28 December 2005

Christmas On Two Continents

I've been hearing so many people moan about how much they hate Christmas and what an ordeal it all is that I'm starting to wonder if there's something wrong with me for enjoying it so much. Granted, I didn't have much in the way of responsibilities to weigh me down: no houseful of relatives to entertain, no meals to cook, no Christmas tree to decorate (this last was not my doing; I'd gladly have an enormous Christmas tree, but Olivia, who occupies the front room where the tree would go, absolutely refuses to have one in the house), and almost no Christmas shopping.

It's not that I'm against presents, but as it happens, I was going to be travelling on Christmas Day, and there wasn't much room in my suitcase, so I decided to only get gifts for my young niece and nephew. I announced to all the adults that they weren't getting anything this year, and that they were similarly absolved from buying me anything. No one complained.

So with my Christmas cards all sent a week ahead of time (new record for me!) and my suitcase packed a full day in advance (also unprecedented), I was free to enjoy the holidays as I chose. That entailed drinking a lot of coffee and eating a fair bit of chocolate cake in Soho, and a couple trips down to Trafalgar Square to hear the various groups singing Christmas carols. I was a bit surprised that Mayor Ken allowed a Christmas tree and religious carols in his recently redesigned square; I would have thought at the very least he would have insisted on equal time for Muslim carols and Kwanzaa carry-ons, but no, it was all rather traditional, right down to the crowd of drunks in flashing-light Santa hats who demanded that the choir sing "Silent Night" NOW, and when their request was not forthcoming, decided to sing it themselves while the choir struggled to get through "The Holly And The Ivy."

But apart from that it was all pretty good-natured and even rather beautiful. The choir finished, and a larger, all-male choir took its place. The crowd grew larger too, but when it was announced that the next performers would be the Gay Men's Chorus, the man standing next to me in the front row gave a loud harrumph and pointedly dragged his three children away as they screamed, "Wanna hear Chwistmas cawols." Everyone else, including many of the Christians who'd been singing along devoutly with the previous chorale, seemed to enjoy the gay men's presentation which, surprisingly (to me, anyway) featured a number of straight-out (so to speak) religious carols, before they veered off into a perhaps ill-advised calypso rendition of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."

Christmas Eve found me spending most of the day indoors packing for my trip on the following morning, but in the evening I ventured down to the West End to meet up with Will Zatopek, Steve Griswald, Pauline Pickle and Pippa Whatever-she's-calling-herself-this-week. But for some reason, nearly every pub in London, not to mention the restaurants and the public transport system, had decided to shut up shop early. Unless my memory is playing bigger tricks than usual on me, pubs used to stay open until midnight on Christmas Eve and it was quite a tradition for people to gather there to fortify themselves against the two days of enforced family togetherness that lay ahead, but not this year. So we spent most of the evening wandering like hapless pilgrims through the increasingly deserted streets of Soho in search of a welcoming venue. We'd finally settled in at the Duke of Wellington in Wardour Street when the bartender announced that they too would be closing soon and I suddenly realised I'd have to dash if I was to make it to midnight mass in time.

The mass, preceded by carols, was if anything better than ever this year, though there was one moment of tension when, just as the procession was about to enter the sanctuary, a trio of latecomers arrived who resembled the Mod Squad by way of an Adam and the Ants concert. There was the requisite black guy with a 70s Afro, a blandly pretty white chick, and the most picturesque of the bunch, a white guy with a green mohican styled into wavy iguana-type spikes and with Indian war paint splashed across his cheeks.

The only seats left in the church were on the altar itself, and I'd always thought they were reserved for the parish elite, but apparently that's not the case, as the trendy latecomers were led to a spot directly behind the priest, a charmingly stogy and ponderous septuagenarian who makes no secret of his disdain for modern things (the entire service, apart from the homily, is still conducted in the Latin that the rest of the Church abandoned decades ago), raised half an eyebrow as he took his own seat, and that was all it took to ensure near-perfect behaviour from the green-haired one and his companions. I was reminded of the time in 1967 when my friend Darrell and I, high on LSD and a few days away from being homeless, decided to drop in on midnight mass in Ypsilanti, Michigan, thinking it would be "a trip" to goof on the ancient rituals. In that case, the priest literally barred the door to us, ignoring our protestations that he probably would have turned Jesus away too, on grounds of his having a beard.

Mass got out at 1:10 am, leaving me faced with a 5+ mile walk home, since Britain, where no more than one out of twelve people regularly attends church, still sees fit to close down the entire country, including the public transportation system, to honour a Christian holiday (a recent survey claimed to show that less than half the British people even knew what religious event Christmas was supposed to commemorate). With millions of Muslims, Hindus, Rastafarians and atheists among the population, you'd think there'd be somebody willing to drive the trains and buses (and who might like to go someplace served by trains and buses), but never mind. Maybe next century.

But I was extremely lucky to find one of the few taxis on the street, driven by an Indian Jew from Bombay who sounded more like a New Yorker when, on finding out where I'd just been, asked, "Whadda ya, religious or something?" This is not, to put it mildly, how most London cabbies communicate, but he turned out to be a great guy with a wealth of stories to tell, and I, having saved at least an hour and a half's walking (crucial, since I'd have to be up again at 6:30 am, didn't at all regret the 21 pound fare.

Christmas morning dawned clear and icy, and I had a half hour walk pulling a wheeled suitcase to Paddington Station, from whence the only functioning rail service in the United Kingdom would take me to Heathrow for an early morning flight to San Francisco. The idea was to get to the Bay Area in time for Christmas dinner with my mother and most of the family, and it worked, though I was a bit more tired than I anticipated when I finally got there. My brother's children were similarly tired, and cranky, too, as they more or less brushed off my offer of presents with, "We've already got enough presents," words I never thought I would hear any self-respecting child utter. Still, the dinner was superb, it was wonderful to see my family again, and everyone, apart from the children perhaps, was remarkably well-behaved. Not a single brawl, not even a minor political dispute, and as I went to sleep that night at something like 8 or 9 am English time, I must admit I was still humming Christmas carols and thinking how lovely it had all been.

22 December 2005

Zatopeks Over London

North London is a dismal place on the best of nights, and a chilly Thursday just before Christmas is hardly the best of nights to be out on the bleak end of the Holloway Road. But duty calls: it's the Zatopeks, come back to London for one night only.

Ever since three of the Zatopeks upped sticks and moved to Berlin, there's been a big hole in what was already a minuscule London pop-punk scene. And considering that the band has played only a handful of shows this past year, most of them over there in Old Europe, and practised even fewer times than that, I wasn't expecting much out of tonight's gig. In fact, I very nearly blew it off, but I wanted at least to stop by and say hello.

I was glad I did. It was by far the best Zatopeks gig I'd ever seen. Maybe some of it was down to the quality sound mixing, as well as the band's exuberance at being back in Britain and playing a low-key but thoroughly fun holiday show, but even leaving out those factors, the Zatopeks have somehow broken through to a whole new level, and are now rivalling, perhaps even surpassing the Apers as the best punk rock band in Europe.

How do you get that good when you seldom play or even see each other? It's a mystery to me, but whatever the Zatopeks are doing, it's working. Catch these guys whenever or wherever you get a chance.

21 December 2005

Walking In The Air

I used to think people who complained of having "the flu" were whingers who couldn't admit to simply having a bad cold. Then I got the flu myself.

That was in mid-December, 1999, and for the next two or three weeks, I barely left my bed. Actually, I don't know for sure that what I had was the flu, as I never saw a doctor. There was no way I could have gotten myself out of the house, and I was too delirious to think about phoning the doctor and asking him to come see me (they actually do that here in the UK, as implausible as Americans may find it).

During those weeks time stopped and eventually disappeared. I drifted in and out of consciousness, mostly out, sweating until the sheets were soaked, then wrapping myself in a blanket on the floor until they were semi-dry again. I doubt my condition was helped by my medication of choice: Jameson's Whisky and codeine tablets. Eventually I ran out of both; by then I'd also gone at least a week without eating. Looking back on it now, I realise that I was sicker than I'd ever been or have been since, that I possibly might have been in danger of dying. But at the time, I wasn't thinking about that. I wasn't thinking about anything, really; I couldn't if I'd wanted to.

Sometime in the week before Christmas my condition improved a little. I was able to get up and go to the kitchen for a bit of juice, though the effort left me knocked out for the rest of the day. Then I had a relapse, and spent another three days mostly unconscious. When I woke up, the television was on. I don't know if it had been on all along, or if I had turned it on by rolling over onto the remote control. A cartoon was playing, something about a little boy and a snowman.

Having grown up in America, I was unaware of the UK Christmas phenomenon that is The Snowman. Here, it's broadcast every year, and virtually everyone knows it, but I was seeing it for the first time, and, in my condition, through the eyes of a delirious child. Just as I was beginning to sort out the plot, the snowman took the boy by the hand and they floated up into the sky to the haunting tune of "Walking In The Air."

It was beautiful and, at the same time, terrifying. For the first time, I understood how sick I'd been, and that I was far from better. It was if I were the little boy, and the Snowman was taking me on a sample tour of the heavens, as if to say, "You can float away with me now, or stay down there on earth and suffer." In that moment I had a brief glimmering of what it might be like to die.

After that I got better. On Christmas Day, I was able to get up and walk around a bit, and by New Year's Eve, dressed up warmly, albeit a bit shaky and two stone (28 pounds) lighter, I was down along the Thames with three million other slightly woozy revellers, watching the fireworks usher in a new millennium.

