Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Speakers are Silent

The Speaker's Corner of Hyde Park, where just last year Bill Maher posed as a Scientologist, was utterly empty on this early Saturday afternoon. What gives?

It wasn't a total wash, though. The Serpentine Gallery had a really interesting Indian art exhibit, I found Jacob Epstein's memorial for W.H. Hudson, and Ana Marie claims we walked by Oliver Sacks.

Hyde Park is a great break from the hustle and bustle of the city, too.

Friday, January 30, 2009


Yesterday we received a tour of Oxford city and campus from a C of I alum, Taylor St. John.

Oxford the city has, from what I could gather, a very different flavor from London. For one thing, it's not nearly as cosmopolitan. But it shouldn't be; it's not a capital, it's not a huge financial center. It is, therefore, of a much more unified character than London, and this has to do largely with the college. The campus is hundreds and hundreds of years old, and all of its principal buildings are made out of stone. They even smell stoney. A great deal of the original stone buildings in the city, too, remain. The Victorian housing and markets that bump up against it actually blend really well, and there's none of the insane modernist architecture of London, so the city is much more relaxed.

A great deal of the city's character, in fact, seems to be determined by the college. Most notably, it's ridiculously bike friendly. It kind of reminds me of Eugene, Oregon, and I've only been both places once (which probably makes it even more true, since they both give the same first impressions).

Pure Theatre

Dr. Schaper tells us Virginia Woolf imposed certain writing exercises on herself as a young girl to develop her style, one of which was to write without adjectives. It sounds like a sound idea, as such words are quickly beginning to fail me in describing London. I can only use 'fabulous,' 'magnificent,' wonderful,' 'amazing,' and 'spectacular' so many times before they cease to lose all meaning. I would like to invoke them, however, in describing my third consecutive night of London theatre, being the National Theatre's production of Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.

The show itself is about as close to flawless as one could hope for: the acting is great across the board, the lighting is some of the best I have ever seen, and the staging is extraordinary; on several occasions the entire stage--with an entire orchestra on it, mind you--revolves. Stoppard's writing is of course astonishingly witty and astute. Exchanges like:

"The doctor has a rehearsal."
"The doctor has a practice."
"He has a rehearsal!"

are more than just clever, they're also key to the characters and the play itself.

The play's the thing. What makes this production one of the best I have ever experienced is its uniqueness. EGBDF has a very, very short production history, essentially having debuted in 1977 and then, aside from a few big-name productions, languished in obscurity until this revival. This has to do with its particulars: the play, concerning a Soviet dissident imprisoned in a mental institution for his political beliefs, with a cellmate who believes he is conducting an orchestra, is a one-act (often ignored by big theatres) that requires an orchestra that interacts with the actors without the play really being a musical, and takes a fierce anti-communist/anti-Soviet stance. The number of groups who can handle the technical demands is quite limited, which is a shame because it is such a ridiculously great play.

Live drama at its best gives us experiences that cannot be replicated; that's the edge it has over film. That everyone involved in this production is firing on all cylinders, for such a play that's almost too weird to exist, elevates it into a sort of pure theatre, that rarely has a chance to even vary by performance, because they are so scarce. I would recommend you all to see it, except the chances are you will never get the chance to.

I'm going to sing its praises to the roof to everyone in my London group, though.

The Varieties of Theatrical Experience

London's 21st century identity is hodgepodge of a little of everything, and one can find that in its theatre. To wit: two nights ago we attended a performance of "Studies for a Portrait," a relatively new play about an aged, world-famous artist dying of cancer and his boyfriends and ex-boyfriends who are at war with each other over his legacy. It was staged in the White Bear Theatre, which is built into the back of the White Bear pub. The set and lighting is spare, and the focus was on the actors, who are at times only a foot away from the audience, seated 3/4 thrust around the little space.

Last night we attended a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Twelfth Night in the West End, starring Derek Jacobi as Malvolio. The Donmar Theater is lavish, with two balconies and three stories of booths, and opulent decor all around. The staging was relatively simple, the lighting (especially the lightening that suddenly announces the beginning of the play) amazing.

Both of these experiences worked (for the most part; Studies for a Portrait got off to a rough start, in my mind) because they played to their strengths. In an intimate, Rough Theatre, the focus was all on the relationships of the characters and their games of manipulation and power, with the audience's energy right there to feed off of. In a massive space like the Donmar, and with the demands of Twelfth Night specifically, broad comedy was employed, but to tasteful effect; though the audience was acknowledged on occasion, there was no winking, no mugging or beating over the head with the humor.

