Ever since I’ve become dependent upon public transport, I’ve become increasingly paranoid about bus and train times, and with good reason. It’s exacerbated in those cases where the cheapest advance tickets are two singles, tying me to specific trains there and back.
For my day in London, I needed to be at Stockport station for 8.43 am so, by my standards, it was cutting it exceedingly fine to arrive with only fifteen minutes to spare.
This trip has been planned for over a month, but a new, unforeseen dimension was added yesterday. I’m off to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington for the Otherworlds Exhibition, a collection of space photography from the last fifty years, prepared by Michael Benson. In keeping with my paranoia, I’d allowed very wide margins. My train was due at Euston at 10.43 am and my booking was for 12.30pm.
This was based in part on my assumption that South Kensington was South of the River, and therefore a lot of traveling would be involved. Of course it’s not (I have not been in that part of London previously) and the travel planners I consulted assured me the journey from Euston would take only 27 minutes, walking included, though their estimate of walking speed may be fractionally faster than my reality, making my arrival considerably premature.
But on Friday, I learned of a new exhibition, opening on March 19th, featuring the wonders of Smallfilms Ltd, the production company of those great geniuses, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, the creators of The Clangers and Bagpuss. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, next door to the Natural History Museum.
If only I’d booked an earlier slot at the Natural History Museum. The hour or so’s grace would hardly be enough for Postgate et al so I’d just go over after finishing with Otherworlds. There would be ample time, my return train not being until 6.00pm.
The journey was a breeze. After Stockport, there were only two stops before London, at Macclesfield and Stoke. I had a window seat reserved, with the aisle seat reserved from Stoke, so I dumped my bag on the spare seat for now, rather than have to dig into it between my feet. But Stoke came and went without anyone taking up the the seat, so I luxuriated in the space all the way.
I was on the right side of the carriage so, as we sped through North London, I craned my eyes left for the traditional sight of Wembley. I have never been to the New Wembley nor, frankly, can I foresee any chance of doing so, and like most older football fans I will always miss the Twin Towers. When it flashes by, it’s a shock to see it loom so close to the track. I don’t remember the Empire Stadium being that close.
I haven’t used the Tube since Mark Rustigini and I came down for the 1999 Cup Final. I’ve always loved it, since I first visited London in 1977, though it does have the effect of reducing the city to a series of disconnected circles, centring upon various stations. I want the Victoria Line to Green Park, changing to the Piccadilly Line for South Ken.
The queue for tickets is massive – the last time I used the Tube, they still had people behind grilles – and an all-day return is nearly a tenner, but when I get down to the platform, it’s like the late Seventies/early Eighties are back. At both stations, the train arrives within a minute of my hitting the platform, and the old lucky judgement is back as the doors open where I’m standing.
The only bugger is the walk from one line to another at Green Park, which takes miles of corridors.
There’s even a subway at South Kensington, so the first I see of London above ground is the Museum itself, a proud, noble and impressive building, opposite the French Consulate. This is where things get stupid.
There’s a queue towards the Museum gates, and an even longer one inside. As we approach the gates, we realise that there is a similar queue from the opposite direction. Thus far, the security guards have been alternating streams, but as I reach the gate they decide that it’s going to be one queue only, and it’s going to be the other one. We have to stride out to join the other end of it.
Once inside the gate, we snake in moebius-lines towards the bottom of the ramp curling up to the entrance. Only as I reach this, do I realise that there’s a whole other garden area beyond, round which we queue even further, just to get bac to here.
Being British, I queue placidly. It’s one of our great contributions to humanity, the orderly queue, everyone in their turn. That doesn’t mean that I don’t hate the vast majority of those in front of me, who are forever slow abut catching up gaps that appear before them, especially the young foreign couple, directly ahead, who are too busy talking selfies to notice that ten yards have opened up before them.
Smartphones have a lot to answer for.
It seems like my wasted period of grace before my booking has been very important after all. All told, it takes over fifty minutes to get from gate to entrance, a distance coverable in under two, even by me. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find queues to get in, but it wouldn’t have happened like this in Manchester.
The lady on the ticket desk takes it on trust that I am sixty and eligible for the concessionary rate (my first!). I ought to be offended: this is not meant to be a boast but most people tend to underestimate my age by up to a decade which, when I look at myself in a mirror, leaves me very worried about their judgement – or their eyesight!
I supposea large part of why I am here is down to Dan Dare, and his adventures across the other planets in our Solar System. That opened the door for me, the door to space, to strangeness, otherness, the unimaginable. This is the natural culmination, the actuality of what our planetary neighbours are, without the art and the imagination of Frank Hampson, Keith Watson and all the others.
Michael Benson has pieced these photographs together from hundreds of tiny pictures beamed across millions upon millions of miles, from rockets that have traversed our Solar System in a way that we yet are unable to do ourselves. They are photographs of things we haven’t seem, may never see ourselves in the flesh, but which the things we have built can reach and can send back.
I’m hit first by an incredible statistic: that the Sun alone comprises 99.86% of the mass of the Solar System. Earth, it’s fellow planets, dwarfs, moons, asteroids, comets, add up to the thinnest of statistical margins of error. Does that humble you? It humbles me.
