Saturday, December 30, 2006

Notting Hill and farewells

What to do today, my last day in London? What to do?

I hadn't made up my mind when I went to bed last night, and I still hadn't even by breakfast. The frontrunner for a while was to walk across Kensington Park to Lancaster Gate, to wander through the streets around and behind Gloucester Terrace, my first home in London, maybe then amble over to Paddington Station to take some pictures of its Victorian iron-raftered splendour, maybe have lunch at my favorite fish-and-chips restaurant in the whole city, Mickey's on London Street just off Praed Street, or possibly one of the numerous cheap but tasty kebab houses. But I remember last year the sadness I felt at seeing the boarded-up, closed and gone-away White Hart pub on Brook Mews, and I don't want that sensation to be my last day's memories of this holiday. How about Marylebone High Street? Great shops, and then I could wander down to the BBC Shop on Margaret Street...but my luggage is stuffed to bursting with books already, so I have to keep the shopping light or non-existent today. And like the London Transport Shop, the BBC Shop is just a shadow of what it once was, and until or if it's going to move back into its old massive digs at Broadcasting House, I'll pass it today too. Kew Gardens? A little too far—I've got to be back to the hotel by 2 PM for the shuttlebus to the airport. Something close then. Maybe something new, someplace I've never explored. How about another London Walk? Maybe there's a good one running this morning. I unfold the London Walks brochure and spot, like another moment of serendipity, the Notting Hill & Portobello Market London Walk:
This is reconnaissance on the razzle—the search-party that syncopates. Because Notting Hill on a Saturday morning—market morning!—is curious and colourful, offbeat and yeasty. Here you walk with a ticket of freedom—a pass to scintillating escarpments. Just consider what's squeezed out onto the palette this hillside: swells and scruffs; market stalls and scandal; Jimi Hendrix and Carnival; Cut Throat Alley and Victorian Gothic; Madonna and Hugh Grant (let alone Julia Roberts and that bookshop); cottages, potteries and piggeries; colour washed mews and cab shelters and a race course and the gout route to Bath and butchers in straw hats and an invisible boundary between the present and the past....magic!
Absolutely. Spot on. Perfect. Notting Hill Gate Tube Station is two stops away. It's even within walking distance if I wanted to walk there or back. My late afternoon wander yesterday through Notting Hill widened my little black button eyes and perked up my fuzzy ears: I'd made an exploration of Portobello Market years and years ago and been overwhelmed, but in the context of a tour, that might be just perfect. And I love the movie Notting Hill. To be able to walk through the street where my favorite scene—the four seasons passing as Hugh Grant walks through the market— would be a special treat for a last day. So I swallow the last of my tea, check my overstuffed bags with the hotel concierge, reluctantly check out of the hotel, and set out for Notting Hill.

Wouldn't you know it: on my last day here, my Oystercard has run out of money. I topped it up once with an extra ten quid a couple days after Christmas but all that museum-hopping yesterday drained it like the Salt Vampire in Star Trek, only with less pockmarks and better gift shops. In the queue two people ahead of me a guy manages to break the Oystercard automatic top-up machine and put it out of service, so I shrug and dig some chunky pound coins out of my pocket and buy a reg'lar Underground ticket. Notting Hill Gate isn't far, but it's only station out of Zone 1, so the fare is three pounds. Three quid? That's six dollars for a five minute ride! Ah well, it's my last day. I'd only blow it on chocolate at the airport later.

Holland Park Tube StationIn contrast to grey and drizzly yesterday it is a bright and brilliant day and warm...the first day above 50 degrees. The Irish doorman at the hotel told me he'd heard it was going to rain, but I look up as I emerge from Holland Park tube station and there isn't a single cloud in the sky. Could he be wrong? Anyway, it's the perfect day for a walk.

BrianOur tour guide is the magnificent Brian, who's absolutely perfect for this walk. I've enjoyed and appreciated every single one of my London Walks guides, but I think Brian is my favorite: funny, vibrant, loud-spoken (always a plus with a big tour group), effortlessly takes the lead with long strides whenever we set out, and he has a wonderful quirky touch of providing a cliffhanger to every segment of the walk that makes you long for the next stop: hinting teasingly at a point of history or wonderful site to see, he caps off many talks with "...and you'll see why at the next stop!" It leaves us eagerly jogging along to keep up, to get to the next point of interest, to find out exactly what he's talking about.

Notting Hill WalkThe walk is colored with discussion of "that movie," which no doubt baffles some of the people on the tour, who have really no idea why I'm taking so many photos of the Travel Book Shop (the real one, not the movie dressed-up version which took place a few blocks away. We see the key garden Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts snuck in after Honey's birthday party, the church in front of which Tim McInnerny rants in exasperation "James Bond never has to put up with this s---!", the building redressed as a newsagent where Hugh quite completely fails to note the British tabloids full of Anna Scott scandal...almost everything except Rhys Ifan's bottom. But by no means is it a movie-only tour: Brian is impressively descriptive as he walks us past a classic British butcher shop, points out the houses of Annie Lennox and Robbie Williams, and remarks on the ubiquitous nature of Charles Dickens. A walk through a charming curving alleyway called Pottery Lane puts a little chill up your back when Brian explains how thieves and murderers used to ambush their victims here, and his stories of the abject poverty and horrible living conditions (average life expectancy: eleven years) bring a little tear to your eye.