But ever since then, I've never been able to hear "Walking In The Air" - and you hear it a lot this time of year - without being carried back to those feverish days when I didn't know where I was, didn't know if I'd be coming back, and didn't much care. The strangest thing is how nostalgic I feel for that time. I wouldn't wish the way I was feeling then on my worst enemy, but there was a certain comfort that came with being utterly powerless, with having to surrender to forces greater than myself, to relax and let them carry me where they might.

Today I heard the song again, while standing in the queue at Tesco, and suddenly it came to me: as much as we fear illness and death, as much as we spend our days and our lives trying to fend them off, we're drawn to them as well. One part of us wants to live forever, and another to die today if not sooner. The "live forever" component holds sway as long as it can, but just as a river knows it's going to end up in the sea no matter how hard it might try to do otherwise, the death wish gains on us, patiently, inexorably, always with the grim confidence that it will have its way in the end.

And at some point we begin to understand that that's all right, that there will come a time when death will no longer seem a terrifying fate to be evaded, but rather more of a relief, a blessed and comforting end to a life well and fully lived.

Or not. What we really fear, it seems, is not death so much as death before our time. Today, standing in the supermarket, surrounded by dozens of people buzzing with energy as they did their last minute shopping, with the lights and sounds and sights and smells of the holidays all around me, I would have liked to believe that my time is still far in the future. Surely some of these other people would be gone long before me. Perhaps that old lady in front of me, counting out the last of her coins to pay for a packet of Silk Cut and a copy of the Daily Mail. The unmistakable scent of unbearable loneliness wafted through the room, and as quickly as it appeared, was gone, replaced by the false jollity and real joy of Christmas coming round once more. The old lady clutched her cigarettes and newspaper, pulled her shawl up tight against the chill, and set out for home, perhaps to put her feet up by the fire with a nice cup of tea and dream, like any and all of us, a little dream of forever.

19 December 2005

And So To Salisbury

Partly because I'll be out of the country for the next couple of months, the West Country Walking Society scheduled an extra outing for December. Our destination was the cathedral city of Salisbury, about which I knew very little except that, well, it had a cathedral. I must also admit to harbouring a niggling little prejudice toward Salisbury, owing to having occasionally as a child been fed something called Salisbury steak.

I've never had any experience with Salisbury steak in England, but in America, it was, as near as I could tell, hamburger without the bun. Not very appealing, especially when you've been led to believe you’re having steak. Sadly, the city of Salisbury appears to have a bit in common with its namesake steak, coming off a bit less grand than its status as major tourist destination would suggest.

There is a cathedral, yes, and a very fine cathedral it is. And the cathedral's immediate surrounds are pleasing, too, a sedate collection of houses dating in some cases back to early medieval times. Apart from that, Salisbury offers a pleasant but small town centre replete with Ye Olde Twee Tea Shoppes, and also does a marvellous line in car parks, roundabouts, and mid-80s housing estates.

In other words, it’s not as pedestrian-friendly as a Walking Society might hope for, but luckily we had decided in advance that this wasn’t to be one of our “serious” walks, but rather more of an urban stroll, with, as Bella had requested last time, “lots of nice shops and cafés to stop into.” We arrived with no itinerary, and muddled our way through the entire day without acquiring one. That left Danny at a loss for what to do with his GPS unit, apart from informing us where we were at any given time. But the gloss was taken off this technological marvel by the fact that the GPS-less among us could obtain the same information, usually more quickly, by examining the nearest street sign.

It was not a street sign per se, but a wall inscription on a lovely old street leading away from the cathedral that set Danny off into a bout of mild contentiousness. “Life’s but a walking shadow,” it read. “You know where that’s from, don’t you?” Richard asked. “No idea,” said Danny. Richard heaved a perhaps exaggerated sigh, causing Danny to bristle ever so slightly before I intervened.

“It’s not Shakespeare, is it?” I said. “I mean, it sounds very much like Shakespeare, but I don’t think that’s quite how it goes.” Doing his best to contain his exasperation, Richard silenced me by reciting the entire passage. I thought that was rather admirable, but Danny let it be known that as far as he was concerned, Shakespeare was rather useless.

This discussion evolved or devolved, depending on your point of view, into me extolling the virtues of Coronation Street as a window into contemporary British culture while Danny dismissed any and all television as worthless. “Its only purpose is to sell advertising,” he said. “What about the BBC?” I asked. “Or to serve as a conduit for government propaganda,” he retorted.

And it wasn’t just television, he continued. Pretty much all contemporary culture was devoid of lasting substance. “Don’t you think that in future centuries history will have sifted out certain books and films, perhaps even television programmes, as being illustrative of our times?” I asked. “I think all of it will be completely forgotten,” he concluded.

“What about your own writing?” (Danny writes for the newspapers.) “Are you acknowledging that the only purpose of your writing is to sell advertising?” “You’ll notice there usually aren’t any adverts on the same pages as my articles,” he said. “That’s because they know nobody reads them,” said Bella sweetly, putting an end to that discussion.

It was that sort of afternoon, jovial but a bit catty. Speaking of catty, an enormous black cat strolls freely around Salisbury Cathedral as if it owns the place. Presumably its job is to keep the rodent population down, but you’d think a Christian church might have chosen a cat of a different colour. We were near the front of the sanctuary watching some people trying to control an unruly dog (no, none of us have any explanation as to what the dog was doing there) and wondering if perhaps the cat would turn up at the moment to enliven the proceedings, when Shely glanced down and noticed that we were standing on a gravestone that had been freshly laid in the cathedral floor.

“I wonder how this bloke managed to get buried here?” she said. “I suppose by giving a shedload of money to the church.” I read the epitaph for one “Edward Heath, 1916-2005, statesman, musician, sailor,” and suggested, “Maybe because he was the Prime Minister?”

There was a service going on when we arrived at the cathedral, “Mattins,” the notice board read. Misspelled, both Bella and I sniffily noted, but as I pointed out, you can’t expect English heretics to have kept up with their Latin spelling after all these centuries. There was some lovely hymn singing and some majestic organ, but absolutely no congregation apart from a couple dozen Japanese tourists, nearly all of whom got up and left when the music stopped and the sermon started. Later on, while we were standing on Ted Heath’s grave, the organ came back at twice or three times the volume with a sudden blast of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” causing a couple of us to jump halfway out of our skins.

Adjacent to the cathedral is the exquisite Chapter House, which houses one of four surviving copies of the Magna Carta. Bella and I were hunched over it trying to make heads or tails of the highly abbreviated Latin, when Richard strolled up and pointed out that we were examining a poster rather than the document itself, which was around the corner. Danny then wanted to go off in search of something called the Water Meadows, from which one could allegedly see the best view in Britain. We found a roundabout and a river, but nothing resembling the best view in Britain, or, for that matter, in Salisbury. We tried to follow the River Walk, but it kept deviating away from the river, and wound up wandering past a particularly old-looking building, which Shely, Bella and I stopped to gawk at.

“Can I help you?” called a Hyacinth Bucket voice. Its owner, also bearing a more than passing resemblance to Mrs. Bucket, came toddling over to give us an unsolicited yet mostly interesting history of the building’s past 800 years and quite a few of its inhabitants. “We’re a Christian community,” she confided with eyebrows raised ever so slightly as if to suggest that perhaps we should consider selling all our earthly goods and joining them on the spot, “and we’ve been living here since the 13th century.”

She didn’t look quite that old, but her long-suffering husband, waiting patiently in the car as she told us about their new pastor (“a Navy man, and rather a bit different to what we’re used to”) and explained that although their building was called a hospital, it had never been a hospital (“hospital is used here in the ancient sense, meaning a refuge for pilgrims or guests”), could have been forgiven for feeling that way. We kept expecting him to impatiently drum his fingers on the steering wheel or give the engine a quick rev, but he sat there like a 21st century Buddha until his wife was quite finished, and drove slowly away so that she could wave to us one more time.

As it began to get dark we finally found a spot where the River Walk emerged from a car park into some open country, and had a nice stroll, pursued by some swans, ducks and a couple of coots, apparently hoping for a handout. Shely told me that when a coot is riled up, the white feathers on top of his head stand up like a punk rocker with a Mohican, but try as I might, the coots took no notice of my various insults, so I never got to find out if this was true.

By now it was going on 4 pm, the sun was setting, and we had to hurry back to town. There was still time for yet another argument lively discussion, this time between Bella and myself on the nature of civilisation as opposed to barbarism. As a thoroughly post-modern scholar, Bella refuses to acknowledge such categories on the grounds that they’re all subject to individual interpretation. Danny pointed out that hot and cold running water and central heating could be considered among the hallmarks of civilisation, and that he was certainly in favour of them.

I added that if it weren’t for modern civilisation, Bella wouldn’t very likely be able to have a job teaching impressionable students that civilisation is essentially a meaningless construct, but then the discussion veered off into the way that human beings have allegedly demonised animals. Shely in particular was exercised about how foxes had been painted as devious and predatory, thus providing fat Tory bastards with an excuse to brutally hunt them down. I mentioned that some animals – rats, for example, might partially deserve their bad reputations, but Bella quickly rose to the defence of all animals, rats included.

