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Archive for February 22nd, 2009

ridge running in north london

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I’ve been working way too hard this term. Since I had my daughter, I’ve made a point of taking weekends off from work. Somehow, this time around, it seems like I’ve been in the office almost every weekend at least for part of the time. Not nice. But this past week was “reading week,” the equivalent of “spring break” but not (for one thing, a lot of my students actually do seem to spend the period reading, which is rather amazing. It’s the exam culture over here, among other things, which merits another post altogether….) so I’ve been able to do normal stuff on weekends for at least a few days.

One of the big thrills about the prospect of moving over here was the amount of travelling we’d be able to do. I mean, we have a kid, but still – not having to do a long haul flight to go to all of these places is a big thrill. But in just over a year, we’ve been to…. Belgium. And the grand list of extra-London places we’ve visited in the UK still comes to Edinburgh and Cambridge, the latter visited (god!) twelve years ago.

We’ve been busy. London’s very very big, so you don’t easily get bored with it during your first year or so. So, despite the fact that we had freetime and no obligations during the last two weekends, we travelled a grand total of approximately six miles, there and back, there and back, in search of leisure activites. Today we went to Hampstead via Hampstead Heath.

To get to the Heath from where we live you can either take two buses, or one bus to Archway and then walk the rest of the way. We chose the latter, and when you do this you walk right past the southern side of Highgate Cemetery, where of course Marx is buried. I’ve done it countless times, but I’ve never gone in. I’m not even sure where the entrance is, but it’s definitely not on the Archway side. Not sure what it is about author/thinker sites that puts me somewhat randomly off them or onto them. I’ve walked up the side of a mountain to see Joyce’s grave in Zurich. I’ve skipped a day in Paris to go to Rouen to see the hospital where Flaubert grew up. When I was a kid, my wife and I drove to Lowell and saw Kerouac’s grave. But in college I lived right next door to Emily Dickinson’s house for three years but never visited it, not a single time. Hampstead, which I lived in for the first several months of my time here, has stuff that people flyover to see: Freud’s house, Keats’s house, etc. I’ve visited none and neither. I’m not some sort of bonfire of the fallacies type – I’m increasingly interested in artist’s lives, especially their material lives (money, where they lived, the actual writing process, where they wrote) and the relation to the works.

I’m closing my eyes right now and trying to decide if there was any literary site I could see anywhere in the world what would it be. I can’t think of a single place. I do like walking past lots of literary sites in a day without going in them, like today, so I guess I’d just choose that.

Ah, here’s one side of Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath. My first experience of North London, the place where I now live, came with a shocking surprise. Before my trip out for my job interview, I’d never really left – as most tourists don’t – central London. But the day before my interview (terrible jinx faced and beaten in doing this, and as a baseball player of yore, I am a deep believer in the jinx) I wanted to walk around to see some neighborhoods where we might actually live were we to move here, as I’d be flying out the morning after and so there’d be no time. Naively, I visited St. John’s Wood and Hampstead. Look, I’m sure lots of people coming to New York to live are thinking, dunno, the East Village and Brooklyn Heights or something before they see the pricetags hanging from the doorknobs. And in fact we did end up living in a subleased place in Hampstead to start, so it all worked out in the end. (Also, that night was the first time I met IT and Owen Hatherley in the flesh, at the New Piccadilly, soon sadly gone… So it was a big day for me…)

Anyway, what was the surprise? North London is fucking hilly. Rather mountainous, actually. That day I took the Jubilee Line from St. John’s Wood to Finchley Road, as it looks on the map like an easy stroll from the later to Hampstead, half-a-mile tops.

But in reality, it’s like half-a-mile over and half-a-mile straight up. Anyway, that was my first brush with a geographical formation that I deal with now every single day. My block is relatively flat, but the block to a south rises I’d say 15 stories from one cross street to the next. It’s just a continuation of the formation that makes Parliament Hill a hill. Here’s wikipedia on it:

To the north of the City a ridge capped by sands of the Bagshot formation forms high ground (in places around 130m) including Hampstead Heath and Highgate Hill. The ridge continues eastwards in the London clay to Crouch Hill and Queen’s Wood. To the south, fingers of the ridge run down towards Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill. This ridge is a surviving area of Tertiary rocks younger than the London Clay, surrounded by former routes of the Thames where much younger deposits overlie the clay. Smaller outliers of younger Tertiary high ground exist to the west of the main ridge including Harrow Hill where Bagshot sands survive and at Horsendon Hill and Hanger Lane, where the Claygate Beds of the top of the London Clay formation are capped by much younger gravels deposited by the Thames.

