a map of how vast and expansive the Roman city was, but only a small portion of wall remains. Peter and I wonder "where did all the Roman stones from the rest of the wall go?" We hypothesize that they were carted off by the villagers after the fall of the Roman Empire and that many a house was built from Roman brick. As usual, my guesses about history are spot-dead-wrong, and it turns out the use of the brick was less personal and more spiritual.

St Albans CathedralWe hike back up the gently sloping hill and St Albans cathedral comes into view, a compact but grand sprawling medieval cathedral (with some curious but not-offensive Victorian additions designed by the man who engineered the Big Ben Bells, Hilary tells us), and the sight of the brick cathedral tower instantly turns a little lightbulb on over my head. "That solves the Mystery of the Missing Roman Brick!" I declare to Peter, and sure enough, Hilary confirms that's what happened to the Roman city and wall: St Albans is built on poor rock for mining or construction, so the building of the cathedral used the extra material at hand, carted up the hill with wheelbarrows, wagons, and no doubt a good amount of ironic contemplation that materials used by pagan Romans was to now be used to build a cathedral to the Christian God.

Before we enter the Cathedral, Hillary tells us the history of St. Alban, the first Christian martyr of Britain. Alban sacrificed his freedom to help a Christian priest hide from the Romans, and converted to Christianity while speaking to the Christian priest (now that's a persuasive preacher!) The priest escaped but Alban was captured by the Romans and sentenced to execution. Legend has the first executioner assigned to chop off his holy head refused and was executed himself immediately after, thus becoming the second British Christian martyr. Funny things, British Christian martyrs, just like London buses: you wait for centuries for one, and two come along right after the other.

The second executioner was so aghast with his own deed at chopping off the head of this immensely revered man that (and again Hillary pointed out she's recounting legend, only possibly maybe history) his eyes immediately and violently popped out of his head into his hands. Whoo-wee! I might have paid more attention in Catholic school if this had been the kind of story they taught us. The best-seller in the Cathedral gift shop, especially among touring schoolchildren, is a postcard reproducing the gory event, right down to the eye-popping action. (And people say saints are boring!)

The Martyrdom of St. Alban

St. Albans Street MarketIt was getting on to near-dusk by the time the tour ended, so I said my goodbyes and made my way back into town to check out some shops and the market, which was winding down but still as busy as before. I was only able to see a fraction of it before my hooves got so weary I had to hop on a bus back to the train station to return to London, but I was utterly impressed by not only the high Christmas spirits of everyone but the range and variety of gifts, food, clothing, jewelry and crafts at the market. You see a street fair in Manhattan and it's the same as every other street fair: the funnel cakes and the guy selling the big plastic bags full of tube socks. I didn't see a single tube sock, but I saw lots of cool stuff, and even though I didn't buy anything, looking was as fun as buying.

So, I spent twelve pounds for the tour itself, three pounds sixty for the railway ticket, eight quid for lunch, and 30 p for a postcard: a little under fifty bucks for a grand day out: several hours of informed and educational touring, a wonderful introduction to a historically significant town I never knew existed, a hearty and filling lunch with two new friends, a knowledge and awareness of British, Roman, and Christian history, and a postcard of a guy with his eyes popping out: priceless.

So yes, I say it again: these walking tours are a bit of all right, whether you do a short two-hour London walking tour or a more ambitious Explorer Day. I highly recommend 'em and give them the full Bully seal of approval: two hooves up and a bold, green-fonted "fun"!

Harry Potter and the Get-Rich-Quick Scheme

Let's see what's in the London papers, shall we? No, not this vital front-page news story...

But this important news:

And the very next day, in the front windows of W. H. Smith here in the High Street, Smith's wastes no time in trying to capture your Chrimble 2006 pounds for a product that's not ready yet:

It's the Star Wars Early Bird pack all over again, isn't it? What lucky British kid is going to get this for Christmas, I wonder?

GRAN: And here's a special package for you, little Nigel. I know how much you love Harry Potter!
NIGEL: Oooh, hoorah! (ripping open paper) Oh.
GRAN: It's the new Harry Potter novel!
NIGEL: It's a receipt from W. H. Smith.
GRAN: Yes, you can turn it in for the new Harry Potter novel when it comes out. Maybe next summer.
NIGEL: ...
MUM: Thank Gran for the lovely book, Nigel.
NIGEL: I bloody hate you, Gran.

London Song of the Day: You owe me five farthings ("Oranges and Lemons")

I don't only listen to classical guitar and pop music on my iPod. An extensive part of my London playlists are jingles, pick-ups and announcements recorded from the BBC and London's Capital Radio: little introductions or interstitials, some only a few seconds long, that are fun little peanuts in the candied popcorn that is the Cracker Jack of a good playlist. Put your iPod on shuffle and you never know when you get a cheery bouncy Radio 1 jingle or a Kenny Everett announcement.

Many of these I've complied through some excellent websites like Radio Rewind and TV & Radio Bits, some through trading with other collectors, others recorded straight off the radio or internet and digitized into MP3s. Among the many jingles and announcements you'll occasionally find a straight-out actual musical tune, like the BBC World Service's "Lilliburlero" or Radio Four's elaborately patriotic "Radio 4 UK Theme." But by far my favorite is the BBC version of the classic London ballad "Orange and Lemons."

"Oranges and lemons", say the bells of St. Clement's
"You owe me five farthings", say the bells of St. Martin's
"When will you pay me?" say the bells of Old Bailey
"When I grow rich", say the bells of Shoreditch
"When will that be?" say the bells of Stepney
"I do not know", says the great bell of Bow
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

Instead of a chopper, however, what you were likely to get in your head was the BBC Morning News, because "Oranges and Lemons" was the opening signature tune of the BBC Light Programme, the BBC radio network that spotlighted light music, variety comedy and dramatized plays. If you're a fan of The Goon Show like me, you'll remember that Wallace Greenslade often began the show with the announcement "This is the BBC Light Programme." (depending on the transcribed version of the episode). The song didn't spring full-fledged at the creation of the Light Programme following WWII, of course: it's a traditional song from possibly as far back as the seventeenth century. Its lyrics suggest it has origins as a nursery rhyme (with a macabre ending similar to "Ring Around the Rosy."

