Category Archives: London

Stranger coincidences

After yesterday’s cliffhanger I can confirm that the stranger involved in the loss of my blackberry is a thief. Even if they aren’t usually a thief, on Saturday they became one. Oh well. I know nothing else of them. They may have stolen my blackberry for the most noble of causes. They may not even know that they are a thief – perhaps they saw my blackberry lost and lonely and assumed it was their blackberry and threw it in their bag and have yet to work out that now they have two blackberries and by the time they realize this they might be in Iceland and may be miles from the nearest post office and it could be weeks before Michaelangelo (the real name of the actual guy who is responsible for security at London’s Corinthian Hotel) receives the returned blackberry and tracks me down with the good news.

But I think it’s best that I simply accept that it’s more likely that the stranger involved here is actually just a thief and my blackberry is not getting posted back from Iceland.

It’s been an eerie couple of days without access to texts, emails … never mind a phone. But I should have a replacement later today.

The weird coincidental thing about the theme for this past weekend’s Panic Station (if you’re just tuning in now, we’ve been talking about strangers) is that unbeknownst to me The School of Life’s Sunday Sermon yesterday was also about strangers! One of Panic Station’s regular commenters attended the sermon and sent me some photos of it (which because of the whole stolen blackberry thing, I only received when I got to the office this morning.)

Hopefully, as a BIRTHDAY PRESENT TO ME (yes, today is my birthday) she might reply to this post to let us know whether she enjoyed the talk.

For the those of us who missed it (which I reckon is almost everyone reading today’s blog), The Guardian has posted an adaptation of Miranda July’s “sermon” here ….

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Filed under Events, London

How to be in a city

If the Wednesday I experienced this past week had been recorded and edited to play in fast-forward, the theme would be rat treadmill or maybe ant ant-farm or possibly headless chicken before death.

It made me feel the way Michael Douglas’ character feels in Falling Down.

The volume of the day was pummeling: the volume of people on my commutes to and from the office that day; the volume of screaming urgent email waiting at the office; the shrill of the man standing an inch behind me actually YELLING a story to his friend as we stood in line that snaked out door of Caffè Nero just when I’d been thinking afternoon coffee would sort me out.

It was one of those days where other human beings stopped being other human beings.

They became pedestrian obstructions, email pests, noise factories, space hoarders, concentration stealers  — they became inconsiderate creatures crawling all over my  sanity.

I know you know what I’m talking about. I know that even if you live in a hut on a field in a nature preservation, you’ve been there – you’ve served time in the urban jungle. Even if it was only at one of the world’s larger train stations or airports. You know.

The thing that happens inside of us when we feel outnumbered is that we start to feel threatened and we solve for that by de-humanizing the people around us. They become a mass of inconvenience at best, and far worse if we feel hard done by — if we perceive these masses as walking all over us, somehow better than us.

This process of disconnecting from the people (especially the strangers) around us, happens to most city dwellers all day long – we dip in and out of a state of not seeing people but just noticing (in our peripheral vision) the annoyingness of them all.

If it just washes over us whenever we have to squish ourselves onto a tube or wait in LA-style traffic, then it’s not a big deal – just a part of life that we handle better on some days than others. But when this feeling of disconnection sinks deeper into our psyche and becomes our routine lens for looking at the world, we’ve entered the same space that has made it possible for some of us to do unspeakable things to other human beings. This disconnection is in all of us. It’s a form of evil to which any of us can succumb. We’ve known this ever since, in the wake of the Holocaust, psychologists examined what sort of circumstances triggered perfectly normal people to do very bad things. The famous Stanford Prison experiment and Milgram’s obedience test come to mind.

But back to me.

Wednesday was unusual. My days don’t normally run so much interference from the masses. I make sure of that. I know that the toxicity will be immediate and that my work and happiness suffers if I’ve been exposed to too much crushing people-ness around me.

During peak London rush hour I work from home. When I commute to and from the office I don’t go to the station right next to my house which will involve a journey where I have to switch several times through some of London’s busiest platforms, no — I walk a mile or so until I reach a station that zips me to work in one swoop. And I take the scenic route through the leafy streets that remind me how much I like my neighbourhood, how much I enjoy this city.

So Wednesday was my fault. I designed my day badly.

Most people have loads less control over the format of their working days than I do (they’ve little choice regarding what time they need to be where and are forced to commute at the same time as everyone else.)