Portobello RoadBut then Brian tells a joke and shows you a big-ass kiln big enough to live in, and then you're off to the next stop, and it all ends up at the amazingly packed Portobello Road market. What i saw last night was the merest sliver of the crowds at Portobello Road, and it's packed ear to ear with marketeers and shoppers, looking through tinkling silver and old jackets and antique books and framed cigarette cards and the riches of ages untold. Or, as Mister Cat Stevens once sang in quite possibly the greatest song to ever mention a stuffed bull:

Getting hung up all day on smiles
Walking down Portobello Road for miles
Greeting strangers in Indian boots
Yellow ties and old brown suits
Growing old is my only danger

Cuckoo clocks, and plastic socks
Lampshades of old antique leather
Nothing looks weird, not even a beard
Or the boots made out of feathers

I'll keep walking miles til i feel
A broom beneath my feet
Or the hawking eyes of an old stuffed bull across the street

My eyes are not hawking, they're as wide as soupbowls. I keep my eye open for Mister Gruber and his bear friend, but I'm swept away in the crowd.

Sausage and MashWhen the tour ends, I'm close enough to walk to the Notting Hill Gate tube stop, which means I'm close enough to walk back to the hotel. There's plenty of time. In fact, there's plenty of time for lunch, one last lunch in London, and what better place to have it than at a pub? So John, Marshall and I crowd around a table in the Windsor Castle pub at the top of Campden Hill Road and have one last pint and a big plate of sausage and mash, and we toast our successful holiday and make a vow to return very soon.

Now I'm sitting in the lobby of the hotel, waiting for the shuttle bus to take us to the airport, tapping away for the last time in London on my little laptop. I look out the window and guess what? It's pouring rain. All through the morning the bright blue skies gradually filled with clouds and greyed, but it held off until I was actually done with my holiday before it started pouring down. I don't mind London paraphrase Heather Nova, nothing heals me like it do...but I'm glad it waited until I was leaving.

I'm looking forward to the airport: business class executive lounge to wait in, plus the amazing almost-a-mall Persian bazaar delights of the international departure duty free shopping area, with Harrod's, Hamley's, and a full bookstore. Maybe John will buy me that giant Toblerone, or better yet, one of those Cadbury bars bigger than I am. And the flight home will be fun: the big seats, the posh service, the relaxing atmosphere punctuated only by the worry that it's gonna be really, really hard to go back to flying coach after dipping my hoof in business class this holiday.

Goodbye, London...or maybe I should just say "Cheers." I'll be can count on it. For more London. Coz you can never have enough London in your life.
More London

A day early and a gross of years late

With the same breathless excitement in which Navin Johnson announced the arrival of updated phone books, I excitedly declare:

The new Tube maps are here!
The new Tube maps are here!

New tube map

These free pocket maps of the Underground are available at (nearly) every Tube station, and Underground enthusiasts (like me!) collect 'em all, even the current ones. So you can imagine my delight in Holland Park Station this morning when I saw for the first time that the previous map, dated September 2006, had been replaced by a new edition dated January 2007. One more thing to paste in my London scrapbook! I'm ever-so-keen on collecting and examining these maps in close detail, so only another Tubespotter will be interested in my observation that the January 2007 map deletes the detail of Stratford to North Woolwich National Rail line which is now under reconstruction to become part of Docklands Light Rail. Silvertown, we hardly knew ye!

What interests me more is the cover art of the map pamphlet. Transport for London generally designs their tube map brochures with stylized or slightly-abstract art in the brightly-colored shades of the Underground lines, and the January 2007 map is no different: while it appears at first glance to have invented the word "heighteen," a moment's examination tells us it actually says "Friday, January the Ninth, Eighteen-Sixty-Three."

Um, except...

...just what is that date supposed to be commemorating? Any Underground enthusiast will tell you that the Underground opened on January the Tenth, 1863 (with the first train service between Baker Street and Farringdon, along what was eventually the Metropolitan Line and now is known as the Hammersmith and City Line). So what is the map referring to with 9 January? The last day of the "old world" before London was transformed forever and thrust into the new age? An early, non-public test run of the Underground service? The night The Doctor and Rose arrived to stop the Dalek infestation of the tunnels so the trains could start on time the next morning?

Or did they just make a silly mistake?

EDIT on 1/9/07: Annie Mole from the unparalleled Going Underground's Blog also notes the new map here and references one of her earlier entries here that explains a ceremonial tour of the first stretch of the Underground took place on 9 January 1863.

Friday, December 29, 2006

[London] Adventures with Marshall the Tiny Stuffed Cow: In which we find out what Marshall has been up to

Comments, I get comments. Or at least, I get comment, which asks the question I'm sure all of you have been wondering: where in London is Bully's kid sister, Marshall? Has she been left behind in the hotel room each day? Au contraire, Marshall-maniacs! Like last year at this time, Marshall has come along to London but has her own very special agenda. She is very precocious and has many programmes and activities going on daily instead of the lazy sightseeing and shopping I'm on (or at least that's the way she describes it). But let me let Marshall, with the help of a step-stool to reach the keyboard (it is very tricky for a tiny stuffed cow), explain for herself what her daily routine has been:

Thank you again, Bully! Or should I say, because we are in London, ta very much! I like talking London talk. It is very different and fun, and Bully tells me that is what this blog is all about: fun stuff! Which is definitely what I am doing on this trip.