But what's all that got to do with London, and what are all those bells the lyrics are talking about? Each of the lines refers to a specific church of its time in the City of London proper, and what the bells are "saying" is supposed to reflect in cadence and rhythm what their church bells sounded like when rung. Truth? Fantasy? Great urban legend? I don't know much more, but I do know this: the song has become so identified with London itself that now the bells of St. Clement Church in Eastcheap (pictured here) actually do play the tune of the entire song. I bet the other churches are green with jealousy.

I have a few versions of "Oranges and Lemons" on my iPod and my London playlists, but my favorite is what seems to be a Novachord synthesizer organ version (I'm less sure about my music history than I am about my BBC awareness). There's a wonderful moment about three-quarters of the way through both segments (the main theme repeats itself) where the music swells and builds and rises, and to me it's the perfect London song that describes the way I feel when I step out into the London streets: great overwhelming joy and orchestral, almost filmic-quality emotion. You could almost see the camera pull back on a wide crane shot as that music builds and you can see a little stuffed bull stretch out his arms and throw back his head and just take in the glory and grandeur of his favorite city in the word. Close your eyes and let's give it a listen, shall we? Oh your eyes again, click on this link to listen to this version of "Oranges and Lemons," and now close your eyes. (Open 'em again when it's finished, okay? See you then.)

Wasn't that lovely?

Here's a link to a choral version of "Oranges and Lemons" so you can hear the words, and for extra-credit background, here's an excellent article from the BBC's H2G2 wikiwebsite on the history and meaning of the tune.

Other songs in heavy rotation on my London playlists today (links will open in iTunes, unless you don't have iTunes, in which case they won't.):

"Lilliburlero" (signature tune to the BBC World Service)
"Eastenders Theme" from the album BBC World of Sound
"London Loves" by Blur, from the album Parklife
"Someone in London" by Godsmack, from the album Godsmack
"Swinging London" by The Pretenders, from the album Pirate Radio

Friday, December 22, 2006

A marvellous night out (Oh no it wasn't! OH YES IT WAS!)

So what was the big surprise John had promised us? A night at the theatre!

And not just any old theatre show, oh no no no...John took me and Marshall to see a traditional British stage pantomime!

If you're not familiar with a British pantomime, well, I could either send you off to Wikipedia ("The Encyclopaedia You Can Scribble In") or heck, I'll just tell you briefly myself. A British pantomime is not anything to do with mimes, Marcel Marceau, not talking or imaginary boxes. It's not silent at all; quite the reverse. It's a traditional British Christmas entertainment, mainly for children (like me and Marshall) but also enjoyed by people with great taste and a sense of fun (like me and Marshall): campy, outrageous, flamboyant retellings of famous fairy tales with song, dance, very bad jokes, cross-dressing, and a lot of audience participation. Throughout the performance the kids (and hey, the adults too) are called upon to yell back at the actors to alert them of danger ("He's behind you!") to hiss the baddies ("Boooooo!"), to groan at the bad puns ("Moan!"), and to agree or disagree with characters as needed. ("I'm the King Rat!" "OH NO YOU'RE AREN'T!" "Oh yes I am!" "OH NO YOU AREN'T!") Etc., etc. Check your propreiatry at the door, because a pantomime is very, very silly indeed.

I'm familiar with the tradition and the conventions of pantomime, mainly through listening to the classic BBC radio comedy series I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again!, but I've never been to one. That's why I was delighted when John, still gleefully keeping mum, pulled us off the Underground train at Barbican station and we all marched down to the Barbican Theater. It's no longer the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, so I actually thought I would never set foot in the place again. John fondly remembers many, many trips in 1983 to see the RSC, and he bored us by wistfully reminiscing about following the painted yellow line on the ground, past Defoe Towers on his way to a show, and dashing down it in reverse direction to catch a train back to Gloucester Terrace. We both stopped him from further discussion; you could tell the next thing he was going to start talking about was Mary Emerton and how cute she was.

The show tonight was Dick Whittington and His Cat, the traditional panto story of the three-time Lord Mayor of London and his very clever cat and their rise to fortune. Plus, a king rat and lots of very bad jokes. The theater lobby was filled with many happy families with charming British children (we were the only little stuffed bull and tiny stuffed cow in attendance, I think), and John bought us colourful show programs and we each got to choose a fancy trinket from the Dick Whittington gift table: I got a flashy plastic sword and Marshall picked a lightup whirling pinwheel. We almost didn't get a chance to sit down: an usher tried to tell John that he was in the wrong theatre twice until another usher interferred and set him correct, and John got to take us to our seats. (We think maybe he couldn't figure out why a big doughy American guy was coming all by himself to a British panto. Maybe he didn't see us running underfoot.

One of the tradiitions of British panto is cross-dressing, so Dick Whittington was played by a very pretty girl (in a short skirt with great legs) and Sarah the Cook was played by an older man. This is normal: you always have a dame or older woman character played by an older man, quite frequently a famous British actor or comedian. Last year there was a big panto that starred Ian McKellan—yes, Gandalf and Magneto—as the Dame! I would have liked to have seen him, but we were in for a treat too, as Sara the Cook was played by Roger Lloyd Pack, from the classic BBC series Only Fools and Horses (he also played Barty Crouch in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire—and he camped it up tremendously. Her, er, his performance and role was completely outrageous, a little scandalous (I'm sure there were many saucy jokes that went over Marshall's head...oh, and mine, most of them.), and totally over the top. It's not for nothing that the Dame is often the stand-out role in a panto.

We were encouraged to shout out and help the characters on stage: to wake up Totally Lazy Jack, to warn of the approach of the evil rats, to boo and hiss the wicked Rat King, and to sing along to the songs. (Some of which were written by Jim Bob of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine; another one was written by Kit Hesketh-Harvey, a frequent guest on another of my favourite BBC radio panel shows, Just a Minute.) Candy was thrown to the kids in the audience, and the first ten rows got wet when everyone was hosed down with water guns. It was all very silly and nonsensical but a great deal of fun. Towards the end two pairs of children were invited to come on stage to help out singing a song and Marshall and I were one of the pairs! (Editor's note: certain elements of this post only exist in Mister Bull's active imagination. Indulge him, won't you?) We were brought up on stage and Miss Mister Lloyd Pack coached us in singing "The Barbican-can-can" (it was easy because they rang down a curtain with all the words on it like a songsheet) and at the end of it we all got prizes! Mister Lloyd Pack said Marshall was the best and cutest and she got an extra special prize plus a dozen balloons before we returned to our seats. And we had chocolate ice cream and orange drink at the interval! John said it was our special Christmas treat and it was so very exciting!

when we got back to the hotel, I read some reviews in Time Out and some Londony newspapers. Some of the reviewers lambast the Barbican production of Dick Whittington as too glossy and "trying to be too arty," without the low-brow appeal that Christmas pantomimes have evolved into. All I have to say is, the show I saw had hundreds of kids howling and laughing in delight, eagerly waving their lighted pinwheels and swords back and forth and screaming in warning as the King Rat snuck up on our heroes. To heck with reviewers saying it was trying too hard. I'll say the same thing about a theatre show that I do about comics: Pantos Oughta be Fun. And with the dumb jokes and fun costumes and outrageous drag acts and silly songs, this little stuffed bull, and even the big doughy guy who went with him, hereby declares Dick Whittington and His Cat as fun.