Most days I get it right and enjoy all the perks of city living (the bookshops, the coffee shops — but also the people … hence the tapas encounter in yesterday’s post) without all the tension that drove Falling Down to it’s inevitable conclusion. But the moral of the story is that it’s hugely important that as many of us as possible do whatever we can do (and yes, sometimes that”ll involve headphones transporting us to a different set of noises) to make our interactions with the masses more neutral.

It leaves everyone with a lot more energy left over to notice the person who needs a seat or who seems lost on the platform and more generous towards people like that nut-job in Caffè Nero on Wednesday who was obviously just in a damn fine mood.

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Filed under London, Social psychology

A talk with a stranger

Ok I’m a little bit proud of myself. Here’s why.

Striking up chat with strangers is so far away from my forte that some people might buy me a magnet that reads “Do I look like a f**king People Person?”

I do own that magnet and yes it was a gift from someone who knows me too well.

Not because I am not a people person (I am) but because I do not LOOK like one.

I look like a person in a tunnel of task who has no time for you. And mostly I don’t. Have time for you. Unless you respect I’m quite introverted and that I need advance notice that we’re about to engage in chat. Then, I’m good. I swear. I’m not task but the present — which is listening to you.

But the long and the short of it is that I do not give off an aura of openness. My body language doesn’t say “hey, come talk to me.” Ask anyone I went to high school with, ask my work colleagues, follow me around for about 5 minutes. My body language says, “I am Busy.”

So I was particularly proud of myself last night when I engaged a stranger in a full on tête-à-tête

The scene — I was on my way home. It had been a hard week and I’d a stack of reading and writing to catch up on, so I stopped for food at a place where the set-up is conducive to eating alone while working. [This is a subject onto itself … just how often I prefer to be alone while surrounded by people in a lively spot. I have haunts around the City where the staff take care of me and give me my usual tucked away spot so that I can do exactly this.]

I sat at this long bar-like table on the corner stool pictured in this photo. The room was dark and the place was packed. I ordered my tapas and opened my folder.

Across from me sat another lone eater. This can sometimes pose a problem. Especially when the other lone eater is doing something I would never dream of doing — eating alone with nothing to do but eat alone. He hadn’t a book or a newspaper or a folder of work. But he seemed contained. He wasn’t going to intrude on my comfort. The bread and chorizo and cheese that he ordered, however, did. My folder was getting squished and my own food hadn’t even arrived. But I pressed on.

My salad and patatas bravas showed up just as he finished his chorizo and the dance of plates surrounding my work space worked for a while. But then something happened. I got tired of working even though I wasn’t finished my meal and I started to consider my lone eater more carefully.

I envied how comfortable he looked sitting in a loud tapas bar on his own. Men can do this. Especially older men. And he was older (I hate to say, but maybe late 50’s to mid 60’s.) He wore a striped dress shirt, he had a nice watch, his face was tanned and rugged. I wondered if he was foreign. I’d overheard him saying something to the waitress about whether she was Hungarian. So I sat there for a few minutes daring myself to talk to him. I could ask him if he’s Hungarian! And then what? Even if he was, I had nothing ready to say about Hungary. My mind went blank which is what always happens whenever I try to compose small talk in my head. I am just not built for it.

I stared out the window and got lost mulling over just how useless I am, when a couple seated under the window drew my attention. It was clear that she was trying to squeeze past her dinner date to get free of the table to go to the ladies room but what I hadn’t expected is that this well-dressed, suited up business woman would swing her knee deep into the crotch of her companion to pull off the manoeuvre. I arched a brow and at the right second made eye contact with my lone diner who’d observed the same interaction.  We both smiled.

And that’s when he spoke to me. Who knows what he said. It was about what we’d just witnessed which then somehow lead to our favourite travel destinations, what’s wrong with the corporate world and how people always tell you what you want to hear, about being “hungry” enough to do what you really want to do with your life, about how Sarah’s Key was a brilliant movie no matter how many stories of the Holocaust have been told before.

The man had been killing time, waiting to collect his grandson. His grandson is a munchkin. Actually the lead munchkin — Marmaduke, with lines and everything. His stint on stage for last night’s Wizard of Oz at the London Palladium was due to finish at 8pm but in the preceding half hour I met an interesting person and he gave me some very good advice. “It’s all about eye contact,” he said.  That’s the secret to skipping the small talk and going straight to the good stuff.

And this the subject of this weekend’s blog — the ways we connect and disconnect from the strangers all around us.

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Filed under London, Random idea, Relationships

“Strange” continued

Ok – so have mastered blackberry memory issues and am reporting live from the sitting room on Rabbit Run Road (which is just off Fox Chase.)

