26 March 2007

Builders in the midst

It’s been a bracing week here in London. The temperatures dipped lower, almost back into the realms of winter for a spell. There was even a chance to enjoy a little snowfall, as foreshadowed by last weekend’s sudden hailstorm at the end of the St Patrick’s Day parade. There was nothing heavy or cold enough for snow to settle on the ground, though. On two occasions the snowfall was presaged by the rapid blackening of the skies while I sat at my desk at work, and the effect of the encounter was muted by the protection of double glazing and central heating. Only the builders outside the window felt its effects. But one morning the heavens decided to sprinkle a gentle dusting of snow while I walked over the river to Hammersmith Station, and it was a perfect start to the day: just enough snow to cast a romantic air, and not enough snow or wind to make things properly miserable and icy.

One highlight of the week was the chance to meet up with Allie Jacobs (nee Burk) plus her husband Pete and baby Thomas, after work on Monday. I met Allie and her sister Andie in 1997 when touring around England, and have stayed in touch in the years since. I was also lucky enough to stay with the Burk family for a few days in Burlington, Ontario, on my way back to New Zealand in 1999. The Jacobses were enjoying a holiday in London and Paris, taking in the sights and showing their young charge a small corner of Europe. Pete chose the venue: the Sherlock Holmes pub in Northumberland Avenue. Our table was next to a strange room mocked-up with Holmes nick-nacks, behind a glass wall. The mannequin dressed as Holmes sported a strange dark spot on his forehead, which Allie suspected may have been a bullet-wound, rather than a birth-mark.

There’s also been a bit of cricket on this week, and I went over to Steve & Fiona’s one night after work for dinner and to watch a bit of the coverage of the NZ v Kenya match. I also followed some of the NZ v Canada match a few days later on Cricinfo and Radio Sport via the internet. Nice to see the batting improving, but of course the real test will be some quality opposition. But it was a slight pity that NZ batted first in each game. Would’ve preferred a chase, because it would’ve meant I could’ve followed the NZ innings in the evening!

One source of ongoing frustration this week has been the afore-mentioned ever-present gang of Polish builders outside my office windows, working on the exterior of the Nuffield building where the BOA is situated. I’ve no idea what they’re actually doing to the place, but it definitely involves a lot of shouting and clanging. At one stage on Thursday the whooping and bellowing was coming thick and fast every few seconds – perhaps a warning that some heavy scaffolding was being lifted, or a builders’ ritual mating cry – and there was also the astonishingly piercing screech of the scaffold winch, which rung out much of the afternoon, for want of a decent drop of oil.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune could also do with a few other things, like a TV and some bedding here and there. And as luck would have it, The McLean has recently moved in with her debonair chap-about-town, Patrick, and they offered some gear that was surplus to requirements. So in two trips to their chic Vauxhall pied-a-terre, I picked up a little TV set formerly owned by Louise & James Gardiner, and some bedding, which will become particularly useful once I actually get myself into a flat for good. While in Vauxhall we also leafed through Fiona’s farewell book that she was presented with when she left the SCO in 2001 – I’d assisted Trayner in piecing together the many photos and captions.

On Friday after work I made a tactical patrol of Oxford Street to try to sort out some mobile phone difficulties (SIM card inconvenience, nothing substantive). I noticed a throng outside Schuh – a shoe-shop, unsurprisingly. Plenty of young fan-types were queuing both inside and outside the shop to meet someone famous.

This brought on quite a philosophical observation, if I do say so myself. A shoe brand I’d never heard of – “Keds”, which sounds like a defence acronym a la Kinetic Energy Disintegration System – had paid a large wad of cash to a starlet I’d barely heard of – Mischa Barton – to become their ‘brand representative’ in the UK, which seemed to largely consist of Ms Barton appearing in an advertising poster wearing a dress that looked not entirely unlike a white bin-bag liberally adorned with the Keds logo. I didn’t even know what Mischa Barton is well-known (-by-other-people) for. Aside from wearing a bin-bag dress, that is. As I threaded my way through the Oxford Street human maze, I decided that this sensation must be what people in their fifties experience every day of their lives, until they reach their sixties and seventies, and just give up caring.