C is for Cartoons, Comics, Covent Garden, and Charing Cross Road

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 essential—I 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 now—admittedly 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 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.

Holiday snaps!

Busy, exciting, wonderful days means plenty of Londony activity, but less time in front of the Bully laptop than I need to do justice to blogging London the way I want. In plain English, that means: I'm only thirty-six hours into my holiday and I'm already behind on my blogging. Never fear, Bully-boosters: I will blog each and every day, although I may be a day or two or some or more behind at any point. (I hope to be less delayed than last year's London blog, which took almost a year to finish working from my crabby-scrawled hoofwritten notes!) In any case, watch this space, because I will fill in the blanks with rich Londony goodness for each day. It just might not be...ah, the exact day it happens. Yes, I know that in the blogosphere this is considered being a big cheatypants. But I'll get it all up there sooner or later. Good things come to those who wait.

In the meantime, why not check out my London photo sets up at Flickr?

Day 1: 21 December 2006
Day 2: 22 December 2006
My main Flickr page: bookmark this page to check for new photo sets!

London Song of the Day: I wouldn't want you to walk across Hungerford Bridge ("London's Brilliant Parade" by Elvis Costello)

Those who know me know I like my music. (If you don't know me that well, you should know this: I like my music.) Even in London, music is an important and vital part of my life. For each and every trip to London I've spent much prep time in the weeks leading up to the holiday compiling the perfect iPod playlist (or, before that, mix tape). The 2006 one has some songs overlapping with the 1999, 1998, 1997, 1992, 1983 playlists, but many of them skew in different directions and reflect the pop and rock sensibilities of not only their times but my mood and frame of mind. I love listening to them all as I walk through the streets and gardens of London: sometimes the new playlist, sometimes older ones. I have hundreds of different songs that either are about London or Britain or at least remind me of it, many dozen BBC and Capital Radio jingles interspersed in between, and even some of Emma Clarke's cheery and concise London Underground tube train announcements.

Don't get me wrong: I don't shelter myself behind headphones every minute of every day in London. Much of the fun in traipsing around the city is the aural delight: the sounds, the voices, the music you hear from the world around you, not just from you iPod. But I do love a soundtrack to my London life, and enjoy plunking on the headphones on some stages of my walks to accompany the panorama unfolding in front of my wandering hooves to the sounds of tunes both classic and obscure. On this holiday I'll take you on a brief tour of "what's on the BullyPod" by featuring a specific London song I deeply love each day. Yesterday's was of course "London by Night" by John Williams. Let's take a step into a different direction—a very colorful and on second or third listen a very cynical direction—with today's London Song of the Day: Elvis Costello's "London's Brilliant Parade."

"London's Brilliant Parade" is a track on Elvis's 1994 CD Brutal Youth one of the post-Attractions nineties Costello albums that most fans bought on instinct rather than need and which probably soon got pushed to the back of the CD collection after a couple listens. (There's a reason, after all, that you can get it for 63¢ on Amazon.) That's a pity in my book, because I think it's one of Elvis's stronger nineties albums, not only because it features the sublime "London's Brilliant Parade."

It's a song that at first listen appears to be celebrating all the joy and color of England's capital

Just look at me
I'm having the time of my life
Or something quite like it
When I'm walking out and about
In London's brilliant parade

But like some of the other pleasantly-tuned but deceptively social tracks about London (likewise Pet Shop Boys...your turn on "London Song of the Day" is coming, to, I'm sure, the delight of Kevin Church), "London's Brilliant Parade" paints a grey picture of life:

I wouldn't want you to walk across Hungerford Bridge
Especially at twilight
Looking through the bolts and the girders
Into the water below
You'll never find your answer there

They sounded the "all-clear" in the occidental bazaar
They used to call Oxford Street
Now the bankrupt souls in the city
Are finally tasting defeat

First time I heard this song, my little floppy ears perked up quickly at the mention of "Hungerford Bridge." It's the footbridge between the South Bank and the Embankment Tube station near Waterloo Bridge. The old Hungerford bridge, the one Elvis is singing about, was a rattly unattractive deathtrap that was eventually replaced with a more modern, Millennium Bridgish affair. Like Elvis, I'm more familiar with the old one than the new one: countless times I passed over it on my way to and from the National Theatre, sometimes at a fast trot to get to the last train from Embankment Station after a late play. (The new one isn't even on the right side!) Don't get me wrong personally, because I have many sentimental and irrationally happy memories of the old Hungerford Bridge, but it's a bridge that you do realize certainly would have been easy to leap over the railing and commit suicide. (No, relax, folks: my thoughts were never on that, just upon "Gotta make the Circle Line train!") Just like Elvis suggests, "you'll never find your answer there." Whoa, that's not a happy London thought. Neither are "bankrupt souls", and later

From the gates of St. Mary's, there were horses in Olympia
And a trolley bus in Fulham Broadway
The lions and the tigers in Regents Park
Couldn't pay their way
And now they're not the only ones

There are plenty of London landmarks and traditions in "London's Brilliant Parade": red Routemaster buses, London taxis, trolley buses, the London Zoo and Hammersmith theatres, but they're all colored with a sad shaking of the head of opportunities lost and glories past, and if Elvis is celebrating London, he's celebrating one that's hard and grey, that's more than just skin deep. There's more, much more, than red buses and bustling shops, and if you look in the faces of the people who make up the actors on the stage that is the city of London, you'll see that the parade is not always that brilliant.

