Saturday, June 04, 2005

Wednesday - A Grey Day

As I approached the Post Office counter, I calmly contemplated the fact I'd just queued behind 35 very different people (yes, I counted), young, old and middling, black, white and brown, without so much as a sigh. Compared to yesterday's marathon wait for my replacement bank card, a whopping nine hours and fifty minutes, this was child's play.

I smiled sweetly, said "good morning" and pushed the documents under the window. It was then that I wanted to cry.

"I'm really sorry, love, but I can't process this. You need an insurance policy certificate. This is a schedule".

Weakly I tried to protest -"but it has all the same information on it" - but in vain. I knew it wouldn't work. How? I did exactly the same thing last year. I left feeling very forlorn knowing I would have to face that queue again today.

So far, my holiday consisted of wasting an entire day waiting for new bank cards and getting absolutely drenched in thunderstorms while out cycling on Monday. Going home for the insurance certificate was not an option.

Twenty minutes later I was crossing the Thames on Tower Bridge. I do enjoy walking across but you end up zigzagging all over the place to avoid being featured in tourists' photos. People posing everywhere - the Tower behind them, the Egg, the Bridge. Sometimes I think, right, pull yourself up straight and just charge through. But I never do.

Outside the Egg there's an exhibition of prints from Yann Arthus Bertrand's "State of the Planet" Earth from the Air show which has been doing the rounds. Most are displayed back to back on stands but others are hung on the hoarding to a building site. An excellent use of space and also a nice surprise. The photos were all taken from a helicopter (3,000 hours flying and over 100 countries) and some of the shots are truly spectacular. A breathtaking but also very humbling experience.

The toilets have gone from the Hays Galleria. I am sure they are still there lurking behind the now unmarked doors but that's of no use to anyone. Wherever possible, I try to grab a coffee from an independent café but spotting a Starbucks I thought coffee and the loo. I obviously came across the smallest Starbucks in the world. Quite clearly not having a WC, I walked back out.

The carefully made-up, dressed-up staff from the London Dungeons were attempting to break the barrier the ridiculously long queue had formed in front of London Bridge Station. Train station = toilets. Spending a penny has now been replaced by spending une vingtaine but I can cope with that. I followed the signs round in a circle and ended up where I started.

Finally, Café Brood next to Southwark Cathedral met my needs. The man in front of me bought the last croissant aux amandes so I was forced to eat chocolate coated caramel shortcake for my breakfast. Lovely.

The smell of the day was definitely freshly cut grass. It seemed to follow me around. The front of Borough Market, which on Fridays and Saturdays, is crammed with people buying cheese, olives, tomatoes from the Isle of Wight, raspberries from Kent and ostrich meat from Suffolk, was a car park. There was still the screech of the trains passing overhead and the rush of the traffic approaching London Bridge.

You can just about imagine being in London's old and murky past in some of the old, narrow cobbled streets. A shiver goes down my spine when I walk past the ruined wall that was once a part of Winchester Palace. The spot where the Clink stood until burnt down by the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780. The prison may be well and truly gone but the name lingers on.

Bear Gardens, once home to London's less salubrious entertainments, has undergone something of a transformation. Bear-baiting and cock fighting have been replaced by very trendy looking restaurants which you'll find almost anywhere - the Real Greek Souvlaki and Pizza Express. The thought of living in the adjoining flats brought a warm glow to my cheeks. I could imagine sipping my coffee looking out over the Thames and the crusty dome of St Paul's.

Having noticed the Globe Theatre for the first time in ages, I thought the building looked too white and sterile. A little smile crept across my lips. Next reward trip out for the good naughty kids. Let's recreate the atmosphere of the Elizabethan original. Throw a few eggs, the odd squashed tomato and create a bit of a stink. They'd love it.

Returning to the north bank of the river by way of the not-wobbly Millennium Bridge, I noticed a memorial to the fire-fighters who lost their lives during the Blitz. George Grove caught my eye. I fancy him as a heroic relative - dad's middle name is George. I doubt anyone in the family would actually know if he was one of us or not though. I don't think I'll ask. I shall keep him as my own anyway.

Paternoster Square, once home to London's book trade and before that the production of prayer beads (paternosters), caused a lot of hoo-ha a few years ago. It needed to be redeveloped; but how? Charlie stuck his oar in of course. I have no idea what he thinks of the finished product but I like it. On my way back through I sat and ate my lunch there and spotted the best free toilets imaginable (you may think I'm obsessed with public conveniences but for a city of its size and for the amount of people thronging the streets of London there is a total lack of loos). They were spotlessly clean and even had a wave flush. The only alarming thing was the tissue - remember the tracing paper you were given at school? The exact same thing. Kids get the real stuff nowadays. I had no idea anyone was still making money out of it. It's crap.

My pen gave up the ghost as I tried to write down who had sculpted the sheep in the square. I asked a security guard if he could think of anywhere in the vicinity where I could buy one. A monosyllabic "no" was the reply. Still, the cab driver I asked looked at me as if I'd just enquired about the availability of crack cocaine before answering, "No".

I had to rely on my memory as I scooted past the Old Bailey (Sion Jenkins was in for the day but more interestingly was the list of Arabic-sounding names who were live via video link from Belmarsh at 10.30am; the Crown wanted to extend their custody). Threw a smile at the camera crew leaning against the wall opposite but they just looked thoroughly bored.

The steps down from Holborn Viaduct to Farringdon Street below were damp, dank and absolutely reeked of piss so I couldn't see the need for the pub bench and table positioned at the half-way stage. How it got there is anyone's guess.

Rounding the corner into New Fetter Lane I had to concede defeat and put my kag in a bag on (pac-a-macs when we were kids). A contractor wielding a very powerful hose shouted that I'd turned from English babe to American tourist in a matter of seconds. I decided not to argue as he had a glint in his eye and a lot of water at his disposal.

The very nice man in Dr Johnson's House not only lent me a pen but he insisted on hanging up my anorak as if it were an expensive wool coat (as opposed to the £6 job it is from Millets). Georgian houses always fill me with a sense of longing. The houses and the rooms inside are tall and light and generally beautifully decorated. I didn't learn anything new but just soaked up the atmosphere. The purpose-made bookcases were displaying works by Johnson, Boswell and others which had been donated over the years. I was interested to see that the menu for the Johnson Society dinner in the nearby pub, Ye Cheshire Cheese - one of my favourites and also a haunt of Johnson's, didn't change from year to year. Tuesday 13 December 1894 and Tuesday 13 December 1989 both kicked off with ye olde rump steake puddyngs with ye larks, kidneys, mushrooms and ye haunch of mutton. The feast was washed down with ye beer of olde England and ye red wine of France.

Possibly the least expected donation was a brick from the Great Wall of China handed over in 1922.

The nice man had been replaced by a sullen woman but I handed back the pen I'd been lent. She was totally disinterested so I wish I'd kept it.
The gardens or yards to the few remaining churches in the City are wonderful places. In St Bride's (the journalists church) I could hear the choir and the traffic splashing through the rain over the walls but I was enclosed in a little world accompanied by the trees and bushes, the birds and an office-worker eating her sandwiches. Little lungs hidden behind pubs, shops and busy, busy streets. They let you breath deeply and just sit and contemplate the calmness of it all.

Hot-footing it from Fleet Street to my appointed rendez-vous with Colin at Oxford Circus, I discovered the most life-like statue in Golden Square. I must have looked quite puzzled as I wondered why anyone would be lying down in the middle of the square in the rain. I then realised the man was larger than life. A remarkable piece of art (which I insisted Colin needed to see in the pouring rain).

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