Last year when we came to London I attended horseback riding and dressage lessons every day (except Christmas) at the lovely and friendly Westway Stables, a wonderful horse farm not too far from the hotel, in North Kensington just off Wormwood Scrubs. (That's where the prison is, as celebrated in the song by Spike Milligan, one of Bully's personal heroes. I like his "Silly Old Baboon Song." Oh! I am trapped in a parenthesis! How do I get out?) Oh, that's better. Anyway, I have been thinking about what great fun and how much I learned at Westway last year, so I begged and begged and begged John to let me go again, and I did all my chores (I am in charge of brushing Gus the Qat and of picking up all my toys when I am done playing with them, and also tugging down the towels off the bathroom rack and putting them in the laundry hamper) to earn money for my horsey-tuition again. Imagine my delight and surprise when John said "yes of course!" and I got to book a whole week at Westway. I was very nervous that Buttercup, my favorite pony from last year, would not be available, and I did not sleep for a whole night before we went to London. But John had 'specially asked Miss Tuvey when he booked for me to reserve Buttercup, and oh boy, how happy was I to see her and pet her and brush her and ride her again! Miss Tuvey said that I am a natural at dressage and riding and that Buttercup was quite glad to see me. I am happy that she was because the customs officer confiscated the carrot I brought from New York to give to her. But she recognized and nuzzled me anyway.

I am taking intermediate steeplechase jumping lessons now, which are harder than the beginner ones I took last year, but I have been working hard all week with Buttercup and even some of the posh girls who own their own ponies have told me that they are impressed by my riding techniques! I have been told I speak the language of the horse. I'm not sure that's true. I can barely speak native cow, much less horse, and Bully teases me sometimes because I have a lisp when I am speaking English. We were watching Four Weddings and a Funeral on the BBC in the hotel room the other night and I said "I certainly sure like Kristin Scott Thomas!" Well, Bully just rolled over and laughed and laughed and laughed until John told him to quit it. I do love my big brother Bully but he can be a meanie once in a while.

While Bully and John are out and about taking walking tours and listening to their iPod London playlists, once again I am being chaffeured around London by my hired personal driver, Mister Frank. He is the best driver I have ever been in a car with. He can go very very very fast through even the busiest of London traffic so I am never late for anyplace I need to be. Hooray! Sometimes he makes the car jump up over things and I have to cover my eyes with my hooves and not look. When that happens I must be very very careful not to spill my Orangina. I also am very careful to keep my hooves off the seat, because while Mister Frank is a little gruff, he is most of all very particular about his car. He always says that you can tell almost everything about a man by the way he keeps his car. His car is spotless. "Respect a man's car, and the man respects you," Mister Frank tells me. There is one day I get up enough nerves to ask him if he respects me. "You respect the car." he told me. "I respect you." Golly. Mister Frank makes me feel ten feet tall when he drives me.

In the afternoons Mister Frank drives me to Covent Garden. No, I am not there to shop, even though there are many lovely shops (I am especially fond of Pollock's Toyshop and Lush). I am taking a special Christmas ballet seminar through the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House! It is very tough and hard but exciting. I have never worked so hard at dancing in my life. The world-class instructors of the Royal Ballet are very strict but fair and I do my best to learn from my mistakes. I do have a natural advantage over some of the other little girls as I have hooves instead of feet. Some of the girls are a little jealous! But I have been making friends. I invited some of them to come out in the morning the other day to see the pony I am taking care of and we all had a grand time. Mister Frank drove and even though he was a little annoyed that Penny fforbes-Feathstonehaugh got toffee fingerprints on the window he was very polite and did not scold her. (But he did say that my friends would have to take London Transport next time!)

Part of the seminar is that we will dance in the corps before a live audience at the special performance of The Nutcracker on the last day of our programme, which was tonight! I was very very very very nervous! (Not as nervous as Posy Lasindall-Pearl, who kept on turning green in the hours before and had to keep disappearing into the "loo.") I was one of the mice, and I got to wear a fuzzy furry costume with big floppy ears. I was sitting in our dressing room with the other girls about an hour before we were going to go on, and there was a knock on the door, and the stage manager came in and handed me the biggest bouquet of English roses I have ever seen! (And real English rose flowers, not that freaky book by the singer-lady. That book scares me.) Ahh the other girls oohed and ahhed and were very envious! I did not want them to feel bad and since we had all worked very hard all week and become such a close team and good friends I gave everybody a rose so we all had one. And then we all hugged each other a lot and Posy had to run off to the bathroom again. There was a card on the flowers, and it was from Bully (and John) and said BREAK A LEG. So I guess even if he makes fun of me sometimes I still really love my big brother.

Well, the ballet was a white snowy blur to me. All the dancers are so pretty and graceful that I was afraid I would look silly and awkward but you know what? I just got on stage with the other girls in our mouse costumes and we danced just like Miss Miyako had worked with us on all week, and guess what? I just fell into the music and the dance and it was over before I knew it, and everyone was applauding and smiling so I guess we all did pretty good, even Posy, who was still a little green under her mouse costume. I hadn't had even a chance to look out at the audience until then but then I noticed Bully (and John) sitting in the audience. Bully was all dressed up in his waistcoat and tie and he gave me a big "hoof's up" gesture, and I felt really really happy that they had come to see me dance. "Of course we were coming!" John told me later on. "How could we miss yopur big stage debut?" "Besides," Bully said, "there was nothing good on the BBC tonight." "Bully!" John scolded, but we all laughed and laughed.