"Brilliant"? Well, that's irony, Elvis. It's not as heavy or immediate a message as the Clash's "London Calling," of course, but then Elvis Costello was always a little sneakier: a little venom in the lyrics mixed in with the sweetness of his melodies is an Elvis trademark, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

So why is this a favorite London song, or more important, the London Song of the Day? "Sounds dreary, Bully," you might say, and that's absolutely not my frame of mind today: I'm deliriously happy to the point of outbursts of giggles all day today. But "London's Brilliant Parade" reminds me there is more to this city than my holiday playground, there is more behind the faces of my fellow riders on the Tube. It's a beautiful city, but it's also grimy. I love the culture, but life here can be tough and hard for those who reside here. And that's why I choose it to listen to today and celebrate not only the excitement of London but the reality—the sometimes sad smoked mirror to the parade.

Outside my window
Not long before sleep arrives
They come with their sirens
And they sweep away all the boys
Busy draining the joy from their lives
They never said their prayers out loud


Just look at me
I'm having the time of my life
Or something quite like it
When I'm walking out and about
In London's brilliant parade

Other songs in heavy rotation on my London playlists today (links will open in iTunes, unless you don't have iTunes, in which case they won't.):

"London Rain (Nothing Heals me Like You Do)" by Heather Nova, from the album Siren
"A Foggy Day (In London Town)" by Michael Bublé, from the album It's Time
"Streets of London" by Sinéad O'Connor, from the album Fire on Babylon
"Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon, from the album Excitable Boy

No, not all the songs I listen to have the word "London" in the title. Like tomorrow's London Song of the Day. Stay "tune"d!

You're not allowed to go to bed before the Queen does.

The internet has now made it possible to listen to what previously only those lucky few with fancy fancy shortwave radios used to be able to hear: the BBC. I'm a big fan of BBC Radio, especially Radio 1 (pop music), Radio 4 (news, plays, and arts-related programming) and BBC 7 (rebroadcasts of classic BBC comedy and drama shows). There's not anything in the states quite like it: NPR comes the closest, but with fewer diversity and variety. You gotta love a radio network that runs both Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion, of course, but for an Anglophile bull like me there's no comparison to the Beeb.

My hotel room comes equipped with a TV that broadcasts radio, so I tune to BBC Radio 4 after midnight as I slip into bed and listen for a while as I fade in and out of consciousness. It takes me a while to realize there's a setting to turn off the picture (a slideshow of the hotel) while you're listening to radio, but at last it's dark and cozy in the room and I slide against my puffy pillows and listen to Book of the Week, which today features screen actor Nigel Havers reading a fifteen-minute installment of his funny and bright autobiography Playing with Fire. Again, I'm not aware of any similar show on NPR (the weekend Selected Shorts is the closest NPR comes to reading literature on the air) and Radio Four especially does several shows like this, including the famous Book at Bedtime, which is working its way through Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust this week. If I weren't so keen on getting up and about and seeing everything that London has to offer, I'd likely to be glued to BBC Radio 4 all day. Tomorrow they are featuring a special on the history of sound effects in British radio, including my fave Britcom of all time, The Goon Show. Luckily I can listen to the show at any point online for seven days after broadcast (and so can you!).

If I may blow my own horn, I'm pretty savvy at how US sales rankings work, but less so on rankings. Right now Playing with Fire ranks at #314 at, which is a respectible selling level. It's a brand-new hardcover and having the author read it on the BBC has got to be a good sales boost for the publisher. I know for a fact that American publishers like Norton would vastly benefit from having an American version of Book of the Week or A Book at Bedtime: you can definitely see the sales increase when an author appears on Fresh Air, so imagine the spike in sales if you could actually hear the book. I know I've never been particularly aware of Nigel Havers one way or another, but the excerpt he's read (on appearing in A Passage to India) is so delightful and funny that I think I'm going to have to buy his book. See? The system works.

Fifteen minutes of Havers is followed by a lullingly placid lengthy Shipping Forecast, one of my favorite shows on the BBC. You might remember my celebration of the Shipping Forecast (and a book devoted to travelling its exotic realms) in a post from last year's London trip, so if you're baffled by mention of the Shipping Forecast check that out to learn why it's a wonderfully calming and relaxing way to send you off into dreamland. At one AM BBC Radio Four shuts down broadcasting for the night, and closes down by playing the national anthem, God Save the Queen. You are supposed to stand whenever they play it in public and I'm not certain if the same is true in your hotel room, but just to stay on the safe side I stand up in bed to attention until the anthem is over. I glance at the clock and see it's one AM. Funny, I would have thought the Queen went to bed earlier than this. Apparently you're not allowed to go to bed in the UK until she does, so it's a bit of a relief to tired tired me when God Save the Queen ends (I can never hit the high notes) and I'm allowed to sink back into my comfy warm bed. The BBC World Service now gets broadcast over the Radio Four frequencies, so if you want you may listen to rich dulcet tones of BBC newsreaders all night long, but I reach for the remote and click off the radio-on-the-TV, and roll over to go to sleep, dreaming of curries and Fair Isle and the Queen's pyjamas.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A short but happy first day in London.

I will keep this short, Bully-fans, not only because I had a short day but because I'm starting to run out of energy and will soon be ready to go to bed (or, as they say over here, kip. Funny. I thought that was a fish.) Our big business-classy American Airlines Fresh Air plane set down almost smack on the dot of noon today, and by peering out the window I could see exactly what one of my commentors in a previous post warned me about: it's a real pea-souper out there! Seriously, the fog was thick and heavy, even at mid-day. I've been to London several times and I know enough to scoff when people think it is filled with fog like a Hollywood Sherlock Holmes movie, because except for some morning mist, I've never seen heavy fog in London. Until now! Seriously visibility was down to the ring at the end of my nose. It would not be a good day to visit the London Eye (and luckily I intend no such thing!) I'm very lucky I arrived today, because on the shuttle bus trip in from Heathrow to Kensington I heard a radio news report that British Airways have cancelled all their flights tomorrow because of the fog. I would have been quite angry if I was still stuck in JFK.

Not as angry, however, as the screamy American woman who was yelling at the shuttlebus desk clerk, complaining that although she booked a pair of shuttlebus passes for her and her daughter for transport from Heathrow Terminal 3, the fact that she had come in at Terminal 3 and her daughter was coming in at Terminal 1 should mean that the shuttlebus company needed to fix the problem immediately! The clerk was more polite and calm with her than I would have been, I tell ya. After the yelly woman left, I said to the clerk "I hope you don't think all Americans are that rude!" She said of course she didn't and that I was a very polite little stuffed bull and anyway, she had thought I was Canadian. You see, it's because I'm so polite.