“So you wouldn’t mind rats living in your house?” I demanded. “In your kitchen cupboards, sharing your food?” “There’s nothing wrong with rats,” she staunchly insisted, but by now we were back to town, where it seemed untoward to go on arguing about the merits or demerits of rats and/or barbarians, so we piled into the café at Salisbury station and drank coffee and talked about upcoming holidays and birthdays while I waited for my train back to London. As we said goodbye, I must admit to feeling a warm glow of friendship and camaraderie, but of course it wouldn’t do to openly express such sentiments on the platform of a windblown, bone-chilling English railway station, so we solemnly shook hands, exchanged air kisses, and promised to meet again when I return in the spring. Though I couldn’t say it there, I can here and will: how fortunate I am to have such lovely friends.

17 December 2005

Three Blind Drunks

Spotted on the Underground tonight, at King's Cross Station: three blind people who also appeared to be blind drunk. They were tripping over their white canes and their guide dogs to the point where I thought it might be a pantomime act, until one of them nearly stumbled in front of a train. They stood laughing and falling about for a while longer before toddling off in three separate directions, calling as they went, "See you!" "Right, see you soon!" "I'll be seeing you, then!"

Is it just me, or does that sound a little odd to anyone else?

Fair Play For London

Lest you get the wrong impression from my frequent carping about various aspects of London life, I must say that the old town has been looking especially spiffy of late. A couple nights ago my friend Patrick and I, having dropped another friend off at Charing Cross station, decided to walk across the Hungerford Footbridge to Waterloo. It was a mild night for December, the air was as close to crystal clear as it ever gets around here, and the cityscape along the Thames was breathtakingly stunning. Actually, I've crossed both the Hungerford and Waterloo bridges several times this week, and the lit-up vista from the Houses of Parliament all the way down to St. Paul's has been dazzling every time, but this particular night we both had to stop a couple times to take it all in.

My tendency to focus on the aggravations rather than the joys of London life is probably similar to the way New Yorkers see their city. Visitors - myself included - come away raving about the fabulousness of it all; New Yorkers are often too busy contending with astronomical rents, dodgy or unreliable subways, the noise, the intensity and pace of it all, to notice what an amazing city they live in. When I stop to think about it, pretty much the same is true of London.

Of course my appreciation for London at this time of year is heightened by the fact that I'm a big fan of Christmas. I like the lights, the decorations, the crowds, the roving bands of carollers, even the tatty fun fair in Leicester Square. When others gripe about all the stress of shopping and parties, I just shrug. If you don't like Christmas, I suggest, don't participate. Don't buy presents, don't go to office parties, just sit home and be miserable for all I care. Just don't waste your own and others' time whingeing and moaning about how Christmas is such a bore. Either get in the spirit and enjoy it or go on holiday to somewhere that they don't celebrate it at all. Which in "multicultural" Britain shouldn't require more than ten or twenty minutes' ride on the Underground.

Another highlight this weekend: an afternoon visit to Craven Cottage on the banks of the Thames (one of our theme songs is the Clash's "London Calling," thanks to its line about living by the river, to watch Fulham eke out an unlovely and scrappy 2-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers. It'll be my last match for a couple months, and was suitably exhilarating, as was the walk back to Hammersmith along the Thames Path, with the tiniest bit of red and purple still glowing on the horizon from the winter sunset.

Bhangra and Bollywood

Had an unusual night out yesterday at Club Kali. It's been running for ages, so is probably no longer remotely trendy, but when a couple friends mentioned they were going, I said that I'd heard of it before and had always meant to check it out. Next thing I knew, I was being dragged off to North London, only partially against my better judgment.

Club Kali advertises itself as being for "South Asian alternative sexualities," whatever that might mean. Compared with most London clubs, I saw relatively little sexuality, with most of the energy going into some pretty fierce dancing. A big screen shows Bollywood flicks and people dance on the stage in front of it, eerily mirroring and merging with the onscreen choreography. The music is a crazy, infectious mix of bhangra and some Arabic rhythms along with a little more conventional house, but the overall effect is unlike any other London club I've been in.

A nice touch: on tables all around the room, there were plates of fresh fruit for people to help themselves to. Okay, it was mostly green grapes, but green grapes are my favourite fruit, so I wasn't complaining. A not so nice touch: by 2 am I was gasping for oxygen, as the joint was, like most London clubs, awash in cigarette smoke. It's doubly unpleasant and unhealthy when you're doing a lot of dancing, which leads to a lot of breathing, not a good thing when you're cooped up in a room with hundreds of selfish and oblivious tobacco addicts. Obviously I've been spoiled by having been to clubs in more progressive places like New York and California. Unfortunately, thanks to Tony Blair's being in the back pocket of the tobacco industry, we're still stuck in the dark and smoky ages here.

16 December 2005

He Just Doesn't Understand

The normally very sensible Wesley launches an uncharitable and unwarranted attack on the much-loved Routemaster bus, which, as of last week, is essentially defunct.

The Routemaster, which almost anyone who's ever seen a British film or TV show would instantly identify as the "classic" London double-decker, was killed off by a combination of bureaucracy (I believe European Union rules had something to do with it, but we generally suspect that about any insalutary development, including a band of rain showers moving in from the general direction of France) and misguided PC zeal.

The absolutely brilliant thing about the Routemaster was that you could hop on and off as needed, rather than wait for officially designated bus stops. This did lead to the occasional injury when someone overestimated his or her athletic ability or underestimated the speed of the bus, but for the most part, it was a thoroughly sensible arrangement. Now, on the new "improved" buses, you can be caught in a traffic jam in Oxford Street and wait 10 or 20 minutes for the bus to crawl along to the next bus stop, which might be all of 50 feet away.

Also, the Routemaster system, where the driver concentrates on one thing only, driving, and leaves the conductor to collect fares and sell tickets, saved a great deal of time for passengers. Now drivers are forever having to sit there waiting for some lummox trying to find something smaller than a £20 note or explaining to some irate tourist that, "No, we don't accept euros. Yes, I know the United Kingdom is technically part of Europe. But no, we don't accept euros."

The PC bit? Well, you see, the Routemasters weren't accessible to the disabled. Never mind that on average you see one wheelchair rider every week or two on London buses, that the majority of London buses are totally accessible, or that it would be cheaper and more efficient to run a door-to-door van service for the disabled than to totally refit the entire transport system.

Anyway, the Routemasters are gone, except as a tourist attraction on a couple "Heritage Routes," and London is a poorer place for it. On the other hand, if that's the worst indignity we have to suffer this year at the hands of London Transport (excuse me, forgot it's been "rebranded," at God knows what expense, as Transport For London), it's safe to say we could have done a lot worse.

Hell Is Edgware Road

There are eight million horror stories on the London Underground, more or less coinciding with the number of Londoners. My own particular one centres around the station at Edgware Road.

Rather than unnecessarily indict the innocent, let me point out that there are actually two Edgware Road stations. I suspect this was yet another of the clever plots, like removing most of the city's street signs and changing street names on an average of every two blocks, aimed at confusing Johnny Foreigner should he ever attempt to make himself too much at home.

The Edgware Road station serving the Bakerloo Line is a perfectly innocuous and nondescript one, but its evil twin, some 300 metres to the south, is a confluence of utter vileness (not to mention the Hammersmith & City, Circle and District lines). It's also a station I need to pass through on an almost daily basis.

I find myself holding my breath and saying a silent prayer every time my train pulls into Edgware Road. If, as happens on rare occasions, the train stops, disgorges and takes on passengers, and then moves on, my whole day is brightened. If I've escaped the Curse of Edgware Road, I reason, I must be leading a charmed existence.

Of course nothing really horrible has ever happened to me there, nothing like last summer's terrorist bombing that killed seven people. The closest thing I've had to a truly bad experience was when an incompetent and unarmed kid tried to mug me as we pulled into the station. To give you an idea of his skills as a mugger, I told him to go away and leave me alone, and he did.

No, nearly all my Edgware Road torment involves trains that stop there, and then for no apparent reason, go no further. Or, after sitting there a long time while the passengers seethe in that peculiarly voiceless English way (i.e., much sighing and looking suspiciously about as if the man sitting across from you might secretly be responsible for the delay), an announcement will tell us that this train is now going in the opposite direction, and that if we want to continue our journey, we must get off, climb the stairs and cross over to the other platform. Sometimes, for extra added delight, a second announcement will come as we arrive on the other platform telling us to return to our original train. Which will close its doors and pull away just as we get there.

Edgware Road is also where train drivers change places. This wouldn't be a problem if a new driver were waiting when the train arrives, but as often as not, he's up in the lunchroom or taking a nap somewhere. When he does show up, he often finds it necessary to have a long conversation with the driver he's replacing. "How's the missus, then? And the kids? The dog? Reckon Spurs will do the business tomorrow?" they'll ask, while 300 people sit and stew and get later and later.

Of course it wouldn't be fair to blame it all on the drivers, and I don't say that only because several of my friends drive for the Underground. In fact the main cause of delays and cancellations and reversing trains is the antiquated signalling system (consisting, one suspects, of superannuated lollipop ladies wielding a set of badly smudged semaphore flags) and the collapsing infrastructure. The system, over 140 years old, is in such a state that engineers have had to resort to searching on eBay or cannibalising exhibits in the London Transport Museum for spare parts.

It's not just the physical infrastructure, either. One could make a good argument that the real problem with the Underground is an unholy collusion between a corrupt and incompetent management and obstreperous and voracious unions, providing the hapless passengers with the worst of two worlds: monopoly capitalism on one hand, and pigheaded Marxism on the other.

