Friday, March 03, 2006

the london emails - london holiday

a series of emails written during the summer of 2004

Greetings folks. Or as the london morning greeting goes, Mind the Gap.

Many of you have written in, and it's been great to hear from you, and I
plead forgiveness for not having replied to each one of you. I have saved
all the emails, and intend to clear the backlog one day. Keep writing. Until
then, here's enough of my life to bore you for a day or two:

It has been almost two weeks since unemployment offered me (alongside the
prospect of poverty) the prospect of widening my horizons in fields more
stimulating than the ones i have made a career out of. This is what I


If I had lived here 116 years ago, Jack the Ripper might have been a
neighbour. At the least he would have come around once every so often for a
drink and a murder. The pub (The Ten Bells) where his victims used to drink
is walking distance. What they drank I am not sure, perhaps cheap gin. The
pub is still there, though they don't really advertise their historical
connection. Not sure why not. The dirty wooden floor and odd looking pieces
of furniture even look like they might date from that period.


are having a fantastic exhibition on the silk road. Went there today, and
will go there once more. One nice thing about London (the list of bad things
is too long to mention) is that one doesn't just have to be content with
reading reviews in the Economist, but one can go see the damn play or
exhibition that is being talked about.

British library itself is housed in an incredibly ugly building. There are
about a dozen train stations in London which proclaim more grandeur and
refinement. I am not sure why a hundred magnificent buildings could be built
in this city two centures ago, and now all they can come up with is the
millenium dome and this new british library. (confession: Not entirely true.
The swissRE tower is rather pretty, though its nickname 'the gherkin' is
not. And also useful as a fixed point in working out where I am and where I
am going)

Never mind my whining though. What magnificence awaits inside! Here lie some
of the greatest treasures of mankind's written history! If I had a religion,
the John Ritblat Gallery would be my Mecca. And hey, only half the stuff
here seems to have been acquired by loot and plunder, so it's far ahead of
the British Museum on that score.

(or I don't have internet questions)

The other day, stumbled across a street in Westminster called Petty France.
I wonder how that came about. I like to think that during times of war, old
english people would come along here to spit throatily on the road and wave
their stick and say, 'take that, petty france!'

There is a place called Worlds End in Chelsea. Why?

Why are there so many places called Circus? An official tourist information
booth guy said it was wherever they stored exotic animals, but why would
they store them in half a dozen places away from the docks? Is he right? Or
does it have to do with circular intersections, or another unlikely
explanation a life-long Londoner offered, that they were all actual

I confess to having been somewhat dismissive of last theory.

Why do so many pubs say 'free house'. How did that come about, and what does
it mean?

Oh, and why do all the SAans, Australians and New Zealanders hang out
together. I can't work it out. The first group that is. Is it the rugby? Or
is this some white people thing? I walked into a South African pub the other
day with my cousins looking for a pool table, and it certainly didn't look
like the new south africa (or what i understood to be the new south africa)
in there.

The huguenots were protestants right? Where does the word huguenots come
from though? Brick Lane was first settled by them, then the Jews, and then
the Bangladeshis, who at the moment make up 37% of this borough.
Incidentally Brick lane has a curry tout problem - waiters who stand outside
the restaurants enticing people to come to their restaurant with offers of
special deals that later fail to materialize, or are compensated for by the
additional of fictional items to the bill. When you have sixty restaurants
with the exact same menu, it's understandable that most potential customers
are confused and unsure where to go, and consequently open to persuasion.

Was it 22B or 221B? I am savant enough to know the number didn't exist, but
what was the number that didn't exist?


Reading about the London Eye, I was struck by the fact that most of the
costs were due to the fact they had to work out the feasibility and
mechanics of whether if and how the wheel would be built, not actually
building the damn thing. One is also aware that the thing goes full all the
time and has huge waiting times.

Since then, this facetious thought keeps recurring. They should build a
second ferris wheel at the end of the first. It would be much cheaper, make
lots of money, and you could call them the London Spectacle.


(I) Read Tom Clancy's Bear and the Dragon. I have a clever new theory. Tom
Clancy is really Dick Cheney, and when the vice-president disappears for
months on end, what he's really doing is writing his fantasies. In fact,
this way, we can also predict the future. See, in Clancy/Cheney's alternate
fictional world, they already fought and won a war in the middle east where
they beat Iran and Iraq. They have now discovered that Chinese Communists
are uncivilized/Nazis/unscrupulous and immoral in their pursuit of profit,
and must be stopped. I find the last objection the most strange.

(II) Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly. The basic idea is that at times
governments act contrary to their self-interest in the face of available
evidence. Incredibly unconvincing for someone with two pulitzers and the
praise allegedly accorded by rather distinguished reviewers.

First she runs through history showing how people have done things they knew
were wrong. The problem is that in almost no case does she really show that
it was known as a certainty they were wrong. What she proves is that this
document and that person said don't do it (including in one case, two
bankers), but the leaders still did it. But what about all the other
bankers, and everyone else who said it was a great idea? Also I had a
complete fit with her section on Troy. She starts by calling it in the first
line the most famous story of the western world. I had to delay reading of
book by 24 hours while I tried to calm myself down. She's the historian and
no doubt you all knew the Troy story inside out, way before the movie came
out, but I would have rather put my money on the life story of that jewish
guy who started that new religion.

And she can't mean story in a fictional sense, because what happens in
fiction doesn't help her prove her case.


Scaremongering. So widely and succesfully employed in history. An anecdote I
read in Tuchman on protests against the Stamp Act preceding the American
In 1760s USA, one night an illiterate young servant refuses to go from the
house to the barn alone in the dark. His master asks him what he is scared
of. "The Stamp Act" comes the reply.


Interesting anecdote 2. Viet Minh, with Ho Chi Minh as their head, first
declare independence in 1945. You know what they quoted at the time? The
opening lines of the american constitution.


Oh yes.

I understand King's Cross is another seedy rundown area. If I am still here
in two months time, I think I will move there. Close to British Library, NW1
has more bookshops than any other postcode in London, and it's walking
distance to the City.

Talking about rundown, I went to the SOAS. I expected the world famous
university to be rather posh, but it's in a dismal state in terms of the
building and its fittings. Well they probably don't have billionaire
benefactors (all the great benefactors tend to be old alumni don't they, and
capitalist running-dogs would have been studying commerce, not doing OAS),
and if they are spending the money on students and lecturers instead of
buildings, good on them.

In fact, everything is rundown here. I saw some flats close to Lords. They
looked so terrible from the outside I assumed they must be some sort of
low-budget council housing. Turned out they cost 675,000 pounds a flat.


Chocolates are actually cheaper, even in absolute terms, than in New Zealand
or India. And Thorntons seems a rather good compromise between serious
chocolate and serious prices (you get two halves instead). Reading American
History was yesterday giving me a craving for peanut butter and chocolate
combinations, which was sadly not to be found anywhere. No doubt I just need
to know where to look, there are too many Americans here for such
necessities to be lacking.

And if they have turkish pizzerias, russian tea houses, and hungarian
confectioners, there must be an american candy bar store somewhere surely.
Ah, the Americans probably live in the better parts of town, so I am
probably looking in the wrong place.