Check-in to the hotel was swift and efficient and I whooshed up to my lovely, spacious room quickly and dropped off my many economically-packed but still startin'-to-get-heavy bags. Tradition kind of takes over at this point, because what I usually do when I arrive in the daytime after a night flight from America is head up the little garden path that runs behind Wrights Lane ("The Sneaky Way") to the High Street Kensington Tube Station, which also hosts a lot of lovely little shops. My goal was Boots the Chemist and/or Pret a Manger, to get sandwiches, crisps, the delicious pineapple-grapefruit soda called Lilt (seriously, the best soft drink ever), and then head back to the hotel for a quick brisk lunch followed by a catch-up nap. But my eagerness and excitement at being in London led me instead straight through the shopping centre to the High Street, where I burst into an ear-to-ear grin and a swelling in my heart as I whispered to myself "I'm in London." And I couldn't help it; the need for a nap was forgotten as I strolled out across the zebra crossing onto the Christmas-decorated High Street Kensington. First stop: the area W. H. Smith, where I picked up this week's Radio Times (featuring a free Doctor Who audio CD, whoo hoo! I love how many free prizes you get with British magazines!) and Time Out London. Both were special year-end double-issues which were very good value for money: not only because of the free CD but also because both cover all the time I'm going to be in London in single big fat holiday issues. I'm sure I will find many more exciting things to do and watch in their glossy pages. Down to the basement of W. H. Smith to peer at the books and Christmas games and toys (including the still-intriguing-to-me Ant or Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway Board Game). Pity so many of the cool games are DVD-oriented: UK DVDs don't run on US players. I really must get an all-regions DVD player; I'm going to especially feel that need if I walk into the BBC store this trip and see all the wonderful DVDs that haven't yet been released in the US.

Out of W. H. Smith, but not before I hear a cranky and possibly bonkers British woman complain to the salesclerk about something going on outside that the police must stop. The clerk, like I, am baffled by the fact that she never explains what it is, just that the police need to be called. I peer out cautiously as I exit W. H. Smith. Aside from a woman wearing white shoes at the bus stop to Chelsea, there's no signs of criminal activity.

Back across the street I pop into Japanese design store Muji to see if they have a new or different version of last year's favorite London gift item, "London in a Bag". Sadly, they don't, so it's a wander down the busy Christmas-shopping street to Waterstone's, one of my fave London chain bookstores. I can usually spend hours in a bookstore but now the weariness and jet lag is running smack-dab over the adrenaline and excitement, and I start to feel tired and detached, so I wander slowly back to Boots, where I buy a lunch of Lilt (as I said, the best soft drink ever), an All-Day-Breakfast sandwich (the best sandwich ever!) and some amusingly flavoured crisps (no, Bully fans, I don't get the roast ox flavour!) Plus, no meal is complete in London without a sweet, so it's a delicious, crumply Cadbury Flake bar, the light alternative to a heavy chocolate bar but with all the taste. I fall asleep on my hotel bed in an all-day-breakfast haze, and nap for a couple hours dreaming of London.

It's dark and cold outside when I wake up and head out for dinner. It's definitely colder this year that it was at this point here last year, and I'm glad I brought my snug cap and warm gloves to keep my horns and hooves from getting frosty. (The driver on the shuttle bus told me earlier that last year's weather was the exception at this time of year.) I stroll back down High Street Kensington, now filled with post-work shoppers, listening to London playlists on my iPod, and turn left down Earl's Court Road, heading for my traditional first-night dinner: Pizza Express. Sure, they're a chain, but I love 'em: utterly predictable but slightly upscale gourmet pizza and Italian food that just always hits the spot perfectly, plus they're well within a little stuffed bull's budget. More to the point, I've been making a Pizza Express meal my first-night-in-London tradition on the past six trips I've had here, and who am I to break a tradition? Not me!

After a spicy saucy Diavolo pizza (hot peppers and spicy sausage), a creamy Caesar salad (hooray, a place that actually puts anchovies on their Caesar!) and a glass of hearty Shiraz (yes, we're in Europe, so a little stuffed bull is allowed to have a little wine), the walk home seems much less cold than before, and I do a little more window-shopping on the way home, stopping and wandering through the Waitrose grocery store at the corner of High Street and Earl's Court (and wishing I had a microwave in my otherwise lovely hotel room so I could buy the make-it-yourself sticky toffee pudding), and then a return visit to Waterstone's, where I still don't buy anything. In the words of Blackie, you'd be a mug to buy before Christmas if you don't need to get presents: so many things in Waterstone's and other British shops go on sale for half price or less on Boxing Day after Christmas. I especially have my eye on some of the British pop and comic annuals; last year they had 'em at 99p the day after Christmas. And while I would dearly love that big new Spike Milligan book, at £18.99, it's nearly forty bucks in American money and even if it is marked down after Christmas, it'll probably still be cheaper to order it from when I'm back home. Yet another triumph of the internet over the High Street.

