Monday, April 26, 2010

good for age

Project 3 has been completed. I did the marathon on Sunday in less than three hours. The third try did finally give the result I've desired ever since I started running with a goal, and I won't have to tattoo onto my forehead the shameful words I pledged onto myself. After two painful attempts at the same place last year and two years ago, this time all went perfect and I crossed the line in 2:56:24, good enough for tenth place overall and second in my age group. For this, I was rewarded with a rose, a pair of socks for my feet and another sock for my upper body – that's how I interpreted it, anyway. It's a tight-fitting black garment made by the same company that weaved the socks. It came with all sorts of buzz words on the packaging but no explanation of what use it for or when to wear it. It has long sleeves but the word cool is printed all over the box. Would I wear it in hot weather? I haven't resolved this mystery yet.

The race went brilliantly. The weather was perfect – warm and sunny, exactly as I like it. Drawing on the successful 20-mile race I did four weeks ago, I attempted to get a negative split, trying to run the second half faster than the first. It didn't quite work out that way, but at least the first 15 kilometers went according to plan. I started slowly. I started slowly enough not to break a sweat or get out of breath for the first hour. I started so slowly, in fact, that I almost put myself to sleep. One third through the race, at the third water station, I was shocked to find myself slightly off course for a three-hour finish. This realization effectively ended the easy part, and the real race started. I accelerated hard, and for the next twenty kilometers, I was cruising in high gear. It was great fun. I kept passing other runners, steadily making my way from somewhere in the 30s to very near the top ten. My breath was going hard, but my legs were strong, and I was slowly convincing myself that I'd reach my goal. What a difference it was from last year's suffering or the pain in my legs of two years ago! I almost enjoyed it.

About nine kilometers from the end is when my difficulties started. My legs started dragging, and I noticed myself slowing down. But the distance to the finish shrank faster than the time remaining of the 180 minutes, and I never lost my good spirits. How could I with eleven hundred panting runners behind me and none of them catching up? Have I said that it was a brilliant day?

Brilliant it was, but a mystery (besides the black body sock) remains: How come the race went so much better than its two predecessors? Here's a list of the things I've changed from last years, and how they might have contributed.

  • new shoes – I've worn different shoes in every marathon. This year's were less comfortable than the Adistars that I had to retire right before the race because they were completely worn out. The new shoes carried me well but also gave me the very unpleasant feeling of bleeding soles during the last five kilometers and enveloped my toes in enormous blisters. If I walk funny, it's because of them and not because my legs hurt.
  • new socks – Just a few weeks ago, I bought black compression socks that rise all the way to the knee. They might not be the sexiest things you've ever set your eyes on but they give me calves and shins great support and keep my shin splints in check. They're the best things I've ever bought for running.
  • carboloading – I ate like mad the three days before the race and made very sure to consume carbohydrates more than anything else. I basically had pasta twice a day. People say you need to overstock your carbohydrate stores before a long race if you want to avoid hitting the wall before the race is over. People might be right.
  • training – I ran more than 500 kilometers in preparation of this year's marathon – nearly twice as much as last year. I did a lot of base miles but also quite a bit of speedwork later in the season. To get a feeling for longish distances at a fast clip, I ran a half marathon and a 20-mile race, and I could sense myself getting better. The 20-mile race in particular gave me a huge psychological boost because it showed I can run the distance without slowing down. But of course I still refuse to believe that training had anything to do with my good performance. This would go against long tradition and be too painful to live up to in the years to come.

Now that the three-hour barrier is toppled, I have no reason to ever do a marathon again. I have no desire either. Even after three attempts I still haven't found out why anyone would do such nonsense. If nothing else, I expected my effort to pay off with an automatic spot for the London marathon

Non-celebrity, non-elite and non-charity runners can enter the London marathon via a ballot system that raffles off about 20,000 start numbers. The ballot for next year's race begins on Tuesday and closes when 125,000 entries have been received, probably later during the same day. The chances of getting in are consequently slim.

