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.

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.

Life in another country

After a day like yesterday, much of which I spent riding the edge of my nerves, the reaction sets in today. I’ve done enough thinking for one week, I could do with a day off, to not think about things, to just mindlessly watch undemanding TV or listen to personally compiled CD collections.

I’m at work now, waiting for the start of my shift, when I will make myself available to listen to, and resolve, the problems of people whose telephone and/or broadband is not working correctly. Many of these people will be ordinary, decent folk, frustrated that things aren’t working correctly, understanding that I am there to help them, to the best of my ability, in the fastest physically possible fashion. Some of them are self-entitled gits, convinced that they are entitled to perfection in and around them in every way, and that the failure of their service is a personally directed breach of their human rights that you, personally, have organised with the intent of causing them harm.

It’s never easy dealing with this type of customer, but I have nearly forty years experience of talking to people unhappy about one thing or another, and I have long since learned to stay calm, to not mirror their aggression, to project empathy with their frustration, and to apply myself to what is needed to make their issue – and them – go away.

It’s not going to be any easier dealing with that kind of call today. I’m mentally drained, mentally less flexible than I normally am and have to be.

I’m still watching Person of Interest. The final episode is broadcast in America next Tuesday night, but I’m still working my way through the back half of season 3: episodes 15 and 16 this morning, fast-paced, tense stories, one a standalone that I found very effective but which was slagged off by the idiot who’s pulled the job of reviewing the series on, the other a thoroughly absorbing episode that tinkered with the mythology of the series: ninety-five percent an extended flashback that filled in a lot of background, and the final scene a contemporary tip towards the series’ future.

It’s ideal stuff for my state of mind: it’s not dumb, it’s not mindless. It requires attention to detail, it invites thought about where it might go, but the crucial difference is that I’m not blogging this, and I am watching it just for fun. I can devote my full attention to it without having to give screen-time to that part of me that is analysing what I’m seeing for the purpose of commenting upon it.

That’s the kind of stuff today demands. Things that make time pass without my really being aware of it, things that only demand my attention in the here and now, things that don’t require interaction.

I’m sat on my own, at the end of a row. Most of my colleagues are arsing around to one extent or another. The bay is being decorated with England favours in honour of the European Championships and the football will be on later on the overhead screens. Three games, but I have sat away, can only see the nearest screen at an acute, picture-invisible angle, whilst the next screen down is sufficiently distant that the reading glasses I wear for computer work won’t allow me to see what’s happening.

Later: I’m not as obsessive today about keeping up with the news. I have learned that, as a mark of respect, the Tories are not going to offer a candidate in the bye-election to find a successor to Jo Cox. On the one hand, I find their refusal to try to take advantage of situation both decent and human, not things I normally think about that party (though as the suggestion has come, publicly at least, from Grant Shapps, it should be examined for absolutely everything).

But I have to disagree. The bye-election should be contested. Jo Cox’s killer was afraid of democracy, of people having a choice. The biggest refutation of his evil is to give the people the choice he has denied them. Do everything we would have done if she had chosen to step down for personal reasons. Don’t let the bastards win, not by a single degree.

Later still: I’m functioning ok when I’m working but, as is only too often the case when I’m receiving inbound calls, there are long waits between calls into my speciality, and insufficient new things on the Internet to fill in time whilst I’m sitting there.

I came out early today to book train tickets to London for another visit in July. Stockport to Euston means booking at least four weeks in advance and booking separate singles. This has the disadvantage of tying you to specific trains, which means guessing at when I’m going to be ready to come home, but an all-day return is literally almost exactly twice as expensive.

But there was some sort of muddle at the booking office, when the woman told me that Saturday 23rd was actually Saturday 25th. And I had this horrible suspicion that the exhibition I’m visiting ends 24th July. Which, when I checked back at work, it did. So that meant Saturday 16 July instead (which in turn meant £5.00 extra on the fare.

Just in case the ticket office closed, I had my lunch half hour swapped 30 minutes earlier and went back to the station (the approach to which is currently being reconstructed at endless waste of time, making it hardly easy to reach). This time, a different lady tells me that Saturday 23 is a Saturday, so I can book the tickets I originally chose, for the original cheapest rate.

Go figure.

