A couple of weeks ago, I’d been offered the possibility of attending an assessment day in London, for an exam marking job (ironically, if successful, the job will be work-from-home, but that’s another story!) Unfortunately, partly due to internet problems at home, and partly due to the supposedly gadget-mad Jamie not accessing his dedicated job-related email account via other means, I received the email at 7pm…inviting me to attend at 12:30pm earlier that day. To say I felt disappointed would be an understatement, since I’d received nothing but rejection letters up to that point (perhaps pessimism was another factor in my late receipt of the message; I wasn’t expecting an email that required any action from me, let alone so quickly). Even though it came with no guarantees of a contract; this was the first positive thing to happen to me in the world of post-PhD employment, and I’d gone and dropped the ball!
Thankfully, after sending them an email to let them know I would be interested in attending a subsequent assessment day, I was invited to go along on the afternoon of May 3rd. Serendipitously, Virgin Soldiers (one of my favourite bands of all time, and still receiving enough votes to keep their song ‘Moving On’ in my radio show’s Unchart Top 5 after over a year) were playing that very evening, at 229 The Venue, Great Portland Street. James Beeny (from the band) couldn’t believe the coincidence, and neither could I. The plans were (hurriedly) hatched, with mum being a calming influence, and expressing a wish to accompany me as a fellow, massive fan of the band!
We’d be leaving Swansea on the (only) Megabus at 4:30am, which was due to arrive in London’s Victoria Coach Station at 9:30am, but due to diversions it didn’t until around an hour later. Can’t complain about the coach; we were treated to a double-decker, which (on the top deck at least) was cool and comfortable. I even had an electric socket so that I could charge my phone, although I didn’t bring my laptop, so I couldn’t try out the Wi-Fi. I expected to stop at Cardiff, Bristol and Newport en route, but not at the University of the West of England‘s Frenchay Campus in Bristol, which brought back memories of when I used to see the very first Megabus double-deckers (which were not coach-style) parked up outside my own Swansea University…sadly they don’t stop there any more…but I digress. Didn’t get much sleep on the coach, though, which didn’t bode well as I’d been awake since the previous day, and couldn’t have slept early the night before due to my midweek radio show at 11pm…and the assessment day involved a ‘basic skills test’. I was beginning to worry just how ‘basic’ these would be…I don’t like complete unknowns, not when it comes to me being tested at least.
A short walk from the coach station, we happened upon the Traveller’s Tavern. We’d planned to have breakfast in London, but as we’d arrived late, we opted for just a coffee each, which was served with a welcoming smile. This wasn’t the turbulent stereotypical London we expected to encounter on ‘landing’; everything was relaxed and laid-back, outside and inside.
We didn’t get much further down the road when we encountered da Scalzo, an Art-Café Pizzeria, which tempted us inside with the offer of bacon butties (me) and porridge with berries (mum). This was also lovely, though I was worried as to the financial direction that our London adventure was taking. I could get more money out of the cash machine, but that’s not really the point; I’d come in search of money (i.e. the marking job!) and already had the outlay of the transport costs, which weren’t being reimbursed.
At least one money worry had been alleviated; since we planned to stay to watch Virgin Soldiers, we’d be too late for the (only) return Megabus at 6pm, so I’d booked a return train ticket instead. It was only slightly more expensive, and presented me with the option of also purchasing a day travelcard for the Tube (London Underground), an option I never thought to consider as I was originally going to buy another Oyster card and pay for single fares. Seeing as I’d now be travelling from Victoria to Holborn, Regent’s Park and Paddington at least, this seemed like a sensible option at £7 (Zones 1-2).
Even though my only experience of the Tube had been the largely overground line from Paddington to Euston Square, this made me feel like the authority on this form of transport within the Nemeth family (despite mum being far more experienced). Neither of these stops were anywhere near preparation for Victoria’s Tube station; the nauseatingly speedy escalator was far steeper that I anticipated, so much so that I nearly fell over unceremoniously as it went from flat to sloping. Also, even though it said ‘keep to the right’, I’m hardwired to always keep to the left, so I did for a little while before someone politely said ‘excuse me’…then I processed the signs…then I realised why it was so important. Some people are in such a rush that they are not only negotiating the incredibly steep escalator without losing balance, but are actually running down them at quite some rate. It’s a pace I’m not used to, particularly not on this scale. Yes, in Swansea, someone might walk down an escalator in a shop, or even run down ‘for fun’, but they’re likely to be the only one for a period of minutes, leaving a large vacuum behind them. At the Tube station, there’s a panorama of ‘runners’ across several escalators (for me, seeing more than two escalators in one place was already highly unusual in itself). I can’t have been the only one who found this amazing; there was someone further down, facing the wrong way, pointing a camera upstream. The trains on these lines seemed much faster too, so much so that the perception of movement remained with me all day.
I’ve never been motion-sick, but combined with my nerves for the ‘basic skills test’, my stomach did feel rather unsettled. You had to be graduating soon or be a recent graduate to be an eligible exam marker, but unlike other (under)graduates, the last time I’d sat an exam was over four years previously, except for the viva…but this was based on a piece of work that I’d been effectively living through this past four years. The test wasn’t easy and called on all of the proofreading skills I’d honed at the student newspaper and over the course of correcting my thesis, but luckily it was a test of literacy only; I’d been worried they were going to pull out some equation that I hadn’t seen since A-Level, and that my mind would draw blanks, despite it being ridiculously simple to solve. Still, even though I consider myself literate, I managed to get a question wrong! I suppose 39/40 isn’t bad for a physicist who hasn’t taken a formal English qualification in nearly 11 years, but I still want to go back and find out if I really got Question 28 wrong, or if it was a glitch. I double-checked every answer, too…there was no time limit, so it seemed silly not to; I took time over the easiest questions, and took even more time over the ones that posed a challenge. Still, it doesn’t matter, I passed (try telling that to my brain, though!)
As a matter of celebration, we popped into the Princess Louise pub in High Holborn, which was just around the corner. The treat wasn’t really the cider, though. In our neck of the woods, pubs with intact original features seem to be an endangered species, with more and more being ‘gutted’ in the name of ‘improvement’, with little cosies (as I’d call them) being banished in favour of open-plan expanses. The Princess Louise was so refreshing, by being everything but ‘modern’. We opened one door to find another door, and another. A series of sections, each one different, each with beautiful wooden screens and glass panels…then there was the mosaic floor, and the mirrored walls. It felt wonderful, before even a drop of alcohol had touched my lips, and to think we’d happened upon it by chance. In fact, if I’d been on my own, I’d have gotten myself into such a fluster that I might’ve breezed straight past the pub without even having noticed it existed, and I’d have missed out on so much. In a busy, unfamiliar place, I felt at home. We asked a member of staff about the pub, and they explained how the owners (Samuel Smith’s Brewery) had striven to restore all of the original features. It would seem the work has paid off. Perhaps I’m an old soul, but I prefer my pubs (and any building, for that matter) with character, and the Princess Louise has this in plentiful supply.
We decided to head to the gig venue early, to avoid rush hour. We got to Great Portland Street without a problem, but arriving so early meant that we were in for a long wait. Mum suggested we find a chip shop, but something so ‘ordinary’ was not to be seen in the immediate vicinity. There was an enormous Pizza Express, of a size rivalled only by Swansea’s largest McDonald’s, but we had something simpler in mind. A quick search on Google Maps revealed the nearest chip shop was the Fish Bone, Cleveland St., Camden. After a fair trek (I underestimated the distance slightly…mum wasn’t pleased, and her feet were less so), we were relieved to find we could eat in. I don’t dispute their claim to being a ‘traditional fish & chip restaurant’, but it is the first chip shop in which I can ever recall having the opportunity to order a Greek coffee with my burger and chips!
