Visiting That London: Third Time Around

And Emily, all grown up...
And Emily, all grown up…

For the third time this year, I’ve been off to That London on a Museum trip. After nearly a decade without visiting Our Nation’s Capital, I seem to be visiting with a frequency unmatched since the glory days of the Eighties when, at the height of my fame in British Comics fandom, I was a regular at UKCAC (United Kingdom Comics Art Convention) and at the bi-monthly Westminster Comics Marts.

This third outing is to the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green where their long-running Smallfilms exhibition is nearing its end. Smallfilms, and I am shocked if you don’t already know this, was a two man film production company, comprising the late Oliver Postgate (absolute genius) and the still-with-us Peter Firmin (a different genius). For almost fifty years, Postgate and Firmin made animated films for children. They made some of the best children’s animated films ever made, creating characters that will still be treasured a hundred years from now. This is going to be a good day.

I’m not going to bore you with my paranoia about missing the train: I think you’ve got the message by now and nothing exceptional happened en route to the Railway Station.

Indeed, I have actually been organised enough to buy the tickets for my November visit to the Lakes this morning, before catching the train, getting the usual two singles at a very economic price so far in advance. This will mean at least an extra pint in the Ambleside Tavern when the rain comes down in the afternoon.

It’s a lovely, sunny, clear morning in the North West, clear enough that, as we pull out of Stockport Station, that I can see across the plains of South Lancashire to the tower blocks (!) of Warrington and the coastal hills north of Liverpool. Unfortunately, we’re not even near Macclesfield and grey clouds have drabbed the sky over, making it look like October.

I’m on the ‘outside’ of the carriage, a window seat facing west and travelling backwards. Opposite me is an attractive young woman, in her early forties, wearing a wedding ring. She has soft brown hair, worn in a pageboy style extending below her shoulders, and I would enjoy the sight of her so much more if she didn’t remind me so much of my sister!

By London, it’s actually raining, not that I’m above ground for a while yet. This is not a walking day, not when I’m traveling further east that I’ve (consciously) been before. I’m through the ticket section rather more rapidly than when I was off to South Kensington, and it was cheaper too. My old luck was in today: at all the stops there was a train within a minute, and I kept finding the door in front of me.

I’ve got to go a somewhat roundabout way, south on the Northern Line to Tottenham Court Road, then east on the Central Line to Bethnal Green. The change of lines at Tottenham Court Road required the usual wandering up and down corridors, stairs and escalators until I feel like I could fill-in for the Ancient Mariner if we were not quite so inland.

One station out of Tottenham Court Road, another brunette young lady sits down opposite me. She has dark brown hair with a jagged parting, and is wearing a print dress over dark tights, but it’s the smile on her face that picks her out, so wide and bright and brilliant, and I don’t know what’s happened to make her so happy, but it lifts the spirit to see it, and to know that this world still contains things that can make people look that happy.

At Bethnal Green, I get temporarily disoriented and start off in the wrong direction, until a helpful guy in Sainsbury’s points me back in my tracks, and the walk could hardly be shorter.

The V&A Museum of Childhood is a wide, open-plan space with galleries along both walls, and lots of space for kids to run around in excitement. The Smallfilms Exhibition is by no means obvious and when the man on Information directs me, it’s disappointingly small for something I’ve traveled so far to see.

But that’s entirely appropriate for two geniuses who expressed themselves in tiny ways, by tiny means and tiny things. Postgate and Firmin were brilliant miniaturists who operated on a farm, with a studio that was a converted pigsty, and created miniature worlds that we all of us would have walked into had we given a moment’s chance.

I’m old enough to remember Noggin the Nog, to be unable to even type the words without hearing Postgate’s wonderfully authoritative, dry, measured tones, the perfect Uncle reading you stories. I watched it avidly, booing the villain, Nogbad the Bad, and supporting Noggin’s friends: the bluff and not particularly bright Thor Nogson, the bird Graculous and the Ice Dragon.

Curiously, my memories of Ivor the Engine are very cloudy, and whilst I remember more of the stop-go outdoor puppetry of Pogle’s Wood, and Pippin and the excitable Tog, but that was more my sister’s thing, her age, six and a half years younger than me.

But the classics, the ones that are and will still be legends, are the Seventies’ series: The Clangers and Bagpuss. These I have to confess I came to from the wrong direction. I was a man, I spoke as a man and thought as a man, and I put away childish things. I came to both of these in an older adulthood, marveling from that more lofty perspective that both series’ were something brilliant, that they didn’t so much touch upon sheer creative brilliance as leave it in their wake.

Sometimes, when I talk to people I work with, people thirty years or more younger than me, they listen to me summarise concepts like these and they cannot imagine that the creators weren’t on drugs.

I’ve been guilty of that myself: I still find it difficult to accept that Teletubbies was the product of a totally straight mind, I mean, the Noo-noo, Tubby Custard, no it’s not possible. But what ran through Postgate and Firman’s veins was a streak of creative inspiration a mile wide, nothing more (nothing more, he says! Pfui!)

