A Londres, ad Londinium, to London

August 25th, 2009

I find myself once again on terra firma (by which I mean terra Pacific Northwest coast of the United States of America), and after a few days of wrestling with free-floating nausea and the sudden desire to take naps, I am mostly over that nasty jetlag business.  Did you know that the technical term for jetlag is “Desynchronosis”?  The science-fiction beauty of the word almost makes up for feeling like the human embodiment of a stagnant pond.

But before all that, London was spectacular.  I had been there just last summer and had a wonderful, leisurely time, but it was a sort of  I wandered lonely as a cloud approach.

Whereas this year Katie and I together staged something more closely approximating The Charge of the Light Brigade. In six-ish days we managed to ruthlessly hammer down at least six months of Londoning.  We stayed with my grandmother at her temporary flat just a few minutes’ walk from Kew Gardens; so going into the central city was a commitment, and one that we lived the hell up to.

My favorite highlights include:

- running into the entire Chinese Communist Party at Marx’s grave monument; a herd of perhaps thirty middle-aged Chinesemen wearing neutral-colored golf-shirts and khakis (and one guy in a Beijing Opera t-shirt; doubtless he is the class clown).  They all clustered around the Giant Marx Head and chatted sternly, took stern photos of each other, and were generally stern until they left the graveyard, crossed the street, and immediately lit up 30+ cigarettes before sternly walking down the hill.

- observing the awestruck wonder of the crowd by the National Gallery at the sight of a bagpiper wailing away on top of the Fourth Plinth in the One & Another public art project.  I cannot describe the bravery of this man, willing to dress entirely in black and red wool in the beating sun on top of a plinth high enough to give the more prurient tourists hope of resolving the “do they wear underpants under those kilts or not” issue.

- meandering tipsily around Southwark-area pubs with Fiona and Tim, Mitchy, Janet, and Jane, laughing about the hilarious accusations leveled at the UK’s National Health Service by pin-headed American lawmakers, talking about what all of our grandfathers had done during the War, and pestering me for a print edition of Family Man (yes, I promise, geez, yikes).  It was really wonderful to meet people once again, and see some new faces too!  I feel tremendously lucky to have instant friends in such wonderful and far-flung locations.

- chattering with my favorite completely bonkers antiquarian print seller (the prints, not the seller), Tracey A. Brett, one of the many book and print dealers on Cecil Court.  We managed to get away with only eight or nine prints, and the traditional recital of Tracey’s life story (”MY FATHER DIED AND LEFT ME THIS SHOP…I HAVE A PHOTOGRAPHIC MEMORY FOR EVERYTHING HERE…”&c).

Never again will Katie doubt the accuracy of my impersonation of a delightfully batty shopkeeper, or my descriptions of her massive stock of wonderful illustrations at unsettlingly low prices, or the dangers of attempting to actually move within the shop (”I REFUSE TO CHANGE MY FATHER’S PRICES…DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING, THAT SHELF WILL FALL DOWN ON YOU…”).

- taking a sunset walk around Little Venice – certainly the least London-y feeling place in town, a strange little gypsy fragment of continental Europe plopped down between an upper-end residential neighborhood and a faceless business district.  A few blocks out of the Tube and we found ourselves in the rosy, sunset-lit canal full of eccentrically-painted and named river boats, little floating caravans with herb gardens bobbing along on top.  Immigrant families stretched out in canvas chairs in the little emerald-toned park, and machine-tanned ladies in impractical little dresses left their lip-gloss on crystal glasses in taverns along the water.  We found the quietest and hippest little pub in the area and nattered together about narrative and identity until the sky went cobalt and we ribboned our way Kew-wards once again.

- stopping by the V&A (my museum girlfriend); after wandering around the Cast Courts, which contain the full scale cast of the Trajan bloody Column, we split ranks so that Katie could go look at interesting things and I could take more moody black and white photography of statuary.


Then we met up again and determined that we had both fallen in love with the completely bad-ass special exhibition, Telling Tales: Fantasy and Fear in Contemporary Design.  Plushies of nuclear mushroom clouds?  Tiny slippers made out of taxidermied moles?  A rowboat bathtub?  An enormous radiator shaped like a Victorian ornamental flourish?  All this and hilariously creepy atmospheric sound effects?  Yes please!

- squeezing into the French House, the Soho pub where Charles Degaulle met with the London wing of the French Resistance and where my namesake, the poet Dylan Thomas, did his best to drunkenly forget the only existing copy of Under Milk Wood on the bar.  We burrowed our way in through the end-of-work-day crowd and found ourselves in a tiny wood-paneled pub full of old music hall publicity photos.  They only sell half-pints, so we sipped from our little fairy glasses and were served with immense cheerfulness by a crew of four young hipster barkeeps, who somehow managed to all squeeze into a bar area about the size of the average tissue box.

Then we wandered over to an Italian restaurant, Piccolo Diavolo, chosen completely at random – nearly being stampeded as we entered by a cloud of mysterious foreigners who had just finished off a rowdy limoncello toast – and had the best meal of our whole trip there, trilled over by various theatrical Italian waiters.

- we also managed to make it to three excellent plays, thanks to my marvelous grandmother’s ability to scheme, connive, charm, and camp her way into the hearts of London’s ticket booth staff.  The best two were a really crisp and lovely staging of Arcadia, a Stoppard play I adored in high school, and the puppetry marvels of War Horse.


And, rather remarkable considering that I’ve seen only half a dozen plays in the UK – I recognized one of the cast members from the cast of Hay Fever at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, a production I saw entirely on a whim last year.

If you’re in London and can see yourself to some tickets, both were really stunning (and often diametrically opposed) works of stagecraft.

- and, silly though this might seem to those of you resident in the UK:  we saw a fox. I’ve never seen a wild one before; only a few fennec foxes in Seattle’s excellent zoo.  They’re largely an element of folk tales, children’s entertainment, and decorative design (and, I suppose, the furry community…) for Yanks in my area.  So to see a long, lean, rusty specimen go loping across the road in Kew for a round of mouse-hunting in the cemetery was a lovely and very English moment.

Beatrix Potter

Then we saw a taxidermied one with golden maggots coming out of its ears at the V&A making a statement about mortality.  So really, foxes all over.

When I tell you that I’m leaving out two thirds of the things we managed to squeeze in, you might understand exactly how packed a week it was.  It’s a marvel I have any legs, brains, or money left.  It was really a stunning time for the both of us; I think I probably owe my grandmother a pony now.

My next journey will be to the decidedly less romantic area of Bethesda, Maryland, for the Small Press Expo (SPX) in late September.  Then San Francisco in October for the Alternative Press Expo (APE).  I can’t really stand to think about ever being in an airplane again, but I’m sure that

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