One other Oxford Street story before I change the subject: this week the Playstation 3 was launched in London. Numerous die-hards had queued on Oxford Street for several days for the right to buy the first consoles. Turns out they might’ve had the right idea: when they were finally allowed to purchase their highly-priced electronics, the first 120 buyers in the queue each received a 46-inch HDTV to accompany their game console. Not only that – when the police mentioned that customers might be at some personal risk, given they were trying to stagger home with not one but two expensive bits of electronics, the promoters laid on taxis home for all concerned. Reports that they also offered to peel the customers some grapes and do their trigonometry homework were unconfirmed.

There were a couple of parking-related incidents this week, which just about led to a double parking title for this post. Earlier in the week one of my employment agents called with a possible policy job for a London council. Sounded interesting at first, and the money was fine. But on closer examination it turned out to be in the council’s parking services department, and the job description included ‘conducting customer surveys and covert surveillance’. Er… not really my cup of tea, I think. And yesterday the double yellow lines at the north entrance to the Hammersmith Bridge were adorned for several hours by what looked suspiciously like an abandoned or broken-down Aston Martin DB9. I just had to take a snap for the record:

Yesterday was one of the first times I’ve permitted myself a little retail therapy. I made a beeline for HMV, where I scored an excellent Eddie Izzard DVD set on special – six of his stand-up performances on disc for only £12 – what a bargain! And at the Virgin Megastore I bought that Calvin Harris single I mentioned last week, although I had to suffer the ignominy of having the actual track come onto the instore radio system just as I was queuing to buy it. I assured the check-out girl that I’d already picked it up before the song came on. I like to think that she believed me.

The weekend was nicely rounded off this afternoon when I caught up with Richard & Sam for lunch in a cafĂ© near Clapham Junction. They’re both well, and they expect to sign their lease for a 2-bedroom flat tomorrow, so with any luck I’ll be able to flat with them for a bit out in the wilds of Purley until something more permanent comes along.

After lunch we perused the stock in a Waterstone’s bookshop, noting a book on Toilets of the World, which featured a picture of the classic stainless steel male urinal in concrete surrounds that graces a formidable venue of some sort in Te Puke, and of course the Hundertwasser toilets at Kawakawa.

Aside from that, one how-to book caught my eye, and I momentarily pondered the strangeness of a world in which someone publishes a book on how to polish things. Who needs a book on that, I wondered. Butlers? Until I looked a little more closely, and noticed that it was a how-to book on Polish, not polish. Perhaps it was written for Londoners hoping to improve communication with their builders.


p.s. Here's a photo in my messy room in Castelnau, taken with the tripod & timer this afternoon.

19 March 2007

Narrow escape of the week

It's been a busy week here in London. A lot to pack in to one blog posting...

It's been grand post-winter weather for the most part - up to 18 degrees in the middle of the week. This was my second week working at the BOA, and one of my lunchtime tasks was to nip around the corner from the Royal College of Surgeons to take a picture of the Old Curiosity Shop for my mother. No-one's quite sure whether this well-aged building is actually the same one that Dickens wrote about, or if it's as old as the hoarding claims it is. The Great Fire of 1666 fell just short of the building, so it's at least of 17th century vintage.

I also took further steps towards rejoining the 21st century this week - I've finally got a British bank account that works. It took a few weeks longer than I'd hoped though, because HSBC sent the all-important approval letter to my old address in Karori rather than my London contact address. Luckily Al was kind enough to forward them to the Tuckers, who sent them on to me. On Saturday I received my first paycheque, so my task for Monday is to bank it and then await the flood of riches that will no doubt ensue.

Much of my commuting to and from the BOA is outside rush hour, so there's no great Underground crush to endure. But one morning this week there was an escalator failure at Holborn station where I emerge into the world. It's the deepest station in the Underground network, so halving the number of working escalators creates a major bottleneck. A queue of several hundred passengers backed up into the connecting tunnels, shuffling patiently but ever-so-slowly one step at a time towards freedom. What lent the scene a faintly absurd atmosphere was the peculiar silence that permeated the station. Not one person was making a sound. No talking, no laughter, no coughing: the stoic resignation of the London commuter. It was as if someone had pressed a huge subterranean mute button.

