Our first morning in the “Hampstead” flat (I’ve put that in quote marks because it is really, as I have said before, in Gospel Oak) was very leisurely. Perhaps too leisurely. After all the travelling the day before, we were slow to boot up, and ended up arriving at tourist destination number one – the Natural History Museum – at precisely that time mid-morning when the queue is half a mile long.
Rewind a bit.
Husband and I had debated the best route to the Museum from Belsize Park tube. We decided to split into two teams – boys v girls – and see whose route was quickest.
Daughter and I won, natch, though that’s possibly because I hauled daughter as fast as her little legs could carry her through the Underground, insisting she walk up all the escalators.
“It’s not a race, Mum, slow down!” she told me.
“No, you’re right, it isn’t a race,” I said, ashamed. “But I want to win.”
When we arrived at the Museum, we were halted by a slow-moving snake of people. I weaved through them, round them and past them, until we arrived at the steps of the museum and I realised this snake of people was, in fact, the queue to get in.
I called husband. “Where are you?”
“Just arrived. Where are you?”
“At the top of the museum steps. Have you seen the queue?!”
“Yes. That means you won.”
“Oo yay!” I cheered. “But could you find the end of the queue and we’ll come and meet you there?”
Daughter and I weaved round and past the queue back again to the end, and joined husband and son. It took 40 minutes to get into the Museum, the last 10 of which were in a sleety rain driven sideways by a gale. I am uncharacteristically patient in a queue, but my tolerance is always pushed beyond its limit by queue-jumpers, a couple of which we did experience.
“Oi!” I yelled. “You’ve jumped the queue!” They pretended they were deaf and stayed put, so son and I growled for the next five minutes.
“Leave it,” said husband. I left it. We were on a family outing, so I had to make the effort to suppress the rat-race rage that London brings out in me. We whiled away some of the time queuing trying to work out which room it was that Paddington was captured in by the wicked taxidermist Millicent Clyde, as she prepared to part him from his fur.
The queues did not dispel in the Museum itself. It was very, very crowded. We were jostled around the quite brilliant insect and creepy crawly section, being elbowed as we marvelled at the gigantic scorpion model and all the many and varied bugs and creatures that can be found in the average kitchen (ew); and were nothing short of tortured as we pushed our way round the dinosaur section. This was so overcrowded that a member of staff shouted, “KEEP MOVING! KEEP COMING THIS WAY!” and didn’t seem to want us to stop and actually read the information about the exhibits. It was basically a sort of slalom round dinosaur skeletons.
We finished our Museum trip in the human biology department, which totally mortified son – the very start of this section looks at human intercourse, with large images of SPERM and OVA, and the mechanics of INTERCOURSE.
“Look at this,” I said, only half innocently.
“I know all about it, Mum,” said son, and he whizzed through, keeping his back turned to me and all the offensively embarrassing exhibits. It sucks to be a 10-year-old boy. With his mum. Looking at sperm.
Our energy levels were perhaps compromised by the crowds and mayhem, and we decided to bail out after only those three sections of the Museum. A shame but, compared to our experiences later in the week at other museums and exhibitions, the Natural History Museum was something of an anticlimax, despite the efforts of its curators to make it an interactive and submergent1 experience. The only submerging we did was into the human soup of visitors.
We escaped into the sideways rain outside and bolted for a nearby Japanese restaurant for a spot of lunch. We’re a bunch of Japanophiles, and always fancy a bit of sushi or some ramen. The restaurant we found ourselves in was Tombo – Japanese for dragonfly. I found this especially exciting because I had recently had a dragonfly tattooed on my back. Husband suggested I show them it so we could get a discount. I didn’t, of course. And it was perhaps fortunate I didn’t, since I have now discovered that the dragonfly is a samurai symbol, and exposing it in the restaurant might have led to the staff venerating me, and that would have just been embarrassing.
I ordered a miso salmon don rice, a plum bellini and a hot sake.
“Oh,” I said when it all arrived. “I didn’t mean to order a hot sake. I wanted a bellini and a hot matcha.”