Both of these kinds of theatre are valid; the key thing is for them to know what they are, and be successful in living up to that. That was what Peter Brook was getting at in The Empty Space all those years ago, and it's nice to see both ends of the spectrum (intimacy and spectacle) being so well-represented.

As far as relevency goes, I'm hoping tonight to see if Les Miserables, "The world's longest running musical," can maintain its own.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I don't know about major American cities, but London has a proliferation of public toilets (in England, a bathroom is a toilet, a toilet is a loo) scattered about the city for those who really need to go but don't want to have to patronize some random establishment in order to use their john. I was in such a predicament yesterday while making my way from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace, and so I decided to give it a shot. It was a rather discomfiting experience.

Basically, for 50 pence you get 20 minutes in the stall. The door slides open and then you press a button to shut it behind you. The toilet actually ended up being pretty clean, but the size of its maw (I wondered if I was going to fall in) and the rest of the sensory experience made it terrifying. These units are right next to the street and so the sounds of traffic and passersby is ever present. The sound of the toilet bowl filling up with water takes on a new menace in this vulnerable setting, and your shit seems to smell even worse. The flushing, at least in the stall I used, involves filling the bowl up with water before sending the waste on its merry way, an intimidating sight. Once you're done, there's automated hand-washing facilities at the sink. One faucet ejaculates and then dribbles soap, and then hot water and a blow-drying follow.

Bottom line: use them if you have to, but you'd be better off using the loo before you leave.

Stealing the Soul

In London one is absolutely spoiled for glorious gothic and classical architecture and sculpture. In the U.S. you just don't see much of this

or this.

(in spite of my animosity towards religion, I'm a sucker for beautiful old churches, and detour to them whenever I catch sight of one)

(if I had time I would flip over a tall picture to show the amazing tower that is a part of Westminster Cathedral here)

The catch with a lot of these cultural sites is that you are not allowed to take pictures, which is a restriction I observe. In banning photography, the proprietors are helping to preserve the value of the moment, of being in the presence of something, which a picture by necessity diminishes. Even looking at authorized photographs of the inside of, say, Parliament or Westminster Abbey could do nothing to prepare you for the sheer volume of art contained within; a photograph would just cheapen it. So it's nice to see them making an effort to retain its grandeur.


I ended up napping for almost four hours last night, right through the damn concert. I'm going to avoid making that same mistake with a play tonight, but first the damned internet needs to cooperate. My computer is in open revolt against me at the moment.

A fuller update will be posted later.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tonight, Tonight

In a little while we will be attending a London Symphony Orchestra performance of Bartok and Stravinsky. Afterwards, a gay bar. I think. For now I'm debating between a nap or catching some exhibits I missed at the Imperial War Museum.

What day number was this again?

Most of yesterday was spent at the Imperial War Museum, which really isn't as jingoistic as it sounds. The wars of the 20th century were not the distant foreign skirmishes that Americans perceived, but visceral, existential threats. St. Paul's was very nearly destroyed by the Nazis--and much of the surrounding neighborhoods were--and the British had troops in both world wars from the beginning. So there is a much more personal angle to it all than would be found in the states.

On the outside of the museum--whose facade is unfortunately under construction and has a facsimile draped over it--sits a graffitied chunk of rock which, when one looks at the accompanying plaque, one learns was taken from the Berlin Wall. A mighty artifact.

On the various levels of the main hall were large weapons and parts of vehicles from conflicts past, from both sides. My favorite was the human torpedo used by he Italians in WWI, which would speed through the water and up to the undersides of boats, where two divers would plant an explosive and leave, blowing up their target about an hour later. Unfortunately I only got a few photos snapped before the camera on my battery died.

I sketched quite a bit, but I'm going back today to revisit some exhibits and take some pictures. Photography was forbidden in two of the main exhibits, concerning Holocaust-inspired art, war artists, and World War 1, specifically, and so at that point the sketchbook was all I had. I wish I could find a copy of the photo used to finish the WWI exhibit, because it really is a beautiful finish to such a grim subject.

