Visiting That London (Again)

I been there

Another Saturday morning, another Museum Trip to Our Nation’s Capital.

As you know by now, these trips are prime occasions for full-blown paranoia, especially when the affordability of tickets hinges upon singles on specific trains. As usual, I have planned with military precision: bag packed Friday night, directions carefully copied from the appropriate websites, cash in wallet, Journey Planner consulted. I have selected the 8.37 bus in the security of knowing that there are two later buses that can still get me to Stockport Station on time.

My paranoia is refuelled the moment I get to the end of my street because the 203 is just rounding the bend at the top of the hill to my right. Early, naturally.

Of course I set off running, though given the state of my knees it’s been a long time since that has resembled real running. I wave frantically to the driver that I want to catch his (actually, her) bus. This is the second time this week I’ve had to do this: the last time, the driver let me catch up to his taillights before pulling out.

This time, a young lad turns out of a side-street, sees me pounding towards him and runs back to the stop to tell the driver to wait. I have enough breath to thank him as I pass – always acknowledge a kind and decent act, especially from a stranger – and I make it.

The irony is that, once oxygen returns to my brain and I can think again, only then do I remember that, the way the Journey Planner is set up, that 8.37 isn’t the bus but rather the time I should leave my flat to walk to the stop…

Still, better to be incredibly early than even remotely late, especially when I stop into the newsagents for the paper, plus a bit of travel food and drink. The queue is not only long but it includes people who want to complicate things: the woman who wants to use her card to pay for £2.39  of sweets, the other one who wants to split three items into two purchases, one with a receipt for 65p.

Even with this, and the roundabout way I have to approach the station due to the never-ending relaying/refurbishment of the Station Approach, I’m still on Platform 2 by 9.00am, with one London train to pass through before my train arrives. Only then does that little knot of tension in my stomach dissolve.

The journey is completely uneventful. I travel backwards, sunk into my headphones, mp3 player rolling. I complete the Futoshiki, fail at the Crossword and immerse myself in a large chunk of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which I bought last year and which, to date, I have only opened once. I’m on the New Wembley side and yes, the thing looks a damned sight nearer than the old Stadium was (and I’m sorry, it will never ever be iconic). We’re into Euston almost ten minutes early, and I’m so far back on the train that I step out onto the platform in direct sunlight.

It’s a long walk just to get through the station, and I don’t need a fraction of it to tell that my right knee hasn’t come off well from my ‘sprint’ of nearly three hours ago. That’s a little worrying since, my Central London geography having started to reboot, I’ve planned to walk to the Cartoon Museum on Little Russell Street. Shouldn’t take more than half an hour, I estimated.

So plod on under a serious sun, taking my time. It’s the same route initially, that I followed about a year ago, when I had that brilliant day meeting friends from the internet forum I was on. A glorious long afternoon in a Fleet Street pub comes to mind, sadly not to be repeated because it’s the best part of six months since I last posted there.

It’s astonishing how quickly and irrevocably an environment can change. One new, determined poster with his own self-centred agenda, two existing voices with whom I have no sympathy taking on new prominence, and suddenly there’s nothing more to share. Nor has my disappearance been noticed, which kinda puts things into perspective (I know my place).

Committing the directions to paper has evidently had the effect of impressing them to memory: I have no need to consult them. Even ambling as casually as I have, half an hour proves to be a generous estimation so, before entering the Museum, I divert myself into The Plough, for it’s cool air, a rehydratory half – and the loo.

The Museum I’m visiting today is nothing so grand or established as the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, nor is the Exhibition so awe-inspiring as ‘Otherworlds’. It is, however, potentially more personal, being the History of the British Graphic Novel, parts of which I have lived at reasonably close range. It also cost £7 to enter, which is not a fact advertised on the website, but I’m well prepared and I pay and enter, with a joke about how, if I’m still interested in this stuff at 60, maybe I should qualify for the Child rate?

It’s a fascinating Exhibition, covering the pre-history of the form as far back as Hogarth, and the famous ‘Beer Lane’ and ‘Gin Alley’ series of prints. Nearer the present day, it’s got dozens of original pages, which is the true fascination. These are mainly black and white inked pages, but there are ample variations: preliminary sketches, thumbnail breakdowns, full colour pages and many of these in the form of clear overlays, superimposed over the artboard itself, enabling both layers to be seen.

What interests me most is what I’m most familiar with, the explosion of creativity that was the Eighties, when I was at my most involved in fandom. I have two pages of original art from that period, and for a very long time it used to be three until, in a time of financial straitedness, and with the film boosting interest to a peak, I sold my signed Watchmen page on eBay for over £5,000.00.

Of the two I retain, my Dave Sim Cerebus page is irrelevant today, but the David Lloyd V for Vendetta is directly on point. There are other original pages on display from that and Watchmen and I linger longest, studying these examples.

Nevertheless, I spend less time than I’d expected in the Exhibition, and that tailing  away is delicately saddening. Far too many of these originals are pages from stories that post-date my involvement in that world. I have no connection to this work. I haven’t read it and a lot of it is work I don’t even know exists. They’re a reminder of hos out of it I’ve become, how disconnected. Of how lacking in buzz I am.