However, there is another category, called Good for Age, that allocates places for runners having achieved a certain time in an earlier marathon. For my age group, this used to be three hours, and it was part of the rationale of shooting for that goal. Now that I've made it, after lots of hard work and salty sweat, I've just found out that the required times have changed and the challenge lowered. Still, I think I'd be foolish not to take my guaranteed spot. As much as I don't like running, the opportunity of being swept forward by tens off thousands is too good to pass on. It might even lead to a new personal best.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday in the park

Parks are among London's most treasured assets. World famous and popular with Londoners and locals alike are the big five: Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens; St. James's Park and Green Park; Richmond Park and Kew Gardens; Regent's Park and Primrose Hill; and Greenwich Park. They form the green lung of the city and are oases for a quick escape from the dust and the noise of the streets.

Then there are the neighborhood parks and greens. Some, like Holland Park and Battersea Park are big and make it into the guidebooks. Others are so small that are all but invisible. They are hard to find on a map, but ambling through town one stumbles upon them all the time.

In general, the park's appeal reflects the prosperity of the area. Shepherd's Bush Green is rather drab and grubby. Parson's Green, in stark contrast, is lush and clean. In the most expensive neighborhoods, the gardens are all private and inaccessible without a resident's key.

Twenty minutes from my house is Eel Brook Common, the closest nice park if you ignore the somewhat creepy Old Brompton Cemetery. The roughly square park is sliced diagonally by a paved walkway lined with benches, on one of which I'm sitting. The triangle of brave early-spring grass facing me is patched with dozens of picnic blankets inhabited by relaxing residents. There are no barbecues; maybe fire is not allowed in the park.

It's evidently still early in the year. The vegetative period has hardly started. Trees are greener from the moss on their trunks and branches than from the leaves, which have just started to come out. Quite a few fruit trees are dusted with a thick snow of white blossoms.

Between two low trees, one green, one white, two shaggy fellows in torn shorts are are setting up a show. They pad the trunks carefully with protective towels and string up a slackline. They entertain a curious audience by falling off the webbing most acrobatically. After half an hour of silent feats of balance, they pack up and, exhausted, walk over to the pub at the corner for a cold beer.

Behind me, two tennis balls pong across taut nets and bounce rhythmically from the concrete surface of the courts and the rackets of the players. A child screams inconsolably in the distance. Nearer by, hordes of happy and excited kids ricochet around a busy playground. The chain-link fence around the play area serves to contain the little whirlwinds and keep the dogs out.

In front of me, three teenagers are playing some sort of orienteering football, threading their dribbles through the maze of blankets. To the left, a father has a hard time explaining the concept of pétanque to his two little daughters. When a third girl arrives, wearing a pink headscarf and a long red dress, the four of them switch to football as well.

The sun shines with the force of early summer, and it's warm enough for t-shirts. The sky is as blue and pristine as it could be, and unmarred by planes or contrails. The cloud of volcanic ash hasn't budged and continues to hang in the air, invisibly. Air traffic remains suspended. Nothing but resident birds and errant Frisbees take to the sky. I said yesterday was a beautiful day. Today is even nicer.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

up in the air

It's a brilliant day; the sun is out in full force. No clouds speckle the deep blue sky, and it is warm. Spring is here to stay. Memories of a long and harsh winter are fading, and the coming of summer seems a real possibility for the first time this year. I'm sitting in a streetside café in Turnham Green, a lovely neighborhood of airy streets lined with eclectic businesses. Among the inevitable blight of estate agents rise the Covent Garden Fishmonger; Theobroma Cacao, the chocolate lounge; an Italian gelateria; and, protected by a huge awning of badly faded indigo, the Andreas Veg company.