The gift shop is full of books and merchandise that I would have loved to throw money down on, but I settled on just a couple post-cards. There is a collection of wartime comics and a two-CD set of war movie themes that I may yet purchase, however.

When I was finished I took the bus back over the Thames and to Trafalgar Square, so I could easily get to Leicester Square, where I have spent an awful lot of time on this trip. I went to the little book store I found a few days ago and purchased some old programs; the first was a King Lear production, which had some interesting materials in the program itself, and the second was for a 1971 Cambridge production of Hamlet starring Ian McKellan. These I bought for 5 and 10 pounds respectively. In the meantime the proprietor, Dave Drummond, entertained visiting friends with witty banter, including a brief anecdote about how the great Sir John Gielgud once came into the store and brought him a 17th century silk purse. The man is quite a character, but I think he was eager to get rid of me, being that it was closing time.

Later in the evening Jordan, Ari, Kim, and I went looking for a pub. Along the way I saw this and felt I had to take a picture.

We eventually settled on the Duke of Wellington, on Portabella. It was a nice place, though though the clientelle was conspicuously white (the rest of the city, especially where we are staying, is incredibly diverse). After a few drinks we got into a heated political discussion, and as we returned home we more than once had to take care to lower our voices. I snapped this along the way, for Ben Jarvis' sake, and then my battery died.

We went looking for a food vendor at 1 in the morning and crossed paths with a half-mad black woman with a broken cigarette dangling from her mouth. She approached Jordan and rasped, "Are you man or are you dancer?"

She wanted to know if he had a light.

"English" Food

One of the things I've learned about myself on this trip is how relatively little food I actually need to get through the day. Being on a meal plan at school I tend to eat full meals for lunch and dinner, plus cereal for breakfast. Given the setup we have here, I've been doing fine by eating a large, filling (and importantly, continental) breakfast at around 8 every morning--we usually set off for our day's trip at 9 or 10--and that's enough to keep me going until 3 or 4 in the afternoon without needing even to snack. A sandwich or a restaurant order will pick me up, and after that I can do fine on some bread and jelly when I need it. Given the amount of walking I've been doing, the limited, regular diet, and a reasonably consistent sleep routine, I wouldn't be surprised if I lost some weight on this trip; I hope I can maintain such discipline when I get back to my normal routine.

To this end, I've found Subway is a fantastic resource for a mid-day meal. The one in Bayswater is offering for a limited time only a six-inch turkey ham for one-and-a-half pounds. Because it's an immigrant neighborhood, though, all of its meats are HILAL, which is basically Islamic kosher. So that turkey ham sandwich is more specifically a turkey turkey-ham. Food is food, though, and the market has spoken.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Superhighway Superdeals

I've been getting most of my internet from Palmyra News, a mostly newspaper and magazine-selling store here in Bayswater (I don't go far from the hotel). They're open 24 hours a day and until 11 PM their internet starts at 50 pence for a half hour. That's better than in the states. The catch is that it's on their computers, so they're public accessed, and it can be kind of slow, for pictures.

Right now I'm at Coffee Republic, where you get twenty minutes of time for buying something. It's an interesting incentive.

Next time I'm going to try an art cafe where it claims you can pay only a pound for 95 minutes.

I know some of these places are being run by immigrant families who are willing to work for less to get ahead, but damn! This is much more reasonable than anything you'll find in McCall (except for our hotel, which tries to gouge us 3 pounds, almost 5 dollars, for 15 minutes). I thought London was supposed to be more expensive? Even taking into account the falling exchange rate, damn!

Cultural Exchange

For posterity I will record that on my first day in London, the exchange rate was only 1.38 to 1, and I only got charged a $2 withdrawal fee from my bank. Ka-Ching!

No Place Like London

I forgot to mention my update comes late because I spent most of yesterday evening completely wiped out and didn't have much desire to head down to an internet cafe, after having spent all day at St. Paul's and the Tate Modern, and then walked from the Tate across Blackfriar's Bridge, along Fleet Street, and finally back into Leicester Square before I got home, all in dress shoes. I'll post a map of it sometime.

Conversion at St. Paul

Okay, so the title is a bit melodramatic. I wasn't converted by any stretch of the imagination. But visiting St. Paul's cathedral and sitting in on the service did soften my stance against religion, if ever so slightly, at least as far as what it's done for the arts and aesthetics throughout history. The structure is absolutely beautiful.

