When you’re tired of London
This was written for my cycling blog, which is a great place to take it all in if you aren’t depending on your phone to make it friendly on the eyes, and you like bikes, even just a little. I’ve copied to Medium (not my first choice as the formatting options are limited) because when I pass away and my award-winning website
also goes dark, medium.com will likely soldier on. Eventually, in the far future, technologies may become available which enable me to be reconstituted from my vital work.
“By seeing London, I have seen as much of life as the world can shew,” said he, yewning then proclaiming himself tired and ready for bed. This being a true and faithful account of a life, I can attest that as a joke most practical I then had the great man’s bed transported by a team of trained pack mules to the less than salubrious environs of Croydon, the name deriving from the Anglo-Saxon, “croh”, meaning crotch, and “den”, meaning den, thus den of the crotch.
No sooner was furniture set down and mules took their own lead back to the city (reader, I was to lose my deposit when one of the silly beasts was devoured by a pack of feral piemongers along the way) whence the snoring did cease and Johnson awakened.
Secreting myself behind a nearby stump I was able to observe the following, which I now record for posterity: Proclaimed he, “Oh mother cleaved unto thyself! What manner of spirits did I imbibe the evening afore! This looks for all my life to be a hitherto unremarked upon circle of Hades.” My laughter was unable to be contained by my person, erupting most forcefully, whereupon he turned to me and, catching on immediately, so swift do those mighty cerebral gears turn, he observed tartly, [obscured by water stain]
–From an early draft of Life Of Johnson, by Boswell
I used to read a book on the train into London. Now I watch Netflix on my phone. Today it was Atypical, with its Sheldonesque but lovable protagonist. Modern entertainments bring us ever more characters serving as foils for normal human emotions. Did it get started with Spock? I haven’t made a study of it.
On the trip out we were provided with a conductor excessively happy in his work, his “relax and enjoy the journey” patter cribbed from airplane pilots, as if taking the 10.15 to Charing Cross weren’t epic enough.
“He’s cheerful,” said the woman standing across from me minding Rosemary’s baby in a pram, which makes her Rosemary for the purposes of this anecdote. I offered the usual smile of commiseration known to all train passengers in Britain, and that was the extent of our conversation, which she punctuated with rolling eyes.
The perky minion of the train company appeared, leaving a trail of Lovely, perfect, thank yous as he checked tickets. You know what would be lovely? Keeping the chat to a minimum, starting by cutting out redundancies like “next station stop” (adults are given to understand that trains will be passing some stations without stopping). These things add up.
Lest this mark me out as unreasonably grouchy, note that logorrhoea runs in the Southeastern family. There’s one gentleman who’s been tormenting captive audiences since he graduated from customer service charm school; I’ve seen people wincing in polite agony. When you’ve been suffering for years, you want your ticket to buy a measure of peace and quiet.
I checked for wifi to save my data allowance, sent and received texts and email, watched TV. I was, in short, plugged in as we sped through the garden of Kent. I wasn’t the only one:
The train pulled into Charing Cross, according to Wikipedia the notional centre of London,
and the fun began.
What can I say about cycling in the city that I haven’t already? First you must set aside any notion that it’s dangerous. Don’t get hit by anything or fall off and you’ll be fine. Then just go with the flow.
It beats any other mode of transport through that thick skein of streets hands down (or otherwise engaged. It cheered me to spot a talented multitexter on Oxford Street.) Not long ago I happened to take a taxi for perhaps the second time in over 20 years; my god it was painful, and not only the fare.
Grabbed lunch at the usual place and headed over Exhibition Road via Hyde Park, which is in preparations for the annual Christmas village. My TripAdvisor review would be to give it a miss. A modest and pleasant enough diversion when it started, it had the misfortune to grow like topsy, endlessly replicating the same craft and food stalls. Then security arrived on the perimeter to do their main job of spreading germs #HowardHughes. The good times were over.
I locked my bike outside the Science Museum.
Actually, as a result of my extensive research in the preparation of this post, ie, visiting their website, I learned that “folding bicycles can be left in our cloakroom on the lower ground floor for a small fee.” So there’s me and my caption told off.
Security wasn’t interested in my backpack and collection of Kirpans and balloons inside;
nor my illicit lunch. There are picnic areas, but who wants to use those when you can spice your food with the frisson of keeping a low profile in the diner. Plus they have freeze dried astronaut ice cream in the nearby gift shop, suitable for train journeys that enter a time warp.
I love the ‘Exploring Space’ hall, with its moon lander replica. Washington D.C. has the real thing (the one kept in the garage, that is) but has long been off limits to anybody with a fear of giant penises. Not that London doesn’t have its share of pokey things.
