Saturday, 11 May 2013

Another London Saturday - 16 February 2013

Source: MJA Smith

After a slow start to the day, we jumped in our car and drove down the M1 to Stanmore to pick up the Jubilee Line - one of the few lines actually running that day - to head into London. Mrs S's parents always used to use Stanmore and the Jubilee Line to get into London when she was a little girl, and so it's become our chosen means of getting into the West End on a weekend as well. Considering that most days of the week I catch a train from Bletchley into London, driving on the motorway and then using the Jubilee Line seems a bit odd to me, but equally Mrs S and I have had so many weekends, admittedly before the kids were born, where the trains from Euston were replaced by buses that seemed to take an interminable time to get home that driving and then taking the Jubilee Line doesn't seem that ridiculous after all.

As is more or less customary, we took the train to Baker Street. Daughter 1 (six) spent the entire journey reading a book from our local village library and Daughter 2 (four) sat next to me chatting away, fidgeting, trying to figure out where we were on the Tube map and generally getting excited about a trip to London. A few years ago she was intimidated by the Tube, hoping that every stop we reached was the one we'd be getting off at and getting a little freaked out after Finchley Road when the line goes underground, but perseverance and conditioning has paid off and she's fine now. Daughter 1 associates the Tube with reading, having read her first book all by herself on the way back one Sunday when she was four. The book was The Tiger Who Came To Tea, bought at Daunt on Marylebone High Street. A couple of years later and she's now reading lengthy classic novels. I'm both proud and more than a little horrified by her reading age.

At Baker Street we dodged the hordes of people queuing and making a nuisance of themselves on the pavement outside Madame Tussaud, not for the first time wondering what the appeal of that place is. Over Baker Street and through the parish church onto Marylebone High Street, stopping briefly at a market stall in the churchyard so that the girls could sample some very reasonably-priced macaroons that a pleasant young lady offered them. I regret not rewarding her generosity with a purchase but I'm sure she'll be there again.

We've been coming to Marylebone now for a few years. If I could live anywhere in London it would probably be here, and I really like the fact that on any given day you hear a curious number of American voices. It's like there's a book somewhere in the States that says any hedge fund manager, executive or well-heeled director should make a beeline for property in Marylebone if they find themselves needing to transfer to London for an extended period. People say Marylebone is like a village, and I guess it is in the sense that there's a distinct feeling of community that feels totally different from, say, vapid, commercial, gaudy Oxford Street only a few hundred metres away; perhaps it's a village in the same way that New York's West and East villages are villages, i.e. really expensive, still trendy but a long way from the small communities they once were.

In these more straitened times, we eschewed our normal browsing in the Conran Shop but Mrs S couldn't avoid nipping into Cath Kidston to top-up on mugs, presents and other stuff that I turned a blind eye to. While she was nattering to a member of staff, the girls and I played a game with the wall of loose buttons that they have downstairs, each of us asking to find a particular button based on briefly mentioning its attributes in vague details. An example: 'Who can find me a blue button shaped like a triangle?' Seeing buttons arranged like that reminds me of trips to a haberdashers called Fred Winter in Stratford-upon-Avon with my mother as a child; trips to town with her invariably involved a trip to either that shop or another one to buy wool, buttons or a pattern. The girls and I have played this game once before, and I think that it's one of the few things that could well hold their attention for a whole day.

From Cath Kidston, down Marylebone High Street to Daunt. Daunt is an independent bookshop that I've written about before. Its principal attraction today was the tiny wooden stools at the back of the ground floor's childrens' department, the girls both pulling books from the shelves, grabbing a stool and reading (in Daughter 1's case, quickly and silently; in Daughter 2's case, quickly, loudly and whilst making up her own story in spite of being able to read a lot of the words herself). Daughter 2 seemed to struggle with the concept that because we'd entered a bookshop from which we'd bought books previously that didn't mean that we would automatically be buying her a book today. The classic 'It's a week until your birthday,' line did little to assuage her, and so we left quicker than we wanted, one very disappointed little girl in tow. I briefly gazed in the window of Oxfam, knowing that at the back of the store is a really good selection of vinyl records; it took all my reserves of willpower not to fly in there to thumb through the racks.