So I wander back to the hotel, enjoying the night streets. There are some many different times of day that I dearly love in London, and although twilight/dusk is my favorite (and I'll probably talk about it at some point this week, the wonderfully warm feeling the first onset of twilight brings me), London at night is a close second. Even though so much closes early by comparison with America, it's definitely a town that has a thriving nightlife, yes, but that's not the attraction of it to me: I am not a wine bar or clubbing kind of bull. No, I love to walk the side streets after dark and see the lights (especially if there are Christmas trees) behind the gauze curtains of those big old flats, and see people heading for home, their breathes frosty on the night air, with parcels and bags of Christmas presents. I like the quiet and the stillness of London by night, where you can stand in a side street or mews for many minutes and not hear a sound, so well insulated they are from the main street's traffic. I like the sound of a tube train pulling into Kensington High Street Underground station as I walk back along the pathway to the hotel. I like the low but warm glow of the lights of the city on the horizon: not as orange and sharp as Manhattan, but vibrant and romantic. One of my favorite CDs, not only in London but all the time, is John Williams's (not the Star Wars composer, but a classical guitarist by the same name) album Echoes of London. Again, that CD is probably something I'll talk about a bit later this week, because I want to devote a piece or two to favorite soundtrack moments on my iPod for London, but for now I'll mention that one of my favorite tracks is a slow and gentle instrumental melody guessed it..."London by Night," a song composed by Noel Coward. Hearing it, whether I'm here right now or away in America most of them time, transports me immediately to the quiet gentle grace of London after dark that I so love. I've listened to it so many, many times in the John Williams version that I never knew considered their were lyrics to it (makes sense if you consider Noel Coward wrote it!) One of the famous covers is by Mister Frank Sinatra, and I guess I'll have to get that track on my iPod at some point, although it probably will never make me feel the same way the guitar version does. A quick glance at the useful, handy internet provides the lyrics, and gosh-darn if a song that I never knew had words actually does have lyrics that are absolutely pitch-perfect with the way I feel in my heart about London:
London by night is a wonderful sight
There is magic abroad in the air
I'm often told that the streets turn to gold
When the moon shines on Circus and Square.
Back in the hotel, I blog to you, my faithful Bully-backers, while watching a nature documentary on Channel Four about a whale that beached itself in the Thames near Albert Bridge earlier this year. Like the tale of Togo the Penguin last year, it's not a story that has a happy ending, and there's actually quiet a lot of gruesome shots of whale autopsy as they determine how the whale went so far off target in its migration to wind up dying in the center of London. It's a sad cautionary tale about how our pollution of the ocean, both chemical and sound, led to the whale's death. It's fascinating but in the end a bit of a downer, so I switch over to LondonTV and learn about many interesting touristy things to do, including a punk rock karaoke bar in Islington. It sounds like a lot of fun, but a quick look at the web tells me the club is currently closed. Way to be up to date, London TV!

I said i was going to keep this short. Well, so much for that idea: get me started on London and I'll talk and talk and talk s'more until you all wish I'd just come back home and talk about comic books, I bet! But the end for today is near; I'm all blogged out. So instead I'll relax a wee bit and then, and so to bed, as my mate Samuel Pepys would say (he pronounced it "Peeps," by the way, but no relation to the delicious, delicious yellow sponge marshmallow treat). I will look out the window at the foggy night sky and hum Noel Coward's "London by Night" to myself, and climb into my soft hotel bed and dream of all the exciting adventures I'll have tomorrow. Cheers then!

Bad timing: a bullish obsession

I love bein' in London, and mind you, I'm not complaining that we arrived this morning. But looking at last week's Time Out London makes me go oooooh, I wish we coulda got here Tuesday morning. Why? Because my two favorite bands were playing earlier this week, and I missed 'em by just that much:

Madness! The Pogues! Gosh, how I love 'em. There's no two more quintessential London bands for this little stuffed bull, and you can betcha their music is always in heavy rotation on my iPod. There's nothing, however, to compare with seein' 'em live (after all, Shane MacGowan won't last that much longer—then again, I've been sayin' that for years). I'm not complaining, oh no no. I'm over-the-hill chuffed to be in London at Christmastime just on its own, and I've got a ticket to see something else I've been really looking forward to (Spamalot on Boxing Day, starring Tim Curry!), so no sour grapes from Bully here. After I, I've been lucky enough to see 'em both live over here in the UK: Madness twice (once in 1983 and at the Madstock concert in 1987, The Pogues in 1992). And there's s'posed to be the new Madness single "Sorry" out this month, so I'll definitely be looking for it at HMV on Oxford Street during my sure-to-be-thrilling pilgrimage there later this week. And I have been busily pencilling in so many things to do in London on my holiday calendar that I'm sure I will have more than enough to do this week. But in spirit, at least, if you were at Wembley on Wednesday you heard me singin' along with "It Must Be Love" or at Brixton on Tuesday, swaying back and forth and bellowing out "London You're a Lady." I will drink a pint of ginger beer this week to Messrs. Suggs and MacGowan and company, and hoist a special toast to the memory of Tom McManamon, and I will stumble home from the pub to my warm hotel bed, warbling

So I pray now child that you sleep tonight
When you hear this lullaby
May the wind that blows from haunted graves
Never bring you misery
May the angels bright
Watch you tonight
And keep you while you sleep

(In addition, my kid sister Marshall is sorry we missed this):

The only way to fly

Hullo from London, folks! I'll be telling you about my first day in The Big Smoke in a wee bit, but for the moment, I just gotta rave about flying business class!

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a spendthrift and I am quite careful with my dimes (and pounds). Flying business or first class under normal circumstances can be very expensive and would seriously cut into my regular comic book buying budget. This time around, however, I cashed in some of my miles to upgrade and get a free business-class round trip ticket to London, and boy howdy, am I pleased as punch I did! It's a long enough flight as it is, especially when you do it overnight, and the change in setting from steerage (no pun intended) to business class made it rush by that much faster. Why so surprised that I have miles to cash in? I earned them selling seeds door to door. It was a lot of seeds. (And yes, for the purpose of my pop-culture joke in the last post, I suppose I have miles with Fresh Air.)

Anyway, the delight starts from the very beginning when you step into the busy busy terminal 9 at JFK and get to step directly into the "business class" line to check your bags. Seriously, since our flight was at midnight, there wasn't much of a wait even for coach, but it was a nice treat to immediately be the second in line to check in. A few exchanged pleasantries with the clerk at the check-in counter included the fact that I was entitled to go into the Admiral's Club until departure! Whoo hoo! I have never been in an executive club at an airport before and it was great fun running about helping myself to free fruit. It was quite a disappointment however, that the club was actually outside the security section to the gates, so to give myself plenty of time before the flight I left the cozy confines of the club and waddled, full of fruit, to the sparse and spartan international departures wing, which was about as exciting as a pit of mud.

Seriously, JFK...that was one pretty lousy departures wing. There were no restaurants. There was a bar, at which I bought a bottle of water for the flight ($3.50! Not good value for money.) There was free bottled water in the flight club but you were not allowed to bring it through security. Grrr. I'm remembering how fantastic the Heathrow Departure Lounge is, chock-a-block full of amazing shops for your last-minute souvenirs needs, lovely restaurants, and a relaxing atmosphere. At JFK there are not enough seats for everyone so many people were sitting on the floor, and there were doors slamming every two or three minutes. Once again I have been misled by a Tom Hanks movie into thinking something was better than it actually is: the JFK international lounge in The Terminal is a lovely and elaborate Hollywood set with multi-leveled shops and stores. The real one is a dull grey limbo.

