Tuesday, June 1, 2010

39 Steps, Tips for Pedestrians, and Horrible Weather

People make fun of Icelanders for allegedly believing in brownies, an idea which costs them nothing and hurts no one. But no one makes fun of the English for spending millions (or billions?) of pounds on sun screen and sunglasses, two items that no one ever needs in the British Isles. You know how the SPF works. If you're wearing SPF 30 and spend an hour in full sunlight, you get only 2 minutes of "exposure"--your exposure is reduced by a factor of 30. Now since in England it is completely unheard of for the sun to shine more than 2 minutes in any given hour (and normally it will be far LESS than 2 minutes), England is itself officially SPF 30!

Here are the daily high temperatures beginning on May 25, last Tuesday, when I arrived: 63, 59, 61, 66, 61, 64, 61, and (today) 55. You will notice that only ONE DAY has even approached the so-called normal high of 68, which is itself no great shakes. And that English sense of humor you all love so much? They are predicting 69 or 70 for tomorrow! HarharharHAHAHAharharhar.

This morning, not being a banker's holiday, the laundry was actually open. I was actually able to leave off my jeans for washing, an important consideration since July 27, 1913, was the last time it was warm enough in London to wear shorts, and since in today's rain the front of my khakis got wet all the way up to the bottoms of my pockets (that is, the top of my thighs) as I walked back to the hotel this afternoon. Now of course this "express" laundry won't have my jeans ready for me before 5 p.m. tomorrow, but that's the breaks. I assume it will take at least 24 hours of continuous rotation in a dryer for the jeans to dry after being washed.

After leaving my jeans off at the laundry, I headed back toward the British Library where I hoped to get some clarification (including cost) about getting some kind of electronic photocopy of one of their books. Along the way, I veered into Regent's Park, which I passed yesterday, but had never visited before. On a nice day, it might have been a nice walk. Today of course the drizzle started up about the time I got as far into the park as I intended to go and as I turned back toward the east to go on to the library.

At some point on the walk to (or from?) the library, I passed this big plaque/carving, built into the wall of a building. Since many of you (myself included, nowadays) like Dickens's work quite a lot, I thought you might like this photo:

In case you can't read the notice, it says, "While living in a house on this site Charles Dickens wrote six of his principal works, characters from which appear in this sculptured panel." I think that's probably Little Dorrit and her father at the upper right, and maybe Oliver and his grandfather just right of Dickens, but you'll have to decide who the rest are.

When I got to the library I found out that the book I was interested in was on site there, rather than elsewhere, so that, if I wanted to go through the procedure of applying for a reading room pass and waiting for the book to be brought up from storage (about 70 minutes), then I could go ahead and see it today. So I did that: got the reader's pass (good for this whole month) and put in my request for the book. Then I left for lunch while the book was being found, and that's when I found out why I had trouble closing my umbrella when I entered--the shaft was broken! Of course. So I held it sort of not-quite-completely opened and made my way back to Euston train station for a little lunch. While there I bought another umbrella, from one of Lou Ann's favorite places--Boots Pharmacy. (I think I have already managed to bend the shaft of this new umbrella, apparently while trying to shake the excess water off of it before going inside one place or another: who would have thought that an umbrella was so hard to make?)

Back at the library, I got my book: "Ximenes, The Wreath and Other Poems" by J.W. Polidori, published in London in 1819. Polidori is mostly famous for having written "The Vampyre," published anonymously in 1816 (and mistakenly thought to be Lord Byron's work) and then in book form under Polidori's name in 1819. I've been working Polidori into my Maltese werewolf stories, so I wanted to take a look at this book. There is another book of poetry too, called "The Fall of the Angels", which even the British Library doesn't have a copy of! Anyway, the book looks like pretty standard Romantic period poetry, not worth much study, though I would like to read "Ximenes", which Polidori called "A dramatic action," i.e. a play for reading rather than staging. As it turns out, I can get the library to create a photocopy of this for me, but it will cost somewhere between $40-45, so I'll have to decide if I want to do that or not.

After leaving the library for good, my general goal was to reach the TKTS stand and see about getting a discount ticket to the matinee of "The 39 Steps". I didn't have to hurry too much, as the play began at 3 and it was not yet 1:30. Miracle of miracles, the rain had sort of tapered off during some of this walk, and I didn't have to have the (new) umbrella opened the entire time. I stopped into a bookstore I passed by chance, which seemed in some ways sort of like Half-Price Books, with both used books and remaindered books in stock. I bought a copy of a "brief life" of the author E.M. Forster who wrote a couple of novels and several stories which I like very much. Even if you haven't read Forster, you have probably seen movies based on his novels: "A Room with a View" (my favorite), "Howards End," "A Passage to India" and "Where Angels Fear to Tread." Not too many blocks farther I came to the London Review Bookstore. I didn't have a lot of time to spend there, and mostly browsed poetry, but it looked to have perhaps the smartest selection of books of any store I've been in in London. It is very near the British Museum, so I guess it's just a matter of walking one way or another that explains why I haven't seen it before.