I’m in here to share what we have happening on the bookshelves.

Row after row of leather-bound, gold trimmed editions. We’ve five shelves of classics — Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Stories, Booker T Washington’s Up From Slavery, Steinbeck, Thoreau, ee Cummings.

In the next bookcase we’ve got the collections. Bound volumes of The Atlantic Monthly 1860-1866, Letters of the Great Artists, Plutarch’s Lives, Victor Hugo’s five tomes des Les Miserables, Dickens’ complete works, the ten volumes of Abraham Lincoln’s A History and four shelves of The Harvard Classics.

I pluck The Harvard Lectures (1914) off the highest shelf. The chapters cover drama, poetry, prose fiction, history, natural science, political history, education, religion, voyages and travel — an entire pre World War One liberal education.

About ten years ago I came across a newspaper column about the Feng Shui of packed out bookshelves. A Feng Shui consultant was advising the columnist that at least half his books had to go. Not only are bookcases social lies (and as someone who keeps her self-help in the closet, I’d have to agree), but too many books means no room for fresh thinking and new discoveries.

I think it’s true that we can’t rely on bookcases to tell us the truth about their owners. Here on Rabbit Run Road for example, I’d suggest that obsessive hoarding of Beagles and their Cottontail chase is far more revealing.

If we’re stuck here another day we’re planning to start counting the ceramic and copper miniatures of bunnies and hounds, the not so miniature sculptures, the gangs of paintings, the needleworked pillow covers, the bunny and hound cookie cutters, ash trays, and lamp switches …. But for now that’s just too big a task so I’m curling up for the 1914 lecture series to see what I can learn.

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Filed under Books etc., London, Random idea

Stand down!

Ok! So not all Generation X had Smiths on the brain this week. Yes, I know The Clash gets credit for “London calling” though it did go over my head that I was about to be very confusing. The song on my mind has been Panic by the Smiths. In particular the 1st line of it which is “Panic on the streets of London” and goes on to demand Hang the DJ — which I’ll be honest, I never understood.

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London calling (a week in Notting Hill)

I’m guessing plenty of Generation X had the same Smiths’ song stuck in their head over the course of this week. Panic on the streets of London (never mind Birmingham and Manchester), it was.

And now? Well, I can only report from the Westbourne Park/Notting Hill area and am unable to speak for the rest of the city — where plenty of places were notably untouched and a handful may never be the same.

Here, we’ve been left with an edgy hangover and serious worries about the upcoming Notting Hill carnival. The troubles of Saturday and Sunday night were localized enough that you might forgive me when I tell you that the first time I got wind that riots had kicked off , shops had been looted and buildings had burnt was on my way to work Monday morning.  And by that time it was all about to go viral as they say. The worst  of the London riots came that night and that’s when they entered my nearby streets. I was stuck re-routing myself home thanks to station closures where violence was underway above, and as a result I managed to make it back to my street after the attack on The Ledbury and The Walmer .

That night we shuttered all the windows, watched live Sky reports in between following a constant flow of fresh tweets — wondering how many of them were alarmist versus frighteningly accurate. We finally fell asleep. Given a few minor (though recent) incidents where our house has been the target for break-in’s, the thought did cross our minds that maybe it is dumb not to have a baseball bat.

By Tuesday, with the arrival of police reinforcements and mass arrests, the tornado of lawlessness that made a brief appearance in Notting Hill had joined the rest of the havoc in London and swept itself off to northern cities.

Since then the streets around where I live have been spooky. Yes, there are people going about their business and some of the restaurants and pubs are still as busy as they would normally be, but only some. Severals shops have temporarily closed for business — especially the tauntingly expensive boutiques. Normality abounds but in limited pockets only.  For one of the most touristic parts of the city, the area has been remarkably free of pedestrians (day and night.) And where are the masses of non-tourist-looking people I normally see and have to wonder why they aren’t at work? Where has the traffic gone? It’s weird. I’d assumed that after the calm that descended on Tuesday night , that the local bustle would bounce back into position. But it hasn’t.

As the week has progressed, there are two groups of people more visible than normal.

The well-dressed bobbies on the beat walking about in their pairs (have I not seen them before or are they taking more visbile paths since Monday?) and old age pensioners standing at street corners swapping stories with each other about what they saw from their windows. On a couple of corners I’ve spotted the two groups coming together, the police strolling up to the pensioners for a bit of comforting chit chat.

The rest of us seem to be observing some sort of self-imposed curfew (at night). Or we don’t much feel like hanging around our own neighbourhood (in the day.)