One minor item of note that reminded me of the importance of keeping a poker face while riding on the Tube: on the way home one afternoon the chap sitting next to me was wearing shorts, all the better to display his hairy legs. And just above his right kneecap was a clearly-etched tattoo of the dual lightning bolts of the Nazi 'SS' logo, presumably self-cut. Charming! Not that there was much likelihood of friendly chitchat. What do Nazis make smalltalk about anyway? Eva Braun gossip?

Thursday and Friday the courtyard outside our BOA office windows was filled with the clanking scaffold and pithy language of a team of London builders, whose productivity seemed to be inversely related to the proportion of swear-words they employed. One foreman was particularly displeased that a colleague had left his van doors unlocked, and subjected the miscreant to a lengthy diatribe that sizzled the air. The builders' scaffold winch was also constantly dragging pipes up past the windows with a desperately loud grinding squeal. Unfortunately the BOA's radiators only have one setting, which is 'blast furnace', so there was the choice between head-pounding noise outside or skin-melting heat inside. The things we do for a crust!

The contract market for analysts is pretty quiet at the moment until the end of the financial year in a couple of weeks, but I did have one interview this week. This was for a three-month contract at the Judicial Appointments Commission in St James' Park. It would've been a great position, what with Parliament Square only 300 metres away, but I found out at 5pm on Friday that it had gone to the other interviewee. Not the best start to the weekend, but at least I got positive feedback from the interview.

Once I got back to Castelnau Friday improved considerably as I listened to New Zealand defeat England by six wickets at St Lucia in their first Cricket World Cup group match. The BBC Test Match Special coverage featured Brian Waddle and Ian Smith, so there was plenty of New Zealand commentary on offer. After a tentative start in which NZ slumped to an alarming 19-3, Styris and Oram sorted out the run-chase and everything went swimmingly.

On Saturday I paid a quick visit to town to check out my old weekend haunt, the Mr CD discount music shop in Berwick Street, Soho - the street where the cover photo for Oasis' What's The Story Morning Glory was taken. The shop is as cramped as ever, but still has some great bargains. In the interest of economy, I only bought two £2 discs - Idha's second album on Creation Records, and an album by the shouty Futureheads. Back in SW13 Hammersmith Bridge was crowded with spectators as young rowers raced coxed eights downriver in fierce arm-straining competion (pic).

Later that evening I headed back into town on the Tube (sitting across from an otherwise immaculately-dressed gent wearing one black shoe and one brown shoe) and met Felix and Gavin plus their mates at Pizza Express in West Hampstead for dinner. Seemingly everyone at the table is going to Iceland soon or has already been. Then we headed up Mill Lane to a pub called The Alliance, which had a good local crowd, mainly of more senior types out to celebrate St Patrick's Day with a meal and a Guinness. (I stuck to Strongbow though!) Entertainment was provided with the tense but ultimately stunning Irish 3-wicket upset victory over Pakistan in the World Cup, which brought cheers from the whole bar. (A day later the news was sadder, when it was reported that the Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer had died in his hotel room in Jamaica).

Today's activities revolved around the 6th annual St Patrick's Day parade from Hyde Park Corner to Trafalgar Square. St Patrick, you will recall, is famed for casting out the snakes from Ireland back in the day - although given that this was reputed to have occurred around the 5th century the details are understandably a little bit hazy. The parade was held in London basking in warm sunshine on the day after St P's Day, because it was jointly staged with Dublin - some of the performers in Dublin's Saturday parade jumped on a plane to London to take part in London's the next day. I met F & G at Green Park, and we watched the long train of marchers, bands, dancers and performers romp by. London's mayor Ken Livingstone was up near the front, although he didn't do much romping as far as I could see. There were excellent Irish pipe bands, wee girls doing the flicky-foot dancing thing on the back of floats and many stilt-walkers and strange contraptions. The parade also featured the world's smallest club: the London Irish Temperance Association. (Six members, all a sprightly eighty-ish). There's plenty of my photos on Flickr to peruse. But not of the impressive hailstorm that brewed up just five minutes after the parade ended - proper cold and stinging it was, until the safety of the Underground was reached.

Book of the week: 'John Burnet of Barns' by John Buchan, 1898 - a rollicking tale of 17th-century Highland swashbuckling. A nobleman wronged by a dastardly cousin, and framed for a crime he didn't commit; a loyal manservant and shieldman given to spouting incomprehensible Highland gibberish; and a bonnie Scottish maiden steadfastly awaiting the return of her beloved. All good stuff from the author who later wrote the classic spy tale The Thirty-Nine Steps (filmed by Hitchcock in 1935) and who also became the Governor-General of Canada from 1935 to 1940.

Song of the week: 'Acceptable in the 80s' by Calvin Harris - pure neon synth disco-pop sleaze, and a sure-fire floor-filler. I initially thought the lyric about 'all you girls born in the 80s...' was rather dodgy, but then it occured to me that girls born in the 80s could be 27... Yeah, or 17.

Narrow escape of the week: Walking down Kingsway in my usual lunchtime daze, I espied a pound coin on the footpath. Just as I started to stoop to scoop it up, I looked more closely and spotted that it and a few other strewn coins belonged to a prostrate tramp lying against the roadside railings. Nearly taking money from a homeless person: talk about Robin Hood in reverse!

Next week: The 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain will be marked with ceremonies. And there's some rumours of snow for Monday or Tuesday. Looking forward to that!

Best wishes to all,

12 March 2007

The world's biggest urinal?

An update on the weekend's exploits:
I've still not received a paycheque yet, having only been working for a single week, but there was obviously no way I'd turn down the opportunity for a Friday night in the West End!  Fiona and Patrick were dining at the Cork & Bottle in Leicester Square, and invited me along to catch up.  I had a little trouble finding them at first, because they were secreted in a subterranean niche at the back of the downstairs bar, perhaps part of an old wine-cellar.  There was plenty of room as long as you didn't stand up: the roof was just over five feet high, and the bar owners had thoughtfully installed handholds loops in the entranceway, to facilitate a paratrooper-style swinging entree.
McLean and Pond are both in good form of course, and enjoying their new flat in Vauxhall.  (I love how the Tube announcements pronounce it "Vawx...hall", generally preceeded by an emphatic "This!", so the whole phrase emerges in the style of a RADA-educated thesp declaiming to the back rows: "This!  ...is Vawx...hall...  Alight here for The Oval Cricket Ground".  None of this "Voksill" nonsense, never you fear).  It was great to catch up with them and have a good old chat.  Soon enough they'll be jetting off for a holiday in Morocco, which may well include a stay in the beautiful Atlas Mountains.  And Patrick's father was there too, so I can say I've met a proper English grown-up now.  Apart from Anne, my boss at the BOA of course, who is fairly grown-up herself.
On Saturday I zipped into town to visit the TNT Travel Expo near Holborn.  There were several dozen stalls advertising backpacker tour companies, hostels and destinations, and all were absolutely thronged with hundreds of backpackers - some of whom had even remembered to remove their daypacks before pressing through the crush.  All of the maximum-occupancy backpacker flats in Putney and West Hampstead must've emptied out for the day to come to the Expo.  I gathered a helpful selection of pamphlets, including a free mini-Rough Guide to Wales and some interesting guff on backpacker tours in France, Spain and Egypt.  As I wasn't exactly pressed for time, I also attended a half-hour talk on travel in Egypt by an Aussie woman who has lived in Cairo for the past six years.  It was fairly informative and had the overwhelmingly positive benefit of being free, but I was itching to say something when she claimed that the Nile is the world's only northwards-flowing river.  (What she meant was it's the world's longest northwards-flowing river, or that it's probably the only one people have heard of.  Here's a list of northwards-flowing rivers if you desperately need to read about them.  You know you want to...). 
This morning being cleaning time, I attacked the bathroom in flagrant contravention of generally recognised policies on chemical warfare.  Having never given much creedence to the need to polish glass, the task of cleaning the shower-stall proved to be a major challenge.  In the end I settled for a perfectionist's approach - a minute centimetre-by-centimetre approach to polishing that would've done the Royal Household proud.  Well, there's a first time for everything, isn't there?  
After that outburst of excessive hygiene, I ventured forth into London's balmy warmth.  By late afternoon the temperature was topping 16 degrees.  And that's not a mis-print.  Naturally I managed to completely misread the way the weather was shaping up, and over-dressed for the occasion - nothing like a good winter perspiration attack.  In any case, I decided to make use of the splendid weather and take a turn through Hyde Park.  Starting at Hyde Park Corner, I ambled past neatly-trimmed hedges, small fountains and the well-trodden turf of the horse-riding track: the old Rotten Row where high-society Londoners used to dress to the nines and ride in their open-topped carriages to see and be seen:
Forsooth, and on a livelier spot,
The sunbeam never shines
Fair ladies here can talk and trot
With statesmen and divines
Could I have chosen, I'd have been
A Duke, a Beauty, or a Dean.
- Frederick Locker Lampson (1821-95), 'Rotten Row',
Given the gleaming sunshine, it was also a good opportunity to take in the Albert Memorial, just across from the Albert Hall.  I attended the re-opening of the memorial in 1998 (I think) when the Queen stood in the cold night air barely 50 metres away from me and gave a nice little speech about her recent ancestors.  Now Albert is surrounded by fields full of multi-cultural Londoners playing football, frisbee golf, roller hockey, softball and a myriad of other sports.  The Memorial is still an explosion of architectural grief that's out of step with all around it, with lamenting golden angels serenading a gilt-drenched prince, but it certainly stands out amongst the other much more restrained monuments around London.  
Before I left Hyde Park it seemed churlish to miss out the memorial fountain dedicated to Diana, Princess of Wales.  Problem was, I had no idea where it was or what it looked like.  I knew it had proved controversial when it was unveiled in 2004, again by the Queen, but that was about it.  The supposedly handy signposts at the major path intersections weren't much help either, as several of them contradicted each other.  (Mind you, I'd not be surprised if idle London youths make a point of redirecting the signposts to confuse tourists...)  I eventually located it, and was instantly underwhelmed.  The fountain is an 80-metre concrete oval sunk into a slope facing the Serpentine.  Water is pumped into the races at the top and flows down each side of the oval, until it reaches the bottom where it collects in a reflecting pool and is then pumped back up to the top to start the journey anew.  It's meant to symbolise Diana's supposed 'inclusiveness'.
But, at the risk of appearing disrespectful, what it really puts you in mind of is the world's biggest urinal.
Architecture critic eT 
p.s. For photos of the Albert Memorial and the Diana fountain, see the Flickr link.

08 March 2007

Casually does it

Oh right, a blog is for, like, writing down what you've been doing and stuff. Me forgotted.

So! This week I've been working some casual hours at the BOA where I used to work back in the day. Not much has changed - in fact there are still four people there from my last BOA stint eight years ago. I've been helping out with the orthopaedic manpower census, which has enabled me to line up some funds while I search for a good analyst contract or suchlike. One definite highlight is the hours - at the moment I'm working 10 to 4, which is I've rapidly decided is the way the world should be all the time.

There's also a certain contentment in just wandering over the bridge to Hammersmith in the morning and hopping on the first Piccadilly or District Line train that happens along - it takes no time at all to get to the West End. If I don't have a book with me, I can always peruse one of the quite decent free newspapers on offer at most stations, or buy one of the former broadsheets (now tabloid-sized, like the, err... tabloids) and be tempted by numerous free offers. For example, this Friday if I buy the Times I think it comes with a free copy of Len Deighton's "The Ipcress Files". On Saturday I got a DVD copy "The Killing Fields" with my morning paper. And if I was desperate enough to buy the Telegraph, I'd get a free bottle of Evian to wash away the fusty aroma of general unpleasantness.

Before I go completely tangential, one other major plus of working at the BOA is that the cafeteria in the basement of the Royal College of Surgeons does tasty cooked lunches for GBP2.05. Can't be beat. And I must pay a return visit to the Hunterian Museum upstairs, which is a famous and well-heeled medical museum. The collection was purchased by the government in 1799 and first exhibited in 1813, don'cha know.

As far as future employment prospects go, a longer-term contract will most likely come my way through one of the three agencies I've signed up with. I keep in touch with the consultants there on a weekly basis, and occasionally they ring me with suggestions for possible work. Nothing solid yet, but it's early days yet and it's likely to pick up closer to the end of the financial year.

I'll definitely be keen to get my first pay so I can start spending a little money, and then the next target will be that aforementioned good contract, so I can get some more gear and search for a more permanent flat. The lure of the fab '3 for the price of 2' book deals in all the shops, and all the music gigs that happen every week, and the clothes sales, and all the travel there is to get stuck into... let's just say I'm drawing up a list and checking it twice.

I've not been watching a great deal of TV lately, despite Eleanor and Aaron having a gigantic LCD screen with plenty of Sky bells and whistles. A few episodes of the omnipresent Friends and a Daily Show here and there. But one highlight of the viewing week was this season's finale of Top Gear, in which the lads had to convert regular cars into stretched limos. Clarkson turned a Fiat Panda into a 46-foot monster with a turning circle about as wide as the Colosseum; Hammond turned a convertible MG roadster into a vastly long open-top limo with a 15 foot high spoiler; and May welded together the front halves of a Volvo and an Alfa to create a schizophrenic double-ended motoring catastrophe. And then they had to use the cars to chauffeur actual celebs to the Brit Awards in Earl's Court. Which is a bit hard when your limo snaps in two going around a bend. (There are a couple of pics here)

Best wishes to all and sundry! Shall report soon on my ongoing campaign to get myself a job, a life, and a super posh accent to boot.


04 March 2007

Who could fail to be swayed

...by the prospect of seeing the legendary Don Johnson playing the lead role of Nathan Detroit in the Piccadilly Theatre's production of Guys & Dolls, I ask you?

The Underground is plastered with advertising posters for it. What, they couldn't afford The Hoff?

But at least that goes to show that London is quite a bit cleaner than it used to be. Back in the day, faces such as Mr Johnson's would have been liberally adorned with knots of used chewing gum, which served the dual purpose of spontaneous consumer feedback on Underground poster advertising campaigns, and solved the problem of the lack of rubbish bins for commuters.

02 March 2007

(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais

First off, let me explain for those who don't know, that the title is a song by The Clash...

Anyway, this afternoon as I was strolling up Shepherd's Bush Road to the Hammersmith Library there was a boisterous gathering of indie rock fans and photographers outside the Hammersmith Palais, all awaiting the arrival of interesting young rock types for the 2007 NME Awards, which is apparently 'the ultimate rock'n'roll bash'. Not for me though, poor be-suited jobseeker... which is a great pity now I know Lauren Laverne (formerly of indie band Kenickie) is hosting. I like her...

But while I didn't have time to loiter in the hope of spotting some snotty young rock legends in the making, I did snap a few pics of the scene as I passed by - the paparazzi were hollering at anyone entering the venue in a rather undignified fashion: 'Oi! Turn right! No, right! RIGHT, I said!!'.

The flower of cities all

After 10 solid days of my resurrected London life, I can report that the capital is still the most splendid of places to explore new sights and rediscover old favourites. It's worth mentioning that without the valued kindness of Steve & Fiona in Deptford Bridge and Craig in Stoke Newington, who provided me with a roof over my head and a bed to sleep on, it'd all have been rather less appealing. So, thanks again folks!

Despite having a decent wedge tucked away to provide for the hard times, I've still been operating on a relatively frugal economy drive since arriving, particularly since I moved into the new flat. (Have also been making use of the Iceland supermarket, where everything seems to cost a pound, and mostly resembles actual edible food: their slogan is "so that's why mums go to Iceland..."). Naturally I've been taking full advantage of the many free attractions that London has to offer. Top of the list is the selection of free admission galleries and museums, which rival the best in the world.

