Wednesday, December 21, 2011

three days

Three days to go, and this is the last post before Christmas. Tomorrow I'm flying home to Germany, as is tradition. And as my mom still contents herself with dial-up while my computer doesn't have a modem, I'll be cut off from the world for the week around Christmas. This is good.

Admittedly, it's not immediately good. My departure is less then twelve hours away, and I haven't written a single Christmas email. I cowardly wish I were on Facebook and could just post a Merry Christmas to all my friends on my wall. But I'm not, and I'll have to sit down and crank out the well-wishing prose when I'm done with this post. But when I'm done I'm done, and the computer will stay off after that.

Christmas for me is intensely familial. I don't want to see anyone or talk to anyone or read anything or see anything not related to family. It's the only week of the year to shut down completely and stop the world. Reading this you might say that instead of writing this post, I could have linked to the one I wrote last year, but there's a little twist. Things will feel different this year because it will be the last time they are as they have always been.

With my life on an uncertain, unpredictable and often shifting trajectory through time and space, Christmas in the embrace of my family has been the only constant through the years. I've only missed it twice, when the distance was prohibitive and I had been home not too long before. Both times marked the low points of their respective years. Quite undeniably, something was missing.

Over the course of the last few months, prodded by events outside my control, I have come to the conclusion that life cannot continue like that. The comfort I keep drawing from tradition is hollow. Knowing where to be for Christmas, feeling the love and being able to share, has shut me off from my own life in a way. It has prevented me from making the holiday my own, from creating my own tradition.

As life inexorably progresses, some changes to even the most treasured routines become inevitable. I don't expect to see myself in Germany next Christmas. Next year there will be no family Christmas as I know it but my own, as it will be. It's not because I'm moving on but because I'm growing up, and it's high time for this.

Merry Christmas, all my friends!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

buy me

Christmas is coming up; there's less than ten weeks to go. With my flight home booked as it is, only one weekend, all of two days, remains to be devoted to the most important activity of the festive period. Here in Britain, there's nothing clandestine about the priorities of Advent. Christmas is called Christmas, and not matter whether you're a Muslim or a Mormon, whether you worship the tooth fairy or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you're exhorted to do your patriotic duty of supporting the high street and, by extension, the national economy that threatens to slide back into crisis.

When it comes to rescuing economies, I'm not a good citizen. I don't go out and shop because the economy needs me. In contrast, blasphemy of blasphemies, I think that the economy should work for my benefit, not the other way around, and that if it doesn't do it, it needs changing. But let's not talk revolution quite yet. Let's talk shopping.

There was a time when shopping filled basic needs. Sometimes it still does that. I go to the market to buy apples, kaki fruit and tomatoes because I need energy and vitamins. I buy clothes when what I wear is so ripped that it doesn't protect me from the elements and the eyes of the people I meet from what they don't need to see. Sometime I even buy shoes, though that often develops into a project that even Odysseus wouldn't have taken on. But need is a negligible driving force of commerce these days.

It is telling (and it never fails to crack me up) when high-street stores explain poor results with the weather. There was snow in the run-up to Christmas last year. There was a cold and wet summer this year, and few fall days so hot the Met Office had the lunacy to call them heatwave. The rest of fall was unseasonably warm. All of this served as excuses for slower sales than expected, by John Lewis, New Look, makers of luxury ice cream, and pretty much everyone else.

If people can easily be deterred from shopping, it means that they don't need the things they're being tempted with. Otherwise they would simply catch up when the weather turns more clement. Retailers wouldn't see a difference besides a marginally delayed cash flow. But they are worried, mortally concerned in fact, because they don't meet people's needs. They try to fulfill people's desires but have to compete with other attractions, like a park when the sun's out, a gallery when it rains or home when it's miserable.

Frivolous consumption is s a poor business strategy and explains much of the current misery in the retail sector. The park, the gallery and home are free. Shopping is not. In a time of austerity, who's losing? In London, charity and various pop-up stores have been able to fill most of the space already vacated by failing chains, but outside the capital, the situation is apparently dire. Boarded shopfronts stretch for blocks. Not a pretty sight.

But even after some initial pruning, the scale of retail is staggering. In Germany, all I've ever heard since I started listening, nearly two decades ago, was the plight of retail, the hesitance, even reluctance, of consumers, their unwillingness to part with money in exchange for things they don't need. And yet, the retail sector accounts for 57% of GDP. That's in the country that leads the world in exports. In the UK, the figure is in the 60s, and in the US, closer to three quarters. Who buys all that stuff?

Who will pay for it is another question. Credit cards do the trick if you're happy to pay much more later than you could have saved before, but these days, everyone is talking about cutting back on debt. The British Prime Minister got himself into a bad pickle when it was leaked that the speech he would give the next day would recommend paying off credit card debt pronto.

