Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ghosts ate my blog

The accompaniment to writing this is the gas metre ticking in the kitchen and the birds outside the window.  We're leaving this flat at 7 a.m. for the infamous Terminal five to continue our journey to Istanbul.  Of course, I can't sleep so am squeezing the last of the taebags into the stimulus for a farewell-to-London blog.

Things changed this week. Rolf arrived last Saturday morning, and after 
recovering from jetlag, managed to get our laptops working properly, fixed the 
shower head, and generally restored a sense of Meindl-over-matter to our environment. The weather, at last, warmed up enough to make it more pleasant to be outside at night, so we walked and walked and walked and walked.  Heaven!

On the way home Tuesday night we stopped and looked back at the tower of London, the full moon yellow above and overshadowed by a few wispy clouds. The sight would have scared me, if I'd been on my own. As it was I turned rather quickly away from it and deliberately put my mind on other things.

I've been disturbed by ghosts since I've been here, felt the presence of the Tower and its macabre history looming, as well as the history of the slums and tenements that once filled the area where we're staying. I haven't known what to 'do" about this other than feel it, and be 
disturbed, but as always, Rolf had a completely different approaach from mine.  While I went to the British Library on Thursday to listen to the marvellous oral histories they have collected, 
Rolf took a tour of the Tower of London, explored it I suppose the way he did 
the shower head before he set it right, and I was happy to get his information second hand, without having to 
cram myself through any dark passageways or duck under any low ceilings with a pounding heart.

London seems to be proud of its violent history. Entering the Tower Hill station you're greeted by the life-sized mannequin of a hooded executioner with his axe poised and ready to chop off yer 'ed. At the London Bridge station, you meet people painted to look like bloody torture victims picking up their smokes or snacks from the vendors' stalls. On their breaks, I guess.  At Smithfield Market a sign boasts that this was the site where people were drawn and quartered, and later, the place where men took wives that they found unsatisfactory, to try and sell them. These violent images are part of the tourist attraction, and I feel like a bit of a wuss, being disturbed by it, a sheltered Toronto girl who wants my experience of history sanitized.  Better to know the truth than have it suppressed, I guess.  But this isn't openness -- it's a kind of glorification and it ...well, it disturbs me.

We did a few more pleasant "touristy" things this week as well, climbed the dome at St. Paul's and looked 
down over London, the old and the new.  All those spiderweb streets that are 
so difficult to navigate, the little courtyards and hidden places that you'd better 
explore the first time because you'll never find them again, and down the centre of it all, the Thames glinting in the sun.  Friday, we took a boat trip on the Thames, 
taking a short stop at Greenwich just in time for the ball to drop that indicates 
"One o'clock, Greenwich mean time" though we didn't actually witness the moment.  
We then continued on to the bizarre, space-age looking Thames barrier and back to Westminister. One of the things 
I love about London is this waterway coming right up through the centre of the 
city, so that in an hour you can see everything from ancient docks to magnificent 

We saw overview and cross-section, this week.

And now it's six a.m. and my battery is running out.

In fact, I'm completing this blog in Istanbul because the whole computer went crazy and started giving me strange messages.  As it is, the line breaks are pretty wonky.  One last bit of mischief from the ghosts?

Time to move on.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Tonight's inspiration:
We've got a real funky thing goin on gotta whole lotta rhythm goin down.

I think it was my first day or two in London, I realised that no matter where I went, some phrase I overheard, some street sign would invoke a nursery rhyme or song or story from my childhood. Brenna wrote to me something along those lines last week. London is a place of allusions and references. And not always pleasant ones.

My old man's a dustman
'E wears a dustman's 'at
'E wears cor blimey trousers
And lives in a council flat.


With 'er 'ead tucked underneath 'er arm
She walks the bloody tower
With 'er 'ead tucked underneath 'er arm
At the midnight hour.


When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Baley
When I grow rich
say the bells of Shoreditch.

When I grow rich. People go to London to seek their fortunes, don't they? Or at the very least, to visit the Queen, or is that only ladybugs? Excuse me: birds. Lady birds.