The British Museum has always been a favourite, and I've been back twice already to explore and wander amidst the teeming antiquities. It's always a great buzz to see the rich treasures of the Sutton Hoo cache, the remains of the perfectly carved larger-than-life warhorse from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, or the Rosetta Stone, the hieroglyphic primer that long ago unlocked the secret writings of ancient Egypt.

One rainy day early last week I took the Tube to South Kensington and chose the Science Museum at random, but this proved to be a bit of a tactical error – it was school half-term week, and the place was thronged with vocal youths yammering away and generally squawking as much as possible. I secured some respite by venturing to the back of the museum where the older, less trendier and somewhat older exhibits lurk, largely unnoticed by the crowds. The painstakingly-accurate scale models of ocean liners and battleships in glass cases now attract little attention, but have probably seeded generations of young Londonders with an interest in a life on the rolling main. (Arrr!)

One less-visited but no less compelling destination is the British Library in St Pancras, which is full of the most delicate and wholly remarkable documents. There are two copies of the Magna Carta for starters – bearing in mind that there are only four in existence. The last letters of Lord Nelson before Trafalgar, the astonishing beauty of the illuminated text of the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the original scribbled lyrics of A Hard Day's Night, scrawled in orange crayon by John Lennon; they're all there. One exhibit I'd not noticed before was the first book by Jane Austen – a history of England, hand-written by Jane for her family when she was only fifteen, and illustrated by her sister Cassandra. Even in this early work Austen's nimble wit is fully evident. She sounds like no fifteen year-old alive today.

Aside from the Library's regular exhibits, a short-term exhibition explored the history of London through maps, which proved to be excellent. It was enhanced by a Library story-teller explaining each room of the exhibit to a class of six or seven year-olds at the same time as I wandered around. Normally a pack of children in a history exhibition would be a nightmare, but the story-teller was so good at his job that he kept the children interested and quiet, and even taught the grown-ups listening in a few things they didn't know.

Ranking alongside the British Museum, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery of course remain at the heart of the London experience. Venturing in from hectic Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery is an oasis of culture, with its regal grand halls and aristocratic leather couches oozing restrained good taste. Oh, and there's the artworks too of course. As usual, I paid a visit to Holbein the Younger's The Ambassadors, which made such a major impression when I first saw it ten years ago. Behind the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery is a little more cluttered, but it has a remarkable assembly of portraiture, with a more solid anchoring in the world of the present day to complement the portraits of ages past. Of course it's the old stuff that I'm more interested in though, like the room devoted to Georgian scandals: a portrait of the superstar mistress Emma, Lady Hamilton takes pride of place next to one of her lover Horatio, Lord Nelson. Two legendary figures of their age.

Last but not least, the superb Museum of London is also free to enter, and does a splendid job of setting out the history of the great city, from pre-historic times through Roman origins, Saxon suzerainty, Norman domination, medieval authority, the Black Death, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, Empire, World Wars and onwards to the future. A particular highlight was viewing a book printed in 1497 by an apprentice of William Caxton (pic) – one of the oldest examples of Western printed texts. And before I forget, a caption on one of the background history panels described London as 'the flower of cities all'. It has a nice ring to it.

Today after an agency interview I nipped down to Lambeth to pay a visit to the Imperial War Museum, and was impressed to see how many exhibits the curators have crammed into the medium-sized space available. I enjoyed the parachuting terrier hanging from the atrium ceiling, forming a part of an excellently-apostrophised Animals' War exhibit, JRR Tolkein's service revolver from the Great War, a recovered Chevrolet truck formerly operated by New Zealanders of the Long Range Desert Group in North Africa, and the note written by Lord Kitchener in 1914 to two children in Wigan, forbidding any officials from requisitioning their pony. Plus there was Himmler's grim deathmask from 1945. (Bit of a theme of deathmasks emerging in this blog. Maybe there's a book idea there?).

Now all I need to do is find a job, and then I'll be able to do all those London things that actually require a bit of spending. I'm already drafting a list and adding to it daily, so I guess I'd better find a well-paid job, right?