Wednesday, September 23, 2009

going places

This afternoon (*) I took the tube to Oxford. Those who know London a bit might be surprised to hear that. Oxford is an hour and a half from London, and there is no tunnel connecting the two cities, no tube through which the cognominal trains could run. The Oxford Tube is no underground. It is instead a frequent bus service without a schedule but short waits and quick trips. No reservation is needed and the fare doesn’t change by the hour.

In front of the Shepherd's Bush Hilton, which trades under a different name because Shepherd's Bush was too far from fashionable when the hotel was built there, I waited for the bus, and before I could finish even one page in the book I was carrying to help pass time, it arrived. I hopped on, paid a modest amount and was on my way.

I finished my book (and will hopefully find time sometime for a few paragraphs on the brilliant Buddha of Suburbia), tested the wireless, spooked a friend on Skype but found myself abandoned by all the others, and had an assessment of the political situation in Germany (one week away from a general election) nearly put me to sleep. It seemed that years ago, when I still paid for them, the articles in the Economist were much more exciting. When I happened to stroll across Economist Plaza earlier in the day, it occurred to me that the magazine is in danger of following the lead of its headquarters, modest 1970s office towers that look shabby and neglected despite the optimistic red color scheme.

There are surely 1970s office towers in Oxford. Such atrocities are universal. But what I saw after climbing down from the top deck of the bus was a narrow cobbled street lined with quaint limestone buildings, little, cute and eternal. Oxford is pretty, but it's also small and small-townish. It's in a different country from London, and orienting myself was difficult at first. I went into three different wrong directions before figuring out where to go to find the college I was staying at.

The college, named after St. Catherine, is not what one associates with Oxford. It dates from the 1960s. As most buildings were erected just before the millennium, the visual impact was not as dire as it could have been, but there was no ivy, no warmth, no stones or curves. Concrete and some glass were resolutely stacked at right angles. Inside, clinical austerity dominated, with the white of the cinderblock walls brutally magnified by dozens of violent halogen lights.

I entered my room and instantly time-traveled to an unspecified parallel past. In college I lived in a much warmer place and in graduate school in one much crummier, but this was clearly a dorm room. I felt transported back to the days when accommodation was so temporary that any sort of personal touch would have been wasted. White walls with no pictures but hollow echoes, empty cupboards, and a desk with a lamp as its only decoration.

In my weaker moments, I think back fondly of my student days. With no responsibilities and no structure, the days were shaped by my scientific curiosity and my social desires. Life was good, but it was also just a precursor to something better, something longer lasting and more gratifying. Despite graduating more than four years ago, I'm still transitioning. The workshop here in Oxford is designed to give me a better idea of my options based on my talents and my work style preferences. I want to find my destination in life, something infinitely more difficult than picking a stop on the tube map.

(*) It's Tuesday now. As my little Eee doesn’t know yet how to connect to WPA2-Enterprise-encrypted wireless networks, I couldn’t publish this post when I wrote it. But the story, which unfolded on Sunday, still holds.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

goodbye hello

The great hall of St. Pancras has become a major landmark of London. It helps that it is the first glimpse the thousands arriving each day from Paris or Brussels, to the tune of one train per hour, get. It helps even more than the station was immoderately but wonderfully restored a year ago when Eurostar services switched to here from Waterloo after new high-speed tracks were laid.

I'm sitting in a coffee shop in St. Pancras, just opposite the arrivals doors. In twenty minutes, my dad should be sauntering through these doors, after enjoying the first fast train ride in his life. He's coming over from Paris where he worked last week. There's still some time.

I open the The London Paper that I picked up outside the Science Museum on my way to the tube stop and get all nostalgic. The daily is one of three that are handed out citywide and free each day to commuters, but today I hold their last issue in my hands. The paper's folding because you can apparently not make money by not charging.

Before I read the last issue, dripping wet with the staff's self-pity and sense of betrayed entitlement oozing from each page, I tune my iPod to Chris Anderson's Free, an audio book that I downloaded, quite fittingly for free, from its home at Wired magazine. In chapter after chapter, the case is made that free is the new black, that soon companies will give all their products away for nothing and turn a tidy profit. I am not convinced by the arguments, and even less so by the audio book. I prefer to read.

What I have is The London Paper. I'm the first to admit that its demise is no cultural loss. Topics for articles were chosen from a narrow range, the writing was often poor, and the focus on celebrities, shopping and fashion didn't appeal to me. But browsing through its smartly colored and cleanly laid-out pages after a long day of work was curiously soothing. No brain was required for reading – or even for solving the easy sudoku. There were plenty of photos, and most showed our great city. It was like having a hundred local TV stations on your lap, each page a zap away from the next. And with time, the publication grew on me.

On Monday, there will be no more London Paper. Nevertheless, I won't miss it, at least for a while. On Sunday I'm going to Oxford for a workshop of two days. On Wednesday, I'll fly to Syria on vacation. This might thus be the last post in a while, but even though it's free, this blog will continue. Of this you can rest assured.

The doors in front of me open. Throngs of suits and backpacks spill into freedom. Worn-out businessmen and enthusiastic tourists are released from the confines of the train. In the midst of it all, my dad strolls through, his eyes fixed at the canopy of sky-blue steel and glass above. He is clearly impressed and in the right state of mind for London. The weekend can start.

Monday, September 14, 2009


High over the roofs of the city, over most anyway, though dwarfed by the humongous dome capping Saint Paul's just across the river, is the Tate Modern members room, a smart café exclusively for those who pay their dues to the gallery once a year instead of once for each exhibition. It was here that I found myself this afternoon recovering from the foulest of moods.

The weekend should have been splendid. Mom was in town and I had lined up a few things likely to entertain her, but really chosen because I wanted to do them. Yesterday, on a most beautiful and sunny late summer day we set out at Limehouse to explore the Olympic London of the future. The 1908 Olympic stadium used to be five minutes from my apartment in a area now taken over by the BBC. Thus I see the Olympic London of the past almost every day, but I was ignorant of how things were going in East London, how the preparations for the 2012 Olympics were coming along.

Directions for the walk had come from an article initially published in the London Times in early 2006. I should have been suspicious when printing this on account of its age, but wasn't. The walk followed towpaths along canals whose glory rose and fell in line with England's industry and manufacturing. I had blithely assumed that the waterways wouldn't change.

Our expedition started fine. We followed Limehouse Cut through some raw and rotting areas and then through others that had been developed out of their misery into fancy waterside apartments. We passed by a few locks and what used to be a tidal mill. This was my favorite part, strolling on a narrow path hemmed in by the canal on one side and the river that's nothing more than mud at low tide on the other. A rural openness surrounded us, somewhat surreal with the towers of Canary Wharf and the City so near.

When the skeleton of the new Olympic stadium came into view, further progress was doomed. Our tow path disappeared under heaps of trash, debris and barricades, and all signs only pointed away. Go thither, they said, their tails to the stadium. We found a few more canals and a few more towpaths, but all were similarly blocked and there was no way to even modulate the proposed walk to make it work for us. In Stratford, we hopped in a bus back to town, somewhat disappointed but happy with what we had seen so far.

Today was very different. The sun never came out, clouds piled up above the city as if they had nowhere else to go, and it was cold and very windy. The day was jinxed. The morning concert for which we had arrived half an hour early because I had misremembered the start time wasn't music to my ears. Afterwards, we lost our tickets in the stalls and thus couldn't benefit from the free sherry that was served at the end.

I had started the day with one or two things on my mind already, and every turn we took, everything we undertook compounded my gloom. I hated myself for it because I was a horrible companion to my mom, retorting to her questions and comments with a sharp tongue devoid of wit and charm. Mr Grumpy was in town, and I didn't have the means for containing him.

There are quite a few reasons for my dispiritedness, and during the hours spent walking around town, from the public art of Trafalgar Square to the miles of craziness of the Thames Festival, I kept rolling realities and possibilities, options and dead-ends, dreams and restrictions around in my head, and I got nowhere. Curiously, ascending the cathedral of modern art that is the Tate and having tea and a scone triggered an unexpected change of moods. I came to at least one little conclusion, to one decision of immediate impact. It's cliché, but the future happens tomorrow; today is the only day that matters. There was one more concert to go to and a spectacular fireworks display that would gloriously end my mom's forth stay in London. I stashed my worries away in a remote fold of my cortex, not to be retrieved until tomorrow. Finishing the tea, I tried a smile for the first time today, in preparation for the good things yet to come.

Monday, September 07, 2009


I'm still not even halfway through the load of cake I bought Friday afternoon on my way home from work. Tired as I was after an hour of playing indoor football, relentlessly rushing up and down the short wood-paneled floor and desperately gaping for air whenever anyone was kind enough to score a goal or lob the ball into the net separating our pitch from the adjacent climbing wall, I took the bus home and left my bike at Imperial.

On the bus, I alternately cursed my laziness and bewailed my age. When I got bored with this, I opened The Buddha of Suburbia, my latest acquisition at the Oxfam store. The novel's protagonist, a born and raised Englishman of Indian descent, is young, full of dreams but devoid of ambitions, and clueless of his prospects. He observes, with biting wit and a boldness and clarity of language that I haven't seen in print in a long time, his disintegrating family, the misery that is his education, and the friends and romances that sustain him. The book reads almost as if it had been written by Holden Caulfield after a visit to 70s England. It is a total blast. The author, Hanif Kureishi, lives in Shepherd's Bush.

When I got off the bus, at Shepherd's Bush Green, I remembered I needed something to eat. Anger was developing in my guts, a peasants' rebellion fueled by hunger and despair. I bought fresh pasta at the Sainsbury's and tomato-mascarpone sauce that was on sale, and two heavily discounted cakes.

