Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Is the Melting Pot Broken?

The cultural melting pot is, of course, an American idea...but it is not without relevance to the British situation. As I've pointed out, one of the most striking things about London, to me, is the the Amazing multi-cultural patchwork that makes up this city- so much so that it seems that the one language not heard very often is English.

That is why the headlines in this morning's Times were so unsettling:

Lessons in hate found at leading mosques

Books calling for the beheading of lapsed Muslims, ordering women to remain indoors and forbidding interfaith marriage are being sold inside some of Britain’s leading mosques, according to research seen by The Times...
Extremist literature, including passages supporting the stoning of adulterers and waging violent jihad, was also found on sale at many other mosques regarded as mainstream institutions.

One of the researchers pointed out that while most books didn't make explicit calls for violence, they served to foster "a climate of intolerance and contempt for nonMuslims that could be exploited by violent jihadists".

In a country which has suffered at the hands of British-Born jihadists, most notably in the London Tube Bombings of July 7, 2005 in which 52 innocent people were slaughtered while commuting across the city, this is a serious issue.

The fact that such killers have been bred here in the very heart of Western Civilization, and the evidence that this is not some subterranean phenomenon but rather something much closer to the mainstream of the culture, is something which must be discussed, diagnosed and reversed- this is important, not only to the United Kingdom, but also to us at home.

My worry is that, because of the demands of political correctness on the left and the vested interests of the Oil aristocracy on the right (not to mention a basic level of sheer incompetence on the part of the current American administration) this issue will remain unexamined and undiscussed except by those least qualified to do so.

London Journey: Interlude

October 27, 2007 Notes On Everyday Life

While London is an exciting city, it is also, for the time being, home to Bobbi, Izzy and me…and so, alongside the historical, the international, and the artistic beauties, we exist, going through the mundane chores and routines that compose daily life.

We take the tube around the city. While many complain that this system is antiquated, out of date, expensive and inconvenient…I must say that, coming from a land where we have bungled public transportation (everywhere, perhaps, but Boston and New York), the existence of the tube trains is something we are quite thankful for.
While we love British life, and try to steer clear of too much American culture, there are a few imports which are QUITE welcome…

...yes, that IS a Krispy Kream Donut Shop!

When we are not visiting some historical site, or medical shop of horrors, we often find fun simply walking the streets.

These, of course, are full of their own attractions…

which, if we ARE in a hurry, can prove damned obtrusive! At least, to some of us.

Last weekend, we visited that great British Institution….Harrod’s Department store.

Outside of Harrods you will find another great institution….the animal rights protestors. Good thing I already HAVE a nice furry Russian Hat.

Many people have inquired about Izzy the cat- wondering how she has settled in and if she misses her fellow felines: Buffy and Fluffy. The answer is that she is settling in just fine, thank you very much, and no, she doesn’t much give a damn that there are no other cats here. In fact, I think she is quite happy to be an only cat again. She has a big bathtub to sit in (empty, of course) and windows to look out…there are other cats in the neighborhood, to whom Izzy directs a transatlantic sneer.

The other question we are often asked by friends and relatives at home in the States is: Did you ever solve your coffee problem? Readers of this blog will note that in the land that gave us Jersey cows- cream for coffee is not to be had anywhere. Much MORE unfortunately, the most common way to drink coffee here is to prepare a cup of instant.

It is possible, of course, to get coffee drinks that are quite good- latt├ęs, espressos, etc…but a real, honest to god cup of coffee is a rare find. The British call this “filter coffee” and they make it very badly.

So…what’s a couple o Yanks’ to do?

We tried instant- too sour.

We tried going out for lattes- too expensive.

So finally we came upon the perfect solution…..

Well, really, it was the ONLY thing to do….

And THAT, my friends, is how Britannia continues, despite her somewhat reduced circumstances, to have her way with the world...because she offers freedom and choice, and yet does so in such a fashion that it becomes inevitable that you shall come 'round to her way of thinking in the end.


Monday, October 29, 2007

London Journey: Part Sixteen

October 14, 2007 Chelsea & The Old Brompton Cemetery

Halloween is approaching, but not really so that you would notice it. Certain pubs are advertising “fancy dress balls” on the night. The Tower of London is offering after dark ghost tours, and certain party shops are crammed with decorations. I think I’ve passed one house with a pumpkin (although they are for sale in the supermarkets.)

I don’t really know what position Halloween occupies in the British Isles, or how it is celebrated in the United Kingdom. I have to say that it feels very much like an American import…but I could be wrong.

Bobbi and I discovered the Old Brompton Cemetery almost by chance while we were walking from our flat to the Chelsea Embankment

This cemetery is one of the great Victorian burial grounds which ornament the outskirts of the metropolis. The most famous of all, of course, is Highgate Cemetery, setting for certain scenes in Dracula, and known in the 1970s for the scandal of the Highgate Vampire—Russell of NYCity Stories took in Highgate, and I suggest a visit to his blog if you want to learn more about this place.

Brompton is a less infamous, but is still a massive, and (forgive the pun) hauntingly beautiful cemetery.

I have to say, however, that for all the talking in the guide books about London’s claim to being “the most haunted city in the world”- the overwhelming feeling in Brompton is not one of supernatural menace, despite the incredibly gothic decorations of the mausoleums, crypts and tombstones, but rather one of extreme peace.

The cemetery is filled with wandering paths, and it is easy to stroll up and down the rows of monuments for hours. (An interesting fact, which I learned from Wikipedia, is that Beatrix Potter lived near Brompton, and that many of the names of her characters- Nutkin, McGregor, etc. all originated on the tombstones she saw here.)

Because I was so longing for the chill of Halloween, I tried my damnedest to make the place feel creepy, but I just couldn’t do it. The scenery was appropriate....

and the soot-black crows posed very obligingly on the tombstones….

but despite everyone’s best efforts, I could not summon up a single goose pimple here-

I never felt like anyone was watching me from beyond,

nor felt the icy hands of death clutching at my coat…

….maybe it was the pigeons.

…or the squirrels?

We continued our walk down to Chelsea. I was very anxious to see this part of town. The Movie A Man for All Seasons (the version with Paul Scoffield and Orson Wells, NOT the modern remake with Charlton Hesston) has always been near the very top of my list of favorites.

The open credits of the film run over some beautiful photography, representing the river Thames as it winds through rural farms, fields, and marshlands toward Sir Thomas Moore’s home in Chelsea. The river landscape is dominated by water rushes, and aquatic birds...just as it must have been in the 1500s, during the reign of Henry VIII.

Of course, Chelsea is now a part of the greater metropolis of London, and without street signs, it would be very hard for a stranger to know when he had entered the borough. Still, I was quite keen to see what had become of Thomas Moore’s river bank, and when I learned that there was a stature of him near the sight of his home, I knew I had to go down and see it..

Chelsea is an amazing place, and is chock full of the little blue circles that indicate buildings of historical significance. Long after Moore’s time, the borough became a mecca for artists and writers.

A stature of James Whistler (looking a little less grim than his Mother) gazes out over the Thames.

And houseboats moored at the bank bespeak of an enchanting way of life

Double Decker’s cross the Battersea Bridge- drawing the eye of the observer to the fact that the River’s face is far different that the one Moore knew.

Or perhaps not….after all, in some sense, he still here.

Monday, October 22, 2007

London Journey: Part Fifteen

October 10, 2007 The London Zoo & Regent’s Park

Walking through Regent’s Park, it is easy to see where Disney must have gotten ideas for the landscaping around Cinderella’s Castle; for the Magic Kingdom is, in many places, simply an idealized version of the United Kingdom (just as in other places, it is an idealized version of the Good Ole U.S.of A.)

Narrow streets lined with wrought iron fences climb over gently arching bridges which span narrow streams. Willows and other trees lean into the scene, and small lakes with tiny islands lay ready to be explored.

Regent’s Park is named, if I remember correctly, for the son of King George the Third. In 1810, the Prince of Wales was created Prince Regent upon the occasion of his father’s decent into madness. The extravagant prince spent great sums of money on art and architecture- it drove the politicians of the day insane, but London of today has a lot to thank him for.

While this park is fit for a prince, and in places seems incredibly formal to American eyes, it is worth noting that, in his London: A Short History, A.N. Wilson writes:
The London parks in the nineteenth century reflected the dawnings of democracy. As more and more people crowded into the metropolis, they felt ever more keenly the need for the “lungs” provided by the parks. As well as places to stroll, or hear music, the London Parks become the people’s gardens.

Perhaps that is part of, maybe the greatest part of, the unconscious genius of England…that, unlike other nations, where beauty fit for princes was torn from royal grasp by violent and bloody revolutions, leaving great rifts in the fabric of history and society, the slow and stately progression English history allowed these parks to become the shared natural property of both the people AND their monarchs…their joint birthright, rather than the spoils of war.

It is in the northeast corner of Regent’s Park that one finds the London Zoo. Founded originally by the London Zoological Society in the early 1800s, this zoo was one of the first in the world whose mission was the study of animal life, rather than the mere exhibition of it. As time has gone on, the zoo has modified its mission from one of study to one of study and conservation, and it has continually renewed itself.

One of the first areas we entered was the Reptile House. And yes, it does look familiar: this is where young Harry Potter first learned he could talk to snakes, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone (better known here by it’s original British title: the Philosopher’s Stone). Inside the house is a picture of young Daniel Radcliff and the Python to commemorate the fact.

In Harry Potter, both Dudley and Uncle Vernon bang on the glass in a vain attempt to make the Giant Python move…but Bobbi and I had no such problems….the very first specimen we came upon was the deadly black mamba. (He’s green, actually, but the inside of his mouth is, apparently, as black as the death he brings.)

This fellow was quite the most active snake I’ve ever seen in captivity, and while we watched him, he watched us, slithering over all the branches of the tree in his cage and testing the glass.

Bobbi told me that, in Africa, one village was particularly welcoming of the mosquito spray used by members of her school. Not only did it drive of disease carrying insects, but it also made the black mamba that lived in the rafters of one of the huts move on, too. It is difficult not to ascribe evil intent to poisonous snakes…and I would have been very glad to see the back of this fellow myself!

The rest of the reptile house was fun, full of snakes of every sort, lizards, frogs, turtles, tortoises, and toads, but I have to admit that I was a LITTLE insulted by the fact that the Zoological authorities decided to decorate the Texas Sidewinder’s cage with sand, tumble weeds, barbed-wire, and litter: specifically an empty bottle of bud and a pack of Marlboro’s!

The enclosures at the London zoo are quite large….and most of the animals have much room in which to roam. But one of the neatest things about the London Zoo is the fact that, in many instances, you are allowed to enter the enclosures WITH the animals.

Many of the exhibits allow visitors to enter large enclosures where birds, butterflies or monkeys roam freely above and around you. The monkey’s, I thought, were particularly fun….it’s difficult to tell from the pictures, but this is not trick photography, we really are standing as close to the little guys as it looks.

Perhaps there are zoos in the United States which also allow this approach, but it is difficult for me to imagine in working in our litigious society. The minute some fat little brat from New Jersey stuck his finger in a monkey’s eye and got bit for his trouble…the parents would hire an army of lawyers to sue the zoo for allowing their little monster to get too close to the animals.

The trouble is not all on one side either, Bobbi and I watched gleefully as the little tamarin pictured at right , left his enclosure and waited near the edge of the airlock separating the animals from the outside world. He watched and waited very carefully to judge the entrance time of the next human visitors. At the last minute before making good his escape, however, he was spotted by a keeper who shuuushed him back into his tree.

The aviary is another place where one can get very close to the exhibit. These peacocks allowed us to get very close before they exploded into flight, which scared everybody equally!

The Lion’s cages have been re-done since the zoo’s Victorian Heyday. This is very good for the Lions, but there is still a nod to the old architecture of the place in the fact that the kept the old carved signs. The place which was, to Bobbi and I, the most reminiscent of the nineteenth century was the giraffe stables with their beautifully arched giraffe-sized stable doors and hardwood floors.

The other animals were fun to see, the pig was particularly pleasant.

The penguins were popular (particularly with squealing teenage girls, so we didn’t hang around long).

and the Dung Beatles were delightful (at least my little Dr. Awful-tologyst enjoyed them!)

The question of zoos is one that can be hotly debated. Are they jail cells, confining animals which should be allowed free reign in their natural kingdoms?

Or do they, instead, play an important role in the conservation of species which are otherwise under grave threat from extinction?

The answer is probably a bit of both. But I think that, until we all realize the danger in the clouds which hover over the natural world, zoos (while they may resemble jails) play a vital role in bringing people closer to the animal kingdom…it is perhaps in this way, that we, the people, will learn how to control the most dangerous animal of all….

Sunday, October 21, 2007


We have Halloween over here...more than a few stores are selling costumes and spiders and pirate stuff....and it's certainly feeling Halloweeny here in London...we have a giant half moon soaring over the city, and leaves are crunching delightfully underfoot.

It is London, of course, so the place is full of neo-gothic churches and old graveyards....but somehow, the REAL place for Halloween is, and probably always will be not OLDE ENGLAND, but NEW ENGLAND. After all, not far down the Hudson from Vermont, Ichabod Crane was chased by the headless horseman and displaced Puritan settlers were convinced that the devil lurked in the dark forests of Massachusetts.

So, while I'm having a great fun here, I have to saw, I'm really missing the crisp air of a New England fall, and of course, I'm really missing the chill up the spine that comes with a New England Halloween.

So, imagine my pleasure when I stopped in to Gourmet Knitting Disaster and found that Steve, Kate's Better Half (her description, not mine) has started a new blog entitled "Homemade Halloween" detailing how he built "THE DRAGON" in the back yard. This dragon has helped to Haunt the Haunted Forest in Williston for years, but I've always been proud of the fact that it started off it's life of seasonal menace in MY backyard.

Soooo...if you want to learn how to build a monster, visit Steve's Homemade Halloween! It's great fun!