After the ballet and after I had hugged Miss Miyako and all the new friends I had made in the ballet programme and we all swapped emails and promised to write each other all year and maybe next year we'd all be back at the Royal Ballet! Hooray! I hope so, but even if I can't come back to be in next year's Christmas programme it is still a week to remember all my life. I pressed my last rose in the pages of my program and will put it in my scrapbook when I get home. John said that because it was our last night in London it was a very special night, and he took me 'n' Bully (and this big weird black rat that has been hanging around Bully!) out to Café des Amis for Knickerbocker Glory ice cream sundaes and mine had lit sparklers in it! And even when the rat ate my sparklers (while they were still lit) it was still a wonderful and magical evening (Bully says London'll do that to you!). We all caught the number 9 bus back to High Street Kensington and the hotel, and we climbed in the top of the big London bus and got to ride up front all the way home! Bully is right, London is at its prettiest and night and we laughed and talked and Bully told me how good I had been dancing and how proud he was of me, and that I was kinda cool. Which made me kind shy and giggly. It is nice when your older brother tells you that you are kinda cool.

It was quite the best night ever! Thank you...I mean, ta very much! to you, Bully for letting me use your blog to tell the Marshall-fans what I am up to, Bully!

Museum? I see-um! (Oh, what a terrible pun.)

It's raining this morning: just drizzling, a slow light steady rain like you get in London more often than a hard downpour. It's the first steady rain of my holiday so I rethink my plans for the day of doing a London Walk or strolling down Marylebone High Street. I've got an umbrella and plastic mackintosh, but It's no fun getting soaked if you're a little stuffed bull. You know what happens to leather in the rain. If you don't, go watch that Seinfeld episode again.

British LibraryInstead, I impulsively decide this will be Museum Day. There's several of 'em I want to visit (or re-visit), and that's always a happy way to spend a moist day. So I splash through the puddles to the Tube and hop on board the Circle Line train to King's Cross and then back out into the rain, but not for long: the British Library, which was once contained within the walls of the British Museum, is right next door to King's Cross and Euston Stations. They're putting on an exhibition of maps of London, which is about as dandy an idea that I can think of. I love maps! I love London! So this is like the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of exhibits, if'n you ask me: rich chocolate maps smeared with creamy salty London. It's an amazing exhibit and takes me over two hours to go through it because, as opposed to most museum exhibits, I actually stop and read all the tabs and look at all the maps. Truly amazing and educational...I was especially intrigued with the maps that distorted or hid true locations because they were created for a specific client and it wasn't politic to show certain details to that client. My favorite two maps are lightly represented: the London Underground Tube Map and Mrs. Pearsall's groundbreaking A-Z map. I realize the range they were going for here, but I wish they'd included more examples of these two maps that everyone is familiar with. I think one of the most appealing aspects of museums to many, many people is when they can recognize something they know or have had: it's why it's more interesting to go through the Museum of London in reverse chronological order, for example—we all know more about Tony Blair than we do Pitt the Even Younger. The British Library Museum Shop is brilliant though; a great mix of books and souvenirs, and if I didn't think I was already over my return luggage weight limits (and the strength of my little stuffed arms) I'd buy that big heavy coffee-table catalogue of the exhibition. I'm very tempted by one of a series of CD-ROMs that lets you examine each page of ancient or Renaissance manuscripts, especially one that reproduces the first printing of Shakespeare's sonnets. I flip over the CD case. £47.50?!? That's nearly a hundred bucks, and Mister Shakespeare isn't even seeing a penny of it. I gulp and put it back on the shelf and buy a souvenir pencil.

King's CrossIt's going to be an all Circle Line day, so it's back to King's Cross Station. I've been reading a wonderful collection of John Betjeman's BBC radio talks entitled Trains and Buttered Toast, and curmudgeonly but frequently on-target Betjeman writes of King's Cross: "A fine example of engineering and architecture in one. It is so hidden by huts and litter in front that no one notices." He wrote that in 1932, mentioning that it had been eighty years since King's Cross had been built, and now was the time for things to change. Well, it's almost another eighty years on and it looks just as Betjeman described it: hidden by scaffolding and cross-crossed by hoarding, the short block to the British Library as creepy and dodgy enough to rival the uneasy feeling I felt on Shoreditch High Street. Ruined or broken London gives me the creeps, and when I see a vandalized phone box with broken windows and the phone ripped out and gone, I shudder and move on towards the station a little more quickly.

Platform 9 3/4I move from dreary urban renewal to magic, because you can't visit King's Cross without walking into the BritRail Station and checking out the most famous railway platform since Ilsa left Rick in the rain: Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. As guide Alan told us on Christmas Eve's Harry Potter walking tour, J. K. Rowling actually had Euston Station in her head when she wrote the scene, but it says King's Cross in the book and here I am at King's Cross, so let's check it out! It's actually quite a long hike down most of the length of platform 8 before a spur of the station allows you to duck away towards platforms nine and up. And there it is, right before you actually reach the real platform nine. My cynical little aspects note that it's set far enough away from any working station traffic and is actually many many steps away from the real platforms, but the delighted magic-loving little stuffed bull giggles in excitement and poses for a photo beside the luggage trolley embedding halfway through the wall. (Brief moment of cynicism tells me that's to keep kids from ramming luggage trolleys into the wall itself, but it makes a dandy photo-op and indeed the place is crowded with flashing cameras.