(unfortunately I still need to flip my other pictures over, and I don't have the time right now)

And that's just the outside. The interior is covered with sculpture, relief work, and paintings that, as professor Garth noted, try to imitate Michelangelo as best they can. Even if it's not totally successful (really, what could?), it is still something mighty spectacular. If religion were just about this I would have no qualms with it whatsoever.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

On Buskery and Magic Flutes

Tonight was just a bad night for me to hit the opera house. Didn't catch a nap, was made drowsy by a pint from earlier, and opera is hard even for me to get into. Unfortunately the nap caught me, intermitently, during the show.

I was at least entertained by what I saw in The Magic Flute. The cast did a fine job with the music, the sets were impressive, the costumes nice... and weren't those kids cute? From what I did catch, though, I couldn't help that the whole thing felt rather silly, which is apparently what Mozart thought too.

The architecture in Coliseum is absolutely spectacular, though.

I was thinking about doing an in-depth journal entry about the street performers in London, about trying to get by in such a relentlessly upscale city center, but then we were informed by Ray Gabbard that they in fact have to audition for the spots they play on, and can pull in as much as $150 a day. Professional poverty, I guess you'd call it. Kudos to them for living the dream, but something stinks about the whole enterprise. Namely that the city is so wrapped up in post-modern self-awareness and self-conscious that it manages its image down to its beggary. It's a very entertaining image to be sure--I wish we could have watched the man in the wrestling tights escape from the plastic wrap he had sealed himself up in--but it has a very Abercrombie-and-Fitch-pre-ripped-jeans feel about it. And after watching All or Nothing, it reinforces the feeling that London is in serious denial about its actual working poor.

I know I sound like I hate it here; I don't. Not at all. Patrick and Jordan and I discovered the most awesomely bad gameshow ever. I've also discovered some fabulous shops, and the interaction of old and new buildings (we were just today in a pub that has been in operation since the time of Charles II) is something wondrous to behold.

But there are deeper truths to be addressed. And some of the stuff we find is just too weird to go unnoticed.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Ars Britannia

My goodness, the National Gallery is absolutely massive. I'm going to have to make a return visit there, simply because I didn't get to see and enjoy it all. After four hours, art fatigue began to set in.

Trafalgar Square is a fine sight, when you're not taking shelter from flocks of pigeons. I made my way out to the island in front of Nelson's statue and spire, and felt very hemmed in by the traffic surrounding me on all sides.

I got a bit confused with the tube system and decided to hop on over to Leicester Square until I got my bearings. There I came across a fantastic alleyway full of used book stores. One of them was giving away free calendars, to one of which I helped myself. There was a store, Pleasures of Past Times, specializing in theatre that I went into, but I had to leave in short order because the shopkeeper was going off to lunch. We got to talking a bit about Shakespeare--among the collection are programs for old productions--and he encouraged me to go see Twelfth Night. He had to kick me out, but he gave me his business card, which uses the word "twixt" when giving his lunch hour. I'm going to try to make it back there tomorrow and see how much one of those programs costs.

Outside the Leicester Square station a guy hawking maps was barking, "Anybody lost? I've got information!" As soon as I start feeling lost trying to find my way back, I just used him as a reference point.

Around 7 I took off to wander the city. The police were set up in Bayswater station, and later, I saw, around Soho. I don't know why. I got off the tube in Oxford Circus, and in my travels covered ground in Soho, Westminster, Covent Garden, and ended up in the Leicester Square station after munching on some garlic bread in an Italian restaurant that was playing the Pulp Fiction soundtrack.

London is striking in the frankness of its sexuality. I defy anyone to show me a payphone that isn't covered in stickers advertising sex hotlines. The magazine racks all have bare breasts displayed on the top racks, and Soho has a whole strip of "Licensed Sex Shops." It's a nice change from American puritanism. As if a couple of bippies are going to bore a hole in childrens' eyes.

I love the tube system now, and it confounds me that America is so behind in its public transit.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Living Space, or the Lack Thereof

Our room in the Berjaya Eden Park Hotel is a curiosity. The three of us guys, the only male students on the trip, are put into a room not much larger than the others. The beds are not high off the ground enough to put our suitcases beneath them. We've ended up emptying suitcases out and putting the contents under for easy access, and the suitcases into whatever obscure corners we can find.