We walked back to the gig venue, and we were still early! However, our timing couldn’t have been better, as Virgin Soldiers began to arrive. It was lovely to have a chance of a catch-up before the gig, as I’d already warned them we might have to shoot off early (we had to be in Paddington by 10:45pm). The last time I’d seen the band live (and the first time) was in Tunbridge Wells; I remember the event like it was yesterday…it’s hard to believe it was over a year ago. I didn’t bring any of my usual cache of radio-related gadgets this time. In fact, I didn’t even bring my camera. This was a deliberate move; I didn’t want to have to worry about the security of such paraphernalia whilst walking around London, but I also thought it would be nice to meet the band and enjoy the music without harbouring any ‘media’ expectations, especially with such limited time.
The gig started a little late, but this is par for the course. The venue had been laid out with seats and sofas down the sides, but with plenty of standing room in the centre. Joshy Connor was up first, a solo singer/guitarist who performed emotively, as well as wowing us with his command of the guitar. In fact, he used a different tuning for each song…I play a bit of guitar myself, but 1) not like Joshy, and 2) one set of chords in ‘standard tuning’ is enough for me to remember, and I don’t even know all of those properly, so how he kept track of all of this and kept all the lyrics in mind, even finding time to slot in riffs fairly frequently (sometimes whilst singing) is beyond me, and a worthy achievement in itself even if the songs had been rubbish, which they weren’t…the songs were fantastic, too! Following Joshy, we had the mighty Florida Room. I try to avoid direct comparisons to existing bands, but sometimes they help to give a context to my opinions, and convey the feelings that are invoked. I started to wonder if they could be the next Muse, but then I started to think they were more of a Maxïmo Park; I’ve never seen either of these bands live, but I imagined this is what it might sound and look like. In fact – dare I say it – perhaps Florida Room combined the elements I like best from both bands, and even took things a step further? It was a tight, energetic performance, with perfectly-placed harmonies to boot. I tend to be forgiving of tuning issues with vocals – it can be really difficult to hear yourself, let alone each other on stage – but no such allowances were necessary…the harmonies were pitch-perfect.
I would have attempted to write a full review of the night as a standalone blog, but that wouldn’t be fair to the last band – Talk In Colour – who I didn’t get to hear at all. An electronic/classical fusion, they seem fascinating from what I’ve read and heard on their website, and I’m sure they were also great live…they had a huge harp with them on stage, too! Annoyingly, whilst serendipity had served me well in the hours before the gig, it then abandoned me. When I’d booked train tickets (and decided against staying the night in London), Virgin Soldiers were due to be off stage by 9:20pm, and we’d planned to leave at 9:50pm to make absolutely sure we didn’t miss our last train (i.e. we’d have caught all of VS’s set, and a little bit of the last band, too). Now, Virgin Soldiers weren’t due on stage until 9:20pm, and (following some technical problems) they weren’t able to get underway until around 9:40pm. We knew we’d have to leave at some point during Virgin Soldiers’ set, but we were in even more of a panic due to the Tube website announcing that there were delays caused by a ‘trespasser on the line’ (stupid person – assuming it was a person – didn’t they know I was trying to stay at the gig as long as possible?!) Even though we were cutting things far too fine for our liking, we still only caught two songs…TWO SONGS! I suppose it’s two songs more than we’d have heard if we’d caught the Megabus at 6pm; we did get to hear two out of the other three acts live, and if we’d wanted to stay later we’d have had to fork out for accommodation (remember, I wasn’t being reimbursed by the job people). Still, I’m really glad the day worked out as it did. Thinking about it, if I’d booked accommodation, we’d have been checking in and sorting out other such mundanities instead of waiting outside the venue when Virgin Soldiers arrived…perhaps serendipity hadn’t abandoned me after all.