Evening: For one reason or another, it’s at least a month since I last worked past 7.00pm on a Friday evening. It’s quiet, I’m waiting again for incoming calls, and I’m counting the time down to 9.00pm and going home.

I still keep checking the news and my regular politics-oriented forum, though not with the same anxiety as yesterday. I’ve had a 1-2-1 Session over my current performance which, statistically, checks out better than I was expecting. On all but one of the touchstones, I’m way above the minimum standard demanded but I still couldn’t bring myself to self-assess my month’s performance as better than ‘Good’ (the higher options were ‘Great’ and ‘Outstanding’ and I’m sure ‘Great’ wouldn’t have been challenged), but I have had issues with self-belief all my life and these won’t let me award myself the higher accolade.

It goes back to the years after my Dad died. I speak far more often of him, or rather the massive hole that he represents, than I do of my mother. I was much older, in my mid-thirties, when she died, and I had issues with her about many things that went unresolved. One of these was the way she acted towards me in those difficult years of growing up without a father at the most important time to need one.

I was made to feel clumsy, and useless so many times and in so many ways, that I have never been able to take pride in something I have done. It doesn’t matter what it is, or what it represents, there is the automatic assumption that if I can do it, then whatever it is is of pretty minimal value in the first place.

The thing I’m most proud of in life – excluding certain personal relationships – is completing the Wainwrights. I am proud of that, genuinely proud, because I know of all the time and dedication that went into it, and because it is a genuine personal landmark that isn’t diminished by the fact that other people have achieved it.

I know that most people around me couldn’t do it, not physically, not mentally, that I have done things on the fells that would bring a touch of fear to the eyes of people around me. It’s the only thing I recognise as an achievement.

This has been a despatch from another country, the one into which we were all pitch-forked yesterday.

Kill Two Birds

I’m off to That London tomorrow for the day, on a cultural visit, to the Otherworlds exhibition at the natural History Museum in South Kensington. I first read about Otherworlds in the Guardian about six weeks ago, and have had everything planned out for ages: ticket booked, train tickets booked, details of how to get most easily from Euston Station to a part of London I’ve never visited before. It’s sorted, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Then I was glancing at the Guardian website again today, in a quiet moment at work, and discovered this. An exhibition of original puppets and materials from Smallfilms, the work of those geniuses Olive Postgate and Peter Firmin: The Clangers, Bagpuss, Pogles, a dream of an exhibition.

And it starts tomorrow.

At the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Which is next door to the Natural History Museum!

On a plate, or what? My cup runneth over, and trust me, you’ll hear about both of these when I get back.

Visiting That London

                                                                           A very pleasant London pub

I was in London the Saturday before last, meeting some Internet friends for a drink in a nice old pub on Fleet Street, a part of This Nation’s Capital I think I hadn’t previously seen. And I’ve not seen much of it now, seven and a half hours of talking and drinking passing in a subjective two to make up an experience I’ll gladly repeat any day.
Naturally, the day put me in mind of other experiences with the Great Wen, not least that, discounting an overnight stay in South-East London when attending my then-sister-in-Law’s re-marriage, this was the first time I’d been to London since Mark Rustigini and I drove down nice and bright and early for the 1999 FA Cup Final, the second leg of United’s incredible Treble.
Apart from a couple of occasions a very long time ago, when I stayed, all my visits to London have been like this: fleeting trips, a few hours spent mostly wandering around certain, pre-selected shops, back by train or car to spend the night in my own bed (mostly).
My first ever visit to That London was back in 1977, when I stayed a week, renting a room in a North London suburb handy for Arnos Grove Tube Station, which was itself handy (two stops) for Alexandra Palace. I had six three hour examinations to sit at Ally Pally, in three-and-a-half days, my Solicitor’ Part II Final Exams, for which I’d crammed, literally, at the Law College near Chester, over six months that began in the tinder dry Drought Summer and went through chokingly thick fog and deep snow into a rainy, post-Xmas January.
I passed the exams, all six, despite having doubts about two and being resigned to re-sitting Company and Partnership, but it was only once I escaped from the last of these, at Thursday lunchtime, that I could begin to explore what That London might be able to offer. A trip to a recommended bookshop, Compendium Books at Camden Town, a wander round its famed Market, and an evening at a suburban cinema where I started off watching a double bill comprising a Death Wish-style Charles Bronson thriller and some kind of Emmanuelle spin-off. I found the latter so boring that, after a quick toilet break, I ‘returned’ to the screen offering a re-showing of Blazing Saddles that was so much more fun.

