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on the aisle

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Crowded bus on the way home last night and ended up sitting next to a young guy reading a proper novel. That is to say a yellowed Penguin paperback, something that’s been around for a bit. I have no doubt that “50p” was written in pencil on the inside front cover of the thing. Beautiful in its way.

One of the nice things about North London is that this sort of thing happens quite a bit. But whenever it does, last night included, I have a strange feeling. I try to glance over to the page, see if I can tell the text from the small sample available to me in the next seat. A character name, a recognized scene – even a sense that I recognize the style. And as I do, there’s that strange feeling again.

The closest that I can come to a clear description is that it is a proprietorial sense that I am having. This guy is, unknown to him, in my shop. I spend my entire life with these yellowing Penguins – marking exams, writing essays and lectures, working on my own stuff.

My father worked for a food company when I was growing up and whenever he and I were in the appropriate aisle of the supermarket, we’d stop and watch the customers as they negotiated the cookie and cracker aisle, see what they chose, what their kids wanted, what they lifted and put back and what they bought two of. Thankfully, this wasn’t some sort of marketing exercise – he wasn’t gathering intelligence. Rather, from what I can tell, he was enjoying watching people enjoy the fruits of his own labor – indirect labor, nearly as indirect as mine when it comes to the kid reading the paperback on the bus. The circuits that ran from his office work to the baked and packaged box of cookies on the shelf were nearly as complex as those that run from my teaching and newspaper writing to the novel purchased at the charity shop and read intently on the upper deck of the W3 in Finsbury Park.

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May 22, 2010 at 2:58 am

Posted in literature, london

literary celebrity

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How do you know when you are one? You start rolling a cigarette while sitting in the pub with the academics who have paid you (£250!) to come talk to their students. When your handler asks you if you want to go outside to have a cigarette, you are able to reply for all to hear “No actually I just want to go, period.” And then you do. No excuses offered, even though there are likely good ones available.

But there’s a sadder truth to this sort of gig, and it is related to the cash figure I named in the previous paragraph. Twenty minutes later, you return, because you’d forgotten your package of rolling tobacco (£2.75) on the pub table. You retrieve it, make a politically incorrect joke about it, and then leave again.

UPDATE: My wife just accused me of being mean in this post. Really wasn’t my intent. It is a bit funny I think, but mostly this is an anecdotal exercise in the sociology of literature at present day. In what other field, nowadays, would you find such a conjunction of events?

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May 7, 2010 at 7:16 am

Posted in academia, literature, london

sunday post: marxist cream teas and gnarly geolocatable trees

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Very much regret that I couldn’t come along on Owen’s Piccadilly Line tour today. But then again, I’m pretty sure that none of the Holden designed stations feature one of these, which I saw today doing the same, um, walking tour I do almost every weekend – Highgate to Hampstead, hitting every playground in between.

I took a lot of nice pictures of Hampstead Heath along the way. Really starting to develop extraordinarily warm feelings for the Heath and for this stretch of North London more generally. Starting to wish that I lived even closer to the former than I already do (it’s about a 15 minute bus ride from my house).

The country is so very verdant, that even the dead trees have a bit of life in them.

Here is where you go if you want to have sex in the Heath. Just watch out for the police cameras – this is the UK after all.

There are few directional signs in the Heath, and many forks in the path, some of them leading through fairly dense old growth forest. So the first time I walked from Highgate to Hampstead, I used the GPS system on my iPhone to naivgate my way through. Worked like a charm. But it has a funny effect, this GPS thing – maybe something worth thinking about / writing about a bit more. I had anticipated taking a picture of the following the last time I was there – had the camera with me this time.

But as I took it, I couldn’t help but think – probably given the way I’d navigated last time – of what the tree I was taking a picture of would look like on google maps. In fact, I persistently today thought of myself as walking through a map, a satellite image – couldn’t stop thinking about myself from an imagined god’s eye view. Here’s the tree again, as well as the path from which I took the picture:

Odd to think that men and women walked around for so many centuries thinking, at least in part, from the god’s eye view, only to lose it, to see for themselves and at level angle for a bit, only to resume where they had left off due to gps and google maps. At least google’s satellites don’t care about your sins. Er….

At any rate, we made it to Hampstead, I put the camera away. We delivered our daughter to a birthday party, had a nice dinner (accompanied by a semi-sleeping infant – the other daughter), didn’t buy any books at Waterstones or Daunt, and then came home via one bus and then another. I’m getting my most hits ever today, by the way.

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October 4, 2009 at 10:14 pm

in and beyond the shadow of senate house

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Late notice, and I really can’t imagine that anyone who’d be in a position to attend doesn’t already read Owen’s blog, but there are two walks going on this weekend in relation to “In the Shadow of Senate House,” a series of talks and events in and around Birkbeck this fall. I’m very excited to be giving a paper later in the year in this series…

Really wish (and really should) go on these walks, but I’m afraid I’ve used up all of my dad-away-from-the-family time this week and then some, and so it’s birthday parties and puppet shows for me!

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October 3, 2009 at 11:07 am

Posted in london

“the real tragedy of england” / office park socialism

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The real tragedy of England, as I see it, is the tragedy of ugliness. The country is so lovely: the man-made England is so vile. (D.H. Lawrence).

Perversities – inner-originated or outer, who knows – conspired to put me back in the gynaecological surgery ward during the same week when I finished reading Ballard’s Crash. Too bad Ballard’s sexo-aesthetic didn’t take – perhaps I’d have been wafting along in some sort of dark erotic reverie instead of melting into a puddle from anxiety and wanting-to-be-homeness. I spent three days and two nights, and I’m just back now, and so very happy to be back.

I hate hospitals, I really do. We were taught quite a lot at Catholic school about the fucked up fort-da games God plays with hell – a glimpse of the All-Most and Everythingest, and then lost, lost forever, that sort of thing. You’re hottest most excellent fantasy, but when she turns (and keeps turning forever and ever) there are maggots for eyes and yuck for breasts and burning hot coals where the… you know what I mean. Hospitals are like that for me too. Single rooms in them impersonate austere hotel rooms (love those!) but then add into the mix nervous electronics (hate that!) and people who burst into your room unannounced to do unpleasant things (hate that even more! in a visceral sort of way!) that completely blow the fantasy that you’re trying to keep in place that this is just a lovely few days spent somewhere with an interesting view and worse TV choices than at home.

Anyway, we spent three days and two nights. With luck, we are now absolutely finished with absolutely everything having to do with the medical end of bringing children into the world. We’ve had our two, my wife was injured and then injured worse, and now we’re done. We’ve replaced ourselves, and now, well, it’s your turn! We’re done!


Best of all, we got to do our three days and two nights during the runup to what appears to be a full-scale swine flu pandemic. You heard it here first – they’re clearly in the process of shifting hospitals from their normal and normally gory work of hacking and sawing and sewing and injecting into H1N1 Containment Camps. Shit. I overheard unpleasant conversations between nurses in the lifts (elevators) detailing the geometrical increase of infected patients in their wards: we had none yesterday, three today, and they’re telling us to be ready for nine tomorrow. The reassuring thing is that none of the staff seemed particularly worried about this outbreak, except in terms of what it is about to do to their next few workweeks. But clearly, this thing is happening.

from the side

Apparently, infection makes the lights go out wherever you are, and turns your hands sort of black to white, white to black, and green in the dirty spots. Worse than you thought, huh? But it does make it easier on the Underground. If the person you’re tit-to-tit with during the morning rush starts to cough and sputter, simply give a little left-and-down juke and see if there’s any green aura involved. Saves on swabs.