This brings us regular strikes or threats of strikes by the drivers and station staff, already among the best-paid transport workers in the world, and management decisions to spend tens of millions of pounds on redecorating stations and new uniforms for staff (and, as if they weren't enough, a set of billboards telling us how happy we should be that the staff had new uniforms) and almost nothing on improving train service, which compares unfavourably with the 19th century in terms of speed and reliability.

Add to this the highest fares in the world, a service that shuts down shortly after midnight, and train carriages that in summer exceed temperatures allowed for the transportation of livestock, and you have to wonder if we're still living in the country that invented the train, the underground railroad, and the industrial revolution. Bob Kiley, who used to run the New York subway system, was brought over a few years ago to sort things out, prompting one transport official to sniff, "We don't need some guy from New York coming over telling us how to run our trains." Considering that New York manages to run a safer, cleaner, air-conditioned, 24-hour service for about half the fare that Londoners pay, no, I can't imagine why we'd have anything to learn from "some guy from New York."

But now Kiley's gone, fallen victim to a power struggle with Mayor Ken Livingstone, and about the best that can be said for his legacy is that the trains haven't got any worse, which considering the trend of the previous couple decades, probably qualifies as an improvement.

One redeeming feature of the London Underground is that fares, while astronomical, are also optional. My guess, based on much observation, is that no more than half the passengers pay full fare. The rest either pay nothing at all or ride on illegally obtained children's tickets or used tickets sold by touts outside of stations. Guards on trains and ticket checkers at the gates have almost completely disappeared, replaced by the "station staff" in their shiny new blue uniforms whose job consists largely of standing around in case someone has a question. Hint to tourists: don't ask them how to get where you're going; most of them have no clue.

In answer to your next question, yes, I still buy a ticket. I'm either too timid or too honest not to. But I have to admit feeling like a bit of a mug as I queue at the fare gates while a few dozen less challenged folks casually push their way through without paying. Ah well, end of rant. Unfortunately, I have a train to catch.

15 December 2005

Other Writing

As some of you will know, I also write a bimonthly column for Punk Planet, something I’ve been doing for almost 12 years, and before that, I spent another seven years writing a similar column for Maximum Rocknroll. I’ve just spent that last several hours finishing up my latest for Punk Planet, and since it won’t be available on the newsstands until February or March, it’s very tempting to post it here now.

Even greater was the temptation not to put myself through the strain of writing something new, but instead to submit one of my blog entries as a column, but in the end I’ve resisted both temptations, at least for the time being. When this project expands into a full-fledged website – hopefully in the next month or two – I plan to post many of the columns I’ve done for Punk Planet and MRR, as well as a selection of my favourite articles from Lookout. But in the meantime, if you haven’t had enough of me here, you’ll still have to buy the magazine (or do what I do: read it while hanging around the book shop).

13 December 2005

Ho Ho Ho

For about 30 years I sent Christmas cards sporadically or not at all. More not at all than sporadically. Every five or ten years I'd get a burst of energy that would coincide with Christmas and I'd dash off cards to everyone I'd ever known, half of whom thought I was dead or at least hoped that were the case.

Whether I'd actually get around to mailing them was another matter. Once I found the whole batch, addressed, stamped, ready to be posted, sitting under a pile of dirty clothes. Unfortunately, it was already February 6, so I decided to hang on to them until the following Christmas, by which time, of course, I'd forgotten all about them. Another time, I put my cards in the mail the day after Christmas, reasoning that I could blame the post office for not delivering them on time. But most years, I ignored the whole business, and eventually people reciprocated by ignoring me.

About five years ago, I decided to turn over a new leaf, and unlike most such leaves, this one has stayed turned. So far, anyway. Relatives who hadn't heard from or of me since I was a child began receiving Christmas cards with pleasant little notes enclosed. "Has your son been brainwashed by some religious zombie cult?" they’d ask my parents, but now they've finally begun to accept that both the cards and I are genuine. And of course they've added me to their Christmas card lists.

For the most part, this is a good thing. I feel like a right proper grownup, a functioning member of society, someone who takes on responsibilities and fulfils them. The trouble is, there's no way to back out now: each year that I get my cards off on time increases the expectation that I will continue to do so every year. Mostly a good thing, as I said, but what if one day I decide I want to be feckless and irresponsible again?

I also question my motives. Most older people enjoy Christmas cards, but my younger friends, especially the irreligious types, seem to find them a bit annoying. Especially since I make a point of choosing cards with a religious message. These folks not only don’t want to get on the Christmas card exchange merry-go-round; they also don't want to be reminded of the baby Jesus or peace on earth and good will to men, etc. They'd prefer to ignore Christmas completely, or, failing that, replace it with some druidic bacchanal.

So am I sending them cards as a sincere expression of friendship? Or simply to wind them up? Probably a bit of both. Anyway, I'm mildly exhilarated to report that I hauled the whole batch down to the Notting Hill Post Office this morning, only to find that the Post Office, a lovely old building that's been there for a century or so, has been shut down to save money. I remembered them talking about this last year, but never dreamed it would happen once the neighbourhood film stars and celebrities came out to protest.

But apparently the celebrities will now have to do as I did, i.e., walk another half mile to Notting Hill Gate to take care of their postal needs. Anyway, who sends letters anymore? If it weren't for Christmas cards, I might never have to set foot in a post office again. Unless, of course, I end up back on the dole. Which is quite possible considering the prices they're getting for stamps these days. Never mind, my cards are sent, it's only December 13, and I've got all the time in the world to go roast some chestnuts on an open fire the radiator. Wait, I don't even like chestnuts... Never mind, all that remains now is to go spend the rest of my money on presents that nobody will like or have any use for, and it will well and truly feel like Christmas.

Supervisor Dingbat To The Rescue

While murder rates and crime rates in general are heading down in most American cities, they're rocketing upward in the Bay Area, especially in the "cool grey city of love," San Francisco.

Never fear, though; here's Supervisor Chris "Dingbat" Daly to the rescue: what the city needs, he's decided, is to blow another $20 million it doesn't have on a Homicde Prevention Plan. What exactly does this plan entail? Well, it's not actually a "plan," per se; the money will be spent on a "council" which will in turn create a "plan" which will be ready for study in only one short year. So if you're afraid to let your kids play outside of your lovely multi-million dollar Frisco slum hovel, relax; by November 2006, the city will be carefully studying suggestions on what to do about it.

And just in case you're concerned that the city's not showing sufficient commitment, Supervisor Dingbat's proposal also requires the expenditure of an additional $20 million every year until 2011 on "anti-violence funding." With all that money devoted to the cause, you'd expect Frisco to be a virtual oasis of peace, love and good vibes in no time at all. Unfortunately, there's nothing about the "anti-violence" plan that the city hasn't already been trying for decades: it assumes that gangbangers who routinely shoot each other and anyone else unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity will see the error of their ways and become good citizens if we only offer them more job training and education.

Hey, education's a wonderful thing, and I've always been in favour of it (well, except possibly when I was being forced to go to school and do homework myself), but someone prepared to gun down another human being because "he disrespected me, man" might be a little too far gone to benefit from these popular liberal nostrums. And it seems that even Supervisor Dingbat recognises that bankruptcy of his "plan" because he's also setting aside money to "create a survivors’ advocate and a survivors’ fund, which would be used to help family members of murder victims with burial costs, counselling costs and other expenses." In other words, don't expect us to stop your loved ones getting murdered, but hey, cheer up, at least we'll help you bury them.

One could, of course, skip this massive squandering of public funds and simply learn from the experiences of other cities that have had enormous success in cutting crime and murder rates. New York City, for example, has cut its murder rate by 75% during the past ten years, and it's continuing to fall while San Francisco's is climbing. You're now nearly twice as likely to get murdered in Frisco as in the once-dangerous Big Apple.

But suggest the application of what worked in New York - essentially cracking down hard on aggressive and anti-social behaviour - to your typical Frisco lib, and you'll get horrified looks, hand wringing, and, "Oh no, we wouldn't want to be like those horrible, mean New York people."

Well, look at it this way: nearly two thirds of San Francisco's murder victims are black (in a city that is only 10% black), most of them from poor neighbourhoods or housing projects. Similar figures held true in New York, so one can reasonably calculate that between 1995 and 2005, New York's get-tough policy saved at least 5,000 lives, of which over 3,000 can be presumed to have been black. Then tell me where the true compassion lies.

12 December 2005

Life and Death

I don't have a firm viewpoint on the death penalty, but I'll admit that the whole idea leaves me a bit squeamish. In the unlikely event that I ever held high political office, I'm not sure I could oversee someone's execution, but at the same time, I'd be at a loss to explain the benefit of keeping certain hardened criminals alive at public expense for several decades.

Perhaps it comes down to a question of which is the worse punishment: a quick and painless extinguishing of one's life, or being forced to spend the rest of said life in a cage. In my younger, more ruminative and more rebellious days, I always swore that I'd rather die than spend my life in prison, and I assumed the same would be true of most convicted criminals. But considering the tenacity with which most of them battle to stay alive, even when they know they're unlikely ever to get out of prison, I was probably wrong.

As is the case with many ostensibly good causes, what keeps me from wholeheartedly joining the anti-death penalty cause is the dubious character of its adherents. It's not the full-fledged pacifists that bother me. I think they're unrealistic and a bit starry-eyed, but so long as they're consistent in their beliefs, I have to respect them.

