Walking to the Tube, I felt a bit better, leading me to wonder if the congestion was more the result of an allergy to S&A’s cat than anything viral. I emerged from the Tube on Whitehall and sought coffee in a caf next door to the Red Lion pub. (If it’s not one liquid it’s another, innit?) As I walked out and headed over into St. James Park, the skies opened, and it began raining. Great. I knew I should have bought a brolly.
There was a caf in the park, so I sought shelter and more coffee. For the next hour, the rain kept stopping and starting. By the time I got to Buckingham Palace (for reasons that elude me), it was bucketing down. By this time, I was cold, wet, and the thick throng of tourists was making me cranky, so I turned around and headed back toward Piccadilly to look for a place to buy an umbrella, and perhaps find a place to grab something to eat and dry off.
I ended up on Charing Cross Road and ducked into a pub called the Princess of Wales. The barmaid explained in an impenetrable Scottish brogue that most of the beer was off, so I had a hard cider and ordered lunch. I had fortunately brought a guidebook (Rough Guide) Steven loaned me, which was better than mine (Lonely Planet). I spent an hour reading it and drying off, and decided that I would do better avoiding the hardcore touristy things and seeking out instead more offbeat (and potentially less crowded) sights. As I was reading about all the various London neighborhoods, I couldn’t help but have Robyn Hitchcock’s “Trams of Old London” running through my head.
Trams of old LondonFed and reasonably dry, I had a plan, headed over to the Tube and went up to Russell Square. By the time I got out of the Tube, the rain had stopped. So I made my way over to 48 Doughty Street and the Charles Dickens Museum.
Taking my baby into the past, and it’s
Trams of old London blow my mind
Ludgate, Fenchurch, Highgate Hill
Rolling slowly up there still
Waterloo and Clerkenwell
Out to Aldgate East as well.
On a clear night you can see
Where the rails used to be
Oh, it seems like ancient myth
They once ran to Hammersmith
Through Electric Avenue
Brixton down in southwest too, uh-huh
Teddington and Kennington
Twickenham and Paddington
In the blitz they never closed
Though they blew up half the roads
Oh it hurts me just to see 'em
Going dead in a museum
This house is where Charles Dickens lived from 1837 to 1839—not a long stay, but it is the only surviving one of the several places Dickens had lived.
It houses the largest and most important collection of Dickensiana. I decided to spend the two quid for the audio tour. It was in this house that Dickens finished Pickwick Papers, his first major work and the one that launched his career as a writer. He also wrote Oliver Twist there, his first “real” novel, followed by Nicholas Nickleby. He had moved there shortly after his marriage to Catherine, and by 1839, their third child was born (jeepers, it was a busy period, wannit?) and the Dickenses began searching for larger quarters, moving to Regents Park in 1839.
Naturally, I was curious if they had anything on Edmund Wells:
Bookshop Customer: Can you help me with "David Coperfield"?Just about all of Dickens’ novels were published in serial form; that is, in installments. His original contract was to produce a certain number of pages, and he kept overwriting—I know the feeling! Since this was before typewriters, Dickens wrote everything by hand—his original manuscripts show some crossouts and changes, but he was remarkable at generating a good first draft. And if you’ve seen the length of his books, his printers must have felt good about their job security—this was the day before automated typesetting, when all type was set letter by letter. I get the sense that someone was right about to smash Dickens over the head with a typecase.
Bookshop Proprietor: Ah, yes, Dickens.
P: (pause) I beg your pardon?
C: No, Edmund Wells.
P: I... *think* you'll find Charles Dickens wrote "David Copperfield", sir....
C: No, no, Dickens wrote "David Copperfield" with *two* Ps. This is "David Coperfield" with *one* P by Edmund Wells.
P: "David Coperfield" with one P?
C: Yes, I should have said.
P: Yes, well in that case we don't have it.
C: (peering over counter) Funny, you've got a lot of books here....
P: (slightly perturbed) Yes, we do, but we don't have "David Coperfield" with one P by Edmund Wells.
C: Oh...how 'bout "Grate Expectations"?
P: Yes, well we have that....