Our window boasts a glorious view of the hotel's numerous air conditioning units.

The bathroom is, in keeping with the rest of the city, cozy. The sink is a tiny little thing, which will make washing our clothes an interesting experience. The bathtub has three knobs, one for the faucet, another for the shower; the middle third is a mystery to us and has numbers to boot.

Apologies for the sporadic pictures. They take time to upload, and time is money.

Proper London, yaar

If I could use one word to describe London, it would be space-conscious (the hyphen makes it one). Everything is jam-packed together: the housing units, with their little back yards, the streets especially; I had a brief scare on our bus when another came straight for the lane we had just been in-- they share lanes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Waiting to Exit

We have been in the Boise airport for four hours now, three longer than originally scheduled. The jet had to undergo maintenance, more maintenance than we had anticipated, and we're sorry for the inconvenience. We've been rerouted to 2:15 flight to San Francisco, instead of Chicago as we had originally planned. That'll take us only maybe two-and-a-half hours; we'll spend several more hours waiting around in San Francisco, and will be departing for London at 7 o'clock Pacific Time. We should arrive at around 1 PM London time tomorrow.

In the interim I've chatted, checked my email, talked, read a magazine, conversed, read the first scene of John Fletcher's Valentinian, exchanged cordial words (with my mother), and updated this blog. I also made a sketch of our grounded plane.

To break up the monotony of waiting, we have grasped for novelty by finding humor in the names that have come up over the intercom. Among them were a Mr. or Mrs. Dingledyne, Ferrari, and Gay...le. Yes, we are that bored.

There's been talk of us receiving vouchers to compensate us for the delay. Given that we've already gotten vouchers to make up for the precipitous price drop from when we purchased our original tickets, we may yet end up with enough money to go on another trip down the road.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Hello and Goodbye

I'm gone in a few minutes. And so it begins.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I suppose now that I've given out this page's URL I ought to write some kind of proper introduction.

But I'm too busy for that (and I've already written about myself, at least as far as my similarities to President Obama go).

Welcome, friends and family. I'll have regular internet access for most of the trip, so check back often for updates, photos, and musings on my progress to and through London and the surrounding towns.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

All's Well That Ends Well

At first I felt like a tool for feeling bad that a marvelous Orwell enthusiast tour guide, Peter Powell, had died almost a year ago. The only reason I felt sad was because it would have been amazing to meet and take a tour from him and now I would never be able to.

But then I saw that he was aged "39 or 40." That was a colorful exaggeration of his, but he still looks in that picture to have had a lot of vitality still left in him.

(now I feel bad for feeling glad that I have a legitimate reason for feeling bad, in case anyone is keeping score, which might be so in a few days' time when I open the floodgates)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


It suddenly occurs to me that one of the worst possible side-effects of the Gaza strikes would be Egypt's withdrawal from its peace agreement with Israel, given the mounting criticism it's facing from its own people on the issue of the Gaza war.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Bailing on Bailouts

Really, enough is enough. The financial sector and the auto industry? Understandable. $700 billion with no strings attached was obscene, but there was no doubt these industries were key enough to the economy that they needed some help weathering the storm. But retailers? The porn industry? I know as a yet-unaffected college student I don't fully grasp the impact of this economic crisis, but let's be real: we're in a recession, a bad one. And in a recession, business recedes. Sad, but true. Trying to make it otherwise with these endless bailout requests is only going to put our government deeper in the hole and worsen our problems later on. What we're looking at here is death by a thousand self-inflicted paper-cuts.

Some economic belt-tightening will anyways be instructive in how many of these companies should have been acting in the first place.

And now for something completely disturbing

I previously talked about being unsettled by the strange graffiti animation previously, and perhaps I spoke too soon. Alan Moore's From Hell, just finished today (yesterday) ended up being one of the most disturbing works I've read in awhile. I knew it was violent--it's Jack the Ripper, after all--but was taken aback by the final murder, of Mary Kelly, to which an entire issue is devoted. I react to media violence based on its context and am usually not bothered, but this was almost nauseating and prompted desperate thoughts of "will it never end?" Congrats twenty years after the fact to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell (whose cross-hatched, spattered art lends a symbolic weight to the proceedings that no literal re-enactment--especially not the travesty of an adaptation of a few years ago--can hope to accomplish) for such an affecting piece of art.