Yep, that’s my ridge. Anyway, Marx used to bring his family for picnics on Parliament Hill, which wasn’t far from his house (no longer in existence) located in the interstitial space between Kentish Town, Belsize Park, and South End Green – Gospel Oak.

We wanted to have lunch at an embarrassing place that I cannot name in Hampstead (no, not McDonalds, better than that, more um French. But fuck are the Croque Ms ever good, and the Hampstead one is the only branch  I’ve found that will serve you a Stella en pression, that is to say in proper portions) but were hungry upon arriving at the Heath so we stopped at the pleasantly obsolescent (they’re tearing it down, I overheard) cafe near the PH tennis courts. My daughter’s doll took an awkward looking nap on the table.

There was some sort of gigantic cross country meet (is that the right word here?) on at the Heath today. It was very odd to see, here, now, since I went to tons of these when I was in high school as my best friend was a big time long-distance runner. I remembered today that we used to egg each other on, not very helpfully, to get disastrously drunk the night before our biggest games / meets, my baseball games and his meets. And I remembered that both of us plunged toward mediocrity, probably blowing chances of scholarships and so on, as we moved from our early high school careers toward the end. Monstrous and sober sophomores turned into middle-of-the-pack seniors, but we filled bucket after bucket with puke in my basement. My hand-eye coordination got shakier and shakier; he tended more and more to get cramped in the middle of races. Demon drink! He still runs. I can’t find an email address to contact him at, but I find reports of the races he’s run for a major NYC running club.

Feel like I’ve said this before, but my favorite thing about the lower end of Parliament Hill fields, where the playgrounds are, is the fact that the Overground runs right next to it. You can almost feel like you’re in proper Europe, Europe proper, pushing your kid on a swing with a council-cafe bought latte in your other hand as a blue and gold Overground train shuffle by just beyond the fence. I missed the picture that got it all in – you’ll have to do with an image of a train idling at Gospel Oak station.

People famously fly kites from the top of Parliament Hill as it is very very windy there. We forgot the kite today, so we did not.

When you leave Hampstead Heath to the south, you enter a really lovely area called South End Green. If it weren’t for school complications that we were saying today we should have just gotten over, we’d probaly be living in a flat there instead of the house here. It’s fucking lovely, one of my favorite parts of London. Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy both lived there at one point, among many many others. Hard to explain just why, beyond that, it’s so attractive to me – it’s still expensive, it’s full of American expats (yuck!), it’s underserved when it comes to life-necessities, and the transit is poor. Instead of an explanation of why I love it so much, despite its flaws, you’ll have to do with the photo above. It’s a branch of Le Pain Quotidien, which is a poshish chain, Belgian not French, that moved into this corner after a fancy burger place closed just as we were moving out of the area. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is that this was the location of the bookshop where Orwell worked and about which he wrote “Bookshop Memories”:

But as soon as I went to work in the bookshop I stopped buying books. Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening. Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can’t borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.

Next we went to Hampstead village proper, had lunch; went to the Waterstones, where I bought Kafka’s Letter to my Father, which somehow I’ve never read but really should; checked prices on a venue for our daughter’s birthday party (wtf? a venue? what happened to some cheapass pinup pin-the-tail on the donkey scotchtaped to the wall and two cans of juicy juice set out on an unclothed table? ah, kids today) but I forgot to take pictures. This despite the fact that Hampstead is the only place where I myself have ever actually recognized a celebrity other than Peggy Noonan (another long story) – but not long ago I saw Russell Brand (for the benefit of Americans who won’t – and shouldn’t – know who he is) eating brunch at a cafe by aforementioned Waterstones. I have no doubt at all I’ve seen lots of them, but they’ve mostly remained, as it were, in the optical unconscious because I hate celebrities. But on the way home I got a shot of Royal Free Hospital, which is a brutalist masterpiece, and apparently the first hosptial designed (in Europe or the world I am not sure) with the aid of CAD. Ah, computers should berth us when we are sick, as only they really know how it feels.

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February 22, 2009 at 12:49 am

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