We begin with the Earth and the Moon, but in the context of what the exhibition goes onto, these are oddly conventional. I can almost be blase about these sights, they are so close, so familiar, but for the rest of the exhibition, from picture to picture, all that goes through my head, endlessly, is, “Oh, wow! Oh, wow! Oh, wow!” and my mouth is almost permanently open in awe at what I’m seeing. These are the faces of the bodies that share our system, objects of our imagination, photographed from distances that are unimaginable in themselves but which, in context, are the equivalent of over-the-fence snaps of your neighbour’s back garden.
Curiously, it is not the beauty of Saturn, the Ringed Planet, our System’s jewel, nor even the remoteness of Pluto that nevertheless offers a blue sky, that affects me most, but rather Mars, the Red Planet, almost a cliche. This is because the photographs in this section are not just from space, but also come from the surface of the planet.
I remember a Saturday morning, in the late Nineties, sitting in front of the television in my lounge, watching the live broadcast of a camera on the planet Mars, looking at a landscape that, for all its dryness, its desert waste, looked achingly familiar. There was a blue sky, a daylight sky, an astonishment to someone who had grown up expecting planetary skies to show the night and the stars, and there were mountains, buttes and ridges that could be climbed, to look upon views beyond imagination.
I have the same feeling looking at these Martian landscapes, none more so than the one that shows the broad tracks of a Mars Rover. We have not been there, and maybe we won’t get there, who knows, we haven’t even been back to our own Moon in forty-four years, but we have set some kind of feet on the surface of another planet, and we have moved beyond imagination into reality.
That I, an eight year old boy at play in Dan Dare’s Universe, should have lived to see this! That it’s been done and in my lifetime. My heart is in my mouth and tears threaten. I want to take that eight year old boy by the hand and tell him that it will come true after all, it is all real, and he will see for himself, in a London Museum one day.
I try to explain something of that to the young woman in the shop. I’m buying the book of the Exhibition – how could I not buy the book? – and I’m talking of the sheer wonder of it. At this moment, I can’t think, and neither can she, of what humanity might do, or where it might go that seems impossible now but which will come about within her days, but I hope for her sake and her generation’s sake that there will be something to give her that same frisson one day, because everybody deserves to feel this. That I have lived to see…
From there, I cross over to the V&A Museum, fully prepared to move from the Sublime to the Gloriously Ridiculous, but that’s when I run into the second and bigger hitch of the day. I have not read the web-page well for the Bagpuss Exhibition is actually on at the V&A Museum of Childhood, and that is not in South Kensington, but rather in Bethnall Green. Even my fragmentary knowledge of London geography tells me that it’s a long way from where I am (indeed it is, we’re talking east London here, my son). Another expedition will be required, once I have saved up for the train tickets again.
So, with the unexpected bonus unexpectedly busted, I revert to plan A and head back to Oxford Circus. My luck with Tube trains still holds, in fact it improves. I barely have to wait fifteen seconds at both South Ken and Green Park for trains that open their doors before my nose, but once I ascend to ground level at Oxford Circus, the ticket-barrier retains my return ticket, even though I’m not at Euston.
I stroll east down Oxford Street, noting with mild regret the disappearance of landmarks like the old Virgin Megastore and the big, big HMV Shop, but what I notice most is that that near hour of queuing has done for my feet. My progress is increasingly slow and painful, turning into Charing Cross Road, so I take the load off them, all too temporarily, in the Montague Pike, where I down a pint and a beefburger, desultorily watching Wales extend a 7-0 lead over Italy to 27-0 at half-time, when I move on.
Having visited once within the last twelve months, I soon find Forbidden Planet, which is a little unjust considering how long I wandered around last year, after checking maps, but once again it’s noisy, cramped, crowded and holds nothing out of the ordinary that I can’t just as easily put my hands on back home.
So, with my feet having made their position non-negotiable, I slowly trudge back to Tottenham Court Road, where a single to Euston is even more bloody expensive. The escalator is steep and long, and I suffer from a brief but unwelcome bout of vertigo that I have to fight throughout the descent. My train luck runs out: I have to wait nearly ninety seconds for a train and I have to search for a door.
By the time I’m back at Euston, there is an hour and forty-five minutes before my train is due, which is ridiculous even by my standards. Last time I was here and waiting was after my last United Kingdom Comics Art Convention (1988? 1989?) when John Mottershead and I decided to blow off early on Sunday afternoon, and we bumped into Alan Moore on the concourse and went into some cheap, not-busy cafe and talked for over an hour until his train for Northampton was due to leave, but there don’t seem to be such places in 2016.
I ended up sitting on one of those metal benches for over an hour or so, way past when my bum started getting numb, and making a break for the train as soon as boarding was announced. I’m in coach C, which is about half way to Watford Junction, and I settle down with great delight. It’s another window seat, on the non-Wembley side of the carriage, and to my delight, no-one claims the supposedly-reserved aisle seat, so it’s a double space all the way back to Stockport, reading R A Lafferty’s magnificent Fourth Mansions (bought in a no-longer-existent back street Stockport bookshop over forty years ago) and listening to my mp3 player all the way.
If I were getting off at Manchester, I’d have had to wait half an hour for a 203. Getting off here, I only have to wait five minutes to catch the service from the other end. My feet feel better for the rest, but I get a bad bout of cramp in my left shin later on, and I know my calves will be killing me in the morning.
But it’s been a great day out and for all the expense, and the time of another journey to London, I’m not sorry to have to go back for Bagpuss. I could do with getting out more often. Maybe often enough to justify an Old Person’s Railcard? Gotta start taking advantage of my advanced years, haven’t I?