Squat buildings of one floor only house the businesses and let the sunshine pass to the street level without effort. The street itself is busy with traffic, but the cars glide by nearly silently and there are few buses and no trucks. It's a world away from the noise and dirt that characterize the victuals market outside the house where I live, and I soak up the peace. On the little round table in front of me is a perfectly drawn macchiato, its cloud of hot milk foam rimmed by the burned sienna of the coffee below. I'm reviving my spirits and stretch my legs until they protrude from the shade cast by the table. I should have worn sandals.

Earlier today, I went for a run, an eleven-kilometer tempo run along the Thames that capped a week of last-minute speedwork. The marathon that my training leads up to will take place next Sunday, and while my preparation has been much better than last year's and my legs are pumped with miles, I have somewhat neglected high-intensity workouts. So this week I went for two half-hour interval sessions in the park and today for a run at better-than-marathon speed. My legs feel the effort, but they're slowly being tickled back to life by the rays of a sun that, as mentioned earlier, is shining brilliantly from a cloudless sky.

The solar glory and the perfect sky are a bit ironic, if you think about it. On Wednesday, Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano on Iceland, started a process that the word erupt does not do justice. Lava broke through the central region of the volcano, only to get solidified almost immediately by the ice of the glacier lying above. Shards of lava were created, glass-like and needle-pointed, violently blasted into the air, and carried away in the atmosphere in a large plume that slowly spread towards the east and south.

To the east and south of Iceland lies the rest of Europe, and the enormous cloud of volcanic ash has grown to cover most of the continent. And while it is invisible from the ground (outside wildly colored sunsets), it wreaks havoc up in the air. The cloud of lava particles can be thought of as a three-dimensional blanket of powerful sandpaper that rasps mercilessly on every solid in its way. It not only strips the paint off airliners, but also shuts down their jet engines, kills most flight instruments and blinds the cockpit's windows. Safe flying becomes impossible.

Late on Thursday, the airspace over the United Kingdom and Skandinavia was thus completely shut down. Similar restrictions were soon imposed on Northern France and all of Germany. Returning from the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., the German Chancellor got as far as Portugal where she is now stuck. Aviation has become impossible, airports are reduced to camps for stranded travelers, and the skies over London are eerily quiet. Not a single plane is visible all day.

The situation forecasts are updated every few hours but never extend by more than a day, which makes planning impossible. I am supposed to fly to Germany on Friday, but if I will is unclear. The volcanic activity shows no signs of abating, and no strong winds are forecast to disperse the disruptive cloud.

But I remain optimistic. It's five days to go; chances are the situation will normalize and air traffic resume. And even if things don't improve, I won't abandon my plans for the race. I have worked too hard over the last four months to throw it all away. There are at least two companies that shuttle buses between London and Dresden.

If worse comes to worse, I'll go on a twenty-hour-long comfort-free transcontinental journey that will recall memories of high school when our class did exactly the same trip in the opposite direction. We all survived, and so will I. For now, there's nothing I can do but enjoy the sun and the most beautiful of this year's days.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

high tech

In the early 1800s, the Leicestershireman Ned Ludd became the leader, whether spiritual or real is impossible to tell, of a group of workers in the nascent industrial age who were dissatisfied with their working and living conditions, the relentlessly declining wages, and the amount of work that was performed by machines. Hoisting effigies of Ned Ludd and stamping their heavy clogs in anger, these disgruntled workers turned their fury into revolt and attacked the machines they saw as the cause of their poor situation. Stop technology lest it makes people obsolete was their creed.

Over the decades, Luddism has come to mean a near-pathological aversion to technological progress, and in that sense, England is full of Luddites. Rural areas revel in authentic historic looks, rickety sash windows are beloved because they look cute, and there is no high-speed rail because constructing a line where there isn’t one would cut through areas of seemingly unspoiled nature, never mind that this nature is already suffering heavily from the partially road traffic-related effects of global warming.