Anyway, I had lots and lots of time to start out our 13th floor window. Here’s some rain happening over the Thames Estuary. I thought less abstractly and interestingly about things like aggregate fiction, and more poignantly and pressingly about simply wanting to be out of the hospital, down on the street, and back on schedule with my work. I could see all of my workplaces – the libraries and my office and even the tops of buildings that contain my favorite coffee places at street level – from up here.

I’ve decided that I want the following image (properly and professionally cropped, of course) to be used on the cover of some book soon, perhaps even the one I’m finishing now.

northwest mittel-europa

northwest mittel-europa

One of the reasons why the image is an appealing choice for a cover is because it’s so fucking weird. And not just this scene – London from above, with the exception perhaps of stuff along the river, is weird in general. Funny to think how few images you see of London from above. There are easy and hard reasons why this is so. The easy ones generally have to do with the ugliness of the city. It truly is ugly – you can come and see for yourself if you like.

I will photoshop out the cranes if I use this for a cover, as they are not really real, not in the realest sense of real – like the BT Tower is real.

My wife and I decided that in certain senses, London from above reminded us most (or best) of things like the boringer parts of Toronto seen from on-high, or the way Waterbury, Connecticut looks from the 84. (If you know what I mean with that last one, specially NY-NJ to NE driving props to you…) Obvious, if you look in just the right directions, it’s a bit different, but in general, blah.

But don’t get me wrong. It is one of the most loveable things about this place. There are big problems with photogenicness as well – a kind of hyper-realness that of course never feels real enough, as per almost every single street in Manhattan. London feels at times like an only-slightly post-medieval Los Angeles, with the invisible hand dropping what it would as the city sprawled. Terraced houses are nice. Modernist apartment blocks are nice. Terraced houses giving way for six units to modernist apartment blocks and then back again doesn’t look all that nice – and that’s the rhythm of the entire city.  And because of that rhythm, which repeats itself in large scale in the act of dropping a sublimely iron-curtainy looking telecommunications tower into Fitzrovia,  you can take insipidly beautiful / excitingly ugly pictures like the one above. And this rhythm has much to do with the sense of generic urbanity, raw unmarked urbanness, that London gives off in all of its parts – a sense that when felt deeply suggests that Ballard didn’t even have to go to the highway networks that mesh Heathrow. Tottenham Court Road fits the bill just as well.

postcardic (and not really my picture)

But on the other hand… or perhaps on the same hand but only somewhat differently, there’s the question of what to make of all the greenglass newbuilds like the one pictured, the hospital in question above. (The BT Tower picture was taken from that central column of windows in the tower, thirteen floors up…) Nu-language utilitarianism rendered in transreflective window treatments, the design might well have been plucked from an office building on the Rt. 1 pharmacorridor in New Jersey. It is big, it is banal, but it is clean and new. Despite the fact that the photo above (full disclosure – not mine this time) could easily work as a nouveau-nostaligic entry worthy of a future decade’s Architectures de cartes postales, but of course it never will. People have changed, and our architecture is regrettable. But still, perhaps only the Americans in the audience can appreciate how wonderfully funny and more than funny it is to get medical care in a hospital that looks like it could be the regional office of Merck & Co., but which contains no cash registers at all, except the ones at the newsstand and the cafe.

I can’t help but fantasize, from time to time but insistently in spots, about the repurposing of all of the slick office buildings, with their employee cafes and openplan offices, into workspaces for a new bureaucratic rationality, distributing goods and services rationally. Just as in 1984, the characters struggle to remember what these places were before they were rebranded into totalitarian ministries, I tease myself with the thought at times of what sort of conversations might occur over the corian-countertops and leftover cubicles of media company officebuildings put to better use.

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July 18, 2009 at 11:28 pm

sunday evening post: columns, bad dads, drink, london, women, men, sex, procreation, cricket, birthday parties

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Noticed this attack on female “confessional journalism” by Hadley Freeman in the Guardian the other day:

Here’s how it goes: a female journalist describes her obsession with her weight/breasts/ageing face/food or alcohol problems/inability to have a happy relationship. The article is illustrated by the journalist looking as miserable as possible. There are tales of daily woe. It concludes with the writer still sufficiently unhappy to be commissionable for another very similar piece.

This genre has nothing to do with journalists opening a window into what life is like for women today. It does women no favours at all. It is entirely about perpetuating an editor’s misogynistic image of what women are like (self-hating, self-obsessed) and making a semi-celebrity out of the writer in the belief that readers like to read journalists whose names and faces (and breasts) they recognise.

I have no doubt that the women who write these articles truly feel the emotions they describe. But these women need help; they do not need to be made to feel that their professional USP is to play up their misery.


Aside from everything else, this kind of journalism sets feminism back by about 50 years, because not only does it perpetuate offensive stereotypes about women as needy, helpless, childlike narcissists, it suggests that the most interesting thing a woman can offer up to others is her own battered, starved, bloated, enhanced or reduced body. And that seems a lot sadder to me than any shocking revelation I ever read in a single piece of confessional journalism.

Sure, of course, this is all true. But what else is true that the second-smoothest path for women into the papers, after the ritualized self-abuse that she describes here, is to write a piece slagging off other women for doing X, Y, Z. Doesn’t really matter what – writing confessional pieces about being fat is a good if safe choice. I live with a woman who dwells (or dwelt, back before she was working on her book / having kids, but soon will dwell again) in fragrant corridors where la commentaire feminine is manufactured, and it is a testament to her ethics and general above-the-frayness that she resolutely and persistently disregards my suggestions that she write this or that take down of some misdirected female writer or trend.

And so I put these ideas on my blog instead. Refused male musery mine!

But just to keep all these balls in the air, I want to confess that I’ve fallen under the spell of my own confessional columnist – a male one, but one who’s been doing a sort of pitch perfect translation into guy-voice of just the sort of thing that upsets Freeman above. Honestly, it’s not since Hitchens came unwound in the pages of The Nation in the weeks after 9/11 that I’ve actually purchased a magazine on a weekly basis in order to read a columnist. But now, instead of flipping through The New Stateman and making a decision up or down on whether to buy a (reduced-price, via the UCU store) copy, I purchase it without flip-through, as I’ve become a devoted reader, perhaps to my discredit, of Nicholas Lezard’s “Down and Out in London” column.

(Just to be clear, I’ve generally read anything that Owen or Dr. Power have in there before I have an actual copy in my hands… Apparently, I can read Lezard that way too – not sure why this hasn’t occurred to me before…)

Anyway, I’m not going to cut and paste any of the Lezard stuff, and I think the effect 1) works best cumulatively and 2) might only work for those who can understand the situation he is in. And I certainly can… He’s got two kids and apparently was kicked out of his house for good for coming home one too many times plastered, and now lives in a shabby flat with another guy, spends quite a lot of time at his local, is broke, etc. Um, well…. Right. So I’ve seemingly gotten a lot better and have at least one of my nine or so lives left as I’m still here. But there were moments when it definitely looked like a grubby shared flat with nothing but my MacBook Pro and a hasty selection of my clothes had become my immediate and irremediable future.