                                                                                  Where I did my exams
All this was a prelude for Friday. I was off nice and early for Central London, emerging from the Tube – which I absolutely loved – at Tottenham Court Road to begin a long day’s wandering.
After hunting out the then premier Comics and SF shop, Dark They Were And Golden-Eyed, in Soho (where I scored a paperback of Roger Zelazny’s first novel, The Dream Master), I made my way down to Oxford Circus, browsing the many shops along the way. Was this before the big Virgin Megastore? I can’t remember, and if it was my budget was severely limited, and had to cover food and drink on the way.
From there I turned down Regent Street, detouring along the way to go through Carnaby Street, a pale shadow of its vanished Sixties glory but still full of clobber, ninety percent of which I would never have dreamed of wearing.
The bottom end of Regent Street led me into Piccadilly Circus, which I left by Haymarket, down to Pall Mall and into Trafalgar Square. Eros at the one, Nelson at the other, monuments I had heard of but not seen for myself. In one of these wide open, milling-with-tourists places I bought a cup of birdseed to feed the pigeons, but any thought of doing so under my own steam vanished when, with a precise choreography that would have gladdened Alfred Hitchcock’s heart, though perhaps not Tippi Hedren’s, several dozen pigeons descended en masse onto my right had, wrist and arm, all trying simultaneously to get their beaks into the cup.
The weight was incredible, and the chances of my gaining control over the birdseed non-existent, so I quickly gave up and turned my wrist enough to pour it on the flagstones, causing all the birds to abandon ship, except for one particularly dozy specimen who’s landed on my right shoulder, from where he had no chance, and who remained on that perch for several seconds, eyeing me superciliously until it became plain that I wasn’t going to hand-feed him, and took off. All rather a disappointment.

Been there, seen that

It was still only about midday so I strolled on, along The Strand (arousing memories of the old Music Hall song I’d had to sing once, at an Old Folk’s Evening put on my the Church Youth Group), thinking of putting myself around some food and drink shortly. For early February, it was dry, sunny, mild, and I wound up turning down Waterloo Street, as far as the Bridge, eating sandwiches, drinking coke, reading Zelazny a scene that came back to me every time I opened that book again, as I overlooked the river.
Replete, I descended to the Victoria Embankment and followed the Thames east, east for miles as far as Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, strolling along London. There was the HMS Victory, free to board and explore, tracing the bounds of a history then still within a plausible human lifetime: what struck me most was a digestive biscuit, uneaten, preserved: so old.
By the time I reached Tower Bridge, I was footsore. It was a couple of years since I had last been fellwalking in the Lakes, but London Streets, though basically level, were a different experience, and though I was young and fit, barely turned 21, I’d done a lot of walking and it was an easy decision to start to head back west, to parts of London that I ‘knew’. I’ve never been that far east in the City since.
Staying in London was an unusual thing. I had been glad to see as much as I had, but I had no desire to live in the Smoke. There was the accent, for one thing, and for another the arrogance that attached to London, as the Capitol. I was already too deep a Northerner to ever accept London as more than a place to go to and come back from.
Future visits were invariably briefer. There were a handful of times when, during my Articles in Nottingham, I was sent to deliver things in London: serve papers on a Company’s Registered Offices, at their Solicitors, deliver a Brief to London Chambers, even a letter to the Land Registry at Worthing, way down on the South Coast, which allowed me time on the way back to indulge myself in London shops.
That was what London meant to me then. Whether I was on a float from Nottingham, or down from Manchester for a Westminster Mart, or even Cup Final mornings when an early start gave me a few hours in and around Oxford Street, London was Opportunity. Not to go to the great scenic places – I have never seen Buckingham Palace, and have no intention of ever doing so, vive la republique! – though I have passed outside the British Museum.
Though my London adventures weren’t entirely deprived of landmarks. In the late August of 1983, one of the partners and I travelled down to London to participate in the firm’s annual Staff vs Partners Cricket Match. We disembarked at Euston, and the first priority was a quick lunchtime pint. So we marched west along Euston Road before crossing and turning left into this side street, at the end of which was a splendid pub, with thirsty customers spilling out onto benches and tables outside.