Mathematically inclined commentators quickly noted that credit card debt currently stands at a sixteenth of GDP and that paying it off over, say, a year, would deprive the economy of that amount of money, basically depressing GDP by 4%. Not a healthy proposition if you barely grow by 2% as it is. I never understood the concept of officially leaking the content of speeches before they were given, but here it paid off. A bad economic blunder was broadcast to the world, but at least it wasn't imprinted on Tory party stationery.

The untouchability of credit card debt makes it look like a classic pyramid scheme. If people withdrew their funds, the system would collapse. If people don't withdraw their funds, i.e. pay back their debt and avoid future interest payments, they might collapse economically themselves. At this point, I can't help go back to an earlier point of this post. Between the economy and the people, who benefits and who serves the other? Without wanting to sound Marxist, shouldn't the economy work for the health and well-being of the people?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

out of work

This morning, like many a Tuesday, I arrived early at Imperial for breakfast with a colleague and friend. We meet at the Library Café when business is still resting, chat, have a coffee and a pastry when the bar opens, and write some. We call it writers' breakfast. This morning, I wanted to turn my recent experience with HR into a little story but my enthusiasm didn't burn hot enough. The café, its doors wide open to the chill of the morning, was so cold that the coffee cooled in minutes and my breath showed in white puffs. After less than an hour, we were out and on our way to the warmth of the lab.

What I had wanted to write about was that last week, I received an email from HR, reminding me that my contract is coming to an end or, as it was put in rather stiff language, that I was "staff at risk of redundancy". I have five months left, but administrative procedures have already been launched to make the end an event. I have never experienced that. When previous jobs had ended, I had left and that was that.

Not so at Imperial. A month and a half ago already, a departmental administrator sent me a leaver's form with the request to fill in my last day, a forwarding address and information on my new position. Back then, the event seemed so far in the future that I had nothing to say at all and ignored the email, but it drove the seriousness of the situation home to me, the inevitability of my departure. I started looking for jobs with increased urgency.

Now came the email from HR, a verbose, multi-paragraphed composition that promised to "start formal consultation" and "investigate thoroughly any opportunities for redeployment". By the second paragraph, my head was hurting, but the email also contained three attachments with the undeniable authority of office-speak. One was the Faculty of Natural Sciences Job Search Information Pack. Under the heading of Job Search Techniques, it includes this gem: "If you feel that you have enjoyed your present position and that it fulfills your needs, you can direct your search to similar positions". Thanks, will do.

The pdf is more than 20 pages long. Against the odds, there's some valuable advice but most of what's written is hollow drivel. Some is outright dangerous, like the recommendation to start a cover letter with the following paragraph: "I wish to apply for the position of [job title] within [organization], and I have enclosed my CV in support of my application. I feel this demonstrates my suitability for this position, and I shall expand on my strengths below." There's no doubt that the more people take this advice, the higher my chances of getting an interview.

I've had a few interviews already and overall, I'm rather optimistic about the next step, but inevitable, as I called it earlier, it certainly is not. Voluntary inevitability would be a better term. If I really wanted to, I could probably stay, even without taking advantage of college redeployment. My boss keeps engineering possible solutions and encourages me to find something related, nearby, but her suggestions have become fewer lately. She knows as much as I do that, for my own benefit and professional development, I have to move on. We both know that there's little for me to gain here.

I can't yet imagine the moment that I swipe my card the last time and say good-bye to College, but I know that there are certain things I won't miss in a hundred years, the aggravations that surround a largely happy work environment. Lately, for example, power cuts have been frequent enough to put a third-world country to shame. Twice, I had long-running computing jobs go down on me because the power went out campus-wide. The cuts are apparently caused by hectic underground work to bring London's infrastructure up to 20th-century standards in the run-up to the Olympics, and they drive me nuts.

What has driven me mad from day one is ass-tight security that keeps all doors electronically locked after six and before eight. Entrance doors should be locked at night, you might say, and I agree, but I doubt the sense in locking the doors between the lab and the office or, get this, between the office and the toilets. There's no point arguing with security, by the way. They have their own way of operating. They've given me access to the sixth floor of a building across campus where I need to use a particular instrument, but not to the building itself. Every time I go there, I have to wait to tailgate in.

A few weeks ago, the main entrance into the library started getting a make-over, though it had always done good and reliable service and never complained. Now, with a blue hoarding blocking the entrance, the only way into the building is through its side doors, big French doors that, in summer, would give the Library Café a pleasantly Mediterranean flair, were they left open. However, their outer door handles were removed when the building was refurbished a few years back, and they remain shut most of the time.