If the first two manifestations of Luddism as enumerated above are understandable from an esthetic point of view, the lack of a modern railroad is utterly incomprehensible. England is, after all, the country that not only invented the steam engine but also had the first public steam railway in operation. George Stephenson built that first commercial engine and followed it four years later with another, an improved version that has since come to be regarded, erroneously, as the first stream locomotive. It combined innovations and design ideas that were adopted as standard by all subsequent manufacturers. It was the year 1829, and the machine was called The Rocket.

The Rocket served for a few short years only; it was more a trailblazer than anything else. But it heralded the advent of fast and affordable transportation and became world-famous for that, a fame that it enjoys to this day. The Rocket now sits, much like a buddha calmly receiving veneration, on a squat pedestal in the main hall of the Science Museum, just down the road from Imperial. It’s a fitting place of rest for an early champion of science and technology, of industry and development.

What is less fitting is that a miserable replica of The Rocket which pitilessly belittles its historical significance has been set up in Kensington Gardens. This full-size toy train, painted bright yellow like Thomas the Tank Engine's friend Molly, runs on tracks not more than 50 meters long, pathetically bouncing back and forth between the buffer stops at either end at speeds that even the most leisurely jogger exceeds. People are invited to go for a ride, and are excited.

And while a yellow stream train is treated as a novelty and admired for its anachronistic cuteness, there is still no high-speed railroad in the entire United Kingdom. 180 years after The Rocket, rail hasn't developed much, and hardly any progress has been made in the entire last century. The Eurostar to Paris and Brussels, a fast train even by European standards, stands out as an oddity. It is wildly successful but hasn't sparked a renaissance of rail transport on the island, however long overdue. The country that gave railroads to the world is criminally blind to their potential.

The emergence of Luddism relied on a surplus of workers slogging on depressed wages, conditions familiar to those working in academia. Tons of students enter graduate programs each year to gain Ph.D.s; the supply of willing applicants from China seems inexhaustible. Many of these students remain in academia after gaining their degree and picking up trimly bounded qualifications, and toil towards a clearly defined goal that is nevertheless unlikely to be achieved: a prestigious faculty position.

Setting my tubes down to do some minipreps, I realized the other day that I was working in a Luddite environment. We have centrifuges, PCR machines, computer-controlled chromatography stations and even a robot to set up crystal trays, but many recurring tasks are manual and painfully brainless. I spent an hour and a half doing 24 minipreps, juggling dozens of miniature tubes and maxing out the benchtop centrifuge in the process. A robot and a qualified technician could have done hundreds of these preps and returned the purified material without much effort in a microtiter plate. This would make the whole department happy, day in, day out.

I got my Ph.D. more than five years ago and I know for a fact that there is no gain of knowledge in minipreps (getting and interpreting the results is another matter altogether). I can do the procedure with my eyes shut. Why am I still wasting my time on them? Is this part of the fascination with science? Not for me. I would like to think about difficult questions or test my dexterity against protein purification or crystal growing protocols. And I would like to give Ned Ludd the boot.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

motorcycle zen

At some point in the past, I heard or read something about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though I can't recall what it was I heard or read. Details haven't stuck. What has stuck is the title; it's hard to purge something so loud and so obviously incongruous from memory once it has taken hold. When I saw the book in the now-defunct Oxfam a while back, I took it without as much as a glance on the content blurb on the back cover. How can a book with such a bizarre title not be good? I didn't know what to expect, though. My bet would have been some outrageous story whose connection with the title is only slowly revealed. I ventured five pounds on fiction, but lost my punt.

The book is non-fiction, and the title is literal, though the philosophic ideas are wrapped in the thick disguise of a gooey travelogue from which they are only cautiously rescued. The narrator and his son are taking an extended road trip on the father's trusty motorcycle. Stops along the way, the half-hours in the sleeping-bag before getting up in the mornings, and calm stretches on the bike become a series of soliloquacious and contemplative interludes that gradually displace the narrative frame. In these interludes, the narrator introduces the reader to his philosophy while coming to terms with his own, highly unorthodox self and the events in his life that made him who he is.