But the genuine pacifists are a minority among the opposition to the death penalty. Other defenders of people like Stanley "Tookie" Williams or Mumia Abu Jamal appear to have less salubrious motives. Instead of simply arguing that state-sanctioned killing is wrong, they go further and attempt to turn convicted criminals into heroes and role models. While they'll argue vehemently that Tookie and Mumia are innocent, you get the feeling that they wouldn't mind too terribly much if they weren't. In the Mumia case, in particular, many of the Free Mumia people advance arguments along the lines of, "He never killed that cop, not that cop-killing is such a bad thing anyway."

Similarly with Tookie Williams, the argument is dual-pronged: he's innocent of the charges and at the same time he deserves to have his sentence commuted because he's a reformed man. Presumably he had to be guilty of something in order to reform, but consistency is not a strong point with these folks. They're like the "antiwar" people who aren't really against the war at all. War is fine with them; they just want the other side to win.

Having said that, I've noticed that the Tookie campaign has had its effect on me: it's succeeded in humanising the man to the point where it is bothering me to think that he will be executed in a few hours. I still think he's a thoroughly unpleasant man, probably guilty of the crimes he's charged with and certainly guilty of others, and I'm reminded that he's resolutely refused to cooperate with the police in bringing any of his old gangbanger mates to justice. In other words, his "reformation" is a fairly shallow one, and probably mainly cosmetic, as is his "Nobel Peace Prize nomination" (anyone can nominate anyone for that honour).

Despite that, I'll get no satisfaction out of seeing him dead, and something seems a bit off-kilter for a cartoonish film star-turned governor to have the final say over another man's life or death. I correct myself: the United States Supreme Court, a somewhat more stately institution, has just weighed in with its opinion, also turning down Williams' appeal. I personally know a few people who will be holding a vigil outside San Quentin tonight, who will be crying genuine tears if or when the execution takes place. And to the extent that their tears are for the institutionalised brutality of capital punishment, I understand and (almost) support them. If, however, their cries of anguish and rage are for the man himself, I contend that every day on this planet thousands, maybe tens of thousands die more unjustly and are more deserving of our tears.

The Hidden Dangers of Late Night Eating

I've already ranted and raved about London's provincial attitude toward late night pubs, and mentioned in passing that even booze-free restaurants need a special licence to serve food after 11 pm, a licence which, it seems, is very difficult to get.

There used to be an all-night place at Tottenham Court, serving chips, kebabs, and similar healthy fare to the drunks coming out of the nearby Astoria and several other local clubs. It was shut down by a fire for a couple years, but recently re-opened. However, they're now forced to shut at 11 pm, which of course is about the time their best customers start arriving. They're asking people to sign petitions to Westminster Council to renew their late night licence, but it doesn't look hopeful.

Nearby are a few other fast food places that are allowed to stay open past 11, but - and it's a big BUT - from 11 pm they're forced to be takeaway only. Their seating areas are roped off and sit idle, while customers have to take their food and stand around eating on street corners in the lovely December weather.

Now perhaps I am missing something, but what is the intended social good of this policy? Did some demented councillor actually reason that harm would come from allowing people to sit down indoors and eat a meal at midnight? Or that the ambience of London's streets would be more pleasant if everyone had to stand around eating in the middle of the pavement while simultaneously trying to keep from getting rained on or carried off by a vicious gust of wind?

I can at least see the thinking - though I disagree with it - behind attempts to limit drinking hours as a way of combating yobbish and unpleasant behaviour. But if you don't want people drinking, why not offer them the alternative of late night restaurants and cafés? I can only presume that the mentality behind this is somewhat akin to that of the 19th century lord who opposed the building of a national railway system on the grounds that it would only "encourage the labouring classes to travel about needlessly."

Oi War Roit Mardy

Well, now, Oi've got a foice as lawng as Livery Street after this wikend's trip to Birninem. Oi'd been heffing a bronical, it war a bit parky, thar warnt enny poise, Oi spenn all moi ackers, the troin injin crept out, en we lawst the bloiding goim!!!

Supposedly, at least according to this Brummie and Black Country dictionary, this means that I wasn't too happy about this weekend's trip to Birmingham: I was nursing a cold, it was a bit chilly, the refreshment stand had run out of pies, I spent all my money, the train engine broke down, and we lost the bleeding game! I won't vouch for the accuracy of any of it, other than to say it sounds as plausibly incomprehensible as the anything I've ever overheard on the streets of Brum.

I'd have happily overlooked all the inconveniences and discomforts if Fulham had managed to pull off a victory or at least a draw, and despite having two of our best players suspended, for about the first 70 minutes of the game that seemed the most likely result. It was an ugly game, with the teams seeming to place more emphasis on crashing into each other than on controlling the ball and actually doing something with it, but it had a certain visceral quality to it that was well suited to a dismal December day. But then Birmingham put on three substitutes and started relentlessly attacking the Fulham end, banging shot after shot in on goal, and finally, with only six minutes left, the inevitable happened and one went in. Fulham fans were furious: we'd seen it coming for a good ten minutes, and yet nothing had been done, no substitutions, no change of tactics. One fan harangued us all the way from the stadium to the train station, and looked set to continue in that vein for the 2+ hours back to London (longer as it turned out; we got stuck behind a slow-moving milk train or ox cart, not sure which), but he was soon drowned out by a considerably greater annoyance.

The guys sitting across from us looked perfectly harmless. If anything, they almost seemed out of place in a carriage full of football supporters: sort of studenty, albeit a bit flabby and gone to seed. They set up about 20 cans of beer on their table and set out drinking themselves into a stupor. After a while they woke up enough to start singing along (badly) to pop hits on one of their iPods, which was good for a few laughs. But then they got a new burst of energy and jumped up to start singing football chants, the standard ones at first, but then they shifted into racist and anti-gay ones, and songs celebrating the plane crash that wiped out the Manchester United team in 1958. I seriously considered asking them to knock it off, as it was seriously bumming out just about everybody else in the carriage, and wondered out loud why the other guys at my table wouldn't want to join me (they were considerably bigger, stronger, and at least a few years younger than me).

But they just went on chatting (not that you could hear anything over the singing) as if nothing at all was happening. Just before we pulled into London, I realised why: one of the fatter and most sozzled of the singing drunks fixed his gaze on an innocuous older gentleman a few seats away and loudly announced, "That pile of crap over there is giving me eyebrow. He wants a good kicking and he's going to get it."

Fatso McDrunk wasn't, of course, about to fight the man himself; what he was in effect saying to his mates was, "Let's you and him fight." And the thing was, if the intended victim had so much as said a word or made the wrong facial gesture, they would have. It was clear that the whole racist/sexist/moron act was mainly meant to provoke someone into giving them an excuse to start a fight. Somehow I'd been thinking that they were basically nice guys who would immediately quiet down if someone politely asked them.

The most shocking thing (to me) was that the yobbos were apparently Fulham fans. I've been going to Fulham games, both home and away, for many years now, and had never seen anything like it. "We have a very middle class following," I'd always told friends when they expressed fears about me falling foul of those legendary football hooligans. "I don't think things like that go on much anymore."

Well, on at least one carriage of the 17:55 from Birmingham Moor Street to London Marylebone, they still do. How exciting that I happened to be sitting in it.

09 December 2005

He Was The Future... Once...

I'm not as huge a fan of Gordon Brown as Kendra is. At least I've never written a song about him, and don't expect to in the foreseeable future. But I've always thought he was a good Chancellor, and might, if he can restrain his Old Labour impulses (and, more importantly, those of the unreconstructed awkward squad within his own party), make a pretty decent Prime Minister.

But with the installation of David Cameron as Conservative Party leader, Gordon may be getting nervous about the prospect of ever getting his feet under the table at Number 10. He's been doing his best to ease Tony Blair toward the door, but Blair is turning out to be like one of those party guests who won't take a hint, who's merrily chattering away and fixing himself another drink even after his despairing hosts have given up making pointed remarks about the lateness of the hour, got themselves into their pyjamas, and taken themselves off to bed.

Then again, I'm not as tired of Blair as most people I know are, and don't mind if he sticks around for a couple more years before handing things over to Brown, provided he doesn't run the Labour Party into the ground in the process. Cameron's accession makes it less likely that Blair's increasingly shaky hold on power will survive long enough to be of much value to Brown; his most telling blow during his first session of Prime Minister's Questions came when he gestured across the box at the visibly older and more care-worn Blair and said condescendingly, "He was the future... once." The sickly grin on Blair's face made the point more eloquently than anything Cameron could have added.

It's early days, of course, but it looks as though the Conservatives have finally managed to learn a lesson from the way the Blair-Brown coalition has dominated British politics for the past decade. Get someone young, energetic and reasonably good-looking, speak in vague but upbeat terms about Britain's glowing future and the tired, played-out nature of your opponents, and bingo, you're on your way. As recently as this year, pundits were writing off the Conservatives as a spent force and forecasting a succession of Labour governments far into the future, but the Labour Party increasingly looks like returning to the fractious ways of its past, a weakness which Cameron brilliantly and mercilessly exploited.

Pointing out that Blair can no longer count on enough votes from his own party to pass his more centrist proposals, Cameron offered Conservative votes to make up the difference. This had the dual effect of appealing to a public sick of political parties opposing each other for the sake of opposition, and of driving a wedge between Blair and the 50 or 60 diehards who, given the opportunity, would take Labour in a time machine back to the days when Britain could have traded its EU membership for a place among the "republics" of the old Soviet Union.

Brown's strongest suit is the economy: if he can keep it on an even keel while Blair manages to avoid a confidence vote in which there might be enough Labour rebels to unseat him, he might yet have his turn as Prime Minister. But that economy looks suspiciously like it’s being financed the same way British consumers are managing their own affairs: atop an ever-increasing mountain of credit card debt.