If you're riding the Circle Line and pull into South Kensington Station, the pleasant recorded announcement voice of Miss Emma Clarke informs you to "alight here for the museums." Which museums? Which museums aren't here, you should be asking instead! South Ken is home to one of my fave museums, the Victoria and Albert, as well as the massive Science and Natural History Museums. I've been to the V&A many times but never the latter, so I stroll down the long, long subway tunnel that runs under Exhibition Row and pop out at the far end—it's still raining—to head into the Science Museum. The British Library was busy, but this is packed, and no surprise: it's school holiday week, and there's hundreds of kids everywhere. The Science Museum is currently running an exhibition and interactive display of the history of video games, but a little stuffed bull would get stomped on trying to get up to those! So I settle for wandering the massive ground floor, which seems to go on forever, with its huge long hall of space hardware (as Kirsty MacColl warned, don't wish on these instead of shooting stars), and massive hangar-sized collection of heavy machinery (including Stevenson's Rocket steam engine and planes and cars). I'm most interested in the history of technology display on the far walls, which feature the everyday objects British families from the Victorian Age through the 21st century would use. Not only are the objects themselves intriguing (true to my hypothesis about people liking to see what they know, the busiest display is the most recent), but there's a very interesting display twist to each case: each era is displayed using museum and science criteria of displaying objects that were used or popular at that time. It's a great social twist to just lumping stuff in glass cases and it gives me pause for thought and admiration for the creativity skill of a museum curator. I know I have enough problem just figuring out what photo to use to illustrate a blog entry. This one's easy, though: on the walls were original art from several science fiction comics of the time. I just was absolutely delighted by this one panel from a Dan Dare comic, which features quite possibly the most British comment you would ever make while stepping into a nuclear submarine:
Dan Dare

Victoria & AlbertThe Science Museum features four more floors of sciencey goodness, but I check out the gift shop, invest in a souvenir pencil, and slip across the road to my favorite room in any museum, anywhere: the Raphael Cartoons gallery in the Victoria and Albert. I said it last year and I'll say it again: it fills me with awe in a way no other single room can, aside from maybe the Batcave. You know that expression Cameron Frye gets in his eyes while looking at the Monet in the Art Institute of Chicago? That's the look I get in the Raphael room. The V&A's gift shop is always worth a visit, and they've extensively redesigned it since last year. Like the Science Museum gift shop, it's packed, so I squeeze into a queue and wait patiently to buy a lilac-colored V&A pencil.

Museum of BrandsBut by far the museum highlight of the day is a late afternoon visit to the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill. I've never been to this museum, but my golly, what an amazing time: case after case, display after display, of household goods, toys, magazines, food, tins, jars,'s like a great historical supermarket, and one of the best ways to utterly immerse yourself in a rich deep pool of British culture for an afternoon. The Museum is arranged chronologically, so you start with early pre-Victorian branded items and work your way up to the present (there's more and more in each section the further you get towards the present). But even when you reach 2006 there's still plenty to come: a vast collection of the evolution of packaging across the lines of certain products, plus a lot of discussion of design and practicality, and a bonus gallery at the end of women's magazines through the ages. This was truly a delight and although it's a bit off the beaten path (about a ten minute walk from Notting Hill Gate tube station), it's very much well worth it. There's no pencils in the gift shop, but that's the sole drawback to an amazing display. Two hooves up!

That ten-minute walk is easy and a pleasure, as well. You could walk down Portobello Road if you want (I wouldn't in the weekend; it'll take you more like an hour than ten minutes) or cut down side streets. On one of these streets I spotted another of those wonderful "I bet most people don't notice this" objects: a gate with an unusual design:
ABC gate

Do you spot what's so special about it? It might be easier in this photo than in real life; I took several photos until I was pleased that one of them showed off the gate's unique aspects clearly: The bars are made up of elongated letters of the alphabet: like those puzzles of extremely slim and tall lettering that makes you tilt the page to decipher them, I wander to lift up the gate and look at it at an angle. I was very chuffed in finding it, tickled pink by another one of those moments of discovery at seeing something I bet most tourists miss.

EDIT on 18 January 2007: Remember the day I saw the Alan Fletcher exhibition at the Design Museum? Well, synchronicity rules the universe, because it turns out that what I actually stumbled on here was Alan Fletcher's West London studio: he designed those gates! Apparently a sketch for them was featured at the Design Museum, and I completely missed it. You can see that sketch on this page on the Design Museum website, about halfway down on the left.

Pizza ExpressPortobello Road market was winding down as I strolled up it back towards the hotel. It's never as busy on a weekday as it is on a weekend, but there were still plenty of merchants out and about selling jewelry and trinkets. My mind's not on silver or gold, though, but on pizza! There's a Pizza Express at Notting Hill Gate, right on the path home to the hotel, and hooray! The Christmas pizza is still available. (It looks and tastes different from the Christmas pizza last year, so maybe they have changed the recipe or the Christmas pizza changes every year. It's a wonderful treat to end a day of multi-museums, especially when I'm allowed to have a big creamy slice of banoffee pie for afters. Banoffee pie! The pie choice of Keira Knightley! She does not bring me the big plate of pie, which is a pity, but any mild disappointment I have is lost when I start eating its rich banana and toffee layered goodness. It's quite a very good end to a very good day.

But wait! The day is not yet over, assures John, and he pays the bill quickly and we dart into the Tube Station, heading for Covent Garden. What's going on? Where are we going now? That's a very good question, and it's one that will be answered not by me but by my kid sister Marshall, all in the very next installment!

