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Wednesday, 10/26. Rain and sniffles. The news. DLR. Greenwich. The Royal Observatory. The British Museum, part 3. Forbidden Planet. Costume shop. Pizza Express and the Guidos of London.

Rain and sniffles. For the most part we'd escaped English weather on this trip, but today it returned, with an intermittent drizzle continuing for most of the day. My cold seemed to intensify, and I think most days I'd have stayed home in bed. But this was our last day in London and I still wanted to explore. Behold the power of over-the-counter drugs!

The news. Sturdy Helpmeet™, by contrast, was hung over and sleepy, so she invoked a long-cherished plan that she had yet to realize: stay in with the newspapers and some tea and take the pulse of the nation in print and from BBC Radio and from the news on TV. So I ran down to Victoria Station where I bought a handful of daily papers and an umbrella. I gave the papers to my sweetie and took the umbrella with me to Greenwich.

DLR. Getting to Greenwich meant taking the Underground to a station for Docklands Light Rail in Canary Wharf. Riding DLR turned out to be different from riding the Underground lines. Access to the Underground is very tightly controlled, but DLR is so wide open that just finding a place to swipe your Oyster card can be a challenge, which means a rider is on the honor system to some degree. The card reader in some stations is just stuck out by itself somewhere in the lobby, and if you're not careful it's easy to forget to swipe your Oyster card before you hop on the train. This is what I did the first time I rode, but then nervous guilt overtook me and I looked harder the next time around.

Riding the DLR through Canary Wharf is a little bit strange, though. The light train feels rickety and slow while it winds through all the ultra-modern high-finance architecture. On the other hand its brakes don't sound like the lonesome wailing of the damned seeping through crevices in the earth, which is what you get from the Capital Metro in Austin.

Greenwich. Maybe it was tourist fatigue or the disease or the cold medicine, but getting to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich involved several false steps. First I got off the DLR at the wrong stop and had to ride it back. Then I took a wrong turn leaving the station and spent a while wandering through some kind of  council estate or apartment complex before finding my way back to the touristy part of town. Then I guessed wrong and ended up in the Old Royal Naval College—which is actually pretty cool, and it has a gorgeous little chapel—and then in a parking lot of the ORNC which, due to ongoing construction, was difficult to leave.

After I escaped the parking lot I made my way to the National Maritime Museum but still had no idea how to get to the Observatory. I felt I didn't have the time or energy to get sucked into that museum so I kept walking towards The Queen's House and then...

And then...

...I finally found a place where I had an unobstructed view of a great big hill with a great big building on top, and the crepuscular light shone down from the clouds, illuminating my destination, and I thought, Well there you are, you big beauty! I'd walked halfway around the Royal Observatory without once catching sight of it. But now I saw it, and I took another look, and I deflated slightly.

That's a bloody long uphill walk for someone who's already swaying on his feet.

Courage, grasshopper. Last day in London, remember?

The Royal Observatory. Enthusiasm makes up for exhaustion, and I actually enjoyed walking up the hill. I kept turning around to enjoy the great view of London, with the spiky Millennium Dome looking like an electrode-festooned skullcap designed to re-animate a dead giant's brain. The Observatory is full of cool things, from lasers to telescopes to steampunky timepieces that helped British ships track longitude and colonize the world. Of course there's also the Prime Meridian line, which I straddled like mighty Caesar straddling a crack in the pavement.*

My favorite bit of the observatory, though, is a sundial made of two dolphins. It sits in a garden behind the Flamsteed House and the visitor's center, and it's a marvelous marriage of science and art. Of course it was cloudy so I couldn't see it in action, but I loved it all the same.

Walking back to the train station in Greenwich, I passed a young man who was twitching and saying "All right? All right?" over and over. I don't know if he was sick or panhandling or hoping to sell something illicit to a tourist, but I very briefly had to suppress the impulse to punch a strange young person in the face. (Why do young people have such stupid faces? And what does mine look like to a 70-year old? Lamentably this impulse only seems to grow in frequency, which makes me wonder how the human species survived its first generation.) 

The British Museum, part 3. But I was successful in suppressing that impulse, and it wasn't long until I was back in the British Museum for the third time on this trip, 30 minutes before it closed, buying souvenirs. I loaded up on the miniature replicas of artifacts, just five or six pounds a piece, because they're awesome.

Next stop: geek Mecca.

Forbidden Planet. Forbidden Planet is probably the biggest sci-fi/fantasy/comic/nerdery shop I've ever been in, so that's good. On the other hand, it was mostly full of stuff I'd seen before, and this evidence of a global creative monoculture was disappointing. At least on the level of movies and major titles and franchises. If I'd had more time to spend, maybe I'd have found a wealth of unknown weirdness, but I didn't have that much time.

I ended by buying Shadows over Baker Street, a collection of Sherlock Holmesian stories set in a Lovecraftian universe. The mix is uneven: Neil Gaiman's contribution is just about perfect, but Steve Perry's is the worst kind of adolescent male Mary-Sue fan-fic you can imagine. The rest are somewhere in between, but Elizabeth Bear's story about Irene Adler ("Tiger! Tiger!") is the only one that stands out in hindsight.

Here's another way to think about it: the Greenwich, the British Museum, the Petrie Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum all scratched my nerd itches better than Forbidden Planet did. Maybe that means I'm a bad nerd...I'm really not sure.

Costume shop.  From Forbidden Planet I headed south on Shaftesbury Avenue**, where I was obliged to walk around a huge crowd marked off by velvet ropes on the sidewalk. They were queued up to enter a costume shop. I guess it was for Halloween. All I could think of was the old Fry and Laurie sketch on the subject.***

Pizza Express and the Guidos of London. To the hotel for a brief rest, then back out into the cold with Sturdy Helpmeet. We'd heard good things about Pizza Express, so we tried a location that's down the street from Victoria Station.

First impression: this is one busy, busy restaurant, and when some tables finally clear up, the waiter is clearly hesitant to seat two people at a table that could possibly hold four. One hears about this behavior sometimes, but this is the first time I've experienced it from a person who clearly thinks it's self-evident that people who've been waiting for half an hour should expect to wait longer until a sufficiently tiny table appears. I take non-confrontation to an almost pathological level, but fortunately Sturdy Helpmeet had no time for this bullshit, and neither did the two fellows who came in after us, so a couple of couples took their seats at a couple of tables for four. 

But I almost wish we had waited, because these two guys were competing for the title of most annoying Londoners of all time. They seemed like an English version of the worst stereotypes of the guys from Jersey Shore. They spoke loudly and aggressively about the weights they'd lifted, the drinks they were going to have, the clothes they were going to wear, the parties they were planning to attend, and the women they expected to shag. Disagreements and differences were met with loud and derisive comments about sexual orientation and performance. 

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when you swaddle a rectum in polyester and give it a bank account.

The pizza was pretty good, though.

________________
* A very historic crack in the pavement, mind you. 

** "Nobody knows what it's like / To be a dust bin / In Shaftesbury / with hooligans...." - Bill Hicks

*** Tidyman's Carpets: the deep shag that really satisfies!
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smackshack

June 2012

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