London still feels like a huge challenge to me, something I have to scale or conquer or overcome. Maybe it's the nursery rhymes and fairy tales. In fairy tales things come in threes, so here we go: Week Three, The British Library.

I am really pleased with the research I've been doing, almost overwhelmed by what I'm discovering. I feel I need a month of staring into space before I can figure out how to begin. But I can't stop now. There's so much more I feel I need to discover, especially about life here in the late fifties and early sixties. Monday afternoon I found that the British Library has oral histories you can listen to. All you have to do is get a reader card.

This time, I freely admit it, I had a bit of an Attitude when I approached the reader registration desk. Here, I said, tossing them a handful of plastic cards. Just google me, okay?

The librarian smiled, and googled, and a few minutes later pronounced that she'd be pleased to offer me a card. However, the ID I'd handed her was not adequate. Not having a drivers' license, I'd have to give her a bill or bank statement addressed to me. But, I quavered, just tasting those oral histories on the other side of the counter, I always PAY my bills. So much for attitude.

There was some talk of Rolf's sending the documents by courier, but it makes no sense, given that he's (hooray!) arriving here Saturday morning in person. So I'll go next week. The British Library is a cool place. You can feel it. It's a newish building with a wide open entrance and several exhibits open to the public. That's even before you get up to the reading rooms upstairs.

After my rejection at the hands of the Reader Registration department, I cooled my jets looking at an exhibit called Bloomsbury Below Stairs devoted to the housekeeper of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Grace Higgins. Then I went to a talk by Justine Picardie about the archives she used for her new novel, Daphne. She talked about the mystery and intimacy of archives, their power to draw you in, if you're not careful, at the expense of your real and present daily life. These are all themes dear to my heart and I felt that -- if only I could get in the door -- The British library is a place where I, and my strange pursuits, would be understood.

If my quest in London is for archives, then I've certainly made my fortune,already. I know, though, that something deeper and darker than has drawn me here, too, and I'm not sure it's just a matter of "finding" or "getting" something -- for all I know I may be putting something back.

Tuesday, I went to the war museum, an active, buzzing place that departs completely from the reverent "look but don't touch" atmosphere of the museums I'm used to. I went first into an exhibit called "The Children's War." In the first room there were rear-projected photographs of a series of children that faded back and forth to elderly versions of their faces. There and then, I was consumed with sadness, and we hadn't even got to the "evacuation" section. How come no one else is crying, I kept thinking, as kids milled around me with their parents. "No, I wasn't there dear, but Nanna was ..." After an hour and a half, I'd had enough ... I was full or spent, or something. No "blitz experience" for me, not Tuesday and perhaps not ever.

I headed towards Brixton (Guns of. Clash, The). The wide, gently curving streets were a relief after the claustrophobic east end with its oddly angled lanes and close-set buildings bearing down. When I got to the market (location of Electric Lane) my pace slowed and a big smile replaced the morning's tears. Everyone seemed to be walking more slowly, and the vendors were laughing and calling from stall to stall. Reggae music was playing. There were vegetables and fruit and meat and clothes and electronics all thrown in together, and lots of people who just seemed to be hanging out.

I've become a materialist over the last few years. The word I hate the most is 'energy' -- good energy, bad energy, high energy low energy. Incoherent, I say. Will someone define this energy thing?

But I've been really sensitive to what I have to call 'energy' here in London, both the frantic striving and aggressive energy, and the vitality and creativity too. I've been soaking in both, and often, within hours or even minutes of each other.

And by the way, instead of getting up and writing at five in the morning, I'm sitting in the Cape having a glass of wine. Yes, writing under the influence of something other than caffeine.

Weird energy.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Schola Hard Nox

By the end of this trip I'll need a background of pop music to concentrate. Let's hear it for the boy! Yes, let's!