Beeb poo-poos Who to-do

Because it's come up in some other blogs, here's a bit of official obfuscation from the British Broadcasting Corporation, from today's Metro ("The free London paper you can leave behind to clutter up the Tube!"):
Doctor Who 'is not quitting': Doctor Who bosses have denied that star David Tennant is quitting the show—but said a new series featuring the Scot has not yet been ordered. Tennant, 35, returns for a third series in the spring but reports yesterday claimed it may be his last full series as the Time Lord. The BBC said: 'There is no fourth series currently commisioned, so we cannot confirm his involvement in that.'

Thursday, December 28, 2006

In Fortran tongue the Answer

The Daily Telegraph, one of the few non-tabloid-formatted newspapers in London, is notoriously right-wing (but I do like the Matt Pritchett cartoons on every front page). It's been accused of printing for a vastly old-fashioned audience, but I never realized how old fashioned until I spotted this advert in today's Telegraph...

...for a "portable word processor," special offer to Telegraph readers, only £159.95 (about $320). Portable word processor, my London arse...that's an electric typewriter.

I can see the thinking now as a dismayed office equipment company discovers cases and cases of forgotten electric typewriters in their warehouse: Unload the lot on Telegraph readers...they barely know how to use a calculator and think that a ballpoint pen is black magic.

The advert says
This is the perfect solution for anyone who works and studies from home, or who prefers their personal correspondence to have a professional edge...It is mains-operated and comes with a keyboard cover and integral carrying handle – all for just £159.95. Order today.
Next up for Daily Telegraph readers: a chance to buy an actual telegraph machine. Why muck about on the internet when with a few dots and dashes you can get your message across easily and quickly! And it runs on the mains!

I love that fact that England is light-years ahead of us in some technology (smartcards, cell phones, sandwich-making) yet there is obviously still a market for 1960s tech.

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.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Venice in London

One of the finest things about London, in this little stuffed opinion, is its geography. The streets wind and wander, the horizon rises to hills and drops to riverbanks, and the Circle Line is by no means circular. I have many favorite parts of London I enjoy visiting again and again, but like my on-again off-again 2006 New Year's resolution to buy a new comic I'd never read before, I find it's great joy to find a part of London I've never seen, to walk through unfamiliar streets of my favorite city in the world, or even discover how parts of London hook up together geographically, like a jigsaw puzzle you've been putting together without benefit of the cover picture. (Speaking of which, the only jigsaw puzzle I've ever been able to do this is a puzzle of the London Underground. A London-obsessed little stuffed bull, I am.)

Regent's CanalWith this in mind and clutching my much-studied London Walks brochure, I scott myself over to the Warwick Avenue tube stop, one stop into Zone 2 on the Bakerloo Line. More important, it's only one stop up from Paddington, just around the corner and less than a two minute walk from Gloucester Terrace, the first place I ever lived in London. And although I explored the area around Paddington and Bayswater extensively in those days, I've never walked along the Regent's Canal, so the London Walks Little Venice walking tour seemed an ideal morning excursion! I've been meaning to go on this walk for, oh, ages, and this was the perfect morning: cold but clear and crisp, no wind (and in fact the Regent's Canal was still as glass, so smooth that you could actually see the bottom six feet down), which the guide said with surprise never happens. As always, the London Walks guide was well-informed and entertaining, in this case Richard III, who walked with a sure stride and not the sideway lumping straddle that his humped namesake might suggest. (He's called Richard III because there are multiple Richards as tour guides at London Walks!) R3 guided us entertainly and genially throughout the posh and exotic Regent's Canal area, showing us the multimillion pound houses of the posh and well-off, everyone from Michael Bond (Paddington) to Joan Collins, Dave Stewart and even baby Angelica Huston. Richard was also remarkably well-informed on 20th century British comedy, showing us, among other places, the elegant former home of Griff Rhys Jones, star of Not the Nine O'Clock News and Alas Smith and Jones. This little stuffed bull thinks that a British comedy walk would be an excellent idea for London Walks, although I'm not ceretain if there's a place to center it around or indeed even if the general tourist foreign public would be interested in it. I'd pony up my six quid, though! On the tour, we also walked through the lovely and peaceful Regent's Canal and Little Venice area, the quiet (at least in the winter) tow-canal path running through the area all the way up to Camden (straight through Regent's Park Zoo). As usual, you learn a lot on walks like this: as with every London Walk they are keen on bringing the history of the area alive for you, including placing the area in historical context: it was built under the patronage of the Prince Regent, George IV. I tend to equate the Prince Regent in my head with Hugh Laurie in Blackadder the Third, so this helped me cement the real G4 in my beans-filled-head. It's also a great example of the idea that every name has a reason: it's not just sheer happenstance that it's called Regent's Canal, or Regent's Park, or Regent Street: all these were planned and built during the Regency period where the future George IV basically ran the country. Names have meaning and power, as Neil Gaiman would tell us; there's no better place to discover this than in London.

St. Mary'sMy favorite moment of the walking tour, however, took place not on the Canal but in the small but beautiful Greek-cross and cube-shaped Church of St. Mary Paddington Green, once the parish church of John Donne. As we sat in the pews Richard told us the history of the church (including an ill-advised attempt to fill in the crypts below with cement that led to intense building rot), and he finished up by reciting the lines from Donne's "For Whom The Bell Tolls":

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

And just as Richard finished reciting the poem, the church bells began ringing their chimes. A beautiful and sublime moment that really touched me.

