A perfectly imperfect day in London

Gentle reader, I have a confession.

It is Sunday morning (not quite afternoon) and I am sitting (okay lying) in my cozy bedroom in Canterbury, with the electric heater on full blast. I am on my second cup of tea, and have read only 14 pages of Iris Murdoch. I have read only 1.5 articles in The Globe & Mail. I began an in-home yoga session which lasted for approximately four minutes, at which point I hit Downward Dog and lost interest in an activity that only exacerbated the ache in my calves, brought on (I can only assume) by my day in London yesterday. I have read approximately two-thirds of an article about the rewards of the Stour Valley walk, which I could have completed by now. But I remain in bed, drinking my second cup of tea.

Gentle reader, I am tired.

I say this with a blush, since I am in the lovely Canterbury thanks to the generosity of Canadian taxpayers. I would like to tell my taxpaying readers that I am about to spring from my bed and stride down the Stour Valley pathway, toting my little blue laptop, and stop in a pub (The Henny Swan? The Fighting Cocks? The Tickled Trout? Really, my job here is made far too easy by reality).

I’d like to tell you I will walk over to the Tickled Trout and plunk myself down to write at least ten pages before the sun sets on the Canterbury Cathedral.

But I must confess that I will likely remain in this bed for another few hours, then drag myself down the High Street to Tesco and buy a few groceries, apologize to my flatmate for yet another uninspired dinner, and then watch Offspring on Netflix (yes, yes, I have seen it twice already).

Or, if I’m feeling really ambitious, I will watch another few episodes of Designated Survivor.

Why, you may be asking, is the gentle writer so tired?

Allow me to explain.

Yesterday I packed up my reading glasses, my phone cable and adapter, my extra phone charger battery, my hat and gloves and a bottle of water and set off for London – one of my last forays to the great city before I come back to Calgary on December 12. I planned my day, filled with that I-May-Never-Be-Back-Here urgency. I would catch the 8:20 AM train and go to the British Library, which is just steps away from the St. Pancras station where my preferred train (the high-speed, direct train) would arrive at 9:25 AM.

I would spend approximately 45 minutes in the Reading Room, where I had arranged to see some letters written by Virginia Woolf (something I had never even thought to put on my  bucket list – but now, here is the opportunity!). I had pre-registered online, and I felt confident with the hoity-toity library system, having helped my supervisor navigate the Bibliothèque Nationale a few years ago in Paris). I would sail in, commune with Virginia, and sail out.  I would then scoot up to the Camden Market, stopping for a quick bite at Niven’s, a café described by Tyviano on TripAdvisor as “a little less pret and a lot more authentic,” and then I would prowl around the colorful stalls at Camden, thus killing another bird by finding the ideal Christmas presents for the folks back home.

From Camden I would take the tube (Northern line in the direction of Morden) to the Young Vic Theater where I was to see the first of two plays – both of which (taxpaying readers will be happy to hear) tie in with my research area. The play would end at approximately 4:00, giving me a few hours of free time to do some more shopping and have lunch at one of four historical pubs I found in an excellent online article titled “Proper London Pubs.”

At 7:10 I would alight at the Royal Court Theater and take in play number two, after which I would take the tube (Circle Line east) back to Saint Pancras, stroll forth to my train and relax for an hour whilst being swept back to Canterbury, full of satisfaction with a day well lived.

Gentle reader, that is not what happened.

Here is what happened.

I arrived at the Canterbury West train station in plenty of time to catch the 8:20, and was told there would be no trains from that station today. None at all? No, none; there had been a signalling malfunction.

No problem. Not a big deal. A cute little fly in the ointment.

I walked briskly to Canterbury East and caught the 8:50 to London. So what if it was a little later? A little slower? So what if it stopped at nine different towns on the way? So what if it arrived at Victoria station rather than the ultra-handy St. Pancras, which was located just steps away from the British Library? I would simply take the tube (Victoria line east) to the British Library.

So I arrived at the library an hour and a half later than my original plan. I had to complete my registration process with a real person (a real person? In what world is this necessary??) who gave me a ten-minute speech on how to comport oneself in the library. Which I was expecting, having been through the iron-clad (literally) system of the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Bibliotheque Nationale:  Picture by Manuel Cohen

I would have been okay if it hadn’t been for the pompous man at the cloakroom. He somehow knew that I was a newbie at the British Library; he smirked when I made the rookie mistake of leaving my wallet in my briefcase rather than putting it in the clear plastic bag (the only thing you’re allowed to take into the Manuscript Reading Room).

I then made the rookie mistake of being frazzled by the pompous man and neglected to put my reading glasses into my plastic bag. I also neglected to put my phone cable and adapter into my plastic bag. I had had to use my GPS function to get to Canterbury East, so already my phone was at 75%. I was unable to charge my phone on the milk-run train, which, unlike the lovely high-speed train, has no plug-ins.

But never mind. I was at the British Library, about to read the original letters written by Virginia Woolf just before she decided to pass from this world to the next.

