I was going to to recce the area and find the front door of an office building I'd never seen before. Fortunately I was armed with my trusty A-Z, complete with
instructions I'd written on tiny pink post it notes the previous day. I emerged
from Oxford Circus tube, turned left and walked confidentally until I accepted
that I was absolutely not where I ought to have been. Fortunately for me a
gnarled old gentleman armed with a rolled up copy of the Telegraph recognised a buffoon when he saw one. With a voice carved out of years of giving orders to idiots such as myself, he quickly sussed out what was wrong and had me back on track in about 30 sylables. I thanked him and scuttled away whilst pretending to anyone who might have been watching (which was everyone) that it was all part of a cunning plan, and while you think you've just watched some first class buffoonery, in fact what you'd just seen was the meeting between two highly trained and very sharp secret agents.
(I know you'd never fall for that, but I was once quite clearly followed by a man
armed with a bowler hat and umbrella (a lethal combination) through various parts of the underground. If you want to know the whole of that story, you'll have to buy the coffee.)
I hadn't realised it but the area around Soho, with it's delightfully tiny streets, cafes, badly parked lorries and roadworks, is actually the backside of theatre-land, which explains some of the rather colourfully dressed people I noticed wandering about. Not that we should knock these people, oh no. While I do my best to blend in with the tarmac and grey, featureless sky, these mobile rainbows brighten up the place no end. I'm wondering if in fact they're not actually some sort of public service.
Having scoped the office I slipped down to Covent Garden to just make sure that it hadn't changed much since my last visit a few months earlier. I love this area so much that I made sure that a few of the murders in my first novel (soon to be released as an ebook) took place there. I don't know quite what happened, but I managed to find myself wandering around the Apple shop where my eyes drooled over wafer-thin computers and the avalanche of staff who stood stroking iPads provocatively. Reality suddenly got very 60s psychedelic sci-fi film stylee and I felt myself breaking into a sweat as several blonde-bots homed in on me, their gaze locking onto my wallet. I froze, but broke free of their terrible hold when the rasping tones of a security guard demanded to know how another day-tripper expected to leave when he hadn't made a purchase. For a moment all the assistant-bots were focussed on a young man who just knew he was going to be assimilated where he stood. I walked quickly towards the entrance but the guards saw me. "Look!" I shouted, pointing up towards the second floor, "A PC!" All heads flicked up towards the second floor and I dived out through the door, dragging the hapless youth with me. As the door hissed closed we could hear screaming.
I pulled up my collar and sprinted for the tube, escaping back to the safety of
Soho where I promptly lost myself in the bustling streets. After another five
minutes I checked the A-Z again and headed back towards where I should have been.
A couple of hours, one coffee, half a baguette and a chocolate croissant later,
and I was free of my obligations and was able tear arse across town to the Tate Modern. Whatever you think about London, the TM is an absolute must-visit place when you're there. Only an idiot would disagree. Unfortunatley my bid to get there asap was hampered by going to Waterloo and then walking from there to the London Eye, and then all the way along the river until I arrived cold and very hungry at the TM 30 minutes later. And although I was slowly going out of my head, I was still alert enough to take a few photos of the sand sculptures a couple of chaps had made on the banks of the Thames - a place I'd never associated with sand before.
Though very pleased to see salvation in the shape of the TM's tower (and the
restaurant I was rather keen to enjoy), I was distracted by a large crowd who
were hanging over the rails both under and on the Wobbly bridge. I hearded myself over to see the object of their fascination and quickly realised that they were right to be engrossed, amazed, entertained and bewildered. (Actually I don't think anyone hit all four of those things, but the crowd ebbed and flowed so there's a good chance that we need to consider all four as possible experiences in the situation I'm about to describe.)
The Thames was at low tide and on the shingle bank that had been revealed by its absence we could all see a sign announcing a musical event of a rock 'n' roll
nature in a pub/theatre/tree nearby but much later in the day. All very
informative, but very boring - certainly not something with strong enough pull to make crowds appear from nowhere. No. But, about ten feet out into the Thames and up to his lower thighs in water, stood a young man who was banging out rockabilly style hits as if he were one of the Stray Cats himself. On an electric guitar.
"Fantastic!" I thought, what a photo opportunity for me. And I was right. Just
after I finished adding him to my collection of Things of Note that have Caught
My Attention whilst Visiting London, a rather naughty cruise boat went past. The crew stood on the deck and looked on with wry smiles as their bow wave raced and surged towards to the top of Mr Rock 'n' Roll's green waders.
Inside the TM, I was further distracted from the restaurant by some rather large videos that were being played in the old turbine hall. As I'd lugged my Canon D40 all the way to London, I felt it had to earn its keep, so out it came. The hall was dived into two main areas. One that was bright and colourful, the other a darkness that reminded me of the depths of Hell itself. Photographing anything in these circumstances is tricky as you have to balance a long exposure (slow enough to let enough light in) with camera shake and blurring. Also, if you do use a long exposure, all the detail in the really bright areas evaporate. Another problem photographers face is getting 'click happy'. This can happen at any time your camera is not safely in its bag, and is especially likely to happen when you've not taken any photos all day and are going slowly mad because you've not slept for over 24 hours and you've not eaten nearly enough food.