(Btw, when the 5’6” Apollo 12 mission commander Pete Conrad became the 3rd man to walk on the moon 49 years ago, he is recorded as saying “That may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”)
It wouldn’t surprise me if, like other galleries, the hall was due for a makeover to a jazzier experience with fewer objects of interest to dust.
Tickets to the sun were available:
Opting instead for The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution, free to the peasants, I had to put my camera away as no photography was permitted under penalty of being stuffed into a suitcase (yeah, I watch a lot of TV) and deposited outside the embassy.
Apparently Nicholas II was a bit of a card. On the questionnaire for the first census in 1897, as his occupation he wrote “owner of Russia.” Oh wait, he wasn’t kidding. His power was said to be regarded as “sacred, universal and complete.” Today he’d be contracting himself out as a Bond villain. Of course it didn’t end well for him or his family…
Sorry, wrong family. The paintings must’ve gotten mixed up at the studio. Tell me Nicholas isn’t a spitting image of his cousin George mark V. Thanks to famously fecund matchmaker Queen V, most of the ruling clans in Europe were playing spin the bottle with people they were related to — “Mind you don’t break it and cut yourself.”
The sciencey part came at the end of the exhibit. It concerned the sleuthing that was necessary to ascertain exactly WTF happened to the first couple and their children. I mean apart from the presumption that they were lined up against the original wall and shot. Apparently it took a hundred years to solve the mystery. [Spoiler: They were lined up against a wall and shot.]
As the Challenge of Materials gallery reminds us, we live in a material world. And I am a material boy. Titanium, preferably. Thus this frame with the busy background is an abomination:
Did not the good book commandeth us to refrain from mixing fibres? What then is this? Carbon fibre committing adultery with heavenly material? I mean it looks kind of nifty, but that’s no excuse.
Time to read the fine print: “The top and down tubes… are made from an aluminium alloy reinforced with particles of alumina.” Well that’s OK then. Alumina sounds awesome, even if my non peer reviewed brain tells me it’s just bits of aluminium, in which case why not use the whole element, am I right?
But I have little scientific training, relying upon experts to get on with fashioning our modern world and creature comforts.
I have no choice but to trust them. The lock protecting my bicycle outside, for example, is made of Kryptonite, which sits right next to latinum on the full unexpurgated periodic table. More awesomeness.
Perhaps if toddlers were tucked into bed with Nikola Telsa or Albert Einstein,
rather than bears that would eat their little faces off if suddenly gifted with the spark of life, global warming would be solved by now.
Man does not live by the sciences alone. Let there be art, courtesy the Victoria & Albert Museum across the street.
I came for the cast courts, which have been undergoing renovation for a while now and surely must be finished whether or not I’ve taken the trouble to read the museum’s blog.
If you don’t want to read that either, it falls to me to inform you that the trustees have changed their minds and sold the entire lot on ebay to an anonymous buyer said to be keen to decorate his garden with “something classier than gnomes.”
Not to worry, there’s an inexhaustible trove of non-plaster based art and design to appreciate. When you’re tired of the V&A, you’re tired of
exploring questions of identity, postcolonialism, gender, class and race. And Buddha Manero.
And richly gilded alterpieces depicting more mayhem than you can shake a stick at.
Not yet though. There’s still the Natural History Museum. Even flying visits are worthwhile when you can visit them often. Free museums are a beautiful thing. They’re the main reason I come into the city.
Want to see my idea of a nightmare?
No, not an attack of Pterosaurs spoiling an otherwise pleasant day out. Crowds. This means the Natural History Museum can be problematical. Because dinosaurs. Where there are dinos, there is an abundant supply of children, no longer used as a food source except in Kentucky.
I have nothing against kids per se. The issue is that you can fit more of them in a cubic metre. Herds of humanity present challenges to my equilibrium. The Science Museum can get crowded too, because astronauts!, but it’s bigger, or at least feels that way, with more avenues of escape.
Ironically, it’s people I’ve come to see.
Ah, the dawn of man, when three really was a crowd. We started out so short. Are we in the middle ages now, long-game wise? Will we all be 10 feet tall a million years hence? And have you ever seen better sculpted cheekbones?
Out freewheeling in the sun again I made the aquaintance of Achilles at Hyde Park Corner, caught frozen in time, guarding his genitals from outraged pre-Victorians.
There’s always slaloming on Serpentine Road.
I stopped at John Lewis, 5th floor electronics as per XY. Nothing much to report here except that they’ve launched Christmas a few floors down.
Spotted a lone wheel begging for a photo op.
One more attraction before calling it a day.