C: That's "G-R-A-T-E Expectations," also by Edmund Wells.
P: (pause) Yes, well in that case we don't have it. We don't have anything by Edmund Wells, actually: he's not very popular.
C: Not "Knickerless Knickleby"? That's K-N-I-C-K-E-R-L-E-S-S.
P: (taciturn) No.
C: "Khristmas Karol" with a K?
P: (really quite perturbed) No....
C: Er, how about "A Sale of Two Titties"?
P: DEFINITELY NOT.
C: (moving towards door) Sorry to trouble you....
P: Not at all....
C: I wonder if you might have a copy of "Rarnaby Budge"?
P: No, as I say, we're right out of Edmund Wells!
C: No, not Edmund Wells - Charles Dikkens.
P: (pause - eagerly) Charles Dickens??
P: (excitedly) You mean "Barnaby Rudge"!
C: No, "Rarnaby Budge" by Charles Dikkens. That's Dikkens with two Ks, the well-known Dutch author.
P: (slight pause) No, well we don't have "Rarnaby Budge" by Charles Dikkens with two Ks, the well-known Dutch author, and perhaps to save time I should add that we don't have "Karnaby Fudge" by Darles Chickens, or "Farmer of Sludge" by Marles Pickens, or even "Stickwick Stapers" by Farles Wickens with four M's and a silent Q!!!!! Why don't you try W. H. Smith's?
C: I did. They sent me here.
P: DID they.
I spent about an hour and a half at the Dickens House and was feeling increasingly guilty about the fact that I have actually read precious little Dickens, a fact which I vowed to do something about once I got home (and so far I have kept my vow...). After a visit to the crypt, I was off.
It was threatening rain again, so as I walked down Southampton Row, I found a cheesy souvenir store and ducked inside to pick up some cheesy souvenirs—and an umbrella! This was fortunate, since as soon as I stepped outside, the skies opened. While searching for my next item, I got a bit lost in Holborn and ended up on Chancery Lane, in the neighbourhood where all the solicitors (i.e., lawyers) are. The architecture there is all rather beautiful, and I was happy to be lost there.
Finally, I came upon what I had been looking for: an odd little place called Sir John Soane’s Museum. Soane was an architect, born in 1753, and was, um...a bit of a nut. He was a noted architect and had caught the eye of King George III (also a bit of a nut). Soane traveled the world and acquired and thus filled his house with a phenomenal amount of stuff: Greek and Roman antiquities, clocks, sculptures, an impressive collection of Hogarth paintings—everywhere you turn in the house, there is a massive amount of stuff. Impressively, he had a crypt in the basement of his house. And I don’t mean that euphemistically; it was an actual crypt, and contained the sarcophagus of Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I. I have always wanted to have a crypt in my basement, and it’s good to know I am not alone in this desire. The Soan Museum rivals the British Museum (well, not really) for the sheer breadth of the collection, even if it is all rather daft. Still, it's pretty cool. I have always been fascinated by insanity.
By the time I was done, it was about 5:00, and I was feeling rather done in, so popped into a nearby pub. Killing time to avoid the Tube at the height of rush hour, I then took a stroll through Soho. Some things you should know:
- I did not see a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand walking through the streets of Soho in the rain;
- I did not meet Lola in a club down in old Soho, where they drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca-Cola (c-o-l-a, cola);
- and I did not wake up in a Soho doorway, a policeman did not know my name, nor did he say “You can go sleep at home tonight if you can get up and walk away.”
I did check out a few bookstores, then decided to head back to Hackney. While waiting at the bus stop, Steven, Amy, and the chillun showed up, so we headed home en masse. That night, we got Pakistani takeaway which was phenomenally good.
One more day...
*In London, in an attempt to control traffic, they impose a “congestion fee” if you drive into the so-called “Congestion Zone.” You pay this fee online the day you plan to travel. How does anyone know if you’ve paid it? Closed-circuit TV cameras photograph your licence tag, and optical character readers scan the tags and compare them to a database of who has paid. If you have not paid, you are invoiced. (Other traffic violations are also handled in this way.) I am led to understand that scofflaws will be caught. It is all rather Orwellian....