Thankfully all that dismal-osity was soon about to change as soon as we boarded. I am not a little stuffed bull who rushes the podium as soon as they call boarding, but I do enjoy being able to board as swiftly as possible to allow myself time to settle in and relax. Hooray for business class, because you get to board first! Up I sauntered with my e-ticket and onto the plane.

A right turn once in the plane takes you immediately into the business class (ultra-posh first class is to the left. I didn't see it, but I presume there were tame peacocks roaming about and a reflecting pool in the middle of the section). Hooray again!, because business class means you get your own seat and do not have to spend the trip inside the overhead storage bin. The seats are wide and comfortable, and there is so much leg room that even a big tall guy like John couldn't touch the seat in front of him with his toes. Poppy the Friendly Flight Attendant came by immediately after we settled in to bring glasses of wine, champagne, water and orange juice. I wanted to try some champagne (I bet it would tickle my nose!) but I had to settle for orange juice instead. What's better than being offered orange juice pre-flight? When they come by again and you get to have seconds!

The seats were so comfy (and it was quite late) so I kind of kept dropping off a bit before the plane took off, but I made sure to stay awake because we were issued menus. Menus! On a plane! You got to choose your meal out of several gourmet choices. I had a delicious, creamy pasta, but just like a pretty good restaurant (one that flies!) the meal came in several courses: first, a cup of hot nuts! And not just peanut pieces in little vaccum-sealed bags, oh no: an actual little china cup with warmed mixed nuts. Including plenty of cashews. Refills on whatever I wanted to drink (in real glass glasses!) and then a nice Caesar salad and bread, plus a return visit to the bun basket a little later on so I could have an extra roll. Then my pasta, which was gob-smackingly delicious, followed by ice cream with fudge on top. I was starting to fall asleep then so when they came around with chocolate bars after that I actually turned it down. (Can you believe it?)

Before I fell asleep they also brought round Bose noise-reducing headphones, which were simply amazing. You don't get to keep them (they collected them at the end of the flight) but I know it will be hard going back to my cheap Sony headphones while listening to my iPod on a plane after having those. I know they aren't cheap but I will have to save up my dimes to get a pair someday. They were even comfortable when I fell asleep. And if you've ever seen how odd a bull's ears are, that takes some doing.

We'd also been issued a large complimentary spa pack full of all sorts of toiletries and comfort items: earplugs, lip balm, toothbrush, immensely giant socks, eyeshade, and much more. Look at all the cool stuff I got to take away!

Why, it was a lot of stuff in a free pouch that was so huge I could use it as a sleeping bag!:

And that is how I spent one of the nicest flights ever, which was a wonderful start to my holiday. This trip is meant to be a real treat for me, and I'm very chuffed at having used my miles to fly business class, even though (shh! don't tell them) I did not come to London to do business. I've been upgraded from coach to first class a very few times on some short-range flights, mostly New York City to and from Buffalo or Chicago, and aside from a coat-hanging service and early drinks, it wasn't much different than coach. But this was a wonderfully posh experience: I don't normally sleep on flights, but I actually got a few hours shut-eye thanks to the spacious and relaxing suroundings.

I am not an elitist little bull by any means, and I definitely know that aside from the return trip home, it'll be back to coach for me in my journeys. But oh my, what a nice treat to upgrade.

Um, unless any of you want to buy some seeds to help me build up some more miles?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

I'm Bully, Fly Me!

Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! My bags are packed and ready to London! Yes, Bully-boosters, this little stuffed bull is on his way to the UK for the holiday (hey, that all kinda rhymed!). Oh yes, John and Marshall are coming too. As I think I have said before, London is my favorite place in the world, and I am very much looking forward to spending Christmas in the city that rocks, the city that never stops...wait a minute, that's a totally different place. Never mind! Anyway, I will be off very soon to the home of Sherlock Holmes and Paddington Bear, James Bond and Brian Braddock, and I'm thrilled as a newt and can barely keep still in my plastic airport lounge waiting chair.

While I am over there, I hope to attend some meetings at The BBC (The British Bull Corporation) so of course I'm very excited to get on the plane. Although I could have travelled just as easily and a lot more cheaply via FedEx, instead promotional consideration and travel is provided by the sassy and spirited Fresh! Airlines, whom I'm flying over to London's swingin' Heathrow Airport. The flight attendants in the waiting lounge are all very pretty, young and saucy, and I am sure there are some shenanigans going on behind the scenes that I'm neither aware or nor would understand, but as long as I am suitably provided with enough complimentary Schweppes Ginger Ale on board I don't mind at all if they are making kissy noises behind the partition. I am of course also looking forward to the in-flight movie. Sometimes you can't see the screen very well when you're riding in the overhead baggage compartment, but I consider this an interesting challenge, and sure hope that nobody minds me hanging out of the compartment overhead, munching on delicious, delicious Corn Nuts and cheering on the movie.

As I often am while travelling, I find the duty-free shops very intriguing and fascinating. I have been wandering up and down the one here at the airport staring up at the many wonderful goods, especially, as usual, the giant Toblerone bar. They seem to have gotten even bigger than usual: as large as a small telephone booth, it seems to me. I am watching my pounds and pence quite carefully though so I have plenty of Christmas shopping money in London, and it seems a shame to splurge now, so I have sadly turned my back on enough chocolate to feed a small army of rats and returned to the waiting lounge, where Poppy the flight attendant seems to have lost her skirt. Perhaps I will go and help her look for it. Oh, she doesn't seem to be very interested in looking for it at all.

Captain Croker, our crusty but friendly pilot, has just walked by, so it must be getting time to board very soon, so I should be going: Marshall needs help picking up all the pieces of Travel Monopoly, and I promised I would help her. But very swiftly, what does this mean for you, the Reader of Comics Oughta Be Fun? Well, for the next ten days you'll get a chance to read my London travelogue and see my London photos, experiencing the city by the Thames through the shiny button eyes of an American stuffed bull. If you only come here for the comics commentary there will still be a little content for ya: on my itinerary are planned visits to the Comics Museum, Gosh!, Forbidden Planet, and Magma, as well as possibly some art-related musings as I wander through many fancy museums. But my blog will definitely be all London and more than just comics until the end of the year, and although I'm not gonna rename it, you may feel free to unofficially call it London Oughta Be Fun! And it is!


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A man for all seasons.