Photo by Central Press

And this, gentle reader, was a moment that is difficult to describe.

At first I looked at the letter from Virginia to her husband, Leonard, and saw unintelligible scrawls of black on aged ivory paper. Then I saw at the top of the page, the day of the week.

Had she done this automatically, since she always wrote the day at the top of her journal entry? Or had she wanted to be leave an accurate record of her thoughts before her death? Or had she been in such a state of mental turmoil that she wrote the day before realizing it was completely, unutterably, unnecessary?

Then the first line of her letter came into focus.


I feel certain that I am going mad again.

When I read this line, the whole of the letter began to shimmy and swim. Virginia, scarcely able to concentrate, her head pounding with unwanted voices, had wrapped her fingers around her pen and scratched those lines across a blank sheet of paper, moments before setting out to fill her pockets with stones and walk into the Ouse River.

I sat in the quiet of the Manuscript Reading Room and kept the letters company for a while. I don’t know what I was expecting to derive from that moment of communion, but I was glad I was there. I felt somewhat like an exploiter, a voyeur, witnessing a moment between husband and wife that was such an intimate expression of feeling by a vulnerable woman.

But I knew that somehow (I would need time to digest this experience) the reading – the absorption – of Virginia Woolf’s letter would work its way into my own writing.

This, gentle reader, was a wonderful moment. I took my time in the reading room; indeed, I forgot about the time. I was wandering down to the British Library Exhibition Hall to see the writing notebooks of Jane Austen when I glanced at my phone and saw that it was 1:30. My first play started at 2:30. I had not shopped at Camden Market or had lunch at the authentic (not pret) Nivens café! Indeed, I had not eaten since my half-bowl of muesli at 7:30!  And those of you who know me know it’s best if I eat. But there was no time to spare.

I jogged over to the Saint Pancras station and caught the tube to Southwerk, where the Young Vic Theater is located. I grabbed a pain au chocolat at the station and arrived in plenty of time. My plan, although altered, was still intact!  I even had time for a ploughman’s sandwich at the café near the theater, where I attempted to charge my phone (I did plug it in but it only charged by 2%…why??).

The play, titled The Suppliant Woman, is based on an ancient Greek play by Aeschylus (BTW Aeschylus has the most hilariously ironic death story ever – read about it on Wikipedia, I beg you! Never mind that – I’ll sum it up for you:  Aeschylus was supposedly killed by a tortoise dropped by an eagle – the eagle had mistaken Aeschylus’s bald head for a rock upon which the eagle could shatter the tortoise’s shell.

Aeschylus had been staying outside as much as possible because there had been a prophesy that he would be killed by a falling object – ouch!).

Anyway, this particular play tells the story of a group of women who had been pledged to marriage to Egyptian men, and who end up seeking asylum in Argos. There is no real dialogue in the play; the story unfolds through a chorus of singing and dancing women – the women seeking asylum – as they beg for compassion and express their fear and anger.

It was an incredible performance, with haunting harmonies and powerful choreography. The chorus was composed of a leader, played by Gemma May, the only professional performer. The rest of the women were volunteers from the local community, who gave strong, compelling performances. It’s a modern take on the original – the players are dressed in ordinary street clothes – but it rings too true in November 2017.

A group of women fleeing potential male violence, asking the greater world to believe in their need for asylum, even if it challenges fundamental norms. It was hard not to think of Trump, of Pence, of Weinstein and Spacey, as I watched. It was hard not to think of the Syrian war, the refugee camps in Greece, the Canadians who think Syrians might take their jobs or threaten the peace.

This, gentle reader, was a wonderful moment.

And I was still more or less on schedule. Sure, I had missed the Camden Market and Niven’s café. But I now had time to wander up to Sloan Square, where the Royal Court Theater was located. Plenty of time before 7:30 to be spontaneous and fancy-free. Plenty of time to discover cool pubs.

I have to confess that I never looked up any of the proper London pubs. Why? I’m not sure. By the time I got close to Sloan Square, it was already dark. At a street corner, a group of three people stopped me. The woman, who was wearing a hijab, asked me for help. We have no clothes, she said. The man, presumably her husband, said, Where can we buy clothes here? He and his teenaged son looked around them, confused. We were standing on a vast street corner, dimly lit, traffic ploughing by, enormous buildings (condos? Offices?) on either side.

I stopped and – perhaps inspired by the mayor of Argos – tried to help. I am not from London, I told them in the interest of full disclosure. But let’s use my phone to find some shops. Do you speak French, they asked, and I switched to French. I located a shopping area and tried to tell them how to get there.

Trop compliqué, said the man, looking overwhelmed. They started to move away as I apologized, feeling terrible, but the woman came back and said, Please. Can you give me money for some shoes?

I couldn’t help wondering if the whole conversation had been some sort of ploy to get unwitting tourists to give them money, and then I thought back to the people I met at the refugee camp in Greece, who would likely land on a street corner like this, with virtually nothing, and no knowledge of the city.