Having kids is hard on marriages, partnerships. Unspeakably hard, really. The paradigm shift that’s slowquickly been happening over the past few decades, making marriage into a union of buddies and workpartners who (often) spend significant portions of their formative years together and childless only to take the big dip fairly late and find that everything has changed forever. Unexpected though age-old gender roles reassert themselves when you weren’t looking, and you learn how much you depended on that hour-and-a-half walk that you took every evening. Often, one partner works (in the out of the house sense) less than they used to, and different forms of dependency take root. You have no time or venue to talk, or fuck, or be by yourself. When you see friends as a couple, you see them differently. Everything changes, everything is really hard.

But there’s something else, a little less personal and identificatory, that appeals about Lezard’s column in the NS, something I’d like to post more about later. It somehow, his column captures and encapsulates the specific sort of squalor that characterizes London. It’s a very different sort than tinges the atmosphere of, say, New York. There’s a bit of Hollywood to the New York sort, a sort of intersection of money and sex that comes through – just for instance – in the bar girl that I once watched for an entire evening trying to work the fucking Midtown Marriott lobby during the Christmas season. I’ll say more about this later, but London is, in part, about conventional types going softly but insistently wrong.


Over the course of the weekend, my wife said two very dirty things that were also very funny. I can only remember one of them now. I threatened to put it up on here, but clearly I am too much of a gentleman for that.


There’s an Italian restaurant / cafe at the centre of my neighborhood, literally at the old Roman crossroads or whatever it is, that is known as the sort of characteristic neighborhood establishment. We have started eating there every day that we can, as it is cheap and the food is good and you can eat outside. So…. it’s the characteristic neighborhood establishment of a neighborhood that is in some (class limited, of course, of course) sense the characteristic North London neighborhood. Since I am a real North Londoner now, I further believe that North London is the truest embodiment of London as a whole. So…. this place is really fucking Londony, in some strange but true sense. (Cf the bit in Conrad’s The Secret Agent about London Italian restaurants – that should sort some of the logic that I’m not writing out longhand for you if you need that to happen….)


When I go in there, I absolutely and in a way that happens in none of the many other Italian restaurants I’ve eaten in during my time here, absolutely, positively, feel like I am back in New Jersey. Hmmm. It’s all a bit joisy guido – they show the Godfather on plasma screens over the dining room, the decor screams Rt. 17. Is this hard to understand? Fine, here’s a small but telling materialization of what I’m talking about, from the Men’s Room:

What we have there, folks, is the product of the unholy union of High British Paternalism (“mind the gap, morons!”) and the italomammalovethathurts that embraces my native state and its great recent artistic products in its sagging, well-fed arms…. Uncanny! The way you found them…. Ha!


One of the hardest things to decipher: the look that young women give to men pushing strollers filled with children. It seems neither, at least not in any obvious way, to mean mmmm give me some of that wouldja. Nor does it completely not mean that, from what I can tell. It is hard to describe. Perhaps its the look of the generic erotic, the animal gone human and social, of the code playing its games of generality and specificity right there on the high street, shortly after pasta lunch.


Later, Saturday afternoon, I walk out and onto my bucolic street of terrace houses to get a bottle of water at the off-license at the corner. Two women, stylishly dressed, attractive, are stumbling a bit as one of them tries to work her phone. They have just come out of a house, three doors down. The phoneless one says to me, as I pass, “Carry me.”

She translates my eyes-on-the-pavement non-response into the question, “Where would you want me to carry you?” for she answers in turn,

“Just to the end of the street, or wherever. Just carry me.”

I walk on, unable to translate the bolt of British vernacular that she drops on me next into Sober and American. They are gone when I return, swallowed whole by the bucolic, the terraced, and the directions someone gave them over the phone.


Sunday morning, on the way to Hampstead, my wife said to me, I looked at one sentence of the Ballard that you left on the kitchen table last night and I knew immediately what you mean.

There’s a post coming on what I mean. I flew through the first fifty pages of Crash, a bit excited. Since then, well, slower going. I’ll tell you about it soon.


The Jews for Jesus were out in full force today in Hampstead. I can’t even imagine how or why that works here, though then again, maybe I can. But it’s sublimely odd.


I visited both Daunt Books in Belsize Park and Waterstones in Hampstead. All I bought, sadly, was Vladmir Sorokin’s The Queue. I’ve never heard of it, but I’m excited to read it. I wanted to buy something else, but it was on 3 for 2, and I couldn’t find another 2, and so I left it for another time. Waterstones needs to think carefully about that promotion – likely I would have just bought the book if it weren’t for the sticker on it.


Another Sunday, another kid’s birthday party. Woof. A lot of them now, almost one a week. Luckily this one was better than a lot of the others – and there weren’t any birds. The parents in question went lo-tech with the thing and just scheduled it for the lovely fenced in play area in the Parliament Hill part of Hampstead Heath. Since the weather was pretty much perfect today, it was actually a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon, lolling on the grass, watching the kids do their thing.

This is going to start to sound a bit newspaper column-ish, but I’ve started to take more and more note of something kind of interesting. Most people at this party (the adults I mean – the kids were all 3-4) were in their early thirties (like us) to mid-forties – the general and universally prevalent age of childbearing for urban professional / intellectual types in the English speaking world. In fact, this scene, owing to the neighborhood I guess, was a little younger and hipper than the one that we’re a part of by virtue of the school that my daughter attends in our neighborhood. Someone was wearing a Joy Division shirt, and the mom of the birthday boy only wears vintage stuff. You don’t see all that much vintage stuff where we live.

In addition, though, to the parent / child parings, there were four extra adults, childless, in their thirties by the looks of it. It took me awhile to figure out that they were childless; so distracted was I by their supermarket bags full of Stella Artois and white wine that they had brought with them that I simply became reflexively envious and paranoically resentful that I didn’t have my own bag full of fun stuff to drink that until my wife pointed their non +kid status, I simply didn’t notice they were ohne Kindern.

So they were drinking and looked incredibly bored. Of course they were – they were childless adults at a farking four-year-old’s birthday party. But who knows, maybe they were bored in other ways as well. And the parents were certainly bored too – and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one glacing a bit enviously at these people without shit stains on their shirts and who didn’t have to whip out a tit every 45 minutes to sooth the thing hanging from your front in a Baby Bjorn and could instead just crack open another can of Stella and think about what they were going to do for dinner later. Maybe the four of them took off just after we left to sit around doing adult things like getting shitfaced in a pub. Who knows.

But here’s what I’m trying to get to: there’s an interesting sort of tension, a fraught detente, that starts to form between the childless and the childed during this stage in life. Most of the time it’s not right on the surface, perhaps, but when they’re forced into co-presence (whether through a birthday party like this one, or more casually at restaurants, on transit, and the like…) it starts to come through. From what I imagine, further, there’s a bit of tilt on axis that comes a bit later. Right now, the parents of infants can’t help but think, however much they love their children, christ what did I get myself into – I’m only fucking 32! while the still childless can look on with the there but for the grace thing running through their heads. Give it a decade, less, and many of the childless will have punched their own ticket into the exciting world of parenting. But the others who haven’t may have different strings running frontcourt and back through their minds.

Banal, column-fodder, but still true and hugely important. I’d like to do more serious writing about this, actually. Having kids (or not having them) brings to the front some really big questions about society and its perspective on happiness, time, work, life. All the issues that any proper socialist needs to think through first before taking a single step forward toward the development of a theory, let alone a practical path. It’s a shame that more men don’t take up the issue – perhaps I’ll start, perhaps I have started.


Ooops. I just posted this and noticed that the title promised cricket. Here:

I watched some cricket on the Heath today. I like watching it; I still don’t understand it at all.


Again the kids are asleep by the time we make it back from the Heath, so we take advantage and stop somewhere for a bit. By the time I return to our table with the beverages, a sodden guy is talking to my wife. I overhear, Ah but you must know what part of Ireland your people come from, because god do you ever look it, and you know I would knows as you can tell from the way that I speak I come from there myself and do you ever visit? Would you want to? What the fuck. I sit down and he’s not sure whether to refer to her as my wife or not, and probably for more than one reason. He is fifty years old. He lost his glasses, ha ha, last night. He is a clean man whose clothes are dirty. And his friend has run to Tesco for something. He asks me what part of Ireland I am from, and I respond that I am not Irish. He is getting very confused. But before we leave, break ruined, he tears a menu in half to write down his email address and tells us to be in touch – come and stay! – if we are ever in rural Ireland.

On the way home, my wife responds to my jokes and japes, “Yeah, there’s nothing I’m more attracted to than sodden drunk guys like….”

Significant pause. Cue laughter.

It was a very nice weekend indeed.

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July 5, 2009 at 9:28 pm

Posted in london, new jersey, sunday

monday is the truth of monday

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IT says that the truth of Sundays is Monday… but from the looks of things the truth, in turn, of Monday is getting not much done and in coffeehouses up and down Tottenham Court Road.

I was reading Crash on the way in on the bus and Underground and enjoying it so much, actually, that I gave myself another 20 pp space of time at Starbucks. I was glad to leave, though, as I hit my page allocation just as I

  1. vaguely started to worry about the plate-glass window right behind me, what it would be like to pick it out of my scalp and cheeks and limbs and (jesus) genitals if something were to knock or blast it in on me. I didn’t find the thought as sexy as the characters in the novel do, weirdos.
  2. decided that the mother and daughter who had chosen of all the available tables in the nearly empty outlet the one located right next to mine were in fact a team of bag-thieves. They run rampant, the bag thieves, in London Starbucks. Half-tantalized by the idea of looking distracted and trying to get them to make a swipe at it (see my $2000 laptop coquettishly poking its flank out of my bag in the pic?) and then catching them, and half-realizing that if they were thieves worth their salt they could probably still nail me even though I was on to them, I left and went to the office.

Which is a shame, as Starbucks is airconditioned which, amazingly, is actually helpful here in London today. And even more a shame because, as per the general rule of department life in the summer, someone came and knocked on my door and asked me to take care of something that took me the better part of an hour or two. At least it had something to do with Ballard, what I was asked to do.

But it seemed clear that the best course of action was to get out of there before the rota fortunae of departmental work turned my way again. The upstairs of EAT is quite nice, my new favourite. Actually ate lunch complete with an apple for those who are keeping track of my health and well-being. The music is pretty nice too – a heavy-rotation of Macy Gray/Lauren Hill tossed with songs that I remember or want to remember listening to on the radio in the backyard in Hillsdale, NJ when I was 5 or 6 or 7 or 8. Hottown, summahinthecity, back of my neck feelindirty and gritty. Though it does make me feel I should change the station to listen to Rags pitch his no-hitter against the Sox while eating a Ballpark Frank or something. Distracting thought!

Where is summer but New Jersey, a longwalk away from the GWB if you could walk there? What is that boy, whose first novel was a drug-store purchased compy of 1984, doing typing in the shadow of the Ministry of Love? Why doesn’t he get the picture and type a bit faster and not in html? And why did he think buying a 3G stick for his laptop would help matters on Mondays and the rest of the days of the week?

Work on your book, fool! Just because it’s hot and you’re alone doesn’t license reverie and posting!

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June 29, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Posted in london, new jersey

sunday in “the spiritual home of britain’s left-wing intelligentsia”

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I’m not sure exactly why I’m driven to record my familal jaunts, my Sundays, in bland photoessays on here. The one I wrote two weeks ago worked out pretty well, so whatever, I’ll keep doing it and see what happens.

We had no plans when we woke up this morning. Today is my sleep-late day and I actually made it to 9 AM, which is rare. I’m headed into old man territory, very suddenly, with my sleep patterns. For my entire adult life, I’ve gone to bed only begrudgingly before 2 AM, and while work often mandated an early rise, if permitted I’d sleep fairly late. All of a sudden, in the last few months, I’m down before midnight and up before the alarm rings, generally no later than 7 AM.

We had no plans. It suddenly strikes me that Sunday afternoons, and what you do with them, might be read in the same way that one reads a dream. Left to one’s own devices, without the pressures of work (even if the mandate to mind children remains) one’s leisure choices form patterns that sometimes are only discernable after the fact, and sometime not really discernable at all.

I don’t really know why I woke with a strong desire to go to Islington, to Upper Street to be exact. We’d passed through on the bus a few months ago, and it’s not all that far from our house. And we’ve been around Angel for various reasons (me for Kinofist what seems like a long, long time ago and both of us together to buy couches when we moved into our place). But never to Upper Street. It’d take changing buses at Finsbury Park to get there, but buses are easier than the Underground, as we are always a large and heavily encumbered party-of-four at this point.

At the busstop near my house, we couldn’t take the first bus that came by, as there were already two strollers onboard. Another nine minutes. So I walked away to have a cigarette. When I returned my wife was having “the smoking talk” with my oldest. Ah me. Bet you my remaining days of nicotene-tint are few and getting fewer all the time. It’s just what happens, isn’t it… I suppose it’s for the best.

Ah there we are. Upper Street. There’s a farmers market on Sundays behind Islington Town Hall, but we didn’t want to keep the produce all day in the heat, so we bought nothing but pastries. The place was loaded with Americans – another woman with her own set of two kids was dropping her purchases into a Trader Joe’s bag, which made us chuckle – fucking Californians! Our own bag comes from a co-op in the rust-belt city where we lived before all this – and almost certainly marks us as academics in the Expat staring contests that occur constantly in neighborhood like this one.

A few minutes later my wife and the kids ducked into a children’s store and I had a cigarette out on the street, and took the photo that appears above. A second later, I turned to the right, and saw….. this:

Mexican food! In London! I’ve had it exactly once in the more than 1.5 years I’ve been here. It simply doesn’t exist as a food category here – there’s like a total of eight places in the entire city, and generally if you look one up and head there you find that it’s closed for one reason or another. I bounded back to the wife, who was coming out of the shop, wildly pointing toward, yes, that! And yelling, yes, yes I will, yes we will eat there! Yes! But she reminded me, though, that it was only 10:45 AM, so a little early for burritos. And plus, “tex-mex” is an ill-omen, and doubleplus (or doubleminus), good Mexican restaurants don’t ever serve tapas too. (Look closely at the sign). WTF? Yeah, Mexico is not in Spain, hmmm… I conceded she had a point, at least about the tapas part, and so we moved on.

But here’s the kicker. This Desperados, object of my gleeful pleading, is located on the site of the former Granita Restaurant, where the “Granita Pact” between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was supposedly sealed in 1994. According to wikipedia:

According to several authors, Gordon Brown agreed not to stand in the Labour Party leadership election, effectively giving Blair a clear run, and letting him lead the Labour Party in the 1997 general election. In return, Brown would be allowed wide powers over domestic policy. This was apparently confirmed by a copy of a note published in The Guardian in June 2003. The note mentions Blair’s commitment to a “fairness agenda” consisting of “social justice, employment opportunities and skills” under a Labour government.

Further, according to the Guardian, if we had gone in, we might have gotten to sit at the very table, preserved as it was, where this deal that in the long-run seems to have wrecked the Labour Party, perhaps permanently, was hashed out. I hope, when (if!) my wife reads this post, she realizes that my world-historical radar is very much in operation, even if it is oddly connected with my melted cheese radar system, and that she should always listen and willingly concede to my choices in lunchtime restaurantage!

(Hmmm… now I’m wondering if any world-historical events took place at the site of the Fuddruckers on Rt.1 right by the turnoff for the NJ Turnpike… I used to make my wife take me there for birthday dinners during grad school, because of the melted cheese machine. They should dig for Jimmy Hoffa in the parking lot!)

There is a Waterstones bookshop in Islington. I have to admit, I like going to a decent Waterstones better than the crappy little store in my neighborhood. On the front table, we saw this:

My wife made the same mistake that I did when I first saw this one. We had a long and lovely talk last night about aggregate fiction, and she lifted it from the table thinking…. But nope, no. If it were Twenty People, Two Years we’d be in business. But as it is, no not aggregate – just sentimental romantic trope. Pooh. I bought the first volume of Ballard’s Complete Short Stories and Ian Sinclair’s London Orbital.

I won’t have time to read either anytime soon, but I buy books when I am happy. And I was happy today. We ate lunch at Pizza Express. Soon, I will have eaten at all 400 or so PE outlets. During lunch, I goofed with my older daughter and discussed with my wife the strange fact that in London, people eat at chain restaurants all the time, while in NYC it would be considered quite gauche to eat at chain places. That is to say, there exists here a whole category of middle to upper-middle level restaurants that basically dominate the sub-really-fancy spectrum of eating, while in America it’s hard not to think TGIFridays when you see the same place in more than a single neighborhood. My pet theory about this divergence is that hip American cities have been populated with refugees from the suburbs (comme moi) who grew up eating and lower-middle to upper-middle tier chains on the side of highways. (For the record, Fuddruckers is distinctly sub-lower-middle, just in case you’re tempted to try….) and thus run away from them en-masse when they acquire the West Elm accoutred urban pad of their dreams. I imagine that labour issues are significant too – these fucking chains are rather merciless over here, and there’s not the endless supply of undocumented Latin Americans to shuffle the plates and make the salads.

Weird. There’s a mall in Islington. I like its name: The N1 Mall. Maybe everything should be named after its postcode – far more generic, rational, clean. (Big huge post coming soon, in the hopper, on city names, station names, predicated by an act of barbarity back in Brooklyn.) My youngest decided to poop voluminously, voluminously enough to make it through the clothes. Back with the first one, wouldn’t we have panicked… But we’re veteran parents now and so we just pulled over and took care of business right there in the stroller. Much, much nicer the second time around, I have to say. But malls never look right in the UK – or really anywhere but America. Why is this? Ah, because it’s nicer over here and they simply don’t belong.

How much nicer? This much nicer….

From what I can tell, it’s a co-op-ized former estate built on the site of a V-1 bomb attack during WWII. Islington took quite a lot of bomb damage during the war, and this is the reason why Caledonian Road, for instance, is basically a several mile long block of public or ex-public housing estates. This one (I think it’s now known as the Half Moon Crescent Co-op, though I’m not exactly sure…) is bucolic and lovely, and I sort of wish that I lived there…. But BoBos like us settle where the schools are good, where the Ofsted ratings top 90… And so we are where we are. Which is good, which is fine…

You can see the very top of my wife’s head in the picture, by the way….

We had two sleeping children by the time we boarded the bus on Caledonian Road for the trip back home. We stopped somewhere and looked at a copy of the Times whle they slept, especially the cover article about Michael Jackson’s nanny:

She confided: “When Paris had her birthday this April, I wanted to buy balloons, things, to make a happy birthday. There was no money in the house. I had to put everything on my personal credit card. I brought people to clean the house. The room of the kids needed to be cleaned. But they weren’t paid.”

Revealed within her account of their love-hate relationship was Jackson’s everyday life as a father and drug addict. Grace told me of pumping out his stomach after he took too many drugs and of how dirty and unkempt he became towards the end. Her stories of his attitude to the children shocked me.

Hard to know what to say to all that, and so we went home. It’s taken me over three hours to write this post, as my wife’s been upstairs working on a book proposal and I’ve been downstairs with the kids. One watched Cinderella for a bit, the other would sleep for 15 minute bursts only after 20 minutes of carrying her about.

I’m starting to think that I’d like to write a book someday, perhaps even someday soon, about Sundays. I certainly seem to have a lot to say about them. (Interesting to note that back at the founding of LS I was very against Long Sunday as a title – I favoured Por Ahora – maybe I’m slowing out of radicalism or something as I age, or slowing into another sort of radicalism, who knows…)

In his Politics of Time, Peter Osborne at one point quotes Benjamin’s One-Way Street:

In Nadja, Breton and Nadja are the lovers who convert everything that we have experienced on mournful railway journeys… on Godforsaken Sunday afternoons in the proletarian quarters of the great cities, in the first glance through the rain-blurred windows of a new apartment, into revolutionary experience, if not action. They bring the immense force of ‘atmosphere’ concealed in these things to the point of explosion.

I think it might just be my favorite snippet of critical prose that I’ve ever come across, even if I can’t decide for the life of me whether I agree with Benjamin here, with even the basic principles behind what he is saying. I go back and forth, and in a sense this oscillation, is an index of the rhythm of my entire intellectual life in all of its dimensions. And not just my intellectual life, but the whole burrito really.

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 28, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Posted in everyday, london, sunday

reproductive presentism / notes written one sunday

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So what happened today? Was woken up at 7 AM to watch the older one while my wife and the younger one got some more sleep. I sleep now in the loft, by myself, and have done so for quite some time. “Our” bed is the bed where everyone else sleeps. This, I think, is a fairly common situation.

Made coffee and got the milk out of the freezer. Our refrigerator stopped working on Friday and no one could come to fix it until Monday. So frozen milk.

Played “animal doctor” with the older one. She picked up the idea for this game a few weeks ago when we visited the school she’ll be attending in the fall. The reception class has in one corner a sort of veterinary clinic, complete with lots of real and realish medical implements and lots of stuffed animals to operate on. We had a hard time dragging her out of the classroom when our visit was over. So now we play at home, mostly looking at non-ear parts (including, yes, the bummies) with the ear-examination device. Then we give shots. And then we feed them tea.

My wife and I have always had problems with weekend mornings. Anxiety sets in. While most people with kids and many without have no trouble sitting the weekend out, relaxing at home, and the like, we’ve always felt this soft desperation about making our weekend days good and full. Back before kids, it was often the negotiation between work and play. Now it’s generally about the sort of things we can manage with the kids, what’s realistic, what can be done without collapse or tantrum or more trouble than it’s worth. She is frustrated – she hasn’t been to central London, save for surgical appointments, in months. But it is too late and too hard to go to Hyde Park or the like.

We settle on swimming. Our area is renowned for its swimming provision – a large complex with an indoor pool and what they quaintly call a “lido” in the UK. After a bit of passive-aggression passed triangularly – father to mother to older daughter and back again – we pack our old D’Ag bag with swimming suits and towels, load the double stroller and make our way to the pool.

Despite what the website says, the pool is closed from 1-2. It is 12:45 when we arrive. My wife gives a bit of lip to the attendant; the attendant doesn’t respond. And so we have lunch at a “cafe” nearby. There’s something they call a “cafe” here that roughly corresponds with the New York diner in their ubiquity, the quality and variety of food on offer, and the cheapness of the fare.

I hold the younger one in my lap while we eat. The older one eats all of her ham and cheese sandwich – she is coming along a bit lately on the eating, on not needing to be begged to eat.

We decide to save the big pool for another day and instead head to our usual park, which has a wading pool for kids. It’s the one pictured at the top of this post, and it is lovely. No frills but well kept, full of stuff to do but nothing glamourous or noteworthy. Tennis, a playground, room for football (but no fields or goals), blacktop for bike riding or basketball, and a wading pool with a cafe.

American parks almost never have cafes. Almost every park in London has one. They are lovely. I am sure they are cost-intensive, but they make you feel a bit like you live in Europe, at least when you’re an American. Perhaps Americans know what I mean when I say this – the Europeaness of sitting at a council-run cafe in the middle of a neighborhood park.

Luckily for us, one of the girls my daughter goes to school with is in the pool when we get there. We hesitate about whether we should move over to join the other mother – perhaps she wants her time alone, why didn’t she come over here near us, what will we say when we get there? My daughter is just now hitting the age where she can reliably and steadily play with other kids, with friends, without constant parental intervention. They splash about in the pool for an hour or so before another one of their classmates shows up, and then there are three. My wife takes the baby over to talk to the other two moms; I look at my iPhone and watch my daughter.

Then there are errands. A trip to the photoshop to pick up some prints. A trip to the office supply store for a posterboard – I never asked my wife why she needs that, it occurs to me now. And then home, where I answer an e-mail from a student who has just now written me, all too late, about doing a PhD on Joyce. He seems to be a foreign student, though he’s studying right now in London, and wants to self-fund. We are under pressure to admit just about anyone who will self-fund at this point, as it’s one of the only ways we are able to raise revenue, and raise revenue we must.

It’s four o’clock by then, and by implicit pre-agreement I am to get some work time this afternoon. (The math is complicated – but the fact that I got up at 7 AM this morning has something to do with it). I have to write a feature for a magazine and I am two weeks late. So I head back downtown to write for an hour-and-a-half in the same Costa where I always write. I write 400 words, drink two medium lattes, and I tell myself that I will finish the rest tonight.

On the way home, I notice one an advertisement for this week’s edition of the neighborhood paper. Waitrose, apparently, is moving into our shuttered Woolworths in the centre of town. This makes us happy, as we have fond memories of the Waitrose on Finchley Road when we lived a bit west of here. But it will likely put some of the local butchers and fish-mongers and fruit sellers and probably the independent grocery next door out of business.

I put the Yankee game on my computer. It is a terrible game – the Yanks are beating the Mets 13-0. We debate ordering Thai or making the Chicken Kievs that are in the freezer, and decide on the latter. I defrost then defrost again then preheat and then insert and then put a pot of corn on and run out to get a cold bottle of Coke (as the fridge is broken). What I buy is no colder than the unopened bottle we already have. I read the Observer as things finish cooking; the younger daughter is asleep next to me in her little bouncy seat.

The older one is now asleep or getting there and my wife is feeding the baby. The Yankee game is still on but it’s not getting any more interesting. I noticed that we can watch movies on our computer via our Sky subscription – maybe I can talk my wife into watching sex, lies, and videotape tonight, which is on offer. And then I’ll finish the piece – 1300 more words – or I won’t and I’ll break my promise to start working on the book tomorrow. My wife will take the baby up to bed with her at 10 or 10:30. I will go to bed at midnight, 1 AM at the latest.

So why am I telling you all this? Is it meant to be interesting – and if so, in what way? Am I bragging about my well-accoutred North London life? Or am I braying about the busyness of all this – the fact that there is barely time to work or even breathe? You might think I’m admirable or cowardly, you might want my life or detest it. You might find me disgusting for taking up space with the description of this day, or it might strike you as totally apropos, apropos of something, who knows what or maybe you know.

It was not a particularly interesting day – perhaps not even infra-interesting, though that’s a trickier issue. I am spending a lot of time thinking about the everyday lately, and on more than one front – intellectually, personally, perhaps artistically and politically as well. It is both lucky and unlucky that I am about to spend so much time thinking and writing about it, as it is something that I have an extremely ambivalent relationship towards. Odi et amo, as someone once said of something else. There’s a part of me that belongs exactly nowhere but in a semi-suburban living room or the aisles of a supermarket, the same part of me that buys too many newspapers – all of the papers, sometimes – and wants things calm and orderly and basically like some sort of Ikea spread-vivant, a family barbeque in a social democratic country, in a park that you get to by train or bus, and with food purchased at a kiosk whose sign is written sans serifs. But then there’s another part of me that is nothing but chaos and dysrhythm, grandiloquent thought and speech, drink and brokenness and poor poetry, crispé comme un extravagant, back-alleyed and ill-tempered and too loud.

Henri Lefebvre, in the first volume of his Critique of Everyday Life, has a section called “Notes Written One Sunday in the French Countryside,” and in that section is the following passage:

And in life itself, in everyday life, ancient gestures, rituals as old as time itself, continue unchanged – except for the fact that this life has been stripped of its beauty. Only the dust of words remains, dead gestures. Because rituals and feelings, prayers and magic spells, blessings, curses, have been detached from life, they have become abstract and ‘inner’, to use the terminology of self-justification. Convictions have become weaker, sacrifices shallower, less intense. People cope – badly – with a smaller outlay. The only thing that has not diminished is the old disquiet, that feeling of weakness, that foreboding. But what was formerly a sense of disquiet has become worry, anguish. Religion, ethics, metaphysicas – these are merely the ‘spiritual’ and ‘inner’ festivals of human anguish, was of channelling the black waters of anxiety – and towards what abyss?

I am trying to place it, the everyday, trying to figure out the frame and the use. What to make of the generic universality of certain elements – for instance the way that taking care of a child puts you through certain nearly universal or maybe fully universal (careful, careful) movements and gestures and probably thoughts. And I am trying to make sense of the lingering disquiet that Lefebvre mentions above. What is both hope-inducing and intellectually-terrifying to me is the fact that the recent recession of the dystopian imaginary – the backing up of the threat of the flash and burn and all of the other catastrophes has taken away an ideological-aesthetic crutch that allowed shorthand-in where only full consideration will really do. As if by fiat, we are suddenly under a mandate to stop changing the subject when it comes to the everyday. No news event is going to save us from the question that we are faced with, that we’ve long or always been faced with.

Instead we are brought face to face with the rhythm, probably permanent, of recurrent mild to severe economic crisis coupled with mild to middling affectual, ethical and intellectual crises. Please believe me when I say that I am fully aware of the class understructure of the question that I am asking (or trying to find the words to ask) about my day. I just happen to believe that much of what has gone on, for at least the last half-century, in the world is staked on this sort of Sunday – its pleasures, which are very real, as well as its equally-real if more softly spoken anxieties. The long sunday is an ad with products. It’s just still to-be-determined what the products are, which ones we want, and what to do about it once (if) we figure all of this out.

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 14, 2009 at 10:03 pm

nostalgie de la boue

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Notes for a future post or more:

From an article by Iain Sinclair on films set in the East End in today’s Guardian:

But these films are not just memory devices to fix a period, or an excuse for nostalgic revivals. They are an important element in forging a mythology of place. One of the significant local traditions is of the established outsider travelling east with missionary zeal, like a pioneer into the wilderness. Robert Hamer, most celebrated for Kind Hearts and Coronets, was certainly a film industry toff. (Less so than Anthony Asquith, son of a Liberal prime minister. More so than David Lean, who rose from the non-commissioned status of the cutting-room.) Hamer’s East End invasion of a place that was never quite there, for It Always Rains on Sunday, was a marker for much that followed.

Hamer garnished social realist material from a novel by Arthur La Bern (whose later work, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, became the vehicle for Hitchcock’s London return, Frenzy). The tone is relentlessly downbeat, morbid: without the incessant rain, necks would remain unwashed. Mean English streets are photographed by Douglas Slocombe with the melancholy lyricism of Marcel Carné or Renoir’s La Bête Humaine. Backlit smoke. A poetry you can smell: hot tar, bacon, cabbage, tobacco, wet dogs, armpits. Real places glorying in defiant entropy: rail yards, markets, mortuary pubs, tight backyards with Anderson shelters and rabbit hutches. Slocombe goes on, in terms of this London project, to work with Joseph Losey on The Servant: and thereby to connect with Dirk Bogarde (former bit-part delinquent) and Harold Pinter. Pinter attended the same school as Alexander Baron and Roland Camberton, those forgotten realists. Although his play The Caretaker was based on a glimpse into a Chiswick room, he returned, with director Clive Donner, to shoot the film version on his old turf: a house alongside the snow-covered Hackney Downs.

I’ve bolded the bit that I’m most interested in, and even more specifically, I’m really interested in the phrase defiant entropy.

It seems to me that there are a few options for how we play this defiant entropy, and not to give the game away (these are only notes), I’m not sure that any of them are truly convincing when thought into for more than a few minutes.

  1. The entropy is defiant because it marks a sort of decerteauvian resistance to municipal order, to instrumental rationalization, to gentrification. Street life vs. the redevelopment plan, the lived tactical vs. the cost-tested strategic. (But how do rail yards fit into this picture? And how do we know, for sure, the difference between defiance and abjection?)
  2. The entropy is defiant because it is ugly in a world that is supposed to be pretty. The world wants Costa Coffee and All Bar One, not mortuary pubs and markets. (But we certainly don’t think it’s really ugly, do we? Thus the article, thus our fascination and Sinclair’s… and the developers’…)
  3. The entropy is defiant because it is more real than other things. Blueglass flats being craned to life back behind Kings Cross are not real; urban squalor is real. (What slippery ground we are on when we play this game out, the game of the really real…)

There are other options, of course, and perhaps the three above are all one reason spread out and rephrased a bit, but let’s just leave it there for a second. In short, I worry a bit about the aesthetic fetishization of squalor. It has all the marks of a well-fed decadence, the likes of which we’ve seen before, we’ve seen recur at certain moments for a hundred years or more. I am wondering, in the end, whether we’re right about the defiance that we’ve attributed to urban entropy, squalor, and the like. Wouldn’t Sinclair’s sentence make as much sense if it read, say, Real places notable for their abject squalor. How, exactly, are they “glorying” – other than in Sinclair’s appropriative retransmission?

It’s a real question – and, of course, an old question – and I’d like to hear what you think. I love these things and places too, perhaps more than I should, and I just worry a bit about my love for them. Maybe, I think, everything should be bright glass boxes and intermodal transport links, maybe everyone should drink in a nice place and not a mortuary pub, if they want to anyway.

Sorry. Tired. Notes for Future Post, as I said….

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 24, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Posted in aesthetics, london

“and the animals will love it if you do” (another sunday photoessay)

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I do not live in my favorite part of London. It’s no great tragedy; these things happen. But my favorite part is rather large. Basically, if you sketched it, it would look like one of those WMD dispersion maps after a weapon of some sort went off at Waterloo station on a day when the wind was blowing NNW. Or N and then NW and then N again – as the area in question hangs a rather sharp left turn at Euston Station and then a right at Regent’s Part and heads toward Hampstead and….

… Jesus, why am I making this so hard on myself? Radiation dispersion? What’s wrong with me? Basically, I like the run of the Northern Line (Charing Cross and Edgeware Branches) from Waterloo to Hampstead! Southbank, the Strand, the bit below the British Museum, Bloomsbury, Regent’s Park, Belsize Park and South End Green, Hampstead and the Heath.

Just about smack in the middle of this cloud or scatter or Underground continuation lies the London Zoo. It’s on the north side of Regent’s Park. This is, of course, the park where one of the best scenes in modernist literature takes place, the bit when Peter Walsh walks past Septimus and Rezia and both recognizes and utterly misrecognizes the scene that he’s seeing:

“But I am so unhappy, Septimus,” said Rezia trying to make him sit down.

The millions lamented; for ages they had sorrowed. He would turn round, he would tell them in a few moments, only a few moments more, of this relief, of this joy, of this astonishing revelation—

“The time, Septimus,” Rezia repeated. “What is the time?”

He was talking, he was starting, this man must notice him. He was looking at them.

“I will tell you the time,” said Septimus, very slowly, very drowsily, smiling mysteriously. As he sat smiling at the dead man in the grey suit the quarter struck—the quarter to twelve.

And that is being young, Peter Walsh thought as he passed them. To be having an awful scene—the poor girl looked absolutely desperate—in the middle of the morning. But what was it about, he wondered, what had the young man in the overcoat been saying to her to make her look like that; what awful fix had they got themselves into, both to look so desperate as that on a fine summer morning? The amusing thing about coming back to England, after five years, was the way it made, anyhow the first days, things stand out as if one had never seen them before; lovers squabbling under a tree; the domestic family life of the parks. Never had he seen London look so enchanting—the softness of the distances; the richness; the greenness; the civilisation, after India, he thought, strolling across the grass.

Jesus! Amazing! He’s goes on to do the 1918-1923 bit. Go read it for yourself. What a brilliant woman she was. Anyway, I was Septimusy a lot recently, despite not having had my buddy blown up in front of me, but I’m feeling a lot better now. And so we went to the Zoo today, a fine fine day, but I’m a little short on snaps because, don’t know, nothing was really doing it for me in the clique clique sort of way. And I guess I was having enough fun with my daughter that I wasn’t reaching for the Nikon every thirty seconds. Photoessay without pictures – there’s a concept! More later…

Here’s another picture of that canal with which I started the post.

It’s the Regent’s Canal, built during the early nineteenth century like almost all canals, and now (or latterly anyway) seems to be mostly something along which to build posh condo complexes in Camden town. The Zoo abuts the canal, which gives it all a bit of an inland island sort of feel.

I’ve been starting to think more and more about the fact that so many leisure areas / tourist attractions seem to descend in terms of layout and design from some sort of general “pleasure garden” sort of place from the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Worth looking into a bit, but there’s a way that all of these things, Disney World and the London Zoo and Central Park and, I don’t know, lots of other things have the same phenotype, carry some basic layout principles deep in their DNA. More to come, when I’ve got more to say on the topic.

I’m starting to recognize distinctively English florascapes as such. I am very sensitive to such things. I am absolutely positive that if you blindfolded me and dropped me in the middle of the woods in Northern NJ, I’d know instantly just where I was, from the trees and the plants and the skyshape and, I don’t know, the color of the dirt and the low roar of I-80 somewhere in the background. London, or the thing underneath London that pushes its way up through the city wherever it is allowed to, I’m just starting to see and sense.