This, coincidently, was exactly the position I found myself in.
Although I knew that the restaurant was one floor below me and within sight, for some reason that not even a SOCO team could figure out, I decided the most appropriate course of action was to go upwards several floors and to a point that was as far from the hot food as you could get without leaving the building. This wasn't my best idea but it did allow me to see some art and buy a few postcards.
By now I was practically hallucinating, so I bought a cake and plonked myself
down in the little cafe that hides between the upper galleries seeking rest and
resucitation. Once this was complete, I managed to drag myself down the
esculators, up the ramp in the turbine hall, and with what I firmly believed was a hop, skip and a jump found myself being addressed by the restaurant's Maître de'. Within no time I was sat by a window eyeing up other people's food and wondering if it would be wrong to ask if I could eat their leftovers. I decided not to ask and instead sat quietly trying not to notice the smell of food, or the chinking of cutlery against china, or the sound of someone slicing through a thick chocolate sponge cake with a fork...
Within no time whatsoever (but by my sliding timescale two or more hours) a plate of bangers, mash and gravy was placed in front of me. I never saw whoever delivered it as I was too busy tearing the fork out of the serviette. And by God was that the best bangers and mash I've ever eaten!? The whole plate load disappeared in a matter of seconds and about ten minutes later enough had been sucked into my system to allow my brain to return to something approaching normal. I've no idea how much later it was before I was fully compus mentis, but I dragged myself around the shop in search of who-knows-what before marching off towards Southwark station and the fast train back to Victoria bus station.
The bus station looked exactly as I'd left it, only now it was FULL of people.
You know, Victoria is an INTERNATIONAL transport centre and as such it really
ought to be as attractive as the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras or any one of
the airports such as Heathrow. Instead it looks like it's been constructed out of
old shoe boxes by a team of enthusiastic if cack-handed primary school children
with far too much blue and white paint and not enough glue. Personally I think
the staff there do an excellent job of herding and coralling passengers onto the
100s of waiting buses. We might not be able to do much about the crowds (price it cheap and stack them high), but there is no need for it to be so damned ugly.
Really, none at all.
One of the upsides of travelling cheap is that you are more likely to find people
who, if outside the bus station, are often referred to as 'characters'. A
character is someone who exhibits one or more (actually always several at least) signs that they are non-conformists. These signs could be a lack of personal hygiene; questionable clothing arrangements; hair that's never seen a brush; beards that look more like tree roots; and most telling of all, a willingness to engage in conversation with whoever happens to be withing listening distance. For me this was Peter, who happened to find himself stood alongside me in the passport queue, and thus well within chatting range. I knew I'd found a kindred spirit when he told me he'd just spent two weeks in a monastry in Wales, and that he was considering becoming a hermit.
Despite this obvious and deep connection, and although we shared the same seat, we'd travailed the depths of our souls sufficiently whilst waiting to get on the bus for us to not be offended that the other was asleep for almost the entire journey back to Breda.
We arrived there at 0312, about two hours before I'd expected to: the first bus
to Oosterhout left at about 0720. Oosterhout is about two hours by foot and
despite only wearing comfortable shoes and having to carry a rather weighty
shoulder bag, I decided to be sensible and start walking. It was a lovely night
for it: warm enough to not get cold, cool enough to not get too warm. Hunger was a problem but I had a Snickers bar (the world's most stupidly named chocolate bar: wtf was wrong with Marathon? The name change was such a dumb idea, like changing your son's name from Richard to Retard), a large chocolate biscuit and plenty of water, so there was no chance of starving before getting home. However, before I set out, I checked with a taxi driver how much a ten minute drive might be. After a lot of discussion about where EXACTLY I wanted to be in Oosterhout (behind the market square, in front of the market square - actually I don't give a damn - Oosterhout is bloody tiny and being at the back or front of the square is like deciding if you want to be on the inside or outside of your skin).
At €35 it was a lot cheaper to walk, and it meant avoiding having to talk to
someone whose pedantry in the conversational field didn't inspire me to believe
he was capable of making the split-second decisions one has to make when driving.
Despite the obvious dangers of wandering around alone in the dead of night, it
was far safer to walk.
And the birds sing so beautifully after the 4 AM watershed - have you ever
noticed that? It's like they know they can't be heard above the din humans make during the day, so wait until they know they can. After an hour it had become pretty irritating but running into the trees shouting 'Bang!' wasn't an effective tactic, so I concentrated on keeping my pace up and ignoring my stomach, which was demanding energy. At the half-way point I relented and ate the Retard: which was delicious, but not nearly as delicious as the Co-Co Pops I savoured when I finally made it back to my house two hours later.
As I sat in the armchair reflecting on the last 36 hours or so, I couldn't make any philosophical points about my trip. But it was an adventure and a lot of fun despite the madness, and I have to say that I'm pretty pleased that my way of thinking allows me to do such things still. It would have been a lot easier to fly or take the train, but less interesting in the long run. And would have meant spending far more money, something I'm not really geared up to do.