[ ] Madame Tussauds
[ ] Museum of Fasionistas
[ x ] National Portrait Gallery
That’s right, it’s the face place.
Which reminds me — time to play separated at birth:
Before leaving I came face to stern face with POTUS #1 [Secret Service codename: Chompers],
who also makes an appearance around the corner in front of the the Portrait Gallery’s big brother the National Gallery, gazing over the buskers in Trafalgar Square but pointedly ignoring the lofty Admiral Lord Nelson. Washington is leaning on what appears to be the multiple barrels of a Gatling gun.
This would’ve been handy against those redcoats, but is in fact a ‘fasces’; a collection of wooden rods which the Romans employed as a symbol of authority. Or so the cabbie so knowledgeable about Achille’s invulnerable-but-perversely-guarded bits told me as I was typing this.
Trafalgar Square is licenced by the Greater London Authority to hold 19,999 persons and as many Yodas as turn up for work.
The street that used to stand between the National Gallery and the hoards was pedestrianised in 2003, creating an even greater public space, unless you’re a museum director who’s not a fan of death-defying tuba players or Bob MacDylan.
As an aside, this premier cultural institution has first class toilet facilities; at least if you’re a guy and don’t have to stand in a queue, which for American tourists (silently aghast at the brazen use of the word ‘toilet’) is the fancy British word for ‘line’. My considered opinion is that the ladies’ room needs bouncers.
I am a connoisseur of public facilities,
rejoicing in self contained units architecturally designed for whatever sex may come. Hand drying facilities preferably to be genteel cloth roller towel endlessly dispensing honest absorbant material, with paper towels one notch down, and hand blowers a modern nightmare.
Back to Trafalgar Square, my last stop before the train back home. A visit here isn’t complete without a freelance surface tension specialist
an artistic keepsake
and a close encounter with one of Nelson’s pet lions.
Had Dr Johnson written of his own life, there are many particulars I feel he would have excluded, thinking them trifling matters, but they were no such thing; for it is the small parts that combine to make the whole man.
For example, we often visited the British Museum of an afternoon. I went to lose myself in the grandeur of history. My friend, betraying a mischievous juvenile streak, liked nothing better than to play hide and seek; a game in which he excelled. One time he hid so well I gave up and went home. He was later found by custodial staff in a pharoah’s sarcophagus, reading a monograph on bees knees.
It was on one such occasion that we stumbled together into a portal unremarked upon in the guide books.
“Pray, I shall hide and it will be incumbent on you to then find me,” he said in usual prelude. “The game is afoot!”
Endeavouring not to roll my eyes in reproach, which might earn me an acerbic lecture on the virtues of counting to 100, which I must confess I often skipped, I held him fast, searching in frantic haste for a diversion. As the fates would have it, we were standing on the thresh-hold of a voyage even more fantastic than Gulliver’s, though at first glance it did not look it.
“What ho, lay your eyes upon this curiosity!” I decried, indicating the object that was by chance in front of us.
“My dear Boswell, you surprise me,” said he. “That is nothing more than a garden variety packing crate. We have passed a thousand of them on our perambulations, holding all variety of goods. What, pray, sits inside of this one, that would be of interest to minds such as ours?”
What pray indeed. “You surprise me, sir,” I posited. “Have you forgotten where we are? Doubtless it contains an object as yet unseen by curator, let alone public. We shall be the first!” And with that I took ahold of a nearby iron and began prying it open, hoping it wasn’t full of biscuit for the tea room, noted for sourcing its provisions from antiquity.
His own curiosity now lit, Johnson also put his back into the work of opening the crate, which was quite a large specimen, standing on end. Presently we succeeded in our task.
Inside was a looking glass.
While not unhandsomely crafted, it was especially unlikely to hold the attention of the man standing panting beside me, convinced as he was his visage unremarkable in every aspect.
“Never has so much sweat been given in exchange for such paltry recompense,” said he, turning away with barely a glance.
“Wait!” said I. “You do not appear yourself.”
Mayhap thinking to humour me in a puny joke, he turned back again, and discovered for himself that I was not bearing false witness.
Mirrors do not commonly show us surprises at first glance, only yielding what the vain take to be calumny at closer inspection, for those too blind to see it in the faces of honest companions. What we beheld, however, was an entirely different animal to conceit, were that our nature.
For we were, in fact, presente with versions of ourselves: but decades younger! My own apple-cheeked doppelgänger even took a moment to wink back at me, as if this were the most pedestrian of occurances.
Was this a dream? “Pinch me,” I whispered hoarsely, to which he responded, “Pinch yourself, Sir!” Perhaps as a result of one of his innumerable tics, he pinched me anyway, though I am minded there was a compassion for my sanity behind it.