                                                                                    Goonery brewed here
To my wondering eyes, I had struck gold. This was the Grafton Arms, and it’s a legendary place in British Comedy History. It was a haunt of ex-servicemen, in the years after the war, struggling comics of all kind, out to get their feet on the rungs, attracted by Landlord Jimmy Grafton, scripter and Agent, with contacts in BBC Radio.
Here, behind the bar, and sleeping in the attic, worked Terrence Milligan: Spike, the great Spike Milligan. Here, impromptu, private, uproarious lock-in performances took place, comedians entertaining comedians. Here a group of four coalesced into a common purpose: Spike Milligan, Michael Bentine, Peter Sellars, Harry Secombe.
Here, The Goon Show was born, and here I was, inadvertently brought to the one pub in London that, above all others, I’d have wanted to visit.
It was even better than taking a wicket and scoring a boundary in the game.
No, in those days, London was the place where you could find treasures undiscoverable in Manchester (and even less so in Nottingham). I speak of bookshops, with a wider range of stock, or record shops with a much wider range of stock, of comics shops that had things that you might hear about in The Comics Journal but never see at our version of the Virgin shop, or the big Market Street HMV. The only problem was twofold: budget and carriage. I could never afford as much as my eyes took in, and on foot through the streets, and even on the long train home, I was limited by what I could carry.
But though it was a great place to pick up those things I couldn’t find at home, I never went to London solely to shop. Even in those days, the train fare was expensive. Sometimes my job might take me there, but more often it was trips to see people I knew in Comics Fandom, at Westminster, to which I would attach Oxford Street runs or, in the Nineties, Cup Final Saturdays. I even went down there twice with my first long-term lady friend, the second time from High Wycombe, where she and I had been invited to house-sit her brother’s home whilst they were away over Easter Weekend.
Apart from overnights at the annual UKCAC (United Kingdom Comics Art Convention), the only other time I stayed in London was in 1986, when I spent a month providing relief for my firm’s London Office.
Things were quiet in Manchester, so much so that I would be one of two Solicitors made redundant in December. One of London’s Articled Clerks had qualified and was leaving, but his replacement couldn’t start for four weeks. So, just as London had helped us a few years earlier by seconding someone to replace our lovely lady litigator when she abruptly left, I was seconded down there, to hold the fort and run down the work to leave the new guy a clean sheet.
I had an initial three day spell, Wednesday to Friday, being shown the files by the guy who was leaving, then four weeks to clear it all. For accommodation, I was living over the job, literally. The offices maintained a flat, on the fifth floor, that was usually used by partners staying overnight after a visit to the Theatre or the Opera, but in which I would live, Monday to Friday.
For my trip to London, Manchester Office bought me a First Class Return – which was hellishly crowded on the Wednesday morning down, during which I saw Cyril Smith forcing his way down the train, but beautifully peaceful, quiet and sunny on the last Friday afternoon home. In between, London Office paid for Second Class Returns to get me back to Manchester for weekends.
It was a very useful experience. I loved the fact that I could get out of bed at 9.00am, eat breakfast, shave, shower, dress and go for my morning paper and be on time to start work at 9.30am. And in the evening, I could pack up at 5.30pm and be ‘home’ for 5.35pm – longer if I took the slow, dark lift.
Basically, I knew no-one, though everyone was very nice, especially the secretaries, and that continued even after they discovered that I didn’t have a TV back in the flat, which meant that they couldn’t keep sneaking off to view the Royal Wedding between Andrew and Fergie (in which I had no interest other than the frustration of my desire to wander up and down the corridors shouting ‘Vive la Republique!’, which I could have gotten away with). There were more than a couple of the secretaries who would have been welcome to sneak up there to not watch TV, and I’m not necessarily talking about the younger ones, either, but I was too shy to offer that kind of hospitality, even in thinly-disguised jest.