I gave her ten pounds. Which, gentle taxpayer, was my budgeted allowance for dinner that night.

Oh, she said. Another ten – I need two shoes! Please, this is not enough.

I lifted my palms. Sorry, I said, and turned away. That was not how I envisioned that moment unfolding. But then again, visions rarely unfold properly.

As I walked the remaining few blocks to Sloan Square, the city seemed to have darkened prematurely. Surely at 5:00 Calgary is not so dark. Maybe it is. Maybe London seemed darker because I didn’t know where I was going, and hadn’t been to Sloan Square before.

By the time I found the Royal Court Theater, I didn’t have the energy to find a proper London pub. I walked by the pub close to the theater but it was too bright or too… something. It was full of families and groups of friends chatting away, drinking their proper London pints, and I didn’t feel like plopping myself down at a table amongst them all and pulling out my cell phone.

So I headed down the street and found a noodle place with long tables where I could sit and look out the window without being conspicuous.

There was nothing proper or particularly London about it, but it was my London I suppose. There were other people eating on their own, texting or reading the paper.

So I perched myself on a bench, stretched out my tired legs and pulled out my phone to figure out how to take the train from Victoria Station to Canterbury East – I had bought a return ticket, unsure whether Canterbury West would ever open that day. The website was glitchy and wouldn’t show me the later trains, so it was hard to tell what time they came, and whether they were direct or not. I knew many of the trains at that time of day required you to change trains at least once. I downloaded the app but it wouldn’t show me trains more than two hours later than the current time.

But then it was time for the play, so I headed to the Royal Court Theater. This play was called Goats, by Syrian playwright Liwaa Yazji.

Liwaa Yazji

The premise was fascinating: the Syrian government was rewarding families of martyred soldiers with a live goat. And the stage was filled with live goats, who, to their credit, were extremely well behaved and convincing.

The production was a bit uneven; I had trouble hearing the actors’ voices at times. But the story was strong – it tackled difficult subjects like the conflict between Syrians who are loyal to the government and those who are not.

At intermission I pulled out my phone to try and figure out the train situation. Still glitchy. It was a long play, and I would likely have to take a train that required at least one change – all this at 11:00 PM or later. I was tired, cranky and my feet were beginning to ache. I had not purchased any Christmas presents and had not eaten at anything resembling a proper London pub. If anything, I had succumbed to the pret instead of seeking out the authentic.

My day was a failure of logistics and now … the problem of the train. But this was not an insurmountable problem. I had made it this far with my plan, and really, for the most part, it had not failed me. Besides, these sorts of experiences build character. This is what traveling on your own is all about. You feel independent. Capable. You have logistical problems but you are agile in your ability to think critically and find creative solutions. You are adept with technology. So I sent my agile fingers flying over the surface of my little phone.

I texted my husband.

I told him about the train and the time and the play, and my tired feet, and the possibility of having to change trains at unknown stations after midnight. I should maybe just leave at intermission, I texted. To be on the safe side.

He tactfully suggested that leaving early sounded like the safest plan. Was there an earlier train that was direct?

Yes, I told him. There was. That much I could see on the gitchy site.

Gentle reader, I left the play during intermission.

Was I just being peevish? Was I giving up? Perhaps. It didn’t feel very Argos to abandon the boy soldiers on stage with their symbolic goats. But I had my own London to contend with, and I would have to accept that today was a day where the plan had failed (only partly) and I would go home early.

Maybe the gods of Argos took their final revenge as I got on the train at 9:00 PM.

I asked the train attendant if it was direct and he said, “Yes, just get on and relax!”

What he didn’t tell me was the train would stop at a total of thirteen towns before arriving at Canterbury East. And the train attendant could hardly know that my car would eventually fill to the rafters with shouting students who had surely spent the entire evening at proper English pubs.

But, gods or no gods, I arrived in Canterbury some two hours later, and after walking the wrong direction from the station, I finally ended up in my cozy bedroom.

I cranked up the electric heater to level 8 (out of a possible 8), ate a Milka chocolate bar (yes, of course, the whole thing) and forgot to plug my phone into the charger. I stretched out my aching legs and watched half an episode of Offspring.

And that, gentle reader, is the last thing I remember of my perfectly imperfect day in London.




Busing it to the bazaar: Or, a new perspective on shopping, hoping, and life in general


What if the Calgary Tower crumbled


  1. Simonetta Acteson

    Such a great read….pretty sure we have all had those days, just not in London…there has to be a plus side for that! And TWO plays in one day….now there is ambition! Thank you for these blogs!! I am transported, even for a short while!

  2. Bill Munsell

    All things considered, London has been a great experience for you…surpassed only by your return to Calgary December 12.

    Merry Christmas…………….Uncle Bill

    • janeechamberlin

      Agreed! I’ve loved my time in Canterbury but I’m teally looking forward to getting home!

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