Apparently anyone who posts to the internet, or looks at the internet, or bought something on the internet, or has heard about the internet, or has uncomfortably brushed up against the internet in a crowded subway train, is this year's Time Person of the Year. I dunno about that, mainly because if I see a magazine referring back to me, boy howdy, it better include a big semi-gloss mirrored-laminated panel that presents the illusion that I'm looking into a mirror but which is about as reflective as the bottom of a tuna fish can—in other words, the finest reflection technology the greeting card industry can offer.

Sleestak, inspired by The So-Called "Austin Mayor," challenges us, the winners of Time's Person of the Year, to graciously step aside and nominate some other person worthy of this great magazine-marketing honor. Well, when the cover copy reads that the winner controls an Age, and welcomes you to the winner's World, there is, in the words of Mister Harry Chapin, only one choice:


Well, better him than Bono, I guess.

Bully's Fantastic Christmas, Part 12

Bully's Fantastic Christmas

Parts 1-11 are here.

Part 12: I heard the bulls on Christmas Day

Bully's eyes opened.

The brilliant sunlight streamed through the gauze curtains of the living room onto Bully's face. He blinked at it and turned over, stretching and yawning, closing his eyes...

...then snapping them open again in shock and surprise. It was Christmas morning! He leaped up, panicked. Where were his drawings? He had to wrap up his comic book presents for everyone! He had to get them under the tree or he would have no Christmas gifts for his friends...but no matter how fast Bully turned and twirled, looking wildly about him, his stack of homemade comic books were nowhere to be found.

Suddenly Blackie was there, rushing into the room in excitement, and Snuckles, and Marshall, and Ox, all yelling and cheering and jumping up and down, and pointing behind Bully wildly...

Bully turned, and stopped, and gaped.

Beneath the tree, so empty last night, now were presents. Dozens of presents, maybe hundreds of presents, ball-shaped and square, big and small, some in fancy rainbow foil wrapping, and some in plain red paper. Together he and his sister and friends ran up to the tree and rushed from package to package, and as John came in, slowly and sleepily, good naturedly complaining about the early hour and noise, Bully and his friends were dragging out boxes into the middle of the floor, reading name tags loudly: "For Snuckles!" "Merry Christmas to Gus!" "For Bully!" "For Marshall! XOXOXO Love, Bully!"

Bully stopped and stared. There, beneath the tree, were his comics...not in the haphazard stack he'd left them in as he fell into sleep on Christmas Eve, but wrapped—each one curled into a tight tube, each one tied with a bright colorful ribbon, each one labeled with a tag.

Bully stood back and chewed on his hoof in complete bafflement for almost a whole minute. Surely he hadn't done all that without remembering...?

Had he?

If he hadn't, who had?

And his eyes fell on the cookie-crumb strewn Spider-Man plate, and the empty glass, sitting on the coffee table.

Bully lay, comfortably relaxing, in a pile of crumpled wrapping paper beneath the Christmas tree. It was only a few hours later, but the gifts were all long opened and admired; thanks had been given and hugs exchanged. Everyone cooed and awed at his bright colorful crayon drawings, declaring them the very best Christmas gifts of all, and Marshall had given him such a hug. Now Marshall lay curled up on the couch, carefully petting her new My Little Pony; Ox was hunkered down behind the couch reading his Western comic aloud in his slow gravelly voice to Pickles the Tribble; Snuckles and Blackie were busy playing a noisy and complicated game of catch with the new Nerf ball Blackie had gotten, and Bully—well, Bully was just plain exhausted.

He sat up with a start. "Oh oh oh!" he exclaimed in sudden shock. "Oh geez. I gotta go talk to Mister Vincent!"

"Chee, Bully!" scoffed Blackie. "What you wanna go do dat fer?"

Bully hung his head in sudden shame. "He gave me some money to buy something for him and I forgot to run the errand and accidentally spent the money."

"I shouldn't worry about Mister Victor anymore," said Marshall brightly from the couch.

They all turned to look at the tiny stuffed cow carefully. "Why do you say that, Marshall?" asked Snuckles.

"'Coz he's not next door anymore," Marshall explained with exaggerated patience. "He's gone away."

"Oh! Oh!" Bully's heart soared with sudden relief. "I bet I know what happened! I bet last night three mysterious ghostly strangers came by and took him around the city and showed him the true meaning of Christmas!"

"There were more than three," Marshall said, combing her purple pony mane carefully. "There were four. I counted them twice to make sure." She beamed proudly at her ability to count. "They came around last evening and took Mister Victor away."

"Four ghosts?" Bully said. He didn't remember the Christmas story happening that way.

"They weren't ghosts, silly." Marshall giggled. "They had blue uniforms. There was a big orange rocky one. And the one that was on fire was so cuuuuute! Anyway, Mister Victor's gone away." She went back to her mane-braiding with great serious intent, barely registering the immense relief Bully radiated at the news.

Bully, Snuckles, and Blackie looked at one another in surprise.

"Golly," said Snuckles. "That's kind of a deus ex..."

"Quiet, pinky," Blackie said good-naturedly, wrapping his arm around his pig friend's thick neck. "Never mind. It's Christmas. Dat kinda thing's allowed on Christmas."

Bully sighed in happy liberation at the news of Mister Victor's departure. He lay back in his nest of papers and a thought came suddenly to him, a memory of Effie saying, as clear as if she were standing underneath the tree alongside him: "This is the best Christmas ever."

"Yeah," Bully said to himself, grinning. "It is." He shifted in his pile of papers, suddenly uncomfortable for no reason he could tell. He reached down underneath his fuzzy tail to pat down the papers, and to his extreme amazement and surprise, poked something hard.

Much to his surprise, when he fished it out of the pile: it was a package.

Even more to his surprise, it was a package for him.


Bully tore open the paper with trembling hooves.

From out of the ripped paper fell a large paperback book, thick and heavy, landing on the floor with a satisfyingly heavy plop. Bully stared at the cover for a moment, his mouth open but not making a sound, stunned into speechlessness.

It was Essential Fantastic Four Volume 3.

He flipped through the pages swiftly, scarcely daring to hope. Are they in here? Are they in here? Fantastic Four issue #45, issue #46, 47...




He picked up the book and spun around in excitement and joy, laughing and giggling gleefully and singing loudly "La la la!", hugging the big heavy book full of action and adventure in his arms as he ran off to read the Galactus Trilogy, on a beautiful warm clear sunny Christmas morning.

The End

Merry Christmas!