From Marylebone High Street to Charing Cross Road, past swanky houses, offices, embassies and the various medical and therapy practices clustered around Harley Street, Daughter 2 and I counting cabs and disagreeing over whether the game should include the new Mercedes taxis or just classic cabs, catching glimpses of the BT tower and reminiscing about the time we saw James McAvoy filming a scene for a film that turned out to be Danny Boyle's Trance one Saturday afternoon on Harley Street. On Great Portland Street we looked in the window of Villandry, making a commitment that next time we spent the day in London we should either visit there, or somewhere else, and avoid the habitual trip to Giraffe. Passing through Soho Square we remembered walking through there in the summer, people sunbathing and relaxing next to a mix of old and modern statues that Daughter 2 found hilarious. On this particular Saturday someone chanting a very half-hearted 'Hare Krishna' made Daughter 1 furrow her brow and whisper 'What's she doing?' with teenage-esque disdain.

We reached Charing Cross Road via Manette Street, passing the unusual sight of a golden forearm jutting from above a doorway next to Foyles's side entrance which we all found funny to see, though the naturally inquisitive part of me wanted to know exactly what it was doing there (turns out it's the entrance to Goldbeaters' Hall). Mrs S and Daughter 1 being way too early for the matinee of Midnight Tango we'd arranged the day in London around, we ducked into Foyles and let the kids read books while we passed the time. Never mind that they'd done exactly the same in Daunt no more than two hours before; they approached it with precisely the same amount of zeal, and not for the first time did I hope that their enthusiasm for reading will continue beyond childhood.

Doors at the Phoenix Theatre, a beautiful but cosy theatre whose main entrance is tucked away on Flitcroft Street, opened at around 2.30, and so Daughter 2 and I said our farewells and set off for own afternoon of excitement in the capital. The idea had been to take her to the Transport Museum in Covent Garden, but having finally got into the main piazza after battling through the throng of tourists trying to squeeze into the Tube station on the corner of Long Acre - despite ample signs recommending walking the short distance to Leicester Square instead - and the crowds of people watching the gold-painted human statues, we discovered a queue outside the Transport Museum that easily consisted of fifty people. I'd wanted to take Daughter 2 to see the exhibition of posters marking the 150th anniversary of the Underground that had opened the day before, but I hadn't reckoned on its popularity being so great, and neither had I considered that it was the first day of half term for a lot of kids. Though I was a little deflated, Daughter 2 managed to maintain a cheery disposition in spite of the disappointment and showed that kids actually don't need that much entertainment after all when she said 'All I really want to do is go for a muffin at Starbucks, daddy.'

At The Strand we passed a Starbucks but it was too busy, queues up to the door and a solitary seat outside that was hardly appealing on a cold day, and before we knew it we were crossing Waterloo Bridge, the idea having formed in my mind to take her to the South Bank where cafes are generally less busy, where there's a bit more breathing space and where the possibility of a free visit to Tate Modern would make up for the museum trip I'd promised her.

The South Bank generally has a vibrancy and buzz that means it's more or less impossible not to see something interesting, quirky or downright daft as you walk along. That Saturday afternoon it took the form of a beach on the foreshore of the Thames, complete with a sand-sculpted sofa upon which two guys were playing guitars, bongos and singing for coins - and a guy in formal tails 'playing' a tuba to a CD while blowing flames out of the top of his instrument. Daughter 2 found that alternately hilarious and a little freaky. We stopped for the muffin she wanted at the Oxo Tower branch of EAT, covered her little face in plenty of chocolate while I sipped a latte and finally offered me the half she decided she couldn't quite manage.

Heading back onto the South Bank we got caught in the inevitable throng of people bottlenecking their way through the tunnel at Blackfriars Bridge. Blackfriars has been undergoing a major overhaul since I don't know when and now represents a fusion of the very old - the infrastructure of the bridge itself - and the modern, with the entire span of the railway bridge covered in fan-like solar panels, simultaneously providing Blackfriars station with a decent amount of its annual power requirement as well as providing passengers on the platform with some relief from the elements. In the tunnel, Daughter 2 danced to a South American band that was jamming out songs on really basic equipment, raising a smile from the drummer. Out of the main tunnel, she was fascinated by the wooden slats under the bridge and also the remains of an older bridge just to the west of the present Blackfriars Bridge. It's moments like this when constantly pointing out things that you personally find interesting feels suddenly worthwhile.