“I thought you were going a bit overboard on the alcohol,” said husband.
I drank it all, of course. I was very jolly that afternoon.
Husband and daughter returned to the flat while son and I set off for the Science Museum. The visit to the Science Museum was also sadly rushed, since we were due to go to the theatre off Shaftesbury Avenue that evening. We would have to get in some quick learning at the museum, followed by some food, and then on to Theatreland, meeting husband and daughter there. It was a punishing schedule.
I’m not sure we got the best out of the Science Museum, unfortunately. We took in the Mathematics section, looking at the world’s first computers and Babbage’s calculating machine, Difference Engine No1. We also walked round the Information Age, looking at the evolution of communications and information technology. I did rather flag here, and sat down while son wandered round reading the exhibit info. Before we were chucked out at closing time we also had a quick gander at the Clockmakers’ Museum, which was full of the most exquisitely intricate pocket watches, with beautiful, enamelled colours and detailed engravings; and the Energy gallery, where we spent several minutes giving ourselves electric shocks on a pole.
And then east to Theatreland. “Stop calling it that!” said son. “It sounds like a children’s TV programme.”
“But that’s what it’s called,” I said. “The area is known as Theatreland because of all the theatres.” Son couldn’t believe it. He thought I was being childish. We got off the Tube at Piccadilly Circus rather than the closer station of Leicester Square, due to overheating on my part. As we emerged2 from the Underground son began marvelling at the scene above him.
“Oh. My. God. Wow! Look at that!” Anyone would think he had never seen illuminated advertising boards, which is bonkers, since he has been to Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, which is a writhing sensation of humanity and noise and billboards. “Piccadilly Circus is my favourite place in London,” concluded son.
We walked the length of Shaftesbury Avenue, and I pointed out all the theatres justifying its name. Having time before meeting husband and daughter, we decided to stop off for a quick snack at Shake Shack, a place I have no intention of ever returning to. “That’s the third man I’ve seen with those things,” I commented as we sat down.
“What things?” asked son. I pointed at a bloke on another table.
“I saw a man on the Tube with those earbuds in his ears – there are no wires attached, and I thought he was a one-off, but now I’ve seen two more people with them.”
“They’re Bluetooth earbuds, Mum,” said son drily.
For some context here, I worked on a gadgets and technology magazine for three years. The existence of Bluetooth is not a mystery to me. I laughed at myself. “They don’t look very comfortable,” I said. “I don’t think I could keep those things in my ears all the time.”
Despite the exhaustion induced by our first day as tourists in London, we were all quite excited about going to the theatre that evening. I always love going to the theatre, and will never get over the sensation of it being a treat, a luxury, a hugely entertaining night out. The queue was highly populated by children who clearly shared my sentiments. Son and I made it to the Cambridge Theatre at Seven Dials, where we bought a programme and some snacks, before waiting outside for husband and daughter, taking in the buzz of the audience members gathering at the doors, and laughing at the road rage of drivers gridlocked at the roundabout, who seemed convinced that repeatedly beeping their horns would magically make the traffic move.
The Cambridge Theatre is small and intimate. A wee boy making his way down the steep steps to his seat exclaimed, “Oh my golly gosh!” clearly overwhelmed by the atmosphere, the precipitous stairway, the velvet seats, the colours and lights of the stage below us. (He reminded me of my first visit to a London theatre when I was about six, with my Mum, my best friend and her mum. We had travelled into the capital from our homes in Sussex. Walking into (I think it was) Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House to see La Fille Mal Gardée the ballet, I looked up at the ornate ceiling miles above me and declared, “Gor blimey!”)
We saw Matilda the Musical. It was immense. Joyous. The songs were catchy and elicited either laughter or sobs. The story, of course, was brilliant. And the acting by the predominantly young cast was spectacular. I was reduced to happy tears.
1 I suddenly, having typed out this word, doubted its existence. Indeed, on Googling it I could find only submerge, submergence and submergible. But I’m keeping submergent because it makes sense. (I am contributing to the evolution of language.)
2 Emergent exists as a word. Why shouldn’t submergent?