Now that these doors are needed, there's no way for people to open them from the outside and they need to be propped open permanently. And while the person who came up with this solution is in gainful employment in a comfortably heated office somewhere well-hidden, I can't even sit down and write about my end-of-contract tribulations because my fingers would freeze to the keyboard.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

among champions

When I was a kid, from first grade in primary school all the way to university, I was on a chess team, training every week and having games most weekends. Our team was successful and we had a blast as mates, but the activity took so much time out of my life that I abandoned it shortly after leaving home (though I had mentally given it up much before that).

For old time's sake, I hung on to my paraphernalia (board and pieces, clock, a few dozen books), leaving them in a box in my mom's garage that I didn't open for years. When I moved to France, I was formally evicted from the garage. Most possessions I took with me in a bulging Xsara Picasso that I had rented for the occasion, but the chess books had to go. I left the lot to my old club, to kick start their club house library.

Over the last half year, I've rekindled what had been a passion in suspended animation. I discovered the joys of rapid chess, games in length halfway between the mad dash of blitz and the torpor of classic chess, and tournaments where six games can be played in a day and a winner determined. In June, August and October, I made my way up to Golder's Green for mental jousting, but for December, their calendar is blank.

The reason is the London Chess Classic, a grandmaster tournament held at Olympia, just up the road from where I live. There, the world's four best players and another from the top ten plus England's three best players and another from the top 10 duke it out in a curious round-robin of nine participants. Games being played by pairs means that in each of the nine rounds, one of the players has a bye and, innovation by the organizers to rope spectators in, must do co-commentator duties while the others play.

Maybe you don't associate chess with spectators. Maybe you weren't aware that you can watch chess, much like you can watch baseball or pole dancing. But think back a few decades (or watch Genius and Madman, the Bobby Fischer biopic currently on the iPlayer), and you'll see chess as front-page news, chess holding nations enthralled. It must have been a strange time when news anchors debated the relative merits of queen-pawn and king-pawn advances.

As much as I like chess, I'm the first to admit that it's a hardcore niche activity. To the uninitiated, what happens on the board is totally obscure. It's not like football where, aside from offside, everything is clear, and every circle of drunk friends can talk knowledgeably, judge the proceedings and offer opinions, which is what you want to do when watching sports. You also want to cheer for your team. In chess, you can't do that.

The games at Olympia are played in a solemn auditorium in the atmosphere of a freshman physical chemistry class where half the students are in speechless awe of three-dimensional volume-entropy-internal energy graphs and the other half are fast asleep, lost from the first sentence uttered. On the stage, the players make their moves in silence; every breath of a spectator is shushed by his neighbor. A ringing phone will get you thrown out.

I stopped by the auditorium only briefly, right around when the games opened. In a back row, I could hardly see the players' faces and certainly not the boards. Overhead, the ventilation hummed distinctly. A sense of competitive urgency might develop as the clocks wind down or the positions turn decisive, but even then it will be rather muted. No one will cheer or wave flags. In the commentators' room, the spirits fly higher, but I gave it a pass. I hadn't come for the grandmasters anyway.

The grandmasters' tournament, all of four games a day over ten days, is surrounded by a hurrah of associated events, a dozen tournaments of various kinds that are for anyone to enter. The organizers are trying to create and exploit synergies – and give enthusiasts the chance to compete with their idols, though the preposition is used rather loosely. It's the with that lets cyclists ride the course of the Hamburg Cyclassics one day before the pros race it or me run the London Marathon with Emmanuel Mutai.

Going with the bimonthly tradition established in June, I had signed up for the first of two rapidplay tournaments. Walking into East Hall was much like visiting a car show - the buzz of males of a certain age walking about and chatting, their eyes aglow with inexplicable pleasure. The story of my day is quickly told. I played two games rather skillfully but lost both when that was all but impossible. I played two more games rather poorly and lost them as well. The fifth game I sat out and the sixth, finally, I won, though that wasn't an effort to be proud of.

My results if not necessarily my playing disappointed me, and it would have been a dismal day had I not discovered, in the second-hand book sale that accompanied the event, a book that I owned as a kid. Advanced Chess Strategy, translated from the Russian in the East German edition I knew, yellow dust jacket and all, lay there incongrously. With an investment of three quid, I've started rebuilding my library.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

winding down

Out on the terrace is not exactly the most obvious place to hang out with the calendar going inexorably towards December, but it's still unseasonably warm. It's been dry for weeks and the gales that wreaked havoc on the islands off the coast of Scotland last night haven't done much to disturb the peace here. There was some wind this morning but now it's calm. Best of all, the sun is out, though it's hanging quite low in the sky.

The view is stunning, as always. St. Paul's is imposing, rising imperturbably above the increasingly messy protest camp at its feet. It's a spectacular sight from any direction and cause of severe planning restrictions. The number of high-rises that slowly spread outwards from the City is surprising given the views protected by ordinances. On certain lines-of-sight, nothing can be built that might obstruct the mighty cathedral.