I feel like I have the same story to relate as last week: Maria scales the ramparts of a venerable and reluctant institution. Different setting and characters, this time. This time it was the Bodleian library at Oxford. There were some papers there I was supposed to look at, and everything was arranged -- except the "reader card." I travelled, with some anxiety, from London, leaving the apartment where I'm staying about 7:30. It was harder to get across London from the East end to Paddington than it was to get to Oxford, though that first morning, getting to Oxford was pretty hard. I got on a milk run by mistake. An unheated one without a toilet, and by the time I got there over two hours later I was feeling pretty yuckky. Oh, and I should mention cold.

I had to go to the admissions building to register, and found that it was very difficult for them to issue me a card. I had permission to see the papers, but my status as "unafilliated" with any institution was problematic. The message: Who are you? Where do you belong? Nowhere, I felt. I am nobody and belong nowhere.

There was a long wait, many telephone calls, various kinds of identification produced. Finally, my picture taken, my card laminated, I got the inevitable apology: "Sorry to put you through that, it's just that we can't just let ANYONE in."

But I was in. And found amazing stuff. I don't know yet what I've "got" but I know it's good.

And I spent last week as a London commuter. It was hard. I realize that I don't even go downtown in Toronto very much during rush hour, let alone crossing a city -- what is it, three times -- the size? During rush hour, everyone knows where they're going and no one wants to stop to explain anything. I felt I was just supposed to KNOW -- and I didn't. So there were a few trains missed, a lot of waiting in frustration, but I'm happy to say no more milk runs.

Oxford would be a great city to study in. Just the right size, with wide main streets, old and majestic buildings and many little lanes and byways so that I'm sure if you knew your way around you could avoid the roads entirely and walk around wrapped in your own thoughts for hours.

I liked seeing all the cyclists with their briefcases clipped on to the back of their bikes -- working out philosophical problems, no doubt. I soon understood why they need to protect not only the library but every other building as well. There are busloads of tourists who come through -- many French school children who arrange themselves on the steps of the buildings for group photographs: "On est content! On sourit! Tres bien!" Most of the colleges and quads are guarded by porters and marked not just "private" but "strictly private." For some you have to pay to get in. But people are trying to work here. Who would want to try to concentrate in a fishbowl?

For most of the week I kept my shoulders up around my ears (it was cold) and made a bee line straight for the "new library," taking only a short break to eat and return to my labours. There aren't a lot of public places to sit down and eat a lunch you've packed for yourself in Oxford. In fact, the way most people do it is to lean against fences with sandwich in hand, shovelling the food in absent mindedly in before returning to work. But I can't eat sandwiches, so had to find some kind of surface to lay down my tub of salad. Talk about feeling you don't belong anywhere! At one point mid week I found myself hunched on a decaying bench, stabbing away at the raw cabbage I'd thrown into the tub for myself and noticed that my knuckles were bleeding from all the paper I was handling -- and, did I mention, from the cold. I thought: What am I doing to myself? And was so tired all I could think of was: Trying to eat my cabbage.

By Thursday, I realized that I was spending every day in a beautiful historic town, making no attempt to see its sights or get to know it at all. To tell the truth, I was still a teenie tiny bit very pissed off about the reader card. Oxford: it's one of those centre-of-the-universe places. If you've gone to Oxford, you are automatically impressive. I was not feeling very impressive. Had I missed out on something? Evidently.

My mind was on my university days, anyway, because I'd met my old friend Michael Bourdages for dinner the first week. We had not seen each other for over thirty years -- not since we graduated. But we spent a lot of time together at Bishop's and were involved with everything: the newspaper, the theatre, even student politics in the form of our own version of the rhinocerus party: the aardvarks. So when I had time to think at all I wondered: what if we had done all that stuff at Oxford instead of Bishop's? Would things have been different in our lives?

Is there anything I would want to be diferent at this point? Well, I'd just as soon not be in a situation, at almost fifty, when people are grilling me about who I am and where I belong. Thoughts along those lines (remember, it was cold). Oxford Schmoxford, I was saying. I would make no efforts on behalf of this place that saw me as so frightfully unimportant.

But over time I relented. I realized that this place represents pretty much my only "path not taken" -- and I resent it on that account. I've been down so many other paths it would be hard to find one I haven't taken, but here it is: I used to really want to be a classical scholar, and grow up to teach Latin and Greek at a University. I know, I'm weird but there you have it. It seems to me it would have presented me with a safer life, a more protected life, and I would be so ... so affiliated, at this moment, if I'd done it.