Source: MJA Smith

At Tate Modern I was hoping to see Kraftwerk's equipment being tidied away following their concerts earlier in the week. I have a habit of arriving at modern art museums just after they've played. I visited MoMA in New York immediately after they'd played in 2012, and the crew were still packing their set away when we were in the museum. Alas, this time there was no trace whatsoever in the Turbine Hall. We headed up to the Surrealistic exhibit up on the second floor and Daughter 2 spent the time seeing what was in the various pictures as well as doing a really impressive job of explaining what it reminded her of, what the shapes and obscure blurrings sort of looked like and in some cases how it made her feel. I was really impressed with her for being able to do this just before she turned five. We only looked at that exhibit while we were there, and we careered round that at pretty high speed, but it was brief time well spent.

Despite Daughter 2's protestations that she was tired, we had no real choice but to walk back to Charing Cross Road. On the Millennium Bridge we bumped into around thirty congenial people dressed, for no discernible reason, in animal costumes and on the north side, on the approach to St. Paul's, encountered a headless street performer. Walking along Queen Victoria Street we passed the ostentatious UK headquarters of the Church Of Scientology and the new Blackfriars station. 'Can we get a train from there?' pleaded Daughter 2 wearily, but even if we'd wanted to there were no Tubes running on the lines passing through the station anyway. As we approached Blackfriars, we were greeted with the strange vision of a mainline train emerging from behind the Bank of New York Mellon offices, having just come out of the adjacent City Thameslink concourse, ascending the bridge to stop at Blackfriars. It seemed totally out of place somehow, and ultra futuristic despite being old rolling stock on a far older bridge.

We passed the expansive former estate of the Knights Templars, now home to a complex of legal practices. The gardens at Temple are beautiful, but also more or less inaccessible unless you're privileged to have access to them. Perhaps I'm a conspiracy theorist after all, or perhaps I've started to believe the hokum in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, but I did find myself shuddering as I walked past both Temple and the Church of Scientology slightly earlier. Fortunately, walking a little further on any sense of weirdness in the air evaporated as we encountered the crowds of fashionistas queuing at the Valentino exhibition; it seemed to restore a sense of superficiality back to proceedings. In contrast to the well-dressed crowd, we were passed by a pack of boys pulling tricks on skateboards. 'I used to have a skateboard,' I told Daughter 2, now being carried for a few hundred metres. 'Could you do that?' she asked, as one of the kids flicked his board up, twirled it in midair and landed on it perfectly. I sighed, thinking back to my heavy, cheap deck bought from a toyshop in Westcliff-on-Sea in my youth. 'No,' I muttered. I could barely ride the thing, let alone do tricks.

Eventually we got back to the Phoenix Theatre a few minutes before turning-out time. As we approached the main entrance to the theatre, we took a look at the progress being made on the Phoenix Garden. The Garden, an old car park that was saved from being converted into luxury apartments, is a charity space run by volunteers. It's one of those places tucked away that retains a secretive, hidden quality in spite of being surrounded on all sides by busy roads. The four of us followed a guidebook to the garden once when looking for things to do in London with children, and at the time the space was populated by a mere smattering of people chilling out among the carefully maintained but overgrown plantings. If it wasn't for the vigilance of the volunteer workers and the absolute zero tolerance policy toward drugs and alcohol in the park, you'd think it would be a key destination for junkies and drunks. The day we were there a couple of years ago, there was one trampy-looking guy snoring contentedly under a bush, but otherwise it was a picture of conviviality and tranquility, a couple of indie guys strumming an acoustic guitar aimlessly at the back of the park next to some inoffensive graffiti, and the most dangerous things that we saw that day were a lazy pollen-covered bee, a tiny fieldmouse and a few ladybirds. The park was just a muddy mess when Daughter 2 and I poked our noses through the bars that Saturday, but I'm sure it will be returned to its bohemian splendour in no time at all.

Emerging from the theatre while Daughter 2 were topping up our energy levels with a couple of handfuls of Jelly Belly sweets, Mrs S was gushing about the quality of the dancing, while Daughter 1 explained that her favourite sequence was the cameo by Russell Grant, much to her mother's horror. The walk to Waterloo was dominated by Daughter 1 moaning about a stomach ache and Daughter 2 cheerfully explaining how much fun she'd had. As we crossed the river - for Daughter 2 and I this would be our third crossing of the afternoon - Daughter 1 was back to her normal, enthusiastic chatty and observant self, a pleasantly quiet Tube ride concluding another excellent afternoon of exploring and - I hope - memory-making.