I won’t add to the blaming that’s been going on. The debates have been heated all week.

  • The kids – protesters? rioters? looters? criminals? an entire under-class most of us have ignored?
  • Their parents – what the heck?
  • The police – heroes? useless? caught between a rock and a hard-place?
  • The politicians – totally out of touch? blaming everyone but themselves?
  • The courts – too heavy-handed? ridiculously soft-touch?
  • And what about the rest of us? Do we carry any blame?

The week hasn’t made me angry. Other things make me angry. The messier a situation strikes me the less likely I can be bothered to blame anyway. What’s the point? Mostly I’ve just been sad and on Monday evening I did get scared.

For those of my readers who don’t follow twitter, I’ll wrap with a selection of riot tweets fresh in over the course of this afternoon last:

BBCBreaking 1,600 arrested so far and 796 appeared before courts in connection to #riots; 17% are under 18 – Ministry of Justice http://bbc.in/tjNf0

helenlewis For anyone filling out their “what caused the riots bingo card”, Peter Hitchens just blamed “practical atheism” on #skynews

BBCNews Community Secretary, Eric Pickles, says plans to evict convicted rioters from social housing are ‘the right thing to do’ #riots #londonriots

BBCBreaking Council tenant, whose son appeared in court charged in relation to #Londonriots, to be first served with eviction notice http://bbc.in/tjNf0

guardian Top story on Friday – Tories on #riot policing: too few, too slow, too timid http://bit.ly/oBBQsp #ukriots #londonriots #birminghamriots

tim Blimey, @GMPolice (official Manc police) is tweeting names, addresses, DOB and convictions from recent court judgements after #riots

Telegraph #londonriots: pensioner who confronted rioting yobs dies after life support machine is switched off http://tgr.ph/p4TkpR

thomsonholidays Thomson will rebook holidays for police, who’ve had their leave cancelled due to #riots, for free. For info go to http://t.co/K1G0GI7

Anon_Support Dear UK citizens █████ █ ████ everything ███ █████ is█████ ██ ████ fine ██ ███ ██████ trust ███ ███ your █████ ████ government. #londonriots

johnb78 New blog post: Riot strategy, or ‘why calls for tougher cops are missing the point’ http://bit.ly/n4zNiE #bloggery #londonriots

DavidKaufer Everyone Is Saying Britain’s Immigrant Communities Are The Real Heroes Of The Riots http://ht.ly/60ovE #londonriots

mattstevensloop Please don’t tweet “Things seem to be” etc about #londonriots #tottenham etc without facts – it just scares people – ta

monstris An open letter to David Cameron’s parents. Do you know what your son is doing? http://is.gd/umzlXL #ukriots #londonriots

caitlinmoran If any plan is made to prevent things like this happening again that doesn’t feature Camilla Batmanghelidjh, it will be a stupid plan.

And while Camilla is NOT the only voice of reason, in my book she’s certainly a very important one with something to say about how to help the kids around us (and not so around us if you live in the right place) find a better life. Click here for her views expressed earlier this week.

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Filed under Current affairs, London

5 minutes of Life (London)

I was on the Hammersmith & City Line this morning. Someone’s headphones were leaking an old favourite.

Apparently quoting from a song invites the threat of paying hefty royalties, but I think I can get away with this:

i didnt kn-w just what was wr-ng with me
till y-ur kiss helped me name it.

ch-rus:
cause you make me feel
y-u make me feel
y-u make me feel like a natural w-man (w-man)

I sat staring at the boy seated across from me. He was Asian (in the sense that Brits mean), he was handsome and had a sturdy square jaw, he was tapping his toes and almost imperceptibly bouncing his head along to the beat pumping out from his earphones.

To be honest his look seemed a throw-back to the 80’s to me;

black Rebook-esque shoes,
stonewashed denims,
a tight white t-shirt
and a nice leather jacket with one of those Mandarin collars.

And despite the fact that he was beginning to get a bit fidgety thanks to the duration of my stare, I just couldn’t help it. He seemed the most unlikely sort of person to be blasting this particular Aretha Franklin classic.

He’s SO cool, I thought.

And then suddenly Aretha stood up and jumped off the tube at Paddington. It wasn’t my 80’s boy after all; he kept seated as I jerked my head towards the closing doors to see if I could catch a glimpse of the real Natural Woman Listener.

Taller, skinnier and dressed in a khaki pants and a loud sky blue jumper, A Different Guy skipped off into the distance without turning back.

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