Ten miles up the Thames in Richmond Park is a little hill, a knoll, to employ a word that gave me good points in a game of Scrabble the other day, called King Henry VIII's Mound, with a telescope. Point the telescope at the plain in front of you, the obvious view overlooking the river, and you see the plain in front of you. Point it back towards London at a narrow clearing in the trees and you're bound to gape. Out of nowhere, St. Paul's jumps at you, hovering above the city like a mirage, with nothing in the way, rising above the horizon formed by the low wall encircling the mound. This view is part of the soul of London and the telescope free for all.

Nothing can be built between King Henry VIII's Mound and St. Paul's, in front of the cathedral or up to a dome and a half to either side. No one would imagine building something between me and St. Paul's at the moment either. The terrace I'm at is on the fifth floor of Tate Modern, facing the river and the cathedral behind. Leave Tate and walk a few minutes towards Southwark station and you will wonder how permission was ever granted to build the enormous power station that now houses the gallery, but out on the terrace, all you see are the river, the riverfront on the other side and the footbridge that takes you there.

view from Tate Modern

The bridge was built in the run-up to the millennium festivities and like the Millennium Dome – the other highly visible infrastructure project at the time – it came dangerously close to being a complete failure. The bridge opened in June 2000 and earned the moniker Wobbly Bridge during the first two days when those crossing, mostly as part of a walk in support of Save the Children, experienced a noticeable sway. Some felt unwell.

Too late, engineers realized that the minimal lateral vibrations that were part of the design would cause people on the bridge to walk in step, amplifying the motion to intolerable levels. Two days after it opened with great pomp, the bridge was closed for refitting. It didn't open for another two years. Even so, that was much better than the Millennium Dome's immediate fate.

After running a mildly successful exhibition during 2000, the Millennium Dome stood empty for years. It was leased to a developer who initially couldn't figure out what to do with a gigantic events center in the void of North Greenwich. It was off most people's maps and sat there, a spiky white elephant of public spending gone horribly wrong. Somehow it was turned around, and now it's the world's busiest music venue, with frequent knock-out shows. Led Zeppelin's ephemeral reunion in 2009 could have sold a million tickets. Prince played 21 nights in 2007. Michael Jackson was scheduled to play 50 (but that proved too daunting a prospect).

I've never been to The O2, as the Millennium Dome is called these days, but, to bring this post back to where it belongs, I've been on the terrace at Tate Modern many times. It's the best part of the member's room, a café only accessible to those shelling out for an annual membership to Tate. I've been a member pretty much since I moved here. While Tate Modern and Tate Britain are free to visit, the temporary exhibitions cost dearly, but members always go free. When Salvator Dalí came around in summer 2007, I bought a membership and never looked back.

It was a good deal. After four visits, I had recouped my investment, and there are at least eight shows a year in the two London spaces. Sometimes I would go see an exhibition twice. Overall I got so much out of my membership that I was a bit embarrassed at times. I was not so much supporting the museum as taking advantage of it. Here are my favorite exhibitions over the last four years (Tate's online archive helping me remember):

Salvator Dalí ("The difference between me and a surrealist is that I'm a surrealist") got it all started. I didn't expect much of Francis Alÿs but was bowled over by his poetry in everyday actions. Pop Life was a gaudy riot. Rothko's enormous canvases seemed to change color as I watched them. Cildo Mereiles's installations turned the exhibition into an adventure.

Up the river at Tate Britain, the Turner Prize retrospective was fantastic: Anish Kapoor's infinity, moving video art, and the split cow, all you ever need to see of Damian Hirst. From John Everett Millais I learned that there's no end to the meaning a few masterfully painted hands can convey. Richard Long's memories of walks undertaken were huge and subtle at the same time.

My time in London is coming to an end. Whether it's weeks or months, departure is near, and I'm slowing winding down my presence. When my membership came up for renewal this month, I declined. And so it came to pass that this weekend is the last I can spend in the member's room. Earlier, I had a tea and a little salad, but now, with the sun setting but the view still splendid, it's time to say farewell.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


If legend is to be believed, Lady Gaga, who's all the rage these days with juicy outfits and chart-busting mobile-phone commercials, picked up her name when she couldn't get enough of Queen's Radio Ga Ga. She hummed it all the time and it stuck. That's one version. Another says that record company marketing executives came up with the stage name. In either case, it couldn't be more fitting.

Lady Gaga is by all accounts an uncompromising individual, a unique weirdo, one-hundred-percent her own woman. There's no one like her, and she appears totally gaga. But there was someone who in his own time cultivated a similar in-your-face-and-whatcha-gonna-do-about-it attