Tuesday, October 02, 2007

London Journey: Part Seven

September 25, London

Today, I meet up with Russell’s tour group and joined them for the day. Bobbi had to attend her first day of orientation, and was disappointed to miss our first stop: The London Dungeon. This actually sounded very historic and we’d both been looking forward to it…but I had my doubts when we started seeing gigantic posters all over the city with people in an amusement-park ride. The headline was: London Brings Back Hanging.

In fact, I learned when I did more research, there is nothing historical about the London Dungeon. The only thing that is historical about it stems from the fact that it is built under an old railway arch- like the one pictured here.

Rather than a piece of history, the London Dungeon is (the words “tourist trap” keep thrusting themselves forward, but I push them away), a gigantic fun house full of grotesque manikins, mirrors and small tableaus dedicated to Medieval Torture, Sweeny Todd, The Plague, The Great Fire, and, of course, Jack the Ripper.

(The “Jack the Ripper” waxworks, which I thought pretty hoakey at the time, came back to my mind later at a more appropriate moment, when I discovered that they did have a certain staying power in the imagination after all.)

The finale was the Hanging Chair, where you were strapped into a chair, the sentence of death was pronounced upon you, the drums rolled, and you were dropped fifty feet to your “death”. I don’t like these kind of rides, but I will admit, this was a close to being executed as I ever want to be…you don’t really have a choice about getting in, and once you’re strapped into your seat, your fate (which isn’t about to be pleasant) is in someone else’s hands.

After you die, of course, you wind up going into the gift shop (all those years of Church for nothing.) While we waited for others to complete their ghoulish purchases, Russell and the rest of the group contemplated a rather peculiar British Traffic Sign promising a “Humped Pelican” and “Humps for 40 yards”….huh?

We hit a great old pub (yes, again) for lunch and while we were there, Bobbi called my mobile (I am now, at long last, a cell phone customer. I knew it had to happen, but I’ve been putting it off as long as possible) and gave us good news: she would be able to meet us at the Tower of London after all.

Everything that the London Dungeon isn’t, the Tower is. Actually, many towers, the structure dates back to the times of the Norman Conquest of England and houses centuries of history. We spent two hours wander the grounds with Russell we saw massive collections of arms and armor, eighteenth century firearms, the Ravens (legend says if these birds ever leave, the fortress will fall), traitor’s gate, the bloody tower, and, of course, the crown jewels.

I got a great picture of the Tower Ravens (Heather of Gourmet Knitting Disaster wrote to tell me that one bit her- I think she must have French Ancestry) along with what I can only assume is the Royal Seagull.

Meanwhile, we meet two of Russell’s friends (from Minnesota of all places) that he knew from the “Dracula Tour” he took a few years ago. Russell has kept up his friendship with them and thus was “in the know” that Scott was going to propose to Sam, which he did on the roof of the White Tower!

The tower also plays host to one of the Kingdom’s few public trash cans, and mighty glad we were to find it.

Following a brief tour of the theater district and dinner in Covent Garden, we meet with the rest of the group to start our “Jack the Ripper Walk”. This was…an experience.

To begin with, we meet our Special Jack the Ripper Tour Guide outside of the Tube Station as the sun was going down and a full moon rose over the city and the Tower of London. Dressed in a tweed hat, sporting oversized, very thick, glasses, and wrapped in a giant trench coat, the man seemed to be the cockney equivalent of Don Knots in the Ghost and Mr. Chicken. This impression was reinforced when he pulled a large plastic bag out of his knapsack and pulled out a tiny public address system.

“Now, If I can just find me batteries, we’ll be in business”, he said. “Ah, here they ar…whoops” and, yes, four batteries hit the pavement and went careening into the London Shadows in four different directions. Once the batteries were sorted out, he put the headset on his head, and yes, the mouthpiece had seen better days…hanging under his chin by its wires like a broken bird’s wing.

He spent the first five minutes teaching us the finer points of Cockney speech, which, of course, none of us Yanks understood- not only because Cockney is anything but English, but also, because….well… his microphone was busted. At this point several members of the tour were doing their best to conceal the gales of laughter which were billowing up inside of them.

Once the incomprehensible lecture on how to order a drink in an East End Pub was complete (this was, in part, a pub crawling tour, in which we would have a pint in some of the very establishments in which Jack found his victims), we set off under the full moon.

As I understand it, the character of the East End of London has not changed all that much since the Ripper’s day. It is still a place of comparative poverty, where London’s native poor and new comers from the Middle East, India, and the rest of the world scrabble hard for resources, doing whatever is necessary to make a living.

A quality they share with other urban inhabitants of similar areas is that strangers are not always welcome, unless as prey.

Therefore, it was with no little trepidation that I found that this tiny peanut (or “ground-nut”, as I believe they say here) sized person was leading us into the dark and scary parts of London.

Our first stop was a tiny little alley, under a gloomy railroad trestle, where one of the early victims of the Ripper was found… her head all but hacked off and her insides missing. I have to believe that the layers of dust and grime under this bridge must have been building up since before Jack the Ripper walked these dark streets.

And this is where I had to admit, that in spite of our goofy guide; or, actually, in fact, BECAUSE of our goofy guide, I had a lot of fun, and got to spend the tour with exactly the vague sense of unease and tension that a horror tour SHOULD inspire.

Not only were we seeing parts of London that Bobbi and I would almost certainly never have found, or even attempted to find, on our own (under railroad trestles, East End Pubs, the back yards of squalid tenement buildings and filthy alleys) but we were doing it with the Quintessential stock character of good ghost hunting fiction.

Think about it- who always meets the monster first? It’s not the brave hero. It’s always the little anti-hero with the obsession: Kolchak, the Night Stalker or, yes, Don Knots. It’s always the little guy in the bow tie, the one who has yabbered on about the monster all his life, who has been discounted by the local authorities for years, who is the first to find the horrible truth for which he has been seeking. He’s the one who turns up with his throat cut one morning and the police, who had treated him as a joke all those years, end up by saying: “Blyme! It look’s like little ‘Arry was right all along. Poor little Bloke.”

Yes, sir, if ANY one was going to meet up with the spirit of Jack the Ripper, it was going to be our little guide. The full moon and the blighted urban landscape only reinforced the sense of foreboding (and that fact that we were in a Mob of 24 made it pretty certain that a sense of foreboding was the only actual sign of trouble we’d find).

It was a funny, slightly frightening, and definitely unique experience. And so, when next in London, I highly recommend Dr. Jack’s Horror Tours for a hokey, terrific old time.

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