The Exhibition shows a great deal of Peter Firmin’s work, from the little cut-out figures that were moved by infinitessimal degrees across the long, flowing backgrounds that boom with life. There’s even a concept sketch that conjures a whole world to life and which remains as fresh to the eye as it did when Firmin dashed it off forty years ago.

There were a couple of machines to enable kids to make their own mini-movies, shuffling characters around on one of Firmin’s background, and there were scripts annotated by Postgate with the meticulously measured number of frames – shot one at a time – that each moment required. But we adults could look in astonishment at the actual equipment that Smallfilms used to achieve these miracles in shoestrings. If any of you had a Dad like mine, good with his hands, practical, with a workshop filled with tools that he not only knew the names of but what each was to be used for, you too would have looked at this gear and been unable to escape recognising the very ordinariness of it.

But oh, there were the puppets. Big, baggy, saggy, friendly old Bagpuss himself, the Bagpuss you see on screen, not some machine-made duplicate, surrounded by his friends and allies, waiting for a seven year old girl to sing to him and waken him from that overlong sleep again. Dear old fat, furry cat-puss, who you long to pick up and cuddle, especially if you’ve got a streak of sentimentality a mile wide, as, beneath this cynical exterior, I discover I possess.

If the Bagpuss gang look smaller in real life than you’d take them to be from the screen, then the Clangers were entirely the opposite. Not the Soup Dragon, or the Iron Chicken, but the Froglets and those amazing, absurd, pink-knitted, long-nosed whistling creatures look far bigger than in their adventures.

Everything is set out in an open-beamed little gallery meant to suggest the halls of the men of the Northlands where they sit by their great log fires. Small but impeccable, like the films.

(I had to fight long and hard with myself to leave without buying a Bagpuss doll).

Rather than shoot back to Central London, where the best thing on offer was another pointless and crowded descent into Forbidden Planet, I decided to explore Bethnal Green. There wasn’t much to see, especially along Cambridge Heath Road, but I slipped into a quiet, dark pub to get out of the rain and enjoyed a leisurely pint whilst watching the lunchtime football. Twenty minutes in, Swansea were leading Liverpool 1-0 and it stayed that way until half-time, when I left (but it ended 2-1to the scousers).

Bethnal Green Road was more like it. By now, I was looking for grub. There was a McDonalds and a KFC, and every kind of local hot food takeaway or eat-in that a man could wish for, except that is for the man who wants a take-the-weight-off, stuff-your-face pizza. Though I did find my goal in a takeaway in which I was the only non-Muslim, where it was only £1.50 for a 7″ with chicken and sweetcorn, and volcanically hot cheese that burns the roof of my mouth.

After that, it’s Central London or nothing. My return ticket to Euston has gotten too crumpled for the automatic barriers so from here on in I have to get the staff to let me in and out. I pay that pointless and crowded visit to Forbidden Planet after all, wandering casually around for longer than usual, though to the same crowded and pointless end. Those visits of decades ago…

By now, the loo is demanding my presence, so I pop into another quiet and dark establishment called The Angel, paying for my indulgence with a rather pleasant half of Sam Smith Organic 5% lager (with lime). It’s sunny and bright outside, Stockport’s early morning weather having caught me up. Time is being killed gently but there’s still two more hours before my train, not that I think I’ll go sunbathing in any parks this time.

I do pay an impulse visit to Foyles and I do impulsively buy a book. I’d marked it down as being of interest when it caused a stir in hardback, being about Hillsborough, the Premier League, Murdoch and everything that’s happened to football since, but it had slipped my mind until finding the paperback here.

But that’s the extent of it. A short tube ride north – no brown-haired females of any note this time – and I’m back at Euston with not that much more of an hour until my train leaves, which is impressive for me. I have with me Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell which I bought last summer in one of Tesco’s two-for-£7 deals, but which I have only ever read it on long train journeys. It will serve me for about 200 more pages of reading, until my hand starts to cramp up from holding the thickness of it.

It does rather put a crimp in my people-watching (Oh, alright, I admit, looking at females who catch my eye), though there is a minute or two whilst I observe a smallish woman with her back to me, staring up at the Departure Boards. She’s wearing a long-sleeved black top, tight back jeans over a well-curved pair of hips and has auburn hair curling gorgeously halfway to her waist, but I can’t see her face. Nor am I fated to: when she moves, it’s directly away from me, then she veers left across the concourse only for the patchy press to conceal her every time she even half-turns my way. C’est la vie.

A bout of angry railing at the self-service till in W H Smiths (abominations, abominations I say, and job-stealers) and it’s into the train. I have a reserved window seat traveling backwards into the night, the aisle seat of which is reserved from Crewe. My fellow traveller is a blonde, with hair pulled back, to starts to sit but then realises that neither of the seats on the other side of the table are occupied, so sits opposite me. I’m amused to see that she’s reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods but decide not to try to strike up a conversation based on our mutual appreciation of the novel.

And that’s it for this year at least. I have no Museum Trips planned for 2017 yet, but at least I know that it’s a perfectly feasible prospect for a day out, so we’ll see what comes along next year. A traveling companion would be nice too. I’d even put up with her falling asleep on my shoulder half the way back.