                                                                          No. Thank you.
There were quite a few London-based comics fans with whom I met up for drinks, and I got invited to a meal one night, so far out into North London that the Tube had gone overground for the last few stops, and my month overlapped the Saturday of the Lord’s Test against New Zealand, for which I had a ticket organised through London Office since the Spring.
So I dumped my luggage at Euston, early on, and walked a long and tedious hot walk through Regent’s Park to Lords, (which I would visit with Lancashire for the first time only a handful of weeks later, losing the NatWest Trophy Final). It was the day Bob Taylor came out of retirement to fill in for England’s injured wicket-keeper until his agreed-upon replacement could reach Headquarters.
I had to leave early (Phil Edmonds took an unnecessarily spectacular catch whilst I was walking round the back of the Nursery End) to catch the Tube back to Euston in time to catch the last train home. Of course, I could have simply stayed in London all weekend, but among the amenities the flat did not have was a washing machine. So my mother had to hastily turn my washing round to get me back to London, Monday morning, freshly laundered.
The work was not a problem. I was amused to discover that, simply be being in London, I was worth nearly twice as much to my firm in terms of hourly rate, and over half as much again as Manchester partners. And by the nature of my role, the work got lighter and lighter, as I cleared and closed cases until, in my final week, I had only three files left to occupy my time, not one of which I could take over the line before I finished.
Despite that, one of my clients, a Chef at the Connaught Rooms, called in on my final afternoon to present me with a bottle of champagne as a thank you gift. (I saved it to the day of my sister’s wedding, the following May).
What I found best about that strange month was that, after work, after a bite to eat, I could walk up West, to Oxford Street, and find the whole thing a slightly more civilised bustle. The shops didn’t shut until 8.00pm, an innovation that I loved. In Manchester, only Waterstones stayed open that late, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when I was down at the Crown and Anchor, I’d go out an hour early just to spend an hour in the atmosphere of books.
In my last week, I went out on the Thursday night, for a last wander up west. I wound up in the Virgin Megastore, browsing around. This was my last year of vinyl: out of my redundancy monies, unneeded as I got a job inside six weeks, I bought a new hi-fi system, with my first CD player. Something made me look under R, and I discovered a brand new, unheralded, unsuspected REM album (Lifes Rich Pageant), which I grabbed despite being 24 hours, and 270 miles from a record player.
Such things no longer happen. The last surprise capture I enjoyed was Cup Final Day 1996, the Double Double day. I was in the big HMV on Oxford Street and decided to check out the Ps, in case by some miracle the legendary unreleased Pavlov’s Dog Third album had been released on CD, and I discovered that the band had reformed and recorded a fourth album.

                                                          This one. Not the one with the stupid arch.
London no longer produces magic in that sense. Once upon a time, I went into Dark They Were And Golden-Eyed and discovered that they had X-Men comics on import: on import! That put them three months ahead of those of us who still bought them off newstands, brought over by sea. I came out with issues 118-120 when, in Nottingham, I was still waiting for 117.
Of course, the downside was that I now had to wait three months for the story conclusion in 121, which slipped through the net and never made it to any of my Nottingham sources, so I couldn’t pick things up again until 122.
But all the comics are imported now. Leave aside Amazon, and it’s still been a long time since there’s been any major discrepancy between what’s available in London and what I can get here at home. And time, finance, space and interest have narrowed my obsessions down until there are not the things being produced that I want to try.
That didn’t stop me deciding to enjoy a mini-version of my old wanderings the Saturday before last. Or, at least, planning something like that. But I came out of Euston with two hours to kill before the pub rendezvous, and it was a hot, sunny day, so I walked down Woburn Place and Southampton Row, looking for the turn into New Oxford Street, to enable me to locate Tottenham Court Road tube station, and orient myself to find Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue.
But foolish and provincial me was not competent to deal with metropolitan sophistication and not putting street names on corners, you know, where you might want to turn into the one you’re looking for, not to mention putting such names on maps and then not having the streets appear where the map says it is.
So I wound up all the way down the bottom of Kingsway, turning onto Aldwych and finding Drury Lane, and wandering about at High Holborn until by sheer luck I found the shop I wanted, and I wandered it and found no magical, must-buy surprises.
Nor were there any in Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road, where a Gay Pride March was gearing up, so I decided to head towards Fleet Street and did so along High Holborn, intending to turn down Chancery Lane, except that, you guessed it, the street sign was non-existent and I ended up on Fetter Lane instead, and sitting in the sun for ten minutes, dehydrating even more, because after all that I was still early.
Then a great time was had by all and I took a taxi back to Euston rather than accentuate my paranoia about times any more and came home to Manchester.
Visiting That London’s no big deal anymore. Unless you’re meeting up with friends who, poor things, live down there. As only one out of all of us did, actually…