Books are my anchor. They always have been. In my room I keep a box of “key books”, first on the rescue list in case of an emergency. I chose them carefully: a couple of novels, a couple of plays and that book I’ve had since before I can remember, a catalogue of absurdly brilliant inventions which reminds me of the power of imagination.
Around London in 80 days: day 45.
A sunny afternoon in Hyde Park. Rendez-vous at the bandstand. The park is massive, the bandstand minuscule so it takes me a while to find. On the way I notice messy families, besotted couples, rushed office workers, acrobats on wheels, street jugglers and amongst the flower beds, a few lost daydreamers.
Around London in 80 days : day 39. 6.30 am. Four tubes have come and gone already, full of hundreds of compressed commuters. They’re almost falling out every time the doors open. Upon the fifth try, I finally manage to make my way in. Boarding a London tube in the morning is an art. A subtle mix of firmness (“no, you won’t cut the queue”) and politeness (“but have a lovely day all the same”). It’s all in the eyes: no time to talk.
Around London in 80 days : day 38. My heart is pounding. I go over my notes once again. I shouldn’t be so nervous, I’m used to being on stage. But this is different, there’s no filter, no instrument. Nothing between me and the crowd: just me and my words. The previous act is wrapping up; my turn to shine or crash.
Around London in 80 days : day 37. 4.30 pm in Hammersmith. I join my friend in the long queue of people already standing in the cold. In a moment, the doors will open. We all have tickets, but we might not all make it to the show. The tickets are free, you see, and always overbooked. They work on a first-come, first-served basis: for a BBC recording, you have to come early.
Around London in 80 days : day 35.
South of Waterloo Bridge stands the National Theatre. West of the National Theatre stands the BFI. And next to the BFI stands the Royal Festival Hall. A massive and complicated building which to this day remains a mystery for me. Concert venue, library, dance studio, bar, bookshop, café, museum, restaurant, market… the Royal Festival Hall is the swiss knife of public buildings. Built in 1951 for the Festival of Britain, it is an open space for people to congregate, with seating for whoever needs a rest, tables for whoever need to write, calm for whoever needs to think.
Around London in 80 days : day 34. Ah, Borough Market and its culinary treasures! Whether you’re looking for a fine piece of meat or for a heart-warming tartiflette to go, Borough Market is the place. Any day but Sunday, you’ll find a heaving marketplace with tastings at every other stall. If you play your cards well, you could almost turn them into a free tapas-style lunch before deciding what treats to buy from this endless collection of delicatessen.
Around London in 80 days : day 33. 1 am in South-East London. A true Irish pub lock-in. At the back, a group of men play pool and laugh loudly. I’m sat at the bar with the regulars. I’ve never been here before tonight’s gig, but they seem to have adopted me. A few card tricks and a taste for Guinness go a long way.
Around London in 80 days : day 31. A couple of years ago, I booked tickets for a Don Quixote performance at the Garrick Theatre. I had fond memories of my last evening at that theatre. But this was different. A special occasion: this was the first time I was going to see a RSC production. The prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company’s take on this famous tale of windmills and chivalry.
Around London in 80 days : day 26. Moving from Brussels to London is like moving from a tiny friendly village to a big scary city. You can’t afford to be too innocent in London, you have to keep on your guard, as I learned the hard way : in my first year in London, my bike, my bag and my saxophone got stolen from me.
Around London in 80 days : day 24. Victoria Coach Station is the most confusing place to find in London. Okay, maybe not the most confusing — London is full of hard-to-find, secret places ; it’s part of its charm after all ! But as sign-posted public places go, Victoria Coach Station is the most confusing to find.
Around London in 80 days : day 23. South of Hyde Park, near Kensington and its museums, is one of London’s most stunning venues : the Royal Albert Hall. Named in memory of Queen Victoria’s soulmate, Prince Albert, the Hall opened in 1871. Twenty years after the Prince’s “Great Exhibition”, ten years after his death ; exactly 150 years ago.
Around London in 80 days : day 22. “What happens in Canary Wharf stays in Canary Wharf” says my friend as we run like lost souls through the glass corridors of this futuristic part of town. With its tall towers and endless underground connections, Canary Wharf sure is a strange place ; very different from the better-known “Old London”, it features a lot of public art, modern public spaces, strange-looking new builds, a floating railway station, and the Museum of London Docklands (which I would argue is the more interesting branch of the Museum of London, with exhibits about the history of the Docklands and thought-provoking displays about the slave trade).
Around London in 80 days : day 20. On a little London corner, tucked between Tottenham Court Road Station and the now gone Enterprise Rehearsal Studios, there was a tiny Turkish café named Apricot. They sold delicious fresh food and heavenly Chai lattes. I was often in the area, the place was often opened late, and so I got used to going there when I fancied a respite from the busy city. An alternative to the pub if I fancied a quiet read with a hot drink for a change.
Around London in 80 days : day 19. 11 pm, the pub just closed. I’m waiting for my bus, deck of cards in hand. I recently started learning magic ; all by myself, it is a slow process but I keep at it. Today, I’m working on a slightly technical, but really magical-looking move. I’m so focused I don’t notice the young man who is moving closer.
Around London in 80 days : day 18. It’s in a small town in France that I realised I had become a true Londoner. I was trying to walk through a busy market place and found myself incredibly impatient : people were slow, walking in a disorganised manner, getting in the way. I felt that I was being slowed down unduly ; didn’t have time to stand around all day.
Around London in 80 days : day 17. Tap dance, ballroom, pop, continental-style bal folk, ballet, swing, musicals, clubs… London is a dancing city. And dancing, like playing music, can lift me up in a way that few other things can. Don’t get me wrong : I’m not a great dancer, far from it. That’s not the point ; just like you don’t need to be a great artist to enjoy doodling, nor a great musician to have fun on the piano, you can have two left feet and love dancing.