That being said, is there really much difference between Cameron and Blair? No, and that's just the point: by choosing a non-ideological leader who can't be pinned down as standing for much of anything, the Conservatives may have finally found the secret to out-Blairing Blair. And the glib young (just 39) Cameron could put a more than passing frown on Brown's face as well.

08 December 2005

How can we destroy the capitalist system, John?

He may have written some of the greatest songs of the 20th century, but John Lennon could be loopy as any hippie fruitcake when it came to his socio-political views. Lennon had no trouble coming up with screwy ideas on his own, but, egged on by two drug-muddled Marxists and his own even loopier wife in this 1971 interview, the former Beatle sounds about as deep and thoughtful as a St. Mark's Place or Telegraph Avenue space cadet.

In Lennon's defence, the half-assed "revolutionary" views expressed here are no more bizarre than those being bandied about at the time by the White Panthers or the Weathermen or the Manson Family (or, for that matter, by any number of thoroughly ordinary young drug-taking hippies like, oh, say, myself). And someone shouldn't be expected, just because he's a brilliant musician, to be a great philosopher or even a well-balanced human being. What's more, Lennon's fire-breathing revolutionary phase was a fairly brief and ineffectual one.

What strikes me more is the fact that his interlocutors, Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn, are still, almost 35 years after the fact, spouting the same sort of nonsense. Sure, they've learned to soft-pedal it enough to maintain careers, particularly Blackburn, who has managed to pass himself off as a "distinguished" professor at two prestigious schools despite clinging to ancient Marxist superstitions with a tenacity rivalling that of any Flat Earth fundamentalist.

Tariq Ali is no prize, either. His latest book, Street Fighting Years, adorned with a ridiculous cover photo of multi-zillionaires John Lennon and Yoko Ono posing in something apparently meant to be battle helmets but more closely resembling construction worker hard hats, uncritically romanticises and eulogises the pseudo-revolution of the 1960s. Like far too many members of his generation, the 60-something Ali seems never to have escaped his teenage trustafarian past, and almost revels in having learned absolutely nothing from the intervening four decades.

Everybody Is A Star

Well, at least now we know what the San Francisco Police Department has been up to in lieu of catching murderers and robbers. With gang violence spiralling out of control and murders at their highest rate in years, the city's cops, never among the nation's most efficient, have been amusing themselves by making a series of funny videos. Chief Heather Fong, rather than leading her troops out to take back the streets, is so "disappointed and disgusted" that she's suspended at least 20 of them.

Never mind, says Fong; there will still be more than enough police to deal with the city's crime problem. But how would she know, one of the suspended officers contends: ""We're outgunned. We're outmanned," Cohen said. "The fact of the matter is that she has an out-of-control department. She lives in the Bayview and has never stopped by the station to see her own officers."

A chaotic and inept Police Department is nothing new in the City That Doesn't Know How To Do Much Of Anything Except Fleece Tourists: I remember back in the 70s watching a man break into a car parked in front of my house. I called the police, and as he casually rifled through the glove box and removed the stereo by demolishing the dashboard, I noticed that a cop car had arrived at the end of my block. I called 911 again and told him that the thief was getting away.

"The police are on their way," I was told. "No they're not," I said, "they're parked down at the end of my block." "I'm sure they'll be there soon," she said, and hung up.

By that time the thief had disappeared around the corner, and once it was obvious that he was safely away, the police car pulled out from where it had been idling and drove up to where I was now standing on the sidewalk next to the burglarised car. "He went that way," I said, pointing to the corner. "Sir, would you please keep your hands up in the air where we can see them and step away from the vehicle?" came the response.

They frisked me, questioned me about the car break-in, and were on the verge of arresting me before I managed to convince them that I was the one who'd reported the break-in in the first place. By now the burglar was halfway across town, and it was obvious that the cops were madder at me for calling them than at him for robbing cars on their beat.

"Anyway," I said, why did you wait down the block until he was finished breaking into the car and getting away?" "Sometimes police work requires a more measured approach, sir," they said blandly, simultaneously suggesting that I should measure my own approach back into my house and stop bothering them. With that they turned around and casually drove off in the direction they had come from.

06 December 2005

The West Country Walking Society

The first Sunday of the month means it's time for the West Country Walking Society to convene in an arbitrarily selected field of mud and tramp around with purpose and élan until the cows come home or the sun goes down, and sometimes, if our planning has gone awry or Danny's GPS tracker has run out of batteries, considerably later than that.

His GPS fetish notwithstanding, all credit to Danny for founding the WCWS, which has now been in operation for most of 2005. When he was still living in London, we regularly got together for informal walks across town or along the towpaths of the Grand Union Canal, but when he moved to Bristol earlier this year, he decided that it was time we walkers had a proper organisation and structure. All very English of him, but if I point that out to him, he merely looks at me blankly, as if to say, “You’re being American again, aren’t you?”

Because of the limited daylight available this time of year, December's trek had to be cut considerably shorter than our normal 10-12 miles, but the prospect of walking a mere 6 or 7 miles had the gratifying side effect of inducing Danny's partner Bella to join us for the first time in several months. A university lecturer in ancient history, Bella has been crying off because she allegedly had to work on her weighty treatise concerning the interaction between Christians and pagans in (I believe I have this right) the 4th Century Byzantine Empire, but it's equally possible she was catching up on taped episodes of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here (itself a form of history, you could argue). Although Bella invariably complains about how far we're walking and how it would be more sensible to situate our walks in town where there are nice shops and cafés to stop into, she does it so good-naturedly that she's an invaluable addition to our little company whenever she does turn up.

Danny, despite being happily partnered with Bella, is her virtual antithesis when it comes to his walking Weltanschauung: with him in charge, we be doing forced marches across trackless moors into the teeth of howling blizzards during which he would periodically exclaim, "This little breeze is rather bracing, don't you think?" Danny is a biochemist by training, a journalist and author by trade. His favourite beat is the world of animal rights or the contravention thereof. The English snap up copies of any newspaper promising to expose cruelty to animals, so Danny's forever flying off cover anything from the Canadian seal hunt to rumours that some Bulgarian peasant has been cross with his billygoat.

At present, though, Danny is basking in the glow of having received a large advance for his new book which, he likes to point out, he wrote in six weeks whereas Bella's is likely to take two years or more. He also likes to send us exultant emails every time the rights are sold in another country, for which we could gladly throttle him. Well, not really, but I did resort at one point to saying, "But those (Finland and Holland, I think) aren't proper countries."

This month’s walk takes us to the wilds of Wiltshire, specifically to the tiny village of Avebury, which sits in the middle of a famous (so famous, in fact, that I’ve never heard of it) prehistoric stone circle. What's a stone circle, you ask? Well, I'm afraid it's fairly self-explanatory: a bunch of rather large stones arranged, for no apparent purpose, by prehistoric people who evidently had nothing better to do with their time, in a great circle. I'm told there are nearly a thousand such circles in Britain, making it all the more remarkable that I’ve never stumbled across any of them before.

Except the most famous of them all, Stonehenge, which is about 20 miles south of Avebury, and, because of its grand scale, the mystery of how the stones got piled on top of each other, and the special regard in which it's held by hippies and druids, has a cachet all its own. The Avebury stones are small potatoes by comparison, though supposedly the second most important circle of its kind. If you want to see some more of them, try here.

Personally, I found the village of Avebury to be more picturesque than the old boulders. Even if most of it's only been around for a few centuries, it possesses almost unbearable amounts of what Wesley described to his wife as "OWC" (Old World Charm). It's also a bit spooky, especially when the rooks silhouetted in the barren December trees set in to croaking and cawing as the sun slips beneath the horizon.

It was about this time that Danny disappeared. Eventually I spotted him skulking along the base of the 17th century barn disabling the rat traps that had been laid out by the National Trust. "Just pretend you don't know him," advised Richard, a former journalist who’d traded in his high-flying City beat for a West Country life as a rare book trader and professional poker player. No such discouraging words were to be heard from Shely, a public relations whiz who, if anything, surpasses Danny in her zeal for saving the earth's precious fuzzy-wuzzies.

Although Richard had earlier suggested that the point of our get-togethers wasn't so much walking as "a chance to watch Danny and Larry argue," our journey up to this point had been unusually sedate. But now things kicked off, with a heated dispute over the morality of poisoning or otherwise killing rats as opposed to letting them run wild and free. "Obviously you never lived in the country," I told Danny, "or you'd know the kind of damage they can do to a building. Why, left unchecked they'd eat the thatched roof off this barn in no time."

"There's nothing wrong with rats, they're lovely creatures," he insisted, sounding not entirely convincing, especially when I asked if he would mind if they lived in his kitchen cupboards or came crawling into bed with him. "And anyway, there are more humane ways of dealing with them. Cats, for example..."

"Oh yes, it's much more humane to be ripped to shreds by some vicious cat than to take a little drink of poison and drift off to rat la-la land." "Cats are not that vicious," he insisted, "and besides, it's natural." "And how are cats natural and humans unnatural?" I demanded. This is the sort of dispute that goes on all the time between us, so I'll spare you the details except to note that when Danny went off on a tangent about regulating rat populations, again by "natural" means, Wesley chimed in with, "There was this fellow called Hitler who had some interesting ideas about regulating populations..."