So, back into the sunshine. It’s sweltering, and London is milling. The sunand the heat has sparked a profusion of short shorts, and short skirts, whilst many of the ankle-length skirts are floaty and filmy. Legs are oon happy, unconcerned display everywhere I glance, golden and getting there.

I amble amiably, my aesthetic appreciation index on overdrive.

Of course I drop into Forbidden Planet, though I really don’t know why. It’s still too cramped, too crowded, too full of things that I can easily get in Manchester or, more cheaply, through the internet. What it offers is a profusion of things I have no interest in, and not merely because I don’t want to cart them round London, or home on the train. It’s no longer treasure trove and it hasn’t been for decades, literally, but still the persistence of memory takes me back to when London trips were about all you could carry of things that never made it to the north-west, and not just comics.

My plan is to wander on to Leicester Square, where their website indicates there’s a Pizza Hut. Unfortunately, my bump of location flattens out once I leave Forbiddenn Planet, and I stroll down a bunch of streets whose names are familiar, but whose relationships to Leicester Square is a mystery. I do get there, eventually, butwhen I do the Pizza Hut turns out to be an Express, basically a take-away for which there’s a long queue.

Nevertheless, I passed a Pizza Hut coming down Southampton Row so, whilst I’d rather eat now than later (it being about 2.00pm, and having woken up just before 5.00am), I decide to start ambling back in that direction.

The sun remains high and the crowds thick. I happen upon Orbital Comics and head inside but it does more than remind me that I have very few interests in comics, whether present or past. There isn’t anything to buy that would be for more than the reason of buying something. Of course, there are compilations that can replace old comics, but these tend to be more expensive and you can no longer guarantee recouping anything off the original floppies on eBay.

I do make the serendipitous discovery of Freemason’s Hall, an impressive piece of architecture I wasn’t previously aware of. My paternal Grandfather was a Mason, which I only discovered after his death. When my mother downsized to a bungalow, after her emphysema made stairs unbearable, I made arrangements to have his Masonic Medal returned to the home lodge. I am not a Mason, and would never join. Mind you, no-one’s ever asked me to.

By now, I’m moving very slowly. This is not because of my feet, since I have on soft-soled trainers today, but my shoulderbag is starting to weigh heavy, pulling painfully at my left shoulder. I need to sit down, eat and drink, and get the bag put down. Getting to Pizza Hut is a great relief.

Suitably restored, I stroll across the road to the park at Russell Square. There’s nothing left to do but go for my train, and that’s still more than two hours distant. It strikes me, as I pass a certain shop, that there is still one thing I could buy that you can’t get outside London, and that’s a Souvenir of London, which is the last thing I want (though if you offered me the head of Cameron on a plate, I’m sure I could find a corner in my bag to cram it in.)

Despite the sun choosing that moment to duck behind the first substantial cloud of the day, I stretch myself out on the grass. This is a desperate thing to do, knowing what struggles will be necessary to get back to my feet again, but nevertheless I lie in the sun for an hour, soaking up the UV. I complete the Sudoku and the Killer Sudoku and even increase the number of answers in the Saturday Prize Crossword from two to seven.

But all things must end. With my shoulder much relieved, I toddle back to Euston. even now there’s still nearly an hour before the train leaves, so I pull on my headphones, pull out Jonathan Strange and keep to myself. The parade of shorts and skirts passes before me continually. For a time, my attention keeps flickering towards a teenage girl not far from me. She’s dressed in a curiously tight, curiously archaic mini-dress that is very much of the Sixties, and she’s a slightly odd shape, her legs, indeed her lower body being rather thicker than you’d imagine if you saw her only from the waist up, but the combination of the dress, her face and the style of her hair makes me feel as if I am looking at the cover of an Armada paperback of a lost Malcolm Saville ‘Lone Pine’ book.

I’m not so far down the train this time (it will stop for me exactly opposite the platform exit at Stockport) and I’ve got a window table-seat again, but I’m still traveling backwards, this time on the opposite side of the carriage. Again the journey’s as uneventful as you could wish, though as time goes on, I start to suffer from incipient cramping in lower joints of my fingers – holding a 1,000 plus page book for that long can do that to you.

We’re slightly early again at Stockport. Ironically, after my comments about the never-ending refurbishment of the Station Approach, it’s been finished today, whilst I’ve been away. The barriers are gone, the turnaround is open, it’s in use: well, waddaya know? There’s nothing to show if the Metrolink free bus has started coming round this way again, but I walk down to the Bus Station anyway, with the traditional cough and spit as I pass my place of employment.

Another day out. I’ve missed England racking up a massive score at Old Trafford, Joe Root scoring a double century, Pakistan losing four wickets cheaply. I’ve missed Sounds of the Sixties, but that’s what the i-Player is for. Half the weekend’s gone, half the time for routine is taken up, but I don’t get to go anywhere that often so, apart from the inevitable leg and knee-aches on Sunday, it’s been a treat.

And I still have one more Museum to visit this year. Come back this way in September, I’ll have another tale for you.

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