One of the great things about living centrally located in Europe is that nothing is very far away – and generally not that expensive to get to. If you’re like Monika, you can find amazing deals (she boasts about a roundtrip from Sweden to Italy, via Frankfurt, for little more than a euro each way). But even if you don’t have her luck, you can get some pretty amazing deals which allow you to see new countries or revisit old ones.
I took advantage of this recently to go to London, specifically to see a couple of art exhibits and then some friends and maybe a show. The two exhibits I wanted to see, Botticelli Reimagined was at the Victoria and Albert starting from March 5th and the British Library’s celebration of 150 years of Alice in Wonderland was ending April 19th, so my window to catch both was pretty small. Thankfully, though, it happened to coincide with spring break from school, so I figured I could get away for a day or so.
I checked flight prices and the 31st of March – 1st of April was our winner – So I bought my tickets and started making plans. My first call was to my friend Ian, whom I never get to see often enough. When I asked his advice for getting to London from Luton, the out of the way airport my cheap RyanAir flight was going to be landing at, his immediate advice was “Don’t fly to Luton!”
But we made plans to meet up for the Alice exhibit anyway. I also made plans to meet up with Jonathan, a bookseller I met a few years ago who has become a friend (as well as a professional associate). I was going to pick up a book from him (an early edition of Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and hopefully grab a pint.
So Thursday morning, bright and early, Monika came and got me to give me a lift to the airport. Of course, I had to send her a message at 5am to make sure she was awake – but this is old hat for us. Whenever she goes on a tour, I get up to make sure she gets up in time (She’s always awake when I text, often beating me to the punch, but we continue to do it because you know, the one time we don’t…). So I was up and getting ready to go when I discovered we had no water. Now, not having hot water is pretty normal for us, but no water at all was a new twist. So I took Laika out, brushed my teeth with a bottle from the fridge and threw a hat on, kissed Rasa goodbye then headed out to meet my ride.
Monika got me to the airport in plenty of time to check in and go through security well before my flight. The best, though, was the passport control officer who was questioning my living in Lithuania by asking how they say hello in Lithuanian (Labas is the correct answer, by the way).
The flight over to the UK was uneventful and actually, getting from Luton to King’s Cross/St. Pancras was pretty easy. I pre-bought tickets so all was good. Getting from there to the V&A was a simple matter of buying an Oyster card and putting a day’s worth of travel on it (much cheaper than buying a 1 day ticket) then jumping on the Piccadilly line to South Kensington (Yes, this is me showing off my ability to navigate in London). From South Ken there is a long pedestrian subway which leads to a few different museums so it was easy to find the one I wanted and get in to buy tickets for the Botticelli exhibit.
The museum itself is mostly free (they only charge for special shows and if you’re a member, you get those for free anyway) but the only times I’ve been there, was to see those special exhibits – the last time was for David Bowie Is back in 2013 – and at some point I think I’d actually like to see the permanent collection. Not this time, though. This time I was a man with a mission. I’d fallen in love with Botticelli when we saw The Birth of Venus in Florence and here was a look at how is influence stretched from his own time all the way to the present day.
The exhibit was designed in three parts, with the first part being the most recent iterations, the second being more contemporary to Botticelli himself and the third, Botticelli’s actual work. There were some fascinating pieces (and some I felt were stretching the connection, especially when the artist themselves didn’t intend it, which, for the curators, merely indicated Botticelli’s overwhelming cultural influence.
Many of the descriptions had small examples of the original posted on the informational sheet so you could understand from whence the inspiration derived. This, of course, leads me to my one complaint: The order of the exhibition should have been reversed. It would have made a lot more sense to see the originals in all their glory (with the exception of Venus and Primavera, which do not leave the Uffizi, many of the other works, including Pallas and the Centaur, one of my personal favorites, are on display) and then see the pastiche. This way we would have a nice comparison. Ah well… this is why I’m a writer and not a museum curator.
After enjoying myself there, I made arrangements to meet Ian at the British Library then wandered over to the Natural History Museum to have a spin around the gift shop, looking for things for Speck (and me, I really want to set a story there). Now, I love this museum, most especially the building (I can do without the taxidermic animals, but that’s a personal thing). This time, I was directed to a third entrance, all the way around the far side, so once I was in, I had to walk through the dinosaurs and a few other exhibit halls to finally get back to the gift shop. I was successful, getting a nice historical book for me and a bib with a dinosaur body Speck will just have to grow into.
From there, it was back on the Piccadilly to King’s Cross (yup, right back where I started) to meet Ian. Now, when I asked where we should meet, Ian was rather vague in his answer. “At the big Paolozzi forecourt statue based on Blake/Newton inscribing a circle.” I know, right? I hoped I’d recognize him with such a random location. And yet, when I got there a few minutes before we were supposed to meet, sure enough, there was the statue, exactly as described. Ian showed up and we went through into the library to check out Mr. Dodgson’s most famous work.
