Getting around London is a delightfully odd experience. You only have to look at a map of the Underground to know what I mean -- it looks more like a circuit board than a map. And yet, on a practical level, it all seems to work beautifully.
Okay, okay. I know. It isn't really all that wonderful. There are lots of bad things about the London Underground too, but I still think the charms far outweigh the shortcomings. Sure, the platforms are too narrow, but the stations and tunnels have so much joie de vivre that it doesn't really matter. You can't get that kind of atmosphere in the US anymore, and I think it should be preserved. If that means the occasional loss of a couple of over-crowded pensioners, so be it. That's the cost of living in an antique city.
It is true that the tunnels and stairways can be pretty confusing at times, and the rush to catch your train can be like running with the bulls in Pamplona, but that's the price we must sometimes pay for the privilege of traveling from place to place without the aid of horses.
Some commuters complain about the stink of urine in the passageways and stairwells. Night after night they curse the poor ragamuffins that linger in the corridors. They pass them by without ever realizing that they, too, once had jobs and homes, only to have lost them one sad day when they took a wrong turn in the tunnels deep beneath Tottenham Court Road and were never heard from again. These are the dispossessed. They gotta pee somewhere.
Without the quaint homeless folks and the crowded tube platforms, the London Underground would just be another colorless and odorless network of featureless, boring, subterranean cattle cars. (Sort of like the Washington, DC subway system.) Those commuters don't know a good thing when they've got it.
Personally, Lynn and I had absolutely no problems with the Underground during our visit to London. Sure, it would have been more convenient if the trains ran after midnight, but we were usually so exhausted after a day spent exploring the Tate or the British Museum, that it really didn't make that much of a difference. We were usually collapsed in a heap somewhere, well before the tube stations closed.
Throughout our stay in London there was the constant threat of a tube strike. Employees were proposing a work stoppage unless the Transit Authority met their demands for better pay and shorter hours. Twice during our visit, strike days were announced, only to be postponed by last minute negotiations. A third strike deadline was then scheduled for what was to be our last evening in the UK and caused us no end of worry. In the days before the deadline, the television and radio news broadcasts were loaded with strike predictions and glib fantasies about the chaos that would follow.
"Shit," said Lynn. "Shit, shit," said Frank. "Somebody just kill me," said Dan.
The news programs were predicting a thirty to fifty percent shutdown of service, and we took them at their word. We had planned to do a great deal of travelling around the city on our last evening -- including a small farewell gathering at a London pub -- and feared the strike was going to interfere with our fun. So we decided to change our departure plans and ended up spending our last night at a hotel near Heathrow Airport, outside of London. We had booked an early Friday morning flight from Heathrow to Amsterdam's Schipol Airport and figured it would be a lot easier making it to our plane if we didn't have to worry about the tube strike.
Even in the best of times an early morning commute from Rob and Avedon's in East Ham all the way out to Heathrow can take close to an hour-and-a-half (maybe longer when you factor in the hassles of transporting our many large, fanzine-laden pieces of luggage), so it made sense to prepare for the inevitable Catch-22 that was headed our way. Prior to this, all our traveling had gone off without a hitch. No booking difficulties, no horrible delays or inconveniences, no nothing. In fact, everything had been going so smoothly that I had, quite naturally, been waiting for the other shoe to drop. I knew it would happen sooner or later, so we took evasive action. Believe me, I know incoming footwear when I see it.
First, we cancelled our final day of museum touring and devoted ourselves to the journey to Heathrow and our "nearby" hotel, The Ambassador Heathrow. The trip from East Ham lived up to expectations and was the closest thing to sheer Hell that I experienced during the whole of my TAFF trip. (Not counting the horrible sight of Greg Pickersgill's butt-crack, that is. But that's another story ... ) The Underground was very crowded that Thursday morning. At times there was barely room enough for the three of us, and even less room for our rapidly replicating baggage. (There seemed to be another bag to carry every time I turned around, dammit.) At one point, just in order to change trains, we had to hire a team of elephants to drag our luggage from one platform to the next.
By the time we reached the airport we had accumulated so many suitcases and bags that we were forced to pay a tribe of renegade pygmy Elvis-impersonating bellhops to assist us in carrying everything to the spot where the hotel van was supposed to pick us up. The line of small, brown, jumpsuited African stewards stretched from one end of the airport to the other -- each one of them with a knapsack or a make-up case balanced on his carefully sculpted pompadour. By the time we reached the hotel our luggage had assumed epic proportions and we were forced to get them their own room.
We got back into London around 5pm and headed for the giant HMV music store on Oxford Street, where former Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell was performing a free, live show to promote the release of his latest solo album. Our timing was perfect. We got there about five minutes before the show started and enjoyed a set that included several Stranglers songs and a really powerful cover of John Lennon's "Cold Turkey." We followed the performance with an astonishing dinner in a nearby Korean restaurant called Arirang, on Poland Street. (It's always a good sign when you're the only Caucasians in the joint.) After the meal we waddled off to meet up with folks at the Yorkshire Grey.
The Yorkshire Grey is one of London fandom's regular meeting places these days and our final night happened to fall on one of their regularly scheduled Thursday night gatherings. We took advantage of this synchronicity and, at Rob Hansen's suggestion, turned it into a farewell party. We met up with Christina Lake (Christ In A Lake?) outside the pub. She had come down from Bristol that afternoon to hang out with us. Christina had decided to bop over to Amsterdam with Frank, Lynn, and me for a couple extra days of fun before we headed back to the States.
In the time it took me to drink my first two lagers, we were joined by a group of other visiting fans and a generous sprinkling of London homeys. Moshe Feder and Lise Eisenberg, who were staying in Britain for another week or two, arrived with Rob and Avedon. Pascal Thomas and his girlfriend (wife?) showed up, as did John and Eve Harvey, and the always smoking Abi Frost. Coughing heartthrob Martin Smith talked baseball with expatriate/rockstar/diplomat/best-selling author/nutbag Jim Young, while international luvbug Owen Whiteoak did his impressive Marcel Marceau impersonation.
In the time it took me to drink ten more lagers, we had to depart for our hotel. It was an hour's trip from the pub to Heathrow, so we had to leave a lot sooner than we would have liked to. (Yeah, about two weeks sooner!) The newspapers were still predicting a tube strike for the morning rush hour, but it didn't interfere with our commute. That trip to the airport was the only time during our visit that the Underground looked deserted. Ours was the last train to stop at most of the stations on our route. By the time we reached the end of the line, we were practically the only people on the train. The airport was empty, too. Our trip seemed irreversibly over.
After a short wait the hotel car arrived to take us to our "nearby" accomodations. With the driver's help, and the assistance of a handy crowbar, Lynn and I managed to interrupt Frank and Christina long enough to get them into the van and get them back to their room. Upon our arrival we discovered that our luggage -- which had continued to multiply itself in our absence -- was now being housed in its own suite of rooms and was busy running up a big room service bill. The next morning the hotel staff actually wept as they loaded the bags onto the flatbed trucks that carted them off to the airport. As they waved good-bye to us, they tearfully promised to name a new wing of the hotel after us and pledged to tell their children about us and our legendary luggage.
The flight to Amsterdam was flawless. The airline had complained that we were an itty bit over the 40 lb limit and forced us to divest ourselves of some of our souvenirs. I was quite upset at the prospect of leaving behind a few of the mementoes that had come to mean so much to me during our visit. (I know I'll always regret sending that Rosetta Stone thingie back to the British Museum. It would have made a damned fine coffee table, dammit.) But I took it like a man and fought back the tears. I knew there would always be a next time.
Besides, I already had plans to help myself to a couple of those little Vermeer paintings I'd seen on my last trip to Holland. I knew they'd make real nice placemats for the breakfast nook. So even though I was sad about having to leave Britain after three whirlwind weeks of adventure, at least I still had something to look forward to.