With that we adjourned to the pub, also dating from the 17th century and sporting a lovely thatched roof that luckily hadn't yet been eaten by the rampant rats of Avebury. A fire flickered rather than roared in the fireplace, and the Christmas tree was artificial instead of natural (now there's a cause Danny could be getting exercised about), but apart from that everything was nearly as perfect as could be. By the time we went our separate ways to Bristol, Bath, Bournemouth and London, the temperature had dropped into the 30s and we had decided to conduct our next walk in Salisbury, where, as Bella had pointed out, there are lots of nice shops and cafés to stop into.

03 December 2005

A Journey To The Provinces

This is the first thing I saw as I stepped off the train at Birmingham's Moor Street Station. I'm pretty sure it wasn't there the last time I was in Birmingham five years ago; it does seem like the sort of thing you'd notice, no matter what state of mind you were in.

"It's done by that bloke what designed the museum in Bilbao," I heard a teenager confidently explain to his little brother, and I was inclined to believe him, but no, it turns out, Frank Gehry had nothing to do with it. An outfit called Future Systems and some Czech fellow called Jan Kaplicky are apparently the responsible parties.

The new store is part of the recently rebuilt Bullring, a huge conglomeration of shops at the centre of the UK's Second City. Second by a rather large margin, Londoners might point out if they were inclined to think about the matter, which in most cases I suspect they're not.

Home to about one million people and one of the more impenetrable and least-liked accents in the UK, Birmingham until recently served as a textbook example of disastrous urban planning. The original Bullring was a claustrophobic rat run meant to isolate pedestrians from the auto traffic which had been allowed to run rampant by the "progressive" city planners who in the 60s and 70s turned the city centre into a car-choked study in concrete brutalism. About the only citizens who appreciated this design were Birmingham's mugging community, who found the dimly lit tunnels and cul-de-sacs to be a rich and happy hunting ground.

They were halfway through tearing down the old Bullring my last time in Birmingham, so many of its more dismal nooks and crannies had been opened up and uncovered (convenient for getting rained on, a near-essential part of the Brummie Experience), but it still looked a bit Mad Max. Now the new one’s all done and I must admit it looks reasonably spectacular as shopping centres go. Some of the streets around it have also been pedestrianised or given over to public transport, and viewed at a distance, the overall effect is pleasing, almost exciting. "This is a city on the move," the new image says, "a 21st century, post-industrial shoppers' and cappuccino-sippers' paradise." In other words, a lot like London, only on a more human scale.

But when you get down into the streets themselves, the reality is a bit more downmarket. After dark (about 4 pm these days), loud and chavish young people make up the dominant demographic. While they didn't appear particularly menacing, I wouldn't have liked to have been there a few hours later, once they'd got a few more pints in them. Also, once you get out of the immediate city centre, you quickly run into traffic vortexes (should be vortices, I know, but I like the look of vortexes better) and the shabby streets and disused mills and warehouse of Birmingham's dark satanic past.

I had limited time for sightseeing anyway; my purpose for being there was to watch Fulham, the football team I've supported, sometimes passionately, sometimes in sheer desperation, for nigh on a decade now. Our opponent today was West Bromwich Albion, a recently promoted side situated in one of Birmingham's less distinguished western suburbs.

It was an ugly game, as meetings with West Brom usually are. They're not a particularly good side, and like most of the lesser Northern (to a Londoner, anything beyond the Watford Gap) teams, they make up for it by throwing in a bit of rugby and American football-style physicality. They succeeded in winding up our captain Luis Boa Morte to the point where the volatile forward lost his rag and was sent off just before halftime after a second yellow card.

Down to ten men with 45 minutes to play: it didn't look promising, especially since Fulham had struggled to put two passes together for most of the first half, and only sharp defending and WBA's own incompetence had kept us from falling behind. Add to that Fulham's habit of losing on the road: we haven't won a single away game so far this season. In fact, that had figured in my decision to make the trek up to Birmingham; I figured our luck was overdue for a change.

Apparently I'd figured wrong, or so I thought, but then Fulham came charging out for the second half as though it was they rather than West Brom who had the man advantage. Most teams, when they've had someone sent off, pull back and try mainly to defend, but Fulham launched a series of attacks that, with a bit of luck, could have resulted in a goal and a victory.

As it was, the game finished 0-0, leaving the Fulham fans cheering and the West Brom fans disconsolate and cross. On the train back into town, I listened to a very grumpy man loudly dissecting his team's failings and wanted to tell him he deserved his own radio show (he was on the verge of elevating grumpiness to an art form). But I decided he might not see the humour in that, so I enjoyed his wasp-chewing commentary in silence.

Non-football supporters, and especially American non-football supporters, always claim not to understand why someone would devote the greater part of the day and considerable sums of money to following a bunch of men around the country to watch them kicking a ball around a field in pouring rain and bone-chilling temperatures to no visible effect, and then manage to cheer when it ends up in a scoreless draw. Perhaps they have a point, but conversely, it's a point that eludes me. Five hours on the train and £40 on fares and a ticket, and I came back to London positively exhilarated (N.B. this is certainly not always the case; following Fulham is often a case study in teeth-gnashing frustration). Exhilarated enough, in fact, that I'll be doing it all over again next Saturday for Birmingham City.

P.S. In anticipation of next week's dispatch, you might want to brush up on Brummie Slang. If I'm feeling ambitious, I just might translate my report into the local dialect.

Jim MacClean, R.I.P.

They never got quite as famous as they deserved to, in fact they never got very famous at all, but if you want to know what the early Gilman Street scene was all about, Sacramento’s Sewer Trout are as good a place as any to start. Sloppy and chaotic, yet incredibly catchy and poppy, with lyrics that more than lived up to song titles like “Wally and the Beaver Go To Nicaragua” and “President of the Anarchist Club,” they were the one of the first and perhaps the greatest in a long line of brilliantly demented bands to come blazing out of California’s superheated but strangely wonderful capital city.

Their driving force, at least in my opinion, was always singer and bassist, Jim MacLean, who also went on to form a crazy and great country-punk outfit called Elmer. Sadly, Jim has now passed away under tragic circumstances. You can read some tributes from his many friends and admirers here.

02 December 2005

A Proper Party

Olivia is 88 this week, so it’s down to the pub and then a restaurant to celebrate. The pub is the Daniel Gooch in Royal Oak, a place I’ve walked past a thousand times but never been in. I always notice it, though, because it reminds me of stories I used to hear in Chicago about Dan Vapid’s legendary brother, “The Gooch.”

Everyone else is already there when I arrive, or so I think; just as I sit down, in shuffles Lindsay, a 60-something Rasta man who is Diane’s new love interest. Diane is about 60 herself, a recently retired civil servant who’s always had an eye for darker men of indeterminate means. Lindsay is not that dark himself, more caramel-coloured, actually, but he speaks the patois with a Ladbroke Grove mumble that renders him almost incomprehensible to everyone but Diane. Whether this is because he’s perennially stoned or simply lacks the energy to open his mouth completely is open to question, but he’s sweet and gentle and smiles – at least with the half of his mouth that moves – a lot. His mobile plays a Bob Marley tune when it rings, which is often, and eventually it summons him off to some sort of important business in Portobello Road’s dodgiest tavern, which leaves seven of us to carry on for the rest of the evening.

There’s John, half Irish and half Nigerian, and Bill, his boyfriend of many years. John and Bill are both 40-something social workers, with about six jobs on the side plus interests in property and God knows what else. On Gay Pride Day John likes to dress up in the costume of an Ibo warrior to pay tribute to “my tribe,” though his mother’s side of the tribe comes from a tiny crossroads in the west of Ireland where, when John goes to visit, he’s not just the only gay in the village, he’s the only bloke with skin darker than slightly cooked toast. Although I’ve known him for years, this is the first time I notice how incredibly posh his accent is. Somehow I’d always assumed that as the mixed-race child of a single mother he’d had some sort of sordid background, but as it turns out, he grew up in Chiswick, not exactly one of London’s underprivileged boroughs. Bill, with the mashed-potato complexion of an English son of the soil, had always struck me as more middle class, but now I realise I didn’t have any reason for believing that apart from the fact that he’s white.

While Bill’s true origins may have been working class, Olivia’s certainly are. Or underclass, if such a thing existed in the earlier part of the 20th century. Her father, who she never properly met until she was 21, was a chauffeur, most notably to Lloyd George, Prime Minister during the First World War. Her unmarried mother – something positively shocking in 1917 – worked occasionally as a shop assistant or serving girl, but not consistently enough to look after a child, so Olivia was raised in a country village by her grandparents. They pulled her out of school when she was 15 – being a girl, she was already thought a bit over-educated by that point – and sent her down to London to seek her fortune as a house servant.

Her starting salary was 15 shillings a week – 75p ($1.30) in today’s money. She had two children, one with her husband, one with somebody else’s, joined the Communist Party, was expelled from the Communist Party, became an anarchist, and conducted some spectacular love affairs, one of which got her partner, a high-ranking American officer, court-martialled during the Second World War. Eventually she wound up in Notting Hill, then a black and hippie ghetto, where she had one last love affair with a psychotic hippie alcoholic before swearing off men at the age of 50 and surrounding herself with a posse of über-dramatic young drag queens, most of whom she’s now outlived.

One of the few who survived is with us tonight: Rachel, born Richard, came to London in the 60s and was turning tricks in drag for a while before deciding that business would be better as an R.G. (real girl). Apart from Olivia, only a handful of people are old enough to remember Rachel before her sex change; I’m not one of them. Three and a half years ago, Rachel was diagnosed with lung cancer and given six months to live. She was in bad shape for about a year, and still gets tired now and then, but shows every sign of outliving her mother, who died at 96, still smoking 20 a day on her deathbed.