Yeah, Jesus – fortunately this isn’t in the zoo itself. I guess I could have taken some pictures of animals, huh? We didn’t really look at all that many. One of the best things about having a zoo membership is that you don’t really feel any pressure to see much of anything. Saw the gorrilas, the penguins, some bearded pigs, and the giraffes, yes, but mostly played in the playgrounds and rode the carrousels and ate a halfassed pizza in the cafe (should have gotten the hotdog outside. Always get hotdogs at zoos! It’s like one of the fundamental rules of life!)

But here’s a brand new Foxton’s estate agent office in Camden Town. Not sure exactly when it was completed, but we think the last few months, as my wife didn’t recognize it from the last time she was at the zoo. And it seems to be the last and best of its breed. A full espresso bar, wall-to-wall plasma screens scrolling available properties, and an utterly ridiculous color-scheme.

The truth of the boom somehow appears most vividly in the last things that it spawns, the things that it makes that are born obsolete and obscene in their obsoleteness. You can imagine this branch office closing a few months after it opens. The color scheme will seem even more garish, more tacky, as the next few months pass.

Ah that’s better. We had a stroller-sleeping child on our hands, so we stopped at a pub for a half-hour. I am befuddled, still, by the kid-in-the-pub thing. Sometimes it’s fine – some of them are like day-care centers on Sunday afternoons. Walk into another with a sleeping child and you’ll be asked to leave before you even clear the door. We sat outside at this one, which clearly wasn’t for kids. (Hmmm… The Spread Eagle... I guess not, eh?)

Bits of Camden Town are awful reminders of the worst bits of the West Village in New York. But other bits – just like the best bits of the West Village – are lovely. This part, the Parkway part, is AOK. But soon, as is wont to happen on Sunday afternoons, it was time to go home.

I’m shitting myself about work this week. Not a nice week at all. I should have spent the weekend, part of it, working, but I did the parks and zoos and lunches instead. I will wake at 6 AM tomorrow, I will try to make every minute count. I promise! I promise!

There was a sign by the gorilla house in the zoo that described a day in the life of the gorilla, and ended with (approximately) Snacking, wandering around with friends, taking rests in the grass. Wouldn’t you love to be a gorilla… at least if it weren’t for the difficulty of finding food and the possibility of being killed by a poacher? Hmm. Maybe. I’d settle for being one of my cats. At least I think I would. Cats don’t know the sadness of Sunday afternoons. Unless, as I suspect, having spent my whole life with cats, it’s sort of always like that for them, just not in a work-related way…. This is my prized Brooklyn stray who knows no father but me. What do you think? Does she look anxious?

Ah, but there’s a post that I really want to and have to write very soon about Gerhard Richter, a fabulous set of things that you can see here, and a few other things. Among those things, I am going to write about what it means for GR to rub out and deface personal images, pictures of his family, what the difference is between rubbing them out and thematically distorting them, and lots else. Coming soon! Too big to write quickly!

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 1, 2009 at 9:13 pm

Posted in london, photoessay

credit crunch ulysses

with 3 comments

the ninth most emblematic webphoto of hackney

From the TLS review of Iain Sinclair’s Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire:

In an interview with a local free sheet, the Hackney Citizen, Sinclair mentioned that this book was originally meant to be a novel, a sort of Hackney Ulysses, prophetically structured around the theme of creeping debt and taking place over a single weekend. But the notion “was entirely negative . . . and I didn’t want really want to write on that depressing note”.

I will buy the book tomorrow, despite the fact that a) my wife yelled at me today for the sheer number of Amazon boxes that have been dropping through our mailslot this week and b) I yell at myself nightly for not reading any – any! – of the books that I so frequently buy. 480 pages – at the rate I read lately, if I came at it singlemindedly I might finish it just before the start of the 2012 Olympic Games.

I like the start of the review, too:

Writing in the TLS in November 1950, Julian Maclaren-Ross dismissed Roland Camberton, a London novelist who had settled into Maclaren-Ross’s Soho bohemia, as “devoid of any narrative gift”. A year later, the TLS was kinder to Camberton’s second novel, Rain on the Pavements, a loosely fictionalized account of the writer’s native Hackney. At the time, the London borough retained a strong Jewish identity – one from which Camberton, raised as an orthodox Jew (born Henry Cohen), had long been trying to escape. Julian Symons described this return to the novelist’s home territory as “a book of considerable charm”. But Camberton’s second novel was his last. As far as the literary world was concerned, he disappeared.

Camberton’s curtailed, mysterious literary life story might have been drawn up to Iain Sinclair’s specifications. Sinclair’s output and energy take up a lot more shelf space but, as the editor of London: City of disappearances, the co-author of Rodinsky’s Room, a quest for a missing East End cabbalist, and the creator of a distinctive oeuvre devoted to the vestigial, he naturally sees the vanishing Camberton as a kindred spirit. There is evidence, too, of a shared passion for the everyday details of urban life. Sinclair takes a passage from Rain on the Pavements as his own “statement of intent”:

“It was necessary to know every alley, every cul-de-sac, every arch, every passageway; every school, every hospital, every church, every synagogue; every police station, every post office, every labour exchange, every lavatory; every curious shop name, every kids’ gang, every hiding place, every muttering old man . . . . In fact everything; and having got to know everything, they had to hold this information firmly, to keep abreast of change, to locate the new position of beggars, newsboys, hawkers, street shows, gypsies, political meetings.”

This way of looking at the world, of combining attention to detail with Casaubon-like fantasies of completeness, has long been Sinclair’s favoured mode.

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 1, 2009 at 12:08 am

Posted in crisis, london, novel

checkup checklist

with 2 comments

another sunny day in blighty

Man alive! The manicness! There are good, good reasons. Time’s a-getting short. But still. Let’s check the stats:

  • Drinking: Way way down
  • Smoking: Way way up
  • Writing: Up, especially today – 1200 words of boring review at Southbank Centre on eee, another 600 tonight.
  • Reading: Same, nil, except for LRB (see below)
  • Paper Marking: lots, but still not done
  • Abortive Blog Posts: Up, up. Two huge ones perking in the pot. And you’ve seen how many actually made it on to the site lately, so… But these are legitimate, old school AWP posts. So, you know, likely they’ll not be posted.
  • Anxiety: moderate, moderate to low, spiking at times
  • Loneliness: high – things get bungled and there’s no one to hang out with. I could see a movie or something I guess with my night out. London!
  • Crosswords: Frumpy non-participation, nil
  • Bothering people with dark depressive angst, kitchen table conversations of a certain sort and the like: still low, gott sei danke, though I’ve been a bit grumpy with all the grading to do.
  • Moments spent regarding the London Eye under the the heavy lightness of England and with the soft shuffle of freepaper rustling through my ear canals? Some, grindlingly happy ones at that, makes life worth living, never enough per the malign logic of such things, see the PoS etc.
  • Bolãno envy: slightly higher today after reading Michael Wood’s review in the LRB

I figure putting this stuff on display might somehow be instructive or edifying or at least comforting (by christ at least I am not like him) for someone…. And it’s a smidgen, just a smidgen therapeutic for me, or so I tell myself. But I guess I’ve blown the whole “under my own name” practice run.

et tu brute?!?!?!

I was going to make a resolution, but it seems rather absurd at this point. (There, I made it quietly… You can guess if you like…) If I go to bed now, I can get up and work some before the start of the day.

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 26, 2009 at 12:39 am

Posted in anxiety, london, me

ridge running in north london

with 10 comments

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.

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 22, 2009 at 12:49 am

Posted in london, photoessay