50 Not Out

In which The Author has a rather disappointing birthday

I expect you’ve been expecting an exciting entry centred on the Celts: Art and Identity exhibition, which I missed by two days last time I was at the British Museum. (It started on the Thursday – I was there on the Tuesday.)
This isn’t an exciting entry centred on the Celts: Art and Identity exhibition. There aren’t even any photos of this latest trip to London. What a waste of forty quid!
My schoolboy error in reading the poster should have taught me to double-check the dates of anything I’m planning to visit in the future. But I was confident that a major exhibition like that would have been in place for at least six months, or maybe longer.
I also had a milestone birthday looming, so I booked my coach ticket to London with a dual object in mind. I could take in the exhibition, and (more importantly) not be in Aberdare on the day I turned fifty.
I was dreading the prospect of walking into the pub and finding the whole place festooned with balloons and banners. There was also the ominous prospect of having to spend the day with my ‘family’ – in other words, Mother (not so bad) and my brother (definitely not good). It was easier to take the path of least resistance and get the fuck out of Dodge for the day.
It was just a good thing I didn’t pay for Rhian to come with me as well. She’s starting her new job today, and had her induction day on Friday. It’s a full-time permanent job, too. (Don’t tell everyone – they’ll all want one!)
Neither of us had slept on Thursday night, because we were too excited about the day ahead. At least I had some company on the second train out of Aberdare. It was quite cloudy when we walked to the station, but the forecast was for clear skies and sunshine later on.
I left Rhian at Cardiff Queen Street, where she was getting a connection into the suburbs, and headed into Queen Street to buy a paper. I walked as far as W. H. Smith, but they hadn’t opened. I doubled back to the bottom end and called into Sainsbury’s instead. Armed with i and the Western Mail, I walked through Dumfries Place into Park Place, and then to the coach stop opposite the Students’ Union. I like Cardiff at that time of the morning, before the traffic builds up and the crowds pour in. Not surprisingly, I was the first person at the stop. I read the paper for a while until the coach arrived, a few minutes later than scheduled.
The driver was a friendly guy named Colin, and we had a bit of a chuckle over my ticket. For reasons best known to National Express, you can’t book online a return journey which sets down at Earls Court and departs from Victoria. He said he’d have to stop at Earls Court anyway, so I was good to go. I found a seat halfway along and settled down to do the i crossword.
With Punk dispatched in twenty minutes or so, I took advantage of the 230 V outlet between the seats. I plugged in my Netbook and did some more work on a project I’ve been potching with for a while. I was so engrossed that I only knew we were passing Newport when we went through the Brynglas Tunnel. I also didn’t pay a lot of attention to the shenanigans going on at the front of the coach a little while later.
We were in Chepstow, and two people who’d booked tickets online weren’t on the driver’s manifest. Colin managed to find them room on board (although not together), and we left the little border town about twenty minutes late. I was immersed in my project again, and didn’t even notice we’d crossed the estuary and were in England.
I glanced up a few times while we were heading east. The promised sunny skies had failed to materialise. There’s not a lot to see when you’re on the motorway, unless you’re an Eddie Stobart spotter, so I was glad I had something to occupy the journey. I noticed the time passing on my screen, and at about 11.00 I looked up to see where we were. We were passing Heathrow Airport. Somehow we’d managed to claw back the twenty minutes and were back on track. I put the Netbook away and settled down to enjoy the journey into the city.
I jumped off at Earls Court, and I remarked to Colin that we’d made good time after all. He seemed quite surprised as well. We wished each other a pleasant day, and I set off on foot to Earls Court Tube station, about five minutes’ walk away. And this is where things started to go wrong.
I’d already put £5.00 on my Oyster card on Wednesday via the TfL website. The payment still needs to be ‘activated’ at your nominated station (in my case, Earls Court) by touching the card on one of the yellow readers. In theory I could have just breezed through the barrier and onto the train. In the Real World, my card didn’t want to play. I was definitely at the right station, but after a few attempts to scan it I gave up and went to the machines instead. I had to pay another fiver to top my card up, which seemed rather pointless.
I know I’ll get my original payment back when it’s not ‘activated’ within seven days, but that’s not the point. Next time I won’t bother with the time-consuming online procedure, and just do it on the day. It put me in a bit of a bad mood, though. Things were about to get worse.
I jumped on a District Line train towards Tower Hill, changed at Embankment, and headed to Goodge Street. I don’t think I’ve ever used that station before. I was surprised that, instead of escalators, it still has lifts between the booking hall and the platform level. My Oyster card was behaving itself by this stage, and I emerged onto the street only to realise that I didn’t actually know where I was. I think I walked in a circle through narrow side streets for a few moments before finding something I recognised.
The BT Tower dominates the skyline in this part of town (Fitzrovia, in case you’re wondering), and soon gave me a fix on my location. I headed across to Gower Street, walked past the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and approached the British Museum from the rear, opposite Senate House. There were posters outside advertising the current special exhibitions, and my heart sank. There was no mention of the Celts. At all.
I went inside, found my way to the atrium, and went right around it looking for any posters about the Celts. There was nothing.
I spent about forty minutes wandering around, making mental notes of things to revisit when I’m more in the mood. You’re really spoiled for choice in places like that, as Rhian discovered when we went to the V&A about eighteen months ago.
The trick is to list the things you really want to see (in my case, the Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Romano-British collections); then the things you wouldn’t mind seeing (the Sutton Hoo hoard, some of the Mediterranean stuff, parts of the Indian and Chinese collections); then the stuff which would be nice, but not vitally important (African and North American items); and then the also-rans, like eighteenth-century busts and modern ceramics.
(There doesn’t seem to be any logic to the layout, either, so you just walk from room to room with no obvious underlying pattern. Maybe that’s all part of the plan – I don’t know.)
Eventually I found the British Celtic exhibits. Actually, I found some of them. Signs on the display cases advised visitors that many of the items are currently at the National Museum of Scotland, as part of … Yes, you’ve guessed it!
I gave up and headed for Waterstones. I’d read a review in the paper about the new film adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise, so I thought I’d pick up a copy of the book. It seemed that everyone else had had the same idea, though, as there wasn’t one to be had. I found Gavin G. Smith’s first two novels, which was a considerable improvement on Cardiff’s no-show a month or so ago. I wondered about buying the first one, and then remembered I’d have to pay p&p on the second one anyway. I didn’t bother.
I walked as far as Warren Street and caught a train to Camden Town. If Bloomsbury had been a let-down, surely Camden would be a bit more exciting.
My birthday present was obviously the anti-gift that just kept on taking.
Camden Market was already becoming a notorious tourist trap last time I was there, about five years ago.
Now it’s ten times worse.
There’s a scene in a Doctor Who episode called ‘Turn Left’, when the Doctor takes Donna to a bustling Chinese market (maybe on Earth, maybe not), and they have a great time looking around, browsing the stalls and trying the food, before the whole story turns incredibly dark and disturbing. In my mind, Camden Market should be like that. It isn’t.
Instead, it was full of foreign tourists, bearded hipsters, ‘trendy’ types, buskers, hawkers, chuggers, living bloody statues, rough sleepers, beggars, Big Issue sellers, and other assorted wankers.
The market boasts, among other things, a food stall offering ‘genuine Peruvian cuisine’. Call me cynical, but probably only one person in ten thousand in London would know ‘genuine Peruvian cuisine’ if they tasted it – and they’re the sort of gap year tossers who’ve done the Inca Trail, funded by the bank of Mum and Dad.
There were plenty of attractive women there, of course, so the day wasn’t entirely wasted. But I was getting more and more depressed as the afternoon proceeded.
I wasn’t even in the mood for taking photos, which is unusual for me. Normally I snap away happily whenever I’m in London, and then spend a couple of hours going through them the following day. But when every idiot and his mother is taking selfies on their smartphones, you wonder if there’s any point.
I walked from one end of the market to the other, and didn’t find anything especially interesting. There’s a nice little statue of Amy Winehouse in the former stables, but so many people were having their photos taken with it that I didn’t bother trying to snap it myself.
Instead, I decided to have a pint in the World’s End, on the corner opposite the Tube station, which bills itself as ‘Possibly the biggest pub in the world.’ It’s certainly huge, and seems to have grown since my last visit.
I’ve been in there a few times, but usually on a Saturday afternoon, when there are more people about. On a Friday afternoon it was relatively quiet. I wasn’t the oldest person in there, but it was a close-run thing. I paid £4.75 for a pint of lager, found a quiet table, and made a few notes about the day so far.
Picture the scene. I was sitting on my own, with a pint in front of me, in a room of complete strangers, on my fiftieth birthday. I’d failed to visit the exhibition which had been the main objective for my visit. Waterstones had let me down yet again. I’d spent a fiver on top of the fiver I’d already spent topping up my Oyster card.
I’d also (apparently) missed a phone call while I was in the museum.
There was no number logged, so it could have been anybody, but I’ve got a feeling it was Mother. I wouldn’t have picked it up anyway, the way the day was panning out.
What would I have said?
‘I’m having an absolutely shitty time, thanks for asking.’
It was marginally better than the same old scene, I suppose – but not much. At least I hadn’t had to make polite conversation with the pub bores, or listen to the Debating Society and the Ancient Mariner droning on in the library. Being out of Aberdare was a two-edged sword, though. I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone who approached me, in fact, even if said person had been the most amazing girl ever.
We couldn’t have had much of a conversation anyway. The music on the sound system was exactly what I was talking about in ‘Static Shock‘. Underneath the World’s End is Underworld, a famous rock/Goth/alternative nightclub. I think I’m right in saying that it was the venue of the Legendary Pink Dots’ last known UK appearance, about ten years ago. It was probably the last time there was anyone there doing anything slightly different from the mainstream.
I drank my pint rather slowly and then moved on to the Camden Eye, on the opposite corner. It was a new one on me, but a board outside described it as ‘Camden’s most awesome pub.’ That sounded intriguing, at least. I decided to have a pint and see what awesomeness they had on offer.
£4.50 for a pint was a little bit more like it, but still nothing to shout about. There was a printed menu on the table, so I had a glance at it. The menu prices were certainly jaw-dropping, if not completely awesome. The barbints were quite cute, but there was nothing particularly special about the place. Plenty of people were coming and going, but nobody was ordering food. There’s a big Thereisnospoon beside the Regent’s Canal, only a couple of minutes’ walk away. Eleven quid for fish and chips in the Camden Eye can’t really compete with their national Friday offer. (I expect the service is rather quicker, though.) There are also plenty of takeaways lining the streets, in addition to the dozens of food stalls in the market. You can’t go hungry in Camden Town, that’s for sure (unless you’re one of the area’s many unfortunate rough sleepers, of course).
I decided to explore the side streets, just to look at the architecture of the surrounding area. The proposed HS2 railway route threatens to demolish many of the historic buildings, and there’s an active campaign to save Camden Lock and Camden Market from redevelopment. (There are no prizes for predicting the outcome of that particular battle, by the way.) I wandered aimlessly as far as Chalk Farm station, then headed back towards Camden and returned to the market.
On the way I passed the Hawley Arms. Ten years ago it was a trendy place, with notable regulars including Ms Winehouse herself and ex-members of Oasis. I wondered about having a pint, just to say I’d been there, but when I passed the window it seemed to be full of ordinary-looking people. It didn’t seem worth the bother.
I jumped on the 29 bus and made my way back into the city centre. On the way we passed the Hope and Anchor, which was a famous music venue in the 1980s. It’s closed, and all the windows are boarded up. According to a piece published in the Camden New Journal about eighteen months ago, it’s going to be converted into flats. It was one of many pubs I spotted which have died, or which have been turned into flats, or which simply aren’t pubs any more.
We ploughed our way through the early evening traffic, back through Bloomsbury, down Tottenham Court Road, crawled along Denmark Street (for some unknown reason), and then went stop-start down Charing Cross Road before terminating outside St Martin-in-the-Fields Church. I jumped off and realised I still had an hour before the coach left.
I didn’t fancy another pint. I couldn’t be bothered with another wasted visit to Waterstones. Instead I decided to walk to Victoria Coach Station. I knew from my previous visits that it isn’t as far as it looks on the map. I set off down Whitehall, heading for the Houses of Parliament.
There was quite a scrum of tourists at Horse Guards Parade, as always, taking photos of the immaculate soldiers on duty. There was a smaller scrum outside the gates to Downing Street, and about half a dozen armed officers were keeping a fatherly eye on them. I’d forgotten how big the gates are, to be honest. The Cenotaph is much bigger than it looks on the TV, too.
I reached Parliament Square and turned down past Westminster Abbey. I was in one of the most photographed parts of the city, but I still wasn’t in the mood to get my camera out. I made my way along Victoria Street, which is an odd mixture of government offices, large shops, and a new block of luxury ‘New York style apartments’, the cheapest of which will set you back over £3.5 million.
There’s extensive redevelopment at Victoria Station, to improve the interchange between the underground and mainline train services. It seems to have been going on for ages, so I skirted the station entirely and headed straight into Buckingham Palace Road. The first time I tried it I got slightly lost. I know the area well enough now that I can get from one side to the other without having to cut through the station concourse.
I was at the coach station just before 6.00, and for once I was able to get a seat in the waiting area. The coach doesn’t leave until 1830, but to my surprise the gates opened at about 6.10, and a driver called ‘anyone for Cardiff only’ to come through. I don’t know why they were running two departures, and I don’t really care. If it meant we didn’t have to stop at Newport on the way home, I was game.
It was Friday evening. The traffic was nose to tail until we were past the airport, and then we picked up a bit of speed. It had taken us nearly an hour to get as far as Slough. I’d been dozing during the first part of the journey, so I checked the time and realised we’d be lucky to get to Cardiff on time. It would only take a small delay on the M4 to throw us off schedule again. Even so we crossed the Severn Bridge at about the usual time and headed straight into Cardiff. Things were looking good – with any luck I’d be able to catch the 2141 train from Cardiff Central at Cathays, and be home by eleven.
My luck definitely wasn’t with me. I jumped off the coach outside the Students’ Union, ran to the station entrance, and was faced with a couple of dozen students milling aimlessly around like sheep waiting to be dipped. The Aberdare train was already there. I charged through the sheep, but it was too late. As I reached the platform the train powered up and pulled away. I pushed my way back through the wankers and made my way into Park Place.
I could have walked into town and had a pint in the Golden Cross, but it hardly seemed worth the effort. It would take about quarter of an hour to walk across town, and a further ten minutes or so to get to the station afterwards, leaving me barely half an hour for a drink. I could have called in the Central Bar, but the chances of getting served in a city centre Thereisnospoon on a Friday night (especially on a Six Nations weekend) are vanishingly small. It would have to be the Pen and Wig again.
Rowland had already warned me that it was another pub which – like the Cambrian Tap (formerly Kitty Flynn’s) – has shifted its focus to so-called ‘craft beers’. He’s a CAMRA member, and views these trendy products with justified suspicion. Hand in hand with craft beers come the inevitable bearded wankers hipsters. The Pen was full of them. There weren’t even any cute women for me to look at while I drank my pint.
I don’t know what exactly happened when the guy at the next table stood up. I just knew that suddenly the table (and a fair bit of the floor) was covered in broken glass. He might have knocked his glass over when he was putting his coat on, or he and his girlfriend might have had an argument. Whatever the story was, it took one of the barbints a few minutes to clear up the mess. I was glad I wasn’t staying.
I walked back to the station, where my friends Nick and Hilary were waiting for the train. They’d been to the Sherman Theatre to see another of Simon Callow’s one-man shows, this time about Orson Welles. It suddenly dawned on me that they’d had a far more enjoyable day than I had. I wondered why I’ve fallen off the Sherman/New Theatre mailing list. Mr Callow’s show would have been better than walking aimlessly around London and looking for somewhere interesting to have a pint.
I got home at a minute to midnight, and went straight to bed. I’ve had far better birthdays, and I’ve had one or two which almost came close to Friday’s débâcle. Better luck next time, eh?
PS I’ve just checked my Oyster card balance online. It seems that my original £5.00 was credited when I went through the barrier at Earls Court, so I’ve now got £5.15 to use next time I’m in town. Let’s hope my next trip has something worth reporting on, eh?
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