Missing from the group tonight is Brenda, one of Olivia’s closest friends, and the one she fights with the most furiously. They met in the late 60s, when Brenda, then 39, was having an affair with Olivia’s 19-year-old son, Julian. Once every week or so, Brenda comes over to play scrabble with Olivia, and they sit up till the wee hours, drinking wine, smoking pot, and waking the neighbours with shrieking 3 am arguments over whether such-and-such is a legitimate word. Sadly, Brenda recently had a bad fall – she won’t admit it, but everyone assumes she was drunk and/or stoned at the time - and for one of the few times in her life, she’s been confined to her bedsit with its “Eat The Rich” posters that have probably been hanging there since 1968. We halfway expect her to defy doctor’s orders and come staggering into the restaurant in time to knock over the birthday cake, but tonight there’s no cake and no Brenda, just a tiny crème brulée with a single candle for Olivia. We sing Happy Birthday; Olivia, with several G&Ts and a few glasses of wine in her, tries to blow out the candle but blows on her cigarette instead. Just as she finally extinguishes the flame, Diane, herself several sheets to the wind, comes staggering back from the loo and demands that we re-light the candle and go through the ritual again.

We sing Happy Birthday once more. Every table but ours in this dimly lit, red velvet-swathed restaurant is occupied by courting couples, and you can practically hear them sigh and ask themselves, “Are those idiots going to carry on like that all night?” I want to tell them, “Just be thankful this isn’t ten years ago. The plates would have been flying and the tables turning over long before the dessert course.”

Not tonight, though. People start making their excuses and leaving at 11 o’clock, and by midnight, even Olivia and Diane are ready to call it quits. “We’re not as young as we used to be,” someone remarks for the umpteenth time; a few more sad shakes of the head ensue as the night winds to a close. There have been years you would have needed the riot squad to dislodge this crowd at such an unnaturally early hour, but this won’t be one of them. “It’s all right,” says Olivia, “I’m saving my strength for my 90th. Then we’ll have a proper party.”

The Oakland Taliban

It’s not easy to muster sympathy for liquor store owners who make their living selling booze to an impoverished inner city community, but when Muslim nutcases start pulling Carrie Nation-style temperance raids, I can always make an exception. The twist here is that while the thugs involved are Muslims (albeit a fairly bizarre and cultish version thereof), so are the owners of the liquor stores they're smashing up.

I remember when the group blamed for these assaults first made its appearance in the Bay Area in 1968, selling awful bean pies from “Your Black Muslim Bakery” and passing out political and religious tracts to passersby. They had a very aggressive, almost menacing sales pitch: if you didn’t buy something from them, it suggested, you must be some kind of racist. Although they would sell their products to white people, they usually wouldn’t interact with them, sometimes refusing to answer even the most basic of questions. But then this was at a time when Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Black Muslims, was teaching that white people were the earthly embodiment of the devil, so you can perhaps understand their caution.

Still, as a dutiful young hippie and radical, I bought their pies and tried to eat them, thinking perhaps that I would thereby be elevated to the level of consciousness necessary to understand why it was “progressive” to support a religion based on racial hatred and medievalism. Eventually – thankfully – I outgrew this need, and didn’t give much more thought to Oakland’s homegrown band of Muslim extremists. From time to time I’d read that they were growing rich and powerful, and that they were being accused of strong-arm tactics, but that’s hardly unusual: the Bay Area’s much-vaunted tolerance frequently extends to groups that might be considered criminals or terrorists in more conventional climates. A borderline fascist group called BAMN (The Coalition To Defend Affirmative Action By Any Means Necessary) made a practice of stealing and destroying copies of Berkeley’s campus newspaper whenever it printed something they didn’t like. Nothing ever happened to them. Hell, Tom Bates, the mayor of Berkeley, tried the same thing when he was campaigning for office. He got elected anyway.

Yusuf Bey, the founder of the Black Muslim Bakery, took advantage of this extra-tolerant attitude, and prospered for several decades before shuffling off this mortal coil just ahead of a child rape charge. But even then, he had his defenders, who said his actions needed to be viewed through the lens of cultural relativity:
"He was a born leader in the sense of an African chief or a Muslim caliph," said Maleek Al Maleek, a 62-year-old mathematician who attended Bey's memorial. "What is prohibited here is not prohibited in East India, where there are child marriages. I can show you chiefs in Africa who have 30 wives ....The ways of the high priests are not shared by the commoner."
One trouble with that theory was that Yusuf Bey wasn’t an African chief or a Muslim caliph, he was plain old J.H. Stephens from Greenville, Texas, an air force veteran and onetime beauty parlor operator. But in California, especially in the Bay Area, you are who you say you are, and you can say you’re just about anyone. His son, Yusuf IV (and how the son of the first Yusuf Bey could suddenly acquire an IV bewilders me, too), is facing some charges over the West Oakland liquor store attacks, but something tells me we haven’t heard the last of Oakland’s own Taliban.

30 November 2005

The London Syndrome

One of my biggest gripes about England in general and London in particular has been that most things close down at an hour when New Yorkers are just starting to think about going out for the evening. It's not just the pubs, which have long been required to close at 11 pm (10:30 on Sundays); most cafés and coffee houses shut by 8 or 9, and good luck finding a restaurant that's open past 10 or 11. In fact, I only recently learned that you actually need a special licence to serve hot food after 11.

The ridiculous pub closing laws did have a rationale when they were put into effect: up until the First World War, English drinking establishments opened and closed (if they closed at all) when they felt like it and/or according to the number of customers on the premises, much as it's done in many other European countries. But, worried that hungover workers would blow themselves and the bomb factories to smithereens, the government instituted draconian restrictions on drinking times in 1914. Given the ponderous English inertia which stubbornly resists any change whatsoever to "tradition" (even if said tradition was only recently invented), it's rather startling that any politician dared come out in favour of liberalising licensing hours.

True, people have been moaning about the present system ever since it was put into place, but one thing not always understood is the distinction between English moaning and American complaining. "You Americans complain about things with the expectation of changing them," my friend Danny explains. "Englishmen don't bother complaining, because they know in their hearts nothing will come of it. So they moan. In fact, I rather think they prefer it that way."

Nevertheless, Labour campaigned and won election in 1997 on a promise to extend closing times for pubs, and did so again in 2001. Of course they never actually did anything about it, apart from a continual promise that it would happen "soon." And lo and behold, once they'd won a third term in 2005, it actually did. Americans need to understand that this represents breathtaking speed. If it were something more complicated, like completing the transition from imperial measurements to metric that began in 1965, it might take a little longer. Like 40 years, maybe? Oh, wait, that still hasn't quite happened…

Anyway, the law went through Parliament this year, despite a deafening chorus of opposition from the media, the churches, and the Tories, all predicting that allowing Englishmen to drink after 11 pm would rend asunder the last few threads of the social fabric and see the land awash in drunkenness, debauchery, and wholesale barbarism. If anyone dared ask how it was possible for less civilised people like the French or, God help us, the Americans, to drink far past midnight without a similar fate befalling their countries, they would be sniffily reminded that, "The English have a different sort of drinking culture."

If you've ever seen the vomitous and violent mobs that come swirling en masse out of pubs at closing time, you'd be forgiven for thinking so. But, the theory went, perhaps drinkers wouldn't be so surly if they weren't summarily tossed out into the chilly streets at an hour when they'd only just settled in for a pleasant night of boozing and conversation. And if they didn't feel compelled to slam dunk several pints in the last few minutes before closing time.

All the objections notwithstanding, the new law went into effect on the 24th of November. As someone who'd been complaining - American style - about this for years, I was deeply chagrined by a) being out of the country at the time; and b) no longer being a drinker.

But even though I haven't had a drink in some years, I enthusiastically supported the change, partly because I still enjoy going to pubs, and even more because I hoped that when pubs began staying open later, restaurants, shops and cafés would follow suit, and London might finally have a night life to at least rival that of Omaha or Salt Lake City. So on the 26th, my first night back, I eagerly headed down to Soho to witness the dramatic change.

Result: more or less nil. There might have been marginally more people milling around the streets, and of course the long-established after-hours clubs (most of which charge admission and double prices on drinks) were doing their usual business, but as for the regular pubs? All but a handful dutifully closed their doors at 11 pm, as if nothing at all had changed. It was as if you'd let someone out of prison and, not knowing what to do with himself, he came straight back and asked if he could keep on sleeping in his old cell. All but one of my favourite cafés were similarly shut up tight as a drum long before the witching hour.

Ah well, perhaps these things take time, as someone once sung. I note that the pub next door has taken the daring step of extending its closing time an entire half hour, to 11:30 pm. Perhaps by mid-century, they'll be open until 1 or even 2. Of course we'd then have to take up the issue of how everyone was supposed to get home: the Underground, its own hours closely geared to those of theatres and pubs, shuts down shortly after midnight (11 on Sundays). There seems to be an inbuilt suspicion that anyone out and about after that time is up to no good and certainly can't be trusted to ride on our lovely public transport system.

On the plus side (unless you are a leader writer for the Daily Mail), none of the predicted riotous behaviour has come to pass. Apparently Englishmen, provided they were sober enough to find one of the few pubs willing to stay open, have shown themselves capable of drinking themselves blotto at all hours without the Kingdom falling into rack and ruin. Who woulda thunk it?