There you have it: my big adolescent dream which can never be realized because, like an athlete's muscles, my menopausal brain cells will just not memorize irregular verbs the way they used to. Time to get over it, shall we say?

On Friday, my mid-life crisis was sufficiently under control, and, precious Reader Card in hand I explored the various forbidden rooms of the Bodleian library before the card expired at 7 p.m. There was the round Radcliffe Camera, dating from the 1700s, and still more remarkable, the "old" library. On all sides of what they call the Schools Quadrangle, doors to the various original departments are headed by their old latin names "Schola Moralis Philosophiae," and so on. Entering the "old" reading room itself is like stepping back four centuries. There's dark wood everywhere with dim light shining in through stained glass windows at either end, and floor-to-ceiling shelves full of ancient books. In the middle, a bank of computers.

I walked around and looked, and sat down at one of the tables, and rested my eyes for a while, then sent an email from one of the computers, and left. "Are you coming back?" the man at the door asked. "No, I don't think so." I stepped out into the sunny ... cold ... quad and thought, Okay. I've been there.

I was glad to have seen it, glad that it's possible to visit a place where many scholars have sat and thought and read and written over the centuries. I'm glad, too, that people have taken the time, spent the money and energy to preserve something like this. But I'm also really glad it's not me.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

well in that case

Well, after trying to post my other two blogs with no success, and erasing a whole other one I'm about ready to move on from the Cape pub, but at least I've started.

Technology has been a challenge here to say the least. I have the feeling of a big wall or maybe an enormous ball of wires like you find behind a computer standing between me and getting anything "out" or "in."

Despite the loud pop music and the strong tea I'm guzzling I feel calmer than I have all week. Don't like to think that finally finding a way to get internet access is responsible for that -- but at this point I don't care what it takes!

Whatever they say about how expensive England is, I've had nothing but nice, kind, friendly experiences in restaurants, coffee shops and now, in the pub. Yesterday the waitress refused to charge me for my soda water and today when I tried to add a few pence to the price of my tea two separate guys explained to me that here tipping is not expected!

The pub really is an extension of home -- with all the good and bad that that implies I guess. Makes me think back to what people used to say about Toronto restaurants -- that if you tried to eat out there you had to be punished in some way. Maybe that still lingers and is only noticeable in contrast to some other place.

What to say about my trip so far? Walking, walking walking around various neighbourhoods -- the Tate modern -- permanent collection: free The most enormous sculpture in their foyer: a crack running the whole length of the room. I've never seen such an enormous work of art in my life. Trying to phone and set up interviews for the next few weeks with great difficulty. Friday, gorged myself on markets: Leadenhall, Petticoat lane, Spittalfields, then down brick lane. My feet felt like they were going to fall off but happy. I love markets.

Yesterday, four hours in the synagogue attended by my grandparents -- and which they left some time in the thirties. I sat in the balcony with my hair covered by a scarf and watched the events below with the women, who were extremely welcoming and open. Huge and complex feelings about being in the balcony which I've yet to work out and is perhaps the subject of another blog.

It was hard to get 'in" - two burly guards stopped me, searched my bags, asked me if I am jewish and asked for ID. ID for being Jewish? I handed them my passport and my middle name, Ventura, seemed to decide the case: Shabbat Shalom. I'm sorry, you see there are people who try to come in who don't understand.

And I understood, once the required number of men arrived and the service started. From behind the grille upstairs I knew that I was witnessing an ancient and very solumn ritual -- one that this community did not care to share with tourists. Fair enough.

Went to my first London show in the evening: Maria Friedman, singing show tunes at the Chocolate factory -- in intimate space seating about 250 people. She went through such a range of human emotions and experiences -- all in a way that was so ... precise -- I guess would be the word. It was great to be able to see her face and watch every shade and transition.

I was 'full 'by the end of the day.

testing from the Cape pub

Does this work?