07 December 2005

Aliens of London

A couple of days mostly off work have dispelled the snot in my brain to the extent that I can now think straight, or at least put words in an order that somewhat resembles a legible sentence. So, here's the (mammoth and exhaustive) critical write-up I promised following B.'s and my weekend in London:

Thursday: Left work and headed for Bristol Temple Meads, whence to London Paddington, Tottenham Court Road Tube station and The Fitzroy Tavern, the Bloomsbury pub where, for reasons long since vanished in the shiny metal corridors of history, London-based Doctor Who fans traditionally meet on the first Thursday of each month.

This was the first time I'd been, and I had a splendid, if bewildering, time meeting large numbers of people with whom I'd only ever corresponded by email, including such editors of mine as Simon and Lawrence. (Actually, Lawrence and I had met before about six years ago, but he was being a bit vague at the time and doesn't seem to have formed any memories of the event.) Talked writing, Doctor Who and S.F. in general with various people and generally had a thoroughly enjoyable time. I'm likely to go back the next time work (specifically, work in Bristol on Friday mornings) allows.

At closing time I proceeded from the Tavern to my sisters-in-law's flat in Borough, where B. was staying, and joined her in their spare bed.

Friday: We got up late and went to the riotous assembly of food-and-drink stallage that is Borough Market. There we breakfasted lavishly in an all-you-can-eat bread-and-jam café (very possibly, now I come to think of it, the only all-you-can-eat bread-and-jam café) then wandered around saying "Mmmm" at various things. We bought chocolate truffles, exciting dried fruit and (predictably) an exciting selection of bottled real ales from Utobeer, which I'm looking forward to trying once I'm able to taste things again. The only reason we didn't buy any, or indeed all, of the cheese on offer was that we had no way to keep it cool until we got back to Bristol.

Friday and Saturday nights we were staying at a hotel (the Ramada Hyde Park, if you're desperate to know), courtesy of Tesco's iniquitous but helpful customer-bribery tokens. The hotel was decent enough -- big bed, OK shower, adequate breakfast -- but getting our bags across London was considerably less fun. Still, that afternoon we checked in, wandered around the immediate area a little and then headed for The Victoria, a Fuller's pub which had been recommended to us by, and where we'd arranged to meet, various ex-DougSoc types including dogrando, Juliet and Silk.

The pub itself was nice enough, with some interesting Victorian prints (including a very sentimental one of Victoria, Albert and the kids in some kind of bower), standard city-pub food including nachos, and a strangely curtailed range of beer including, absurdly, no London Pride. Still, we had a splendid time chatting and drinking, so hurrah again for vaguely S.F.-inspired social groupings.

Saturday: After consuming large quantities of hotel breakfast (always important when it's all been paid for beforehand), we headed out to two exhibitions we'd particularly wanted to see whilst in the metropolis: The Science of Aliens at the Science Museum and Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia at the British Museum.

The former was rather disappointing -- for the most part, it recycled stuff which could be found in any documentary or "young adult" factual book on Outer Space and / or Science Fiction Films (the only thing it was rather fun to be up close to was a life-size model of the Alien Queen, which kept roaring loudly).

By far the most interesting section -- which we'd read about in a Fortean Times article -- was a room devoted to speculative xenoecology, where scientists had extrapolated alien ecosystems for a pair of theoretical planets, Blue Moon and Aurelia. (The results are apparently also available in glorious CGI-vision in a Channel 4 documentary, which we missed entirely when it was on telly and which, idiotically, the museum shop wasn't selling.) This room was spectacular, with vast horizontal touchscreen-benches simulating the ecosystems in dynamic real-time, tappable icons and menus providing further information about the organisms and their interaction. It wasn't really worth the entrance price, though, especially when the DVD exists.

Forgotten Empire was altogether classier, with a vast number of artefacts from ancient Persia, one of those cultures which modern history tends to ignore and which always fascinate me. (One piece of text made the important point that, while relations with the Persian Empire were an ongoing and defining concern in the history of the ancient Greeks, to the Persians Greece was merely a barbaric and not-very-interesting land somewhere on their borders. Until that Alexander chap came along, of course.) At its height, the Empire stretched from Thessalonika to Pakistan, Khazakstan to Libya, incorporating dozens if not hundreds of peoples and cultures and -- obviously -- nicking all their gold to build great big palaces in Persepolis.

It's the kind of thing I love to learn about, but there's a limit to how much you can understand through even the most well-captioned artifacts. (I probably need to read a book.) There was very little about Zoroastrianism, for instance, although in its influence on later monotheistic religions it may well be Persia's most enduring legacy in the world. (I was fascinated to learn that, when he "liberated" Babylon, Cyrus the Great paid his respects to the local creation deity Marduk, rather in the manner of the Romans appeasing the Gallic gods. Not as monotheistic as all that, then.)

Probably the most impressive objects were the huge chunks of architecture from the royal palaces, including a great big segment of pillar, a couple of giant stone friezes which easily rivalled the Elgin Marbles, and a gold paw the size of a microwave oven, originally part of a lion on the same scale.

Once we'd finished with the Persians, we paid a desultory visit to the Aztec and Bronze Age sections of the Museum -- before heading back into S.F. geek mode for a visit to the huge new Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue, where we admired my books and bought several other people's.

By that point we were knackered, so we finished the day with a quiet meal at the Mahal Restaurant just round the corner from the hotel. Delicious Indian-fusion food, quite different from the one-size-fits-all menus you get in most Indian restaurants (in Bristol, at least -- perhaps the typical London palate is more sophisticated). Being a cheese freak I particularly enjoyed the feta samosas and paneer dopiaza, while B. had a kind of curry tortilla thing called a "frankie". The onion bhajis were also particularly good.

Sunday: Again, we got up late and ate too much breakfast. We didn't have all that much time left in London, but we managed a wander through Kensington Gardens, visiting the ducks and Peter Pan, and spent a while at the Serpentine Gallery. They had a fairly weird exhibition themed around sleep and dreams, which had the big advantage of providing beds to lie on, assuming you didn't mind being treated as a work of art by the other punters.

In the afternoon we lugged our luggage all the way to Richmond -- which again wasn't nearly so much fun -- visited B.'s Granny and picked up the car which B. had left there. Thence back to Bristol via the M4.

Fun, manic, sociable, comfortable, intellectual, romantic, beery, foody, geeky, arty, sleepy: almost everything I look for in a weekend away. We need to do it all again sometime.

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