Egg PizzaFrom Little Venice we zip on the Tube to Leicester Square (via the Bakerloo Line to the Piccadilly Line) to stand in the very-short queue at the half-price Tkts booth for the night's entertainment (overheard from the tourist in front of me: "Do you have tickets for Spamalot?") and then back towards Charing Cross Road. The wandering of the morning and early afternoon is making my tummy rumble and grumble, and I've got a craving for a piping-hot Pizza Express luncheon. I can't find the surely-close-by Pizza Express, though, so I settle for one of its ubiquitous chain clones, Pizza Piazza. It's not bad, but it's definitely a step below Pizza Express in variety (although Piazza does pride itself on its organic menu). I decide to go for the all-day breakfast experience and pick the Matinna pizza, topped with two fried eggs. It's messy and yummy, and it fills in all the spaces that were yelling for food, so I consider the meal a success even tho' I can't quite figure out why they won't let me leave them a tip on my American Express card. (Later I realize that the gratuity was already added in, but it baffled me at the time.) Suitably fortified, I set out again for Charing Cross Road, and twenty seconds later pass a Pizza Express.

Doctor Who action figuresMy next target is the comic book and SF multimedia superstore Forbidden Planet—I was thwarted yesterday in my attempt to visit the store when I got there and they were closed. (At 6 PM!) They're definitely open this afternoon, and I wander through the immense multi-story shop with my jaw agape clutching my wallet defensibly. It's about as far away from Gosh! as you can get and still be in the same industry in the same city: huge, sprawling, yet cramped and complicated at the same time. I remember the narrow and claustrophobic Forbidden Planet when it was based on Denmark Street, and you could easily fit six or seven of those inside this one. It's a far throw from the New York version of Forbidden Planet (which, I learn in a conversation with one of the clerks, isn't actually connected with this store at all anymore: it's a spin-off of Forbidden Planet International, which is a separate offshoot based in Scotland). There's cartons of comics and aisles of action figures and dumps of DVDs and buckets of books and towers of toys and other alliterative things that I could have spent pounds and pounds and pounds on if I wasn't trying to be smart with my money and not blow it all at once. In the end I settle for something I've been lookin' for: action figures of The Doctor and Rose. Rose comes with a spring-loaded K-9, which is a nice bonus and makes up for the fact that her action figure face doesn't do cute Billie Piper justice by any stretch of the imagination.

On my way back towards Charing Cross Road I duck into a shop I noticed yesterday on my trek to Forbidden Planet: what looks like another branch of the impossibly-difficult-to-find Magma on Earlham Street. Well, shucks. I chide myself when I saw it, if I'da known there was one just off Charing Cross Road instead of searching for the one in the maze of streets near Covent Garden I've have gone to this one instead. I step into this branch today and am surprised how identical it looks to the first one I was in a few days ago. Well, the smart or London-savvy among you may have figgered out what it took me another moment to realize: it was the exact same shop. I was on Earlham Street, which ends just on Shaftesbury Avenue right near Charing Cross Road. I smack my little stuffed forehead with a resounding thud and laugh at my own London discovery: that sometimes you are so intent on finding someplace in relation to a specific Tube station that you never realize it may be closer to someplace else you're familiar with. I fix the "new" location of Magma in my head and realize I've discovered yet another jigsaw puzzle piece in London: a place I knew but didn't know it "fit" another piece I was holding in my grubby little hoof. To stretch the jigsaw metaphor to a painful distance.

The New StatesmanPop-culture Wednesday is delightfully and appropriately capped by cashing in those half-price tickets we got in Leicester Square to see Rik Mayall in The New Statesman, a hilarious updating of his classic British comedy series broughrt up to the age of Tony Blair and Al-Qaeda. I've been a huge fan of Rik since (of course) The Young Ones, and he's definitely older and broader but still as howlingly-funny as he was in the eighties. The play concerns Mayall's amoral MP Alan B'Stard jockeying for political power during the final days of Tony Blair, duping everyone he comes into contact with including the scandalously stupid Condi Rice and an al Qaeda suicide bomber, finally tricking the CIA into bombing the BBC. It's all over-the-top and absolutely politically incorrect and yet you can't stop laughing like a loon through the whole thing. Mayall throws himself—physically, in some scenes—into his old familar role and yet he doesn't take hismelf too seriously: a few fluffs or unexpected stage mishaps led to hiliarious and well-received ad-libs by Mayall. In a way it reminds me a bit of Blackadder: absolutely despicably amoral man jockeying for power as he's surrounded by idiots. I larfed and larfed, and even if I didn't get every single contemporary British political joke reference, you could still laugh at the jokes even if you didn't know the context. Plus, chocolate fudge sticky toffee ice cream during the interval! You can't have a better night than that, and it's all capped off by taking the bus back to the hotel, which is always a lovely treat after a wonderful West End show.

I'm warm and cozy stuffed into my hotel bed tap-tap-tapping on my laptop and it's time to relax. I'll lie in bed, listening to Radio 4 for "Sailing By" to put me to sleep. G'night everybody...cheers from London!