What happened next confounded reality as I had hitherto known it. Leaning forward as if to take hold of his own cheek, he tumbled over a loose buckle and fell into the glass! Without giving it a second thought, I all but dived in after him.
“While I am touched for your concern for my person,” said Johnson moments later, “it would better comfort me to have yours removed from atop it.”
We untangled from the untidy heap we had made upon the floor and were in the process of dusting ourselves and each other when an onlooker approached us in haste.
“What the fuck!” he ejaculated.
This drew from Johnson what to the uninitiated may have appeared to be mild reproach, but what I knew to be severest remonstrance delivered with uncommon forbearance: “If you mean to rebuke us, kindly inform us as to the particulars of your slander. For I know well the word, as I do all words fit or otherwise to have a definition attached to them, but know not why you would address us in this vexacious manner.”
The man stepped back as if considering this. “I don’t know about that,” he finally said. “But one minute I was taking a video of Darla and King Tut” — here motioning to a tattooed woman quite out of my experience of the female sex, and a statue of an Egyptian pharaoh bearing a label which anybody literate could see bore no relation to the remarkable appellation ‘Tut’ — “and suddenly you two fell out. There isn’t even a door or anything. This is definitely going on youtube.”
“Why are you dressed so funny?” offered she who I took to be Darla.
This was a very odd question indeed, coming as it did from a woman who looked as if she had just stepped out of a brothel. I opened my mouth to answer her, then closed it. All the while her companion was peering into a small shiny contraption with an apple on it and muttering excitedly to himself about “hits”.
I was about to open my mouth again, inviting comparison with a fish, when my friend offered an abrupt “Good day!”, took me by the arm, and marched the two of us out of the museum. “I have an inkling of the truth of our current situation,” said he, “but require more evidence.”
No sooner were we out on the street than we were nearly wiped from the face of the earth. A bright red carriage of Brobdingnagian proportions seemingly propelled by demons swept by. Where were all the horses? Had some equine plague struck even as we had entered that fateful crate?
Passers-by took little notice of us, so engaged were they in peering into their own contraptions. Truly these seem’d to be a portals as well, but too small to dive into, however hard one might try.
We must have then walked some distance, though I do not remember a single footfall.
It will take another book entire to describe the incredible sights. [Sadly, there is no record of such a book.]
“I see little value in belabouring the obvious,” Dr Johnson finally informed me. “We have travelled not in miles, but in time. I have read of such fantastical journeys, but had not thought to experience one myself.”
“Then your reading is wider than even I expected,” I told him. “Surely it is impossible outside of a satire?”
He shrugged his shoulders to spare me further blushes, though did suggest that Mr Swift was less imaginationist than copying scribe.
We passed a man on all fours painstakingly writing with chalk upon the pavement. Johnson gazed at him intently, his eyes alighting on the bucket filled with coins. Although he said nothing, I knew well that look: an aphorism was brewing.
We were approached by an urchin wearing footwear blinking peculiarly at the heel, as if lit by a candle; I supposed it utilised a power source generations advanced from the multiple plate capacitor invented by Dr Franklin. He bade us pause while his parents pointed one of the ubiquitous devices at the three of us, then handed me apparent recompense.
Eventually we found ourselves at my friend’s abode at Gough Square, from whence we had journeyed this selfsame morning.
Inside was not as we had left it, which was now to be expected. The keeper favoured the master of the house with a merry snort, yet still demanded we pay for entry. I handed over the urchin’s money.
How curious it was to see that habitation, once so brimming with fractious life, turned hushed shrine complete with tea towels for pilgrims.
While it is true Herculean mental labours deserving of quiet awe were once committed within, so to were petty squabbles without number, as he had filled the place with friends constantly at odds with one another.
Johnson gazed wistfully at his barricaded library, fingers twitching, and sighed in frustration. Even a veteran rambler exposed to the vistas of ‘time travel’ longs to be home amongst creature comforts.
In the garrett we came upon the very coat he was wearing.
As he reached out to touch it in wonderment, a spark flew up and we were immediately transported back to our proper time. I know not the science of it.
Too exhausted to be much astonished, we bade each other good night, our minds burdened with the day’s events. Before turning to retire I noticed a small square of yellow paper stuck to the wall above his desk. “It’s called a Post-It Note,” said he. “A packet of them somehow found its way into my pocket.” Peering more closely, I saw that he had scribbled the following:
Needless to say I haven’t read much Boswell.
Bonus scenes at the museum. It is important for my artistic or whatever integrity to inform you that the following images are from museum websites. A big part of the fun of this long-running series is that it captures things I saw with my own eyes. It was necessary to add this material because I had excess captions lying around.