The Lady Novelist and Surprising London

IMG_0515One of the great joys for me being in London is not checking off things from a ‘must-do, must-see’ list: it’s simply wandering around the streets of this great city, preferably in the company of good friends who love this place as much as I do.

Yesterday was one such joyful day. London gave us one of it’s warm, sunny days – blue sky, a little humid but generally perfect for a meander. Fellow Improbable Presser, Wendy, and I met a delightful friend of hers at the National Theatre cafe for breakfast. (Here’s a London secret for you – the NT does a terrific breakfast and the coffee is pretty good). After a long chinwag with Alexina about feminism, rage, swearing and theatre, our friend Sara joined our table. Alexina had to be on her way, but the NT continued to be a happy meeting place and Wendy, Sara and I stayed on.

Eventually, having spent hours in happy, boisterous, passionate, ridiculous and earnest conversation in turn, the three of us left to walk through London.

London, like any great city, is full of the unexpected. Sometimes the surprises are small and subtle. Sometimes they’re grand and gobsmacking. Sometimes they’re just a fabulous melange of what-the-hellery that both puzzles and engages.

Well, that’s how the Dancing Bubble Sherlock Holmes struck us, anyway.

IMG_0492As we left the NT, one of us spotted a familiar figure in travelling coat and deerstalker hat at the embankment by the Thames. We also noticed glistening bubbles floating in profusion through the air. The three of us being enthusiastic Sherlockians, we naturally went closer to find the meaning of this Strange Affair.

We found a rather zen-like Holmes, impassive of expression yet graceful of motion, using a rope contraption to send cascades of bubbles into the air while he danced, a simple, elegant curve of motion. It was like he was trying to be as graceful as those huge rainbow-gilt bubbles he was sending to the sky.

Charmingly, he was surrounded by children, all squealing and running and trying to catch the bubbles. One baby boy smiled and laughed so hard he seemed about to float up into the air himself with the simple joy of it. Dancing Bubble Sherlock was sweet with the kids, making sure he let loose bubbles they could chase, without ever losing that self-contained serenity of his persona.

It was all very strange, and very beautiful, and very perfect.

IMG_0499We eventually dragged ourselves away from that seen of happiness, only to come across a small group of Morris Dancers, jingling away and inciting an audience member to kiss a prostrate dancer, for only the kiss of a virgin would save his life. A volunteer was handily found, and one he was revived, the rest of the troupe came over with a small case of Death, and had to be revived each in turn, so she gave each man a little peck and they jingled to their feet.

As we moved on, we kept encountering more and more Morris Dancers crossing the Millennium Bridge and converging on the embankment in front of the Thames. Some were in almost warlike face paint, though it was hard to feel threatened when they jingled merrily with every step. Of course, that didn’t stop me from hoping they were going to clash in a giant Morris Dancing Rumble, a fight to the finish to see who had the best bells and hankies.

We moved on, however, to cross the Millennium Bridge with the Tate at one end and St Paul’s at the other. But London had tiny wonders yet to reveal, and Wendy pointed down and said, ‘Look at these little pictures! I’ve seen the guy who does them lying on his stomach up here, painting them!’

So down we looked, and there they were, painted between the metal grooves of the bridge, these cartoony little pictures. Scattered all across the bridge – little buildings, odd machines, people, an insouciant frog reclining on the grooves, a yellow cat. Names and dates and bright, bright colours.

And it turns out, they’re all painted on the squished remains of discarded chewing gum by a man named Ben Wilson.

It’s really every bit as strange and wonderful as Dancing Bubble Sherlock or the Morris Dancer Thameside Dance-off.

So it seems that even when you are not that interested in the Changing of the Guard, you’ve already seen Hampton Court and the National Portrait Gallery holds no sway over you – London will give you unexpected history, wonders, strangeness and delight, even when you’re just taking the time to walk her streets and look.