This is when I started to realize the theme for this day’s adventure was “reimagining” things. The Alice exhibit, which was free and located not in the libraries exhibition space but instead out on the floor, is all about how various artists have interpreted the text since Sir John Tenniel had a go on the original way back in 1865 (I highlighted the “Sir” since the exhibit failed to give the man his honorific, which Ian so rightfully pointed out).
The original text was represented as well, in the form of the hand-written manuscript for Alice’s Adventures Underground as well as the Appleton first edition pages and the Macmillan 1866 edition (see the link for a detailed description of the printing history – yes, I am that guy) but the more interesting aspect was the way various artists saw the images. Especially as I’ve spent some time recently helping out (in a minimal way) with David Delamare’s edition, which is coming out soon, and will hopefully be considered the definitive textual work (Carroll changed the text through different editions and printings).
It’s one of those things which I think every creative person goes through, the thought that the world doesn’t need another [fill in the blank]. Do we really need another version of Alice? Or to widen the scope, do we need another spaceship story or murder mystery? And the answer is yes, we do. We need your version of the thing, your unique view point to further our own exploration of whatever we’re seeing. This was true earlier that morning with Botticelli and would also be true later that night at the play I was going to see… and it was true here.
As Ian and I wandered around looking at things, we discovered artists who we didn’t think “got” Carroll’s work. Or those, like Salvador Dali or Ralph Steadman, who may have gotten it too well. We saw adaptations into other printed media, like games and cutlery, and even some interesting variations on card games (since Ian is a mentalist – amongst many other things [don’t want to pigeonhole him] this sparked a brief magic discussion).
After our wander, and a brief stop at the gift shop (where Ian made me ask for a copy signed by Lewis Carroll) we wandered across the street for a hot beverage and pastry (again, he made me try something new, which was a candy covered marshmallow stick – the eating of which looks rather…inappropriate. Yes, there are pictures, no, you can’t see them).
We were supposed to meet up with Jonathan at this point. He had texted me earlier that he would be in the city around 4 so that was perfect. As Ian and I continued to chat, 4pm came and went. After 5 I heard from Jonathan again, he was running errands and falling behind. Since I had tickets to a show at 7:30, Ian and I kept chatting and eventually, decided we’d meet up with Jonathan at Victoria Station, which was nearer my theatre. And since Ian was heading that direction anyway, he accompanied me when we finally met up with Jonathan.
We exchanged greetings (and I got my book) but it was too late for a pint. Jonathan headed off to another appointment, I said goodbye to Ian and then headed off to the St. James Theatre (which is evidently now, two years later, called The Other Palace Theatre) to catch a performance of Miss Atomic Bomb.
And again, the theme of reimagining showed up. I’ll get to the show in a minute, but the theatre itself was also an interesting bit of history for me. Many years ago, when I was married before, the missus had been literally raised in a theatre, the Westminster, where her father was the manager. When we’d visit London, we’d actually stay in the theatre’s dressing rooms instead of getting a hotel or staying with friends. In 2002 (the same year the marriage dissolved), the theatre was damaged in a fire and ultimately torn down.
The St. James is what replaced it. So again, there was a reimagining of the space and re-appropriation of the memories into something today is much more positive. Then there’s the show itself.
Miss Atomic Bomb is a new musical set in Las Vegas in 1952. It deals with the idea that people used to book rooms to watch the atomic blasts out in the desert. There’s also an army deserter, some angry mobsters, a sheep farmer with a dream to go to California, and a couple of LBGT characters who sing about being a “beard.”
The cast was pretty good, including Catherine Tate as “Myrna” a fashion designer (although, to be fair, she’s a supporting character at best but as the biggest name, she gets top billing) but the show itself was uneven to say the least. There were some very funny bits, but it never understood itself enough to be coherent. There were a number of possible plots and opportunities for biting satire at the expense of American patriotism, sexual identity and gender roles, and even 50s culture, but none of them shone through.
I did, however, as is my want, meet a delightful young lady named Kat, who spoke perfect English even though she was from Thessaloniki, who was also a solo attendee. We had a great chat before the show and during intermission and when the show was over, said our goodbyes and then I was done with all of my plans.
The only problem was that my flight was still 12 hours away.
So I wandered for a bit. I went to McDonald’s (it was still open) where I could order from a computer monitor and they brought the food to the table. Then it was back to the airport (I did fall asleep on the train and the nice guy sitting next to me woke me to make sure I didn’t miss my stop – “I’ve slept through more than my share of stops, so I just wanted make sure you didn’t miss yours,” he said.”) where I met a nice guy named Phil who was in the royal navy and we teamed up to watch each other’s stuff while we waited for our early morning flights.
Again, the flight back, boarding 25 hours after I landed, was uneventful. Except for one thing. Now, I don’t know if this was new or if I’d just never noticed it before, but the safety card which was glued to the back of the seat in front of me had a cartoon of how to put a safety vest on an infant. I blame the fact that I have heightened awareness now, but who knows.
I finally made it back home, 33 hours after leaving. It was a great trip and one I’d certainly do again.
ETA: And next time I swear I’ll bring Monika a free tourist map. It’s the only thing she asks for and this time I failed horribly (but I nailed it in Belgium!)
Alright, fine… here’s the picture: