Friday, 14 October 2011

The Bloombsbury Literary Tour

In which I walk with The Chap's Godmother from Tottenham Court Road to The Lamb in Bloomsbury via a pretty circuitous route, we think about heroes - super and otherwise - and I consider what people say and what I hear.

Ordnance Survey Map: None Used. We used this instead.
Time: 2 hours (including beer & a sausage sandwich)

Rating: Easy

My mother is worried about me wandering round the countryside and being stabbed by a loony. Contrary fellow that I am, therefore, I decided to go to London, where the odds of loony-stabbage are really an awful lot higher than, say, halfway up a Chiltern.

A small note of seriousness before I work up to a picture of a massive statue of a gay icon - look at this. This is the access at my local station to the platforms. They are all like this, and I have yet to discover any lifts. I have the power of my legs and a sling to help me access the train, but people with prams, cat-appreciating, whiskey-drinking, book-writing bearded philosophers whom I once vaguely assaulted with absinthe, people on crutches or with other mobility difficulties, old people, people in fabulous shoes on icy days and daleks (among but a few groups I could mention) are unable to gain full access to the platforms. I'm sure if I rang up three weeks in advance they would work something out for me (probably with the cry of  'go to another station!'), but we seem keen to spend £30 billion on high speed trains to places we can already get to, yet access to our stations is currently pretty poor. I'm just saying.

The Chap's Godmother has the good grace to live in central London (and indeed has yet to be stabbed herself), so sporting a brace of degrees in Eng Lit we decided to enjoy a walk I found here, which takes you on a literary tour of Bloomsbury. I won't go into the directions we took too much, because we just followed the instructions until we got to the pub, and then we gave up. We didn't take too similar an approach to our degrees, I must add, although pubs did occasionally feature.
We started where all great Literary Tours must start - below a giant, golden statue of Freddie Mercury. Allegedly we were supposed to be starting at Tottenham Court Road, but I think we all know the truth: enormous gold Freddie is where it's at.

My friend has the sort of job that steals her weekends to hide in monster caves and occasionally dress up as the Very Hungry Caterpillar. At the moment, she's thinking about superheroes. Now, I think our preferences for genres  can easily be illustrated by one conversation that we had in the third year of our degrees:

"Bye!" she said. "I'm off to look at genre in The Merchant's Tale!"
"Bye!" I said. "I'm off to watch The Matrix!"

It was, I assure you, part of a module charting SF from Frankenstein to Cyberpunk - I wasn't just off on a jolly. Honest.

So yes, I very much feel she has alighted upon my specialist subject; it's not really her sort of thing, regardless of the fact she's currently cross-stitching a dalek.

Our first stop after Freddie was Bedford Square, where the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood used to hang out. It is allegedly the last complete Georgian square in London, despite being a circle.

For me, the key to superheroes - and all sciencey type fiction in general – is that they deal with what we are worried about in the present, even if the ideas or the story were had or set in the past. Superheroes are not about leaping about with pants on the outside; they are therapy. They help us deal with problems sideways on, rather than having to look them in the face, rather like the way I continue to argue that Alien (1979) is about fear of childbirth and motherhood, and not actually about aliens at all (more on that at a later date, I imagine).

Gower Street
Depending on who you are, you can view Freddie Mercury, The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood or any of the people on our walk as heroes, but what is the difference between a hero and a superhero? You can't just do things better than everyone else - Sherlock Holmes is better at deduction than anyone else, but he isn't a superhero. We concluded that the key to superheroes is the concept of transformation of some sort, usually signified by a costume.

Passing by the street in which Darwin used to live, I wondered if maybe it would have been helpful if I could have had some sort of costume when I became a parent, other than the charming embroidery in my nethers. I'm not asking much - a cape would do. Maybe some sort of headgear. Maybe if you get some sort of badge or spangly tights when you are crawling from your bed at 3am for the fourth time that night you might feel a little bit better about it. Not a lot, but maybe some form of glittery accessory might be nice to acknowledge that what you're doing is really bloody hard work.

After Bedford Square, we passed by The Ministry of Truth (or the University of London Senate House, inspiration George Orwell's MiniTrue in 1984).

In 1984, Winston Smith spends his time rewriting news stories to fit in with the current political agenda. Annoyingly, I appear to be doing battle with my very own Ministry at the moment. I have yet to ascertain exactly what its agenda is, but it seems awfully keen on taking what people say to me and rewriting it to make me feel rubbish.

What people say:

What I hear:

Your husband is lovely. You're so lucky.
You're punching a bit above you weight there, darling.

Your baby: he's so good, isn't he?
Why aren't you coping with this better? Look at your baby, he's really good, there are ones so much worse out there. What are you complaining about?

Up three times last night? HA! You should have had my baby.
You're rubbish at this. That baby you've got is easy, and you can't even manage that one.

He's really good looking, your husband, isn't he?

And what's he doing with you, you moose?
I don't know where you find the time.

You neglectful slattern!

Indeed, for many years my husband has been banned from using the phrase 'You have a wonderful personality', because all I hear is the silent addendum 'Which is handy, looking at the state of you.'.

It's complete tosh - people are just trying to be nice. They are saying nice things. This is nice. But why does it sometimes seem hard to take things at face value? I know I'm not the only person who does this. I have friends who hear "He's into everything, your son, isn't he?" as They will reintroduce the ASBO specifically for your child; a fellow baby-led-weaner  hears "Not too fussed about the baby-grows, then!" as I will report your filth to the nearest Health Visitor at the earliest opportunity. I'm not sure why we do this; I'm not sure what purpose it serves, other than to make ourselves miserable. I might be tempted to point a bony finger at the media and the curse of rolling news - we've got to keep the channel full, so let's bang out another story about how older mothers/the unemployed/cheesy wotsits/self esteem issues cause cancer/infertility/lowering of house prices/illegal immigrants/green jellybeans & acne. You have 1000 days to really mess up your child! Make a hash of it now they will be miserable for evaaahhhhhhh! Choosing a nursery or pre-school appears to have been ramped up to levels on a par to an Oxbridge interview; just chill out, people. Chill out.

No.46 Gordon Square
On the subject of misery, someone who seemed keen on lavish suffering - not only of herself, but on inflicting it on others by writing books (both The Godmother and I are united in the fact that we were effectively tortured with To The Lighthouse during our degrees) was Virginia Woolf. We took a detour around Gordon Square to find the house she lived in before she was married.

There are some things I hear a lot, however, that I am able to take as they're intended - wearing a sling, I get a lot of "Doesn't that hurt your back?" from women, and "That looks cosy." variants from men (most of whom I imagine long to have nothing more to do than be strapped to the bosom of a large woman and carted about). I take both of these comments to mean exactly what they say, although some of my baby-wearing friends hear the same responses differently. Mind you, one friend was upbraided by a neighbour for babywearing her son because 'he'll grow up clingy and never learn to walk'. The child, of course, has shown the truth in this woman's comments by abandoning his mother the moment they enter a baby group and toddling about.

The statue of Ghandi in the Peace Garden at Tavistock Square was bedecked in flowers, probably because it was a few days after his birthday.

It's all about interpretations, I think - I'm sure some people out there can mutter negatively about Ghandi or badgers or babywearing or artichokes or whatever. It seems too easy to put a negative side on things when you start thinking about it, which is why I need to winkle out these behaviours with a special pin, because frankly life is too short for all the mithering. And yes, Ms Woolf, I'm looking at you, too. Although the advice , in your case, may be a touch late.

 After Ghandi it was on to Woburn Walk, which is in some way connected to W.B. Yeats (and the sort of odd cult the aforementioned cat-appreciating philosopher might know about), and is oddly paved and treed and quaint and doesn't look very Londony at all.

We didn't make it all the way back to Tottenham Court Road, but instead stopped a haunt of Dylan Thomas ("Was he still under the table?" my father asked later. If he was, he has been peppered with bits of discaded apple rice cake, I fear). The Lamb (Youngs) has the triple virtues of being a proper pub serving proper beer and not looking properly horrified when you march in with a baby. The Godmother had a pint of T.E.A. (Hogs Back [sic]), I had a half of Rucking Mole (Moles), and the chap had a sippy cup of tap water and part of  my sausage sandwich. It may look like we were just having a nice time, but no - this was a careful lesson on gender stereotyping, showing that a girl can order a pint or a half as she chooses. That was exactly it. We didn't enjoy the beer at all. I rather hope that my son will grow up and be happy to order a half in a pub if that's what he wants; I used to go out with some ne'erdowell who would order a half but then tip it quickly into his pint glass, for fear that being seen drinking from a smaller glass would make him appear gay. Because that's what makes you gay; drinking half pints. Oh yes. Enormous golden statues of Freddie Mercury would agree, I'm sure.

Moral guardianship!

We could have gone and finished the walk as indicated on the website, but I needed to get the last off-peak train and so we cut it short and went back to The Godmother's flat. A pleasant afternoon, well spent, and not one of us was stabbed. All in all, a good day.

Things I Learnt

  • My head can interpret perfectly innocent comments as complete tosh.
  • I need to catch my head in the process of turning perfectly innocent comments into complete tosh so I can discourage it from its tosh-turn-innery.
  • The last complete Georgian square in London is a circle, and none of us got stabbed in or around it.


  1. I love you blog! I keep meaning to comment and then failing miserably. Well done on not getting stabbed. I'm loving that K is now known as The Godmother and I do think you are lucky to have such a wonderful husband-what I mean when I say that is 'Please, send him to send my almost useless version of one out.'
    I think you should ready my mad friend Amanda's blog...

  2. Thank you :)

    It was either The Godmother or Aunty Tastybeak... it's a long story and involves my son's nascent nose fetish, so decided 'The Godmother' sounded better!

    I can hire my husband out; I'm sure his rates are reasonable, and his ironing is excellent (when he finds the time). The post scheduled on Friday will be banging on about how great he is, I fear, so I think it's best not to mention it in case his ego swells beyond all proportions!