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Battling the Armada

October 16, 1988|JUDITH MORGAN | Morgan, of La Jolla, is a magazine and newspaper writer

What with the American political season and the Olympic Games, it had slipped my mind that 1988 also is the 400th anniversary of the British victory against the Spanish Armada.

Until, that is, I ambled into the warren of Foyles Bookshop on London's Charing Cross Road.

The English navy, which vanquished the Spanish fleet of 130 ships and claimed Sir Francis Drake as one of its captains, was Foyles' showcase topic. Authors and illustrators had gone bonkers to mark the victory of 1588.

"Armadiana" poured from naval historians, novelists and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Children could follow the tale in witty verse ("Sir Francis Drake: His Daring Deeds") or with a book and board game ("Battlegame Armada!").

Among the volumes I did not buy was "The Armada Campaign" by John Tincey, which claims to list "every ship, gun and man on both sides."

I shelved that ground-floor battle and wandered up creaking stairs. Fearlessly, I sidled between "Edged Weapons" (swords, daggers, axes) and "Espionage." I paused in a catch-all corner tagged "Magic, Cricket and the Falklands War."

Foyles claims to have more than 4 million books, as well as reams of sheet music. The place is all walls and low ceilings, odd lighting and tables of books. It stretches up and around three or four buildings, a maze of rooms and alcoves, narrow stairs and wide elevators.

Foyles is an earnest book mart that endeavors to answer all questions. Mine, on that rainy day, had to do with a volume written years ago by Agatha Christie's husband, Max Mallowan.

The clerk checked in archeology and biography and found nothing. He suggested the used book shops that flank the British Museum. He assured me that my question was no trouble; his previous day had brought queries about Yul Brynner, butterflies of southern Africa, medieval religious houses and weight control.

"Sometimes we have a good deal of argy-bargy," he admitted, which sent me to the dictionary. (Argy-bargy is a term meaning argument or haggle.)

The rain had stopped, so I wandered to the markets of Covent Garden. Coffeehouses were fragrant with cinnamon and success. A mime, with the movements of a robot, was causing country girls to blush as he tried to get them to dance and pose. Stalls sold English soaps and flowers, stitched pillows and framed lines from sonnets.

As I leaned on a balcony and stared into the now-sunny courtyard, my right foot hurt. It was the one I had broken on a ragged stone step in Mexico years before, the one that sometimes got tired of walking before I did.

So I wiggled my ankle as I watched families push into a penny arcade, the stuff of country fairs or summers at Brighton Beach. Old-fashioned mechanical animals banged cymbals and beat drums; mechanical Gypsies juggled and told fortunes.

In a glass booth by the entrance was a female mannequin with brazen red hair and watery blue eyes. She wore a white jacket. Her title said "Chiropodist." The price for a consultation was two pence, a little more than 1 cent.

I limped over, slipped off my shoe and put a coin in one slot and my foot in another. The chiropodist's head jerked down to study the problem, then looked up at me in dismay. Next she fell to her knees for a closer examination. Chuckles came from the crowd behind me.

Then I shrieked and started hopping. The chiropodist was tickling my toes; a comb of metal was running back and forth in the slot. The top of her red hair was bristling. Gasping, I pulled out my foot and put on my shoe. Laughter had quelled the ache.

Not far away I came upon a classic Punch-and-Judy puppet show. Youngsters perched on their parents' shoulders to see the small stage.

Soon the mellow voice of Mr. Punch became an echo. Other stages had drawn their curtains; other puppets were performing. It was, I learned, a festival to mark the 326th birthday of the intrepid puppet.

Which means that Mr. Punch is only 74 years younger than the British victory over the Spanish Armada. Talk about survivors! Actually, they would love to at Foyles.

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