At the time of telling the story, the author is concerned with proper motorcycle maintenance and develops a philosophy, his Zen, that codifies that in philosophical terms. However, in an earlier life, he used to be a renegade academic philosopher and these two identities – skilled craftsman and keen thinker – are ingeniously woven into one, just as the philosophy at the heart of the book tries to mold the left and right cerebral hemispheres into one seamless powerhouse. The philosophy of bike mechanics thus touches on all aspects of life. This literalness takes a bit of the sparkle off the title and ruins the book's chances of running in the greatest-title-ever contest, but that's only a minor flaw. It's certainly a fitting title, well-suited for grabbing attention and honest at that.

I'm two thirds through the book but still not entirely sure where I'm going. There were some powerful early paragraphs, drawn from the author's personal experience as a graduate student in biochemistry (It gets weirder and weirder, doesn't it?), that question the foundations of science, notably the conventions of how hypotheses are generated, how experiments are performed and results are evaluated. It's deep stuff and I'll have to go back to these sections to fully come to terms with them. I should have taken notes as I went along.

Much space and time is invested in a study of the elusive term Quality, which is postulated to be the basic concept underlying all art, science and technology. Quality is reality, according to the book, and perceived and appreciated universally, but I'm still not quite sure I get it. By virtue of the lively writing and the crisp presentation, I progress through the chapters without much pain, but I harbor the fear that I'll have to revisit many earlier parts to make sense of them.

What makes good sense to me and what drove me to write this premature book summary is the concept of Peace of Mind. It is defined as the state of mental quietness and a detaching of the brain from what it is currently occupied with. Peace of Mind is obviously connected, by way of meditation, to the Zen of the title. It is a tool to unlock one's powers when they're stuck in a difficult task, an annoying rut or a temporary dead-end, perceived to be unsurmountable.

Peace of Mind is a prerequisite to taking the proverbial step back and to approaching problems from a fresh vantage point, and it's nothing new. But for me, it sounded convincing for the first time. Sometimes I feel as if I were stuck, and I've realized that my mind is rarely at ease. Maybe the two are connected? My mind might get an hour or two of respite during one of the concerts I go to frequently, but that relaxed feeling doesn't last. Soon I'm back to bombarding myself with all sorts of things that keep me on my toes: work, podcasts on my way in and languages on my way back, books, this blog, unuttered thoughts about the future...

What if I had to take a step back or two to see more clearly what's going on? What if I needed to banish activity from my brain for a while? It wouldn't be easy, that's for sure. When I don't do anything for an hour, I grow restless and tired of inactivity. After all, life is short and there's so much to see and do. How could I justify staring at a blank wall and driving myself to inner silence? But maybe that's exactly what I need to recharge and recover waned enthusiasm and energy. An hour or two won't do any good. Maybe I should go on a road trip myself, drive off into the distance and not look back until I don't remember what it is that I'd be looking back to. But before I end the lease and put my stuff in storage for half a year, I'd finish the book first that put these ideas in my head. There might be more to it.

Friday, April 09, 2010

binary magic

She cocked her head most adorably and, with a voice bursting with disbelief and exhilaration, cried out, "Do you want to see the place where I'm from?"

Of course! When a woman poses this kind of question, things are normally going exceptionally well. The minefield of probing platitudes and meaningless mutter has been safely crossed and we're getting somewhere. We might even be on the way to her place, now that she mentions it. But this was no second date.

I was standing at the reception of the SAF building, slightly out of breath after running over there from my bench. I had to send some samples off for sequencing, and the DHL man comes by at half past three every day. It was 3:28. The envelope was still there, half full with other scientists' work. I stuffed my little bag inside and turned around to head back to the lab to start the last purification of the week, when the curious question was thrown at me from behind the reception desk. The accent was adorable, but the woman the age of my mom.

