Literary London

Huddled under our umbrellas, we tried not to slip on the wet paths while stretching our necks to see what David, our bespectacled, serious-looking guide was pointing at.

"That is the grave of Tom Sayers, a prized fighter who fought with his bare knuckles. No boxing gloves then.

"And when he died, they buried him, and then built a sculpture of his beloved dog before him. That's Lion, his dog."

The stone Lion looked mournful.

"Was Lion also buried here? Did he die before or after his master?" I asked.

David's brow furrowed a little. "I must say I really don't know. Now, shall we move along? There is still so much to see…"

Cemetery of famous people

Indeed, there is. Highgate Cemetery, being one of London's grandest cemeteries, is so famous that it has guided tours of its mausoleums, family burial vaults, landscaped graves and tombstones decorated by long family genealogy, poems and endearments. Saying goodbye in Victorian times was a very elaborate process.

But my interest was literary. I had just read Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, who also wrote the bestseller The Time Traveler's Wife.

The Symmetry story is set around Highgate and has a lot to do with the dead coming to life. In fact, the protagonist first experimented by making a dead cat come to life.

So I looked at Lion just a bit longer before moving on.

But of course, Highgate was famous even before Niffenegger came along. It's the final resting place for many famous people, including writers Douglas Adams, George Eliot and Karl Marx.

Stories come to life

London has always been all about books and writers for me as I was weaned on Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and many other British writers.

I love it that you can do a walking trail of Dickens, read poems on the Tube, and spend hours in wonderful bookshops where you might just run into a signing or reading session by an author.

As a travel writer, I am a big fan of Stanfords travel bookshop in Covent Garden, where its many storeys are cluttered not only with maps and books, but also maps on cups, shower curtains and toys. Even the floors are plastered with maps. You can walk on Africa, crouch over Europe or dally on Asia.

Once many years ago, as a student, I visited Keats House in Hampstead. I walked through the quiet rooms - a Romantic poet who died young did not attract many tourists - and looked at sepia-coloured photographs of Fanny Brawne, his beloved. Those days, one didn't say girlfriend.

"Not much to look at, is she?" said the museum guard behind me.

"Love is in the eyes of the beholder," I said defensively.

Years later, a movie called Bright Star was actually made based on their love story.

Fast forward two decades, I found myself accompanying my excitable 16-year-old son to his own London experience - the newly opened Harry Potter tour.

When the film series wrapped up, Warner Bros. Studios decided to open the sets to the public.

We saw the darkened potions classroom, the Gryffindor dormitory with tiny beds and the Weasley kitchen where an automated knife was cutting carrots.

"I want that," I told my son. But he was too busy drinking butterbeer, counting wands in Diagon Alley and shopping for souvenirs to hear me.

Celebrating Shakespeare

What is London without its theatre? At the outdoor Globe Theatre on the South Bank, I chatted with a retired Englishman.

"The Globe has always attracted tourists from all over the world. But when it's a production by a foreign company, we're the tourists, because they have brought their world, their interpretation to us. And I really liked that," said the genial English fellow.

Indeed, the production of Othello by a Chicago hip hop group was like no other I had seen. Rambunctiously musical, it got the audience shaking, clapping and dancing as if we were in a night club.

Outside, distance signposts show cities that have performed Shakespeare at the Globe. I'm sure William Shakespeare would have approved. The Globe also offers tours of its venue, props and costumes.

The South Bank - also home to Tate Modern, the ultramodern skyscraper The Shard and the bustling farmers' Borough Market - now dominates a great deal of the tourist action.

This spring will be an incredible time to visit London as it is gearing up to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth. The Globe will mark the event with new productions of his works, including Hamlet on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday. The Victoria & Albert Museum will stage a comprehensive exhibition on the Bard.

Getting there

- Singapore Airlines flies from Singapore to London three times daily on the Airbus A380.

Traveller's tips

- London is hotel capital. If you can afford it, splash for a Firmdale hotel. The rooms are stylish and the public areas are always full of eye-catching design details and artefacts. Their high tea offers are also chic and affordable.

- If you are with young kids, consider Legoland in Windsor for a day out of the city. Older kids will like the Harry Potter Studios. A direct train connects London Euston Station to Watford Junction, where a shuttle bus will run to the studios. Tickets must be bought in advance online (www. wbstudiotour. co.uk). This is not something you do on the spur of the moment.

- For shopping, head to old favourites Oxford Street and Regent Street. The new Westfield Stratford City near the 2012 Olympics site will strike a chord with many Asians. It is one of Europe's largest urban shopping centres and boasts many mainstream chain stores and food courts that offer international cuisine. Its train station, Stratford, has the same name as Shakespeare's birth place, but it's a huge traffic hub with some rather funky-looking art.

This article was published on April 15 in The Straits Times.

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