London (April 2017): Fantasy, Soup Dumplings and Secrets, Oh My!

The main reason for my visit to London is something embargoed until tomorrow (more a condition of sale, than a strict NDA) but let’s say it was Shannon’s birthday and she wanted to do a thing which also happened to coincide with some other, equally awesome things. The kind of serendipity that can only be the result of awesome karma and sweet planning.

Like, for example, the Women in Fantasy panel at Waterstones with Vic James, Aliette de Bodard and Zen Cho (moderated by Stevie Finegan). I initially told Shannon about this (she’d missed the Gollancz Festival) and jokingly suggested I come to down visit. It was something I really wanted to do but on a pipe dream level. I never actually expected it to, you know, happen. But then this other thing came up and suddenly I’m on a train heading to the capital. Score!

I came down on Tuesday afternoon and met Shannon after her shift ended, we hit Tokyo Diner for food (because it’s delicious and cheap), got our glad rags on and didn’t get back to her place until nearly midnight. Talk about dirty stop outs! More on that tomorrow though … patience, dearies.

Wednesday was my day, spent basking in gloriousness, while Shannon was at work. It was actually just long enough that I didn’t break my credit card or succumb too badly to the wonders of London’s shopping opportunities. I left her at Leicester Square, headed off to Paul’s bakery to grab my preferred lunch (it’s one of the rare times when all I want is a specific sandwich, the ancien mixte) then wandered Covent Garden. I stuck my nose in Moleskine’s store, bought ice cream at Godiva, didn’t buy any Traveler’s Company stuff at the London Graphic Company but did stock up in Muji. Finally, I headed to the Starbucks reserve for delicious coffee, my sandwich, and a few hours actually writing.

The Starbucks Reserve is fast becoming my favourite place to just sit and chew the fat. I even got given some lovely rose gold by the baristas, along with a few compliments to go with them. It sounds boring but after the franticness of London, I need the quiet of a coffee shop. Free WiFi also helps.

I made a point when planning this trip that there was one thing I really wanted to do: try soup dumplings (xiao long bao, 小笼包). We went to the highly recommended Dumplings’ Legend on Gerrard Street mainly because it was top of the list in an article I read but also had veggie options for Shannon. Soup dumplings are basically small bundles of deliciousness where the soup is inside the dumpling, separate from whatever is inside (pork or fish usually) so when you bite into them you get this amazing mouthful of soup and stuffing.

My friends, eight of these is not enough.

I actually forgot to take a picture, we were too busy eating. But they come in a steamer and the trick is to eat them without breaking them (which reminds me of the original article that caught my interest). The down-side is they come out piping hot and I accidentally burnt myself when one burst. However, leave them a little longer and they cool, the filling gets absorbed by the meat and they even more moist and amazing.

We, stupidly, ordered other dishes. Next time it’s going to be all soup dumplings.

Shannon was keen to visit the newly-opened Lego store on Leicester Square which just so happened to be on our way to Piccadilly and JP Books/Waterstones. I did the blind thing, approached a security guard and asked how long it was to get in (there was a line of children and fear-filled adults). Two seconds later, we entered my personal hell.

Now, look I like Lego and I’m sure it’s a lot more awesome when not packed out with small humans but it was just far too busy and bright for me. I can tolerate a lot but there’s a point where my autism and vision goes ‘nope’ so I took myself off back outside into the cool evening air. No problems. But it was very impressive with a two story high Big Ben, a ‘life-sized’ Chinese dragon, a mock Tube train and an underground map made from Lego. Oh and all the Batman Lego Movie and Star Wars stuff you could ever want.

It was also very, very red and yellow.

I must admit I’m still amazed by the range and some of the sets were gorgeous and complicated (think Creator ones where you remake buildings using tiny pieces). There was a pirate ship and the Simpsons house, oh and a mosaic-maker that cost £100 and rendered you, passport pictureised, into a literal Lego portrait.

I actually saw someone buying one of those and totally WTFed.

Seriously.

The important thing is Shannon loved it. Oh and it’s right across from her version of Hell: the M&M Store. We’re both okay with this. We also got to stare at the even longer line of people wanting to buy a dessert called Bubble Wrap.

Cause that’s a thing now. With a 90 minute wait.

JP Books was next, mainly so I could grab the next volume of my manga-in-progress. Oh and grab a few choice Midori essentials (another free diary, some kraft paper and a passport-sized ruler). I was restrained in my purchasing and constrained by both time and bladder as we wanted to get to Waterstones early enough to secure a good seat.

We actually scored on both points. Waterstones was packed but we managed to grab two seats in the front row and free wine. I actually didn’t realise Vic James (author of The Gilded Cage) was attending so it was really interesting as I’d heard of the book but hadn’t had any author exposure. I mainly wanted to pick up a signed copy of The House of Binding Thorns to go with my recently-won paperback of The House of Shattered Wings.

The talk was a lot of fun. Zen Cho is loud and extroverted in the best way. She’s become my hero just because she’s so confident. It was basically a back and forth between the three authors, with poor Stevie in the middle trying to keep as much order as is possible when Aliette and Zen are in the same room. It was brilliant. Much laughter and a mixed crowd which made it even more awesome. Afterwards, I got to say hi to Aliette (finally in person) and Zen as well as playing photographer because there are times when selfies just won’t do. I got my book and we were back in Harringay by 10, I think.

Shannon has the best housemates (they call me ‘Ash’; I want to take them all home with me and mother them) and, to finish the night, I ended up on their pallet sofa watching two men squealing like terrified children as Shannon tried to outwit the titular Xenomorph in Alien: Isolation. I called it a night pretty early but they were still screaming though I have to admit, the death where the Alien stabs its tail through your stomach gets me every time.

Sneaky Alien …

But it was fun. Lots of fun. I got to say goodbye to everyone before heading home on the noon train, spending a lovely hour sipping coffee and listening to my Audible copy of The House of Binding Thorns. So far I’m three chapters in and loving it.

So that is London.

Come back tomorrow when I can tell you of secret and special things.

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