This day under construction

Some of you may have noticed I'm running about a day behind on blogging. In an attempt to keep slightly current and not fall tremendously behind on my London blogging, I'm going to skip this absolutely wonderful day but only for the moment—I'll fill it in from my notebook when I get home, over New Year's. There's plenty to say about today: a lovely walk through the Regent's Canal area (right in the back yard of my old stomping grounds of Paddington, and yet I'd never stepped into it at all before today), a visit to Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue and a contemplation on the puzzle-piece nature of the London streets, a hilarious evening out at the theatre seeing Rik Mayall's new play, and the perfect capper to a busy and fun-filled day, a trip back to the hotel on the top decker of a London bus. All this and more I absolutely promise I'll fill in around the edges when I get home (including any day that's missing a "London Song of the Day,"), but for the moment

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

London Song of the Day: There were angels dining at the Ritz ("A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square")

A Nightgale Sang in Berkeley Square sheet musicOn my list of London songs, I have lots of favorites, but probably only one true obsession among them: the showtune standard "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." (It's pronounced "Barkley," by-the-by, not "Berkley.") How obsessed am I with this one song? Well, I've got a dedicated playlist (entitled, tongue-in-cheek, "That Bloody Nightingale") for thirty-one different versions of it on my iPod, and I've only just on this trip discovered a couple more I like (the John Le Mesurier "definitive" version and the smooth silky Ellis Marsalis cover) that I'll be adding to the collection. Why such a fondness for a pleasant little ditty that debuted in a forgotten 1940 West End show (New Faces)? After all, it's a song about falling in love...and what does a little stuffed bull know about love? (Aside from quite fancying nose-kisses from Keira Knightley.)

I think it's less likely that I love this song because it's a love song alone, more that it's a love song set in London, about the transformation that London has on people in love, and vice-versily, the transformation that people in love have on London:

That certain night, the night we met,
There was magic abroad in the air,
There were angels dining at the Ritz,
And a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.

Max GeldrayI first discovered "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" as a tune played by harmonicist Max Geldray on The Goon Show, curiously enough on an episode set in the American West. The Goon Show featured, as was customary in those days, musical numbers one-third and two-thirds of the way through the frenetic comedy action, partly out of following to the British music hall traditional of breaking of comedy acts with music, but mostly to give Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers time to dash backstage for a quick brandy-and-milk before they had to go on again. The Ray Ellington Quartet filled the second musical spot and Geldray the first, and it's a tribute to his skill that I've never felt the need to fast-forward through a musical number to get back to the comedy faster. Geldray's one of my favorite harmonicists of all time: Larry Adler may be better technically, but did Larry Adler ever play straight man to Neddie Seagoon and get to say "ploogee" all the time? No, he did not.. Geldray's version starts out slow and sweet and is butter-smooth all the way through; his playing was the inspiration for me wanting to learn to play the harmonica for many years. Never could, but every time I listen to him play, and this number especially, it still makes me wish I'd learned. Let's take a listen to Max Geldray, shall we?

I'm Sorry, I'll Read That AgainI next encountered "A Nightingale Sang" on that wonderful John Williams Echoes of London guitar album I told you about on my first day here in London, and like "London by Night" on that record, I still didn't realize that "Nightingale" has lyrics. My first inkling that this wonderful tune had words came from another classic BBC radio comedy: I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again (thank you NPR for broadcasting both these shows heavily when I was just a tiny stuffed bull in Clay, New York!). Sung by comedian and eventual bird-botherer Bill Oddie (lower right of the floating heads of the cast in the picture to the right), here's Oddie's very short but very funny parody of the tune.

Now I can spin the virtual touchwheel of my iPod and listen at whim to dozens of versions of this charmer of a tune, from the soulful Nat "King" Cole version, to Vera Lynn's very-British rendering, a growly re-invented Rod Stewart singing oldies version, the bouncy and festive New Vaudeville Band (they of "Winchester Cathedral") or even the music-hall inspired cover by Robson and Jerome. But force me into a corner and ply with tea and crumpets to get me to tell you my favorite version and I will hem and haw and mull over thirty-one flavors of wonderful but I'll probably tell you my favorite version is by Frank Chacksfield and His Orchestra. Like the first couple versions I encountered of "Nightingale," it's an instrumental, but what an instrumental: a full-fledged, all-out symphonic overture that paints a picture in my little stuffed head of London so dramatic and beautiful that it doesn't matter where I listen to the Chacksfield version playing: whether I'm on the F train in Manhattan or walking through a street in Brooklyn, it's always Berkeley Square to me. Chacksfield's version is to me, the overture to the greatest London movie never made, and of course this movie should be titled A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. There's already a movie by that name, of course, but it's a 1979 crime/heist thriller, and what I'm picturing is a WWII-era black-and-white romance with an American GI in London (Bing Crosby?) falling in love with a London girl (Vera Lynn?). Arthur Treacher's got to be in there somewhere, and Patricia Roc, and George Formby and "that man again" Tommy Handley, and while the whole darned world seems upside-down in the end the lovers are united as that pesky bird twitters away in the square. Wouldn't you go to see that? I sure would, 'specially if it featured Chacksfield's version of the song as the opening number, bursting into the theaters in glorious full resonance over the titles and shots of London by night. Chacksfield's "Nightingale" starts with that big fanfare, and then smoothly segues into the Westminster chimes (that's the bells of Big Ben to you and me), and a slight detour into the grand old song "London Pride" before the melody of "Nightingale" rises over the opening titles...oh, let's just take a listen to it right now, and you sit back and close your eyes and imagine that opening movie sequence along with me, won't you?

Did you see it in your head? Now tell me this: is that or is that not the best London movie you ever wanted to see in your life that has never been made?

The streets of town were paved with stars;
It was such a romantic affair.
And, as we kissed and said 'goodnight',
A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.

The second greatest thing I saw in London today

...a TARDIS that's just my size!

Police call box

The greatest street name in London, bar none

Knightrider Street

Pearls, sales, and grails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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