Finally I made it back to Leicester Square to TKTS and asked about the matinee: they had a "very good" seat that cost 25 pounds, and a not so good seat for 14 pounds, so I went for the not-so-good. "The 39 Steps" is a kind of spy novel, almost one hundred years old and set right before World War I. Hitchcock made it into a movie and--judging by this play--he must have set it in the '30s, instead of the '10s. (I don't believe I've ever seen the movie, but I'm sure some of you have.) For this new stage adaptation, they have gone for comedy, so that the story is still a spy thriller, but it's played for laughs. There are only four main actors in the company: the male lead, who plays the bored Englishman who learns of the attempt to smuggle top secret information out of England; the female lead, who plays the two main female roles, the first of whom informs the male of the conspiracy and is killed for her efforts; and the other two men, who play all the other roles, including the females. One of these guys is really quite funny, especially when playing an old woman dressed in a knee-length skirt which shows the dark socks and garters from his male clothing. There is some clever staging, especially the use of a translucent curtain, lit from behind, while the players manipulate various stick figures to show actions too complicated to stage. In another scene, the male lead is trying to escape while carrying the female lead across a storm-swollen river (hey, that was appropriate for today!). The river is represented by a blue sheet the other two actors are shaking and rippling along the floor, but when the 'hero' tries to cross they lift it up as high as his waist and drive him back. The third time they do that, instead of acting defeated by the river, he simply tells the other actors to stop it and they drop the sheet and let him cross. It was funnier than it sounds, I'm sure.

Well, when I left the theater, about 4:45, can you guess what it was doing? Raining again. And this time it just went on and on, and somewhat heavier than earlier. I made my way toward Marks & Spencer to have supper and passed another author sign along the way:

After my light supper (supplemented by oatmeal back at the hotel) at M&S, I left in--can you guess?--more rain. You will be pleased that I didn't actually strike and fling bricks at any of the people on the sidewalks standing in the way and slowing everyone down in the rain, but I can't say I wasn't cussing at them under my breath. I am not a very nice person after I crack under the strain of way too much awful weather, made worse by people who seem determined to trap you in it as long as possible.

And so here are your tips for pedestrians in London:

1] You have no rights. Don't make the mistake of thinking that you do. If a cab or bus driver wants to jump the curb and smash you flat, he will. There will be investigation into your death. There will be no charges filed.

2] The fact that there are WALK/DON'T WALK signals at major intersections means nothing at all. The signal will show WALK at best for 30 seconds every hour. Even if motor traffic is stopped all four directions, the DON'T WALK signal will still be lit. If you insist on waiting for the WALK signal, it will take you 6-8 hours to walk half a mile and, on a day like today, you will certainly catch pneumonia in the process. You HAVE TO CROSS against the light, most of the time. Of course if a cab or bus driver smashes you flat when you are doing so, see 1] above.

3] If at all possible, the traffic engineers of London will make it impossible to cross a street in one go. Crossing a major street can actually involve using four separate crosswalks with four separate WALK/DON'T WALK signals, none of which will be timed to operate together. In this situation, if you insist on waiting for the 4 separate WALK signals, it can take you as long as 4 hours to walk 150 feet. A prime example of this is Hampstead Road at Euston Road.

4] London sidewalks are not actually designed for walking. They are designed for standing upon and handing out advertising flyers and free evening newspapers; OR for parking your baby buggy, longways across foot traffic, while you carry on a conversation with someone else with a baby buggy 15-20 feet farther down the sidewalk; OR for standing four abreast in a family group and preventing any movement in any direction.

By the way, London is quite an international city, and I don't know how many languages you might hear spoken on the streets. What is more remarkable than the non-English speakers, however, is the prevalence of English speakers from whom you cannot understand more than 1 word in 50. There are big, tough-looking men on the streets of London, who give the impression that they have played on rugby leagues all their lives, but have played AS THE BALL, and who speak English with no consonants at all: it's all vowels and glottal stops. But then why not? One is bound to suffer psychological damage when the cumulative lifetime total of hours of actual sunlight one has experienced is a single digit number.

Which brings up the issue of "sunrise" and "sunset". By this time of year the gap between "sunrise" and "sunset" is at least 16 or 17 hours. The trick, though, is that the terms are entirely metaphorical. When the percentage of time the sky is covered by cloud is equal to the reputed purity of Ivory soap (99.44%), the odds of actually seeing the sun as it climbs up or down the horizon are not high. "Sunrise" means: that time at which the clouds begin to seem less dark; and "sunset" is of course the opposite: that time at which the clouds get even darker.

In Malta my daily routine was 85% eating and walking; here in London it is 85% eating, walking and removing or reassuming multiple layers of clothing. It is possible to be comfortably warm INSIDE. It is NOT possible OUTSIDE. Outside there are two conditions: cold and hot. If one is sitting or standing still, one is cold, despite that four layers of clothing one is wearing. If one is walking at a rate of 4-5 miles per hour, then one is hot if one is still wearing those four layers of clothing. If one removes one layer, then one is cold again. At this point, I can feel no hesitation in making this recommendation: if any one of you ever hears me again utter the words, "London is a wonderful place," even if I attach the qualification "despite the weather," you are instructed to wallop me in the head with a shovel and bury me alive.


Sheila Ryan said...

Wallop your head with a shovel. Right.

Sheila Ryan said...

"Why, sir, when a man is tired of London . . . "

Durando said...

Sheila, you beat me to it!

Sheila Ryan said...

Only by an hour and a half, Durando.

Cooper Renner said...

Walk three miles in the rain and you'll be tired of London too.