The next day, a leisurely Saturday that didn't start until late because my bed delivered infinitely more comfort than the grim day outside the window promised, would have been my grandmother's eighty-sixth birthday. She passed away two-and-a-half years ago, for no good reason and through no fault of her own. She would have loved to carry on. Her plans and enthusiasm for life were unlimited, so much that she seems alive and near me whenever I close my eyes and remember her.

I had bought the two cakes to celebrate her birthday. Somewhere in the depth of my overflowing kitchen cabinet, I found a few oddly colored candles, twists of blue and white, which I lit after sticking them in the thick chocolate coating of the first cake. The damn thing was so rich I could only manage one small piece for breakfast and another for tea later in the day. My gran would have surely helped me with delight...

On Sunday, I enjoyed a few more small pieces, but now, on Monday night, there's still a bit left of the first cake, and the second remains untouched. I'm not worried, though. On Wednesday, my mom will get here to spend a week in the best city of all, her fourth stay in what has become her favorite holiday haunt. While the excitement of being in London is still running hot in her blood, I'll cut up the second cake, brew some coffee and bring out the last sips of the good tequila that's sadly running out, and we'll have a little celebration. Family is good.

Thursday, September 03, 2009


Quentin Tarentino's movies are events. They only arrive once in a half an eternity (though the pace seems to have picked up lately), and they always serve up something extraordinary, memorable, and positively nuts. Though I'm forever in love with Pulp Fiction, I'm looking forward to each new installment of the Tarentino madness.

Last night I went to see Inglourious Basterds, fighting the urge to paint over the misspelling that can only have been chosen to bypass profanity filters installed on computer in American public libraries. But who am I to ride the high horse? Crippling filters might be installed in the new Shepherd's Bush library that opened this week, financed with my taxes. An investigation into that subject will have to wait a little. For now, it's the movies.

Although Inglourious Basterds can accurately be described as a slasher – there are countless scalpings, stabbings, bodies torn to pieces by bullets, and torturing fingers jabbed deep inside wounded flesh – there is much more to the movie. After all, if it were only for the gore, it wouldn't be a Tarantino. In addition we get smart dialog in three languages, performed by actors to whom these languages are native; historically accurate props and context; multiple plot strands tightly entwisted, and highly entertaining acting.

The movie is set in 1944, a year before the German capitulation to the Allies. At the heart of it, at least according to the title, are a band of bastards, a gang of ruthless killers that profess to be Jews (though there's nothing particularly Jewish about them) and operate deep inside Nazi territory with the sole objective of endings the lives of as many Nazis as possible in as cruel as possible a way. Without the Basterds, there would be no gore in the movie.

Curiously, the Basterds operate in a void. For the first two hours of the movie, they never run, they never hide, and they are never pursued by German forces, though Hitler once throws a fit when he hears from a sole survivor about one of their mass executions. In a way, the Basterds are peripheral to the movie that carries their name.

Towards the end, the Basterds, through no effort of their own, become part of an outrageous conspiracy aimed at killing, in an all-engulfing ball of fire, the top four of the Nazi hierarchy and thus ending the war. The very same plan has been hatched, independently and unbeknown to the Basterds, by the owner of the cinema that will burn with a panicking Nazi party locked up inside.

The owner of the cinema, the secret focal point of the movie, is a Jewish woman who has earlier, in the first set of scenes of the movie set three years before the rest, escaped certain death when an SS patrol ferreted her family from underneath the floorboards of the French farmer hiding them. She made it to Paris, assumed a new identity, and has seen her grief turn to hatred and rage. When fate drops the chance for revenge into her lap, she acts quickly and decisively and all hell breaks loose.

The SS officer that led the patrol three years earlier also finds himself in Paris for the showdown. He is brilliantly acted, speaking German and French with infallible politeness and yet epitomizing evil. With the arrogance of an unchallenged mind, he drives his opponents to give themselves up. He needs no cruelness or violence but might just be the cruelest of all.

For the most part, the movie plays out like an overblown fictionalization of history, certainly over the top but believable in a movie kind of way. The characters make sense within the limitations posed by the plot. However, when the different strands of the movie are pulled together, when the forces unite and all barrels points towards a movie theater in Paris, something strange happens.

Slowly, too slowly for the viewer to realize, the films topples over into the farcical. Scenes stop making sense because logic has been jettisoned. The characters stop reacting to situations in the way the audience has come to expect. Continuity becomes optional and personal motivations slip. When all hell breaks loose, the script comes loose as well, and the movie isn't done justice by the nonsense that substitutes for a conclusion.

The movie is what it is. The first two hours are breathtaking, nauseating, captivating, and immensely enjoyable. The end should have been better left untold. If you're lucky, the extremely graphic violence in the beginning will drive you from your seat by the time the movie loses its bearings. You'd walk away gloriously impressed.