She wasn't flirting either. No, she had just been made aware of Google's Street View and the urge to share the magic was unsuppressible. Looking at the home of her youth in a dapper neighborhood of Prague, she couldn't keep the joy to herself. "Look," she said with the sparkle of incredulous delight in her eyes, "this was my home. We used to sled down this street in winter."

I could have told her that Street View is years old, eternities even in the fast-paced world of the internet. I could have told her that I've been there and seen that, and that my previous house is still obscured by a red double-decker bus. I could have told her that angry farmers in Austria have just wrecked a Google van with pick-axes. Any of this would have been malicious, but it wouldn't have had an effect.

The receptionist was enraptured by the magic bursting from the screen in front of her. She didn't pay attention to what I said, and in some ways I envied her. The photos transported her back to her childhood, completely. She became a small girl, looking with absolute wonderment at the sparkling lights on the Christmas tree or the colorful kite in the air whose line she was holding despite the better knowledge that sticks and paper don't fly.

Maybe a few decades from now I'll be just the same, bubbling with blistering thrill at the discovery of something profoundly impossible and foisting my delight upon the first person to walk by my desk. Maybe I'll rediscover the magic, but for now I expect everything when I turn my computer on, and if something new amazes me, my reaction is more often than not a jaded, Why has it taken so long.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

last pages

Before the Oxfam closed its doors for good eight days ago, I went over there one last time – to say good-bye to a beloved institution but also to scoop up a final bargain. It was halfway through their last week, and all books were fifty pence a piece. The shelves looked as if they had fallen victim to a band of marauding Mongols who had suddenly discovered the power of the printed word and started pillaging bookstores.

The shelves gaped vacuously, the few remaining books overwhelmed with the task of filling the space. But the beauty of this store – and another reason why I kept coming back again and again – was that the regulars had vastly different tastes. At the end of a busy week, when hundreds of volumes were plucked from the shelves, each exactly matching someone's desires, there were inevitably some left that were just right for me, and always more than I felt comfortable buying.

And so it was on this last visit. I surveyed the plundered premises and quickly secured four stacks of paper: two back-issues of Granta, straight from the last millennium but full of fresh writing; a collection of American travel writing that hadn't been touched by anyone; and The Kingdom by the Sea by Paul Theroux.

I had never read any of Paul Theroux's books or stories, mostly because I couldn't pronounce (or even imagine to pronounce) his name and would always mentally coalesce him and Henry Thoreau. But Theroux easily stands on his own. He has dozens of books to his credit, fiction as well as non-fiction. Most of his non-fiction is travel writing, and most of that revolves around trains.

Paul Theroux is a train nut, but not of the sad kind that sees trains as rolling museums, to be admired for their quaintness and cuteness, elevating narrow-gauge steam trains to ersatz deities. There is no nostalgia in his eyes. For him, trains are the most efficient and modern way of transportation ever devised by man, and he takes them wherever he can. He became famous with The Great Railway Bazaar, an account of a trip on rails from Britain out to Japan and back, and followed it up with the The Old Patagonian Express, the same story told on different lands (the length of the American continent).

The Kingdom by the Sea is a different kind of book. It chronicles a three-month trip the author took clockwise along the coast of the United Kingdom, mostly because after living in London for eleven years he hadn't seen any of the country that the Big Smoke is the capital of. The train is his primary and preferred means of transportation, but as there is no railroad circumnavigating the island of Great Britain and many of the branch lines had already been trimmed by the time he set out, Theroux travels by bus and on foot as well.

By its very nature, the book has stretches of repetitive tedium. All English seaside resorts are pretty much the same: A depressing fun fair sits on a rusty pier jutting deep into grey, choppy waters. The promenade by the sea is lined with chippies and betting shops. Ominous clouds hover above, threating rain at any minute, in July as much as in January. If there weren't more to the story, the book would be unreadable, but there are three ingredients that not only save it but assure its excellence.

Firstly, Paul Theroux isn't interested in sights and tourist features. He travels to talk to people, seeking conversations with everyone he meets and subsequently enlivening his writing with much authentic dialogue. He names every person he interacts with, and while these names are arbitrary ("It was one of my small talents to be able to tell a person's name by looking at him," he says in the first chapter.), they give the book an air of intimacy.

Secondly, current events provide a compelling background to the story. The trip was taken in 1982 when the UK was mired in a profound economic crisis. The decline of heavy industry, ship-building and fishing can be felt in every village and town on the way. The Troubles provide a fascinating context for the chapters on Northern Ireland, which are the most captivating of the book. The defeat of Argentina on the Falkland Islands gives a bit of positive balance to the mood of the nation.

Thirdly, the British coast is more than England and desolate coastal towns. The north west of Scotland, even without Skye or the Hebrides, is rugged and solitary and made for adventures far from the mellowing hand of civilization. The marshes of the southeastern shore are a different world altogether, as are the dignified ancient cities of the north-east.

Traveling with Theroux around Great Britain turns an anonymous writer into a dear acquaintance, almost a friend. Paul laments the ongoing dismantling of the nation's railroads. He is forever amused by the British habit of anthropomorphizing the weather. His keen observations help to turn a country that has been described to death into something novel, interesting and charming.

I read the book with great pleasure and matching impatience. I have lived in London for three years (not eleven) but I haven't left the city much. Theroux describes London as "an independent republic". That's the feeling I get, too. London is like a European Singapore, but without the oppressive rules and heat. It's easy not to leave it, but it's also a loss.

This Easter, I have good friends of mine stay over from Italy. They've been here before, in and around London, and they love to return. Each time they come I have to think a little harder to come up with something to do. The very obvious things – the great museums, the guidebook sights and the happening neighborhoods – aren't new anymore. For tomorrow I rented a car to increase our radius of possibility. If the sun shines, we might go down to the sea. As we're not limited by the railroad tracks, we can pick a place just for the beauty it promises.

Monday, April 05, 2010

sad departure

Over the years I've become a loyal customer of the Gloucester Road Oxfam bookstore. Five minutes from work, it was the perfect lunch break, especially when paired with an epicurean treat from Jakob's next door. I would go ever other week, allowing just enough time for a thorough shake-up of the shelves and a restocking of the staff favourites section. I hardly ever returned empty-handed.

The store was far from a regular charity shop. It restricted itself to books – with a few CDs and videos thrown in for variety – and the books were expertly organized and stocked. The presentation on the shelves was second to no commercial bookseller. What was on the shelves was obviously limited by what the neighbors left on its threshold, but the good people of Kensington are avid and discerning readers, and real treasures popped up every now and then.

The staff were a curious lot; maybe that's to be expected from volunteers. The largest contingent were french speakers, mirroring the ubiquity of that tongue in the borough. Then there were a few old ladies speaking with posh accents and struggling mightily with the electronic till. These were pleasant to deal with, their smiles always radiating charity and preciousness.

One salesperson was different from all the others, shockingly so. He looked as if he had found shelter in the bookstore from the foul weather of the English winter, abandoning his rain-soaked cardboard-box home down the street for the luxury of warmth and dryness. He smelled the vagrant, too, displacing the musty scent of classic literature with his malodor of rough nights out. He was the grumpiest person in the store, but even he sold me books with ease.

The Gloucester Road Oxfam closed its doors for good last week. It didn't come as a surprise; the tragedy had been a while in the making, with prices slashed at the beginning of January and good books going for a pound by March. There was no sign in the door explaining the reasons, and I didn't ask, but a charity shop can not go out of business, can it? Maybe there's a greedy landlord who imagines a higher rent from the luxury poodle grooming salon that might take over the lease.

Whatever succeeds the Oxfam, it will not make up for the loss, and while there are other charity bookshops in town, none is as clean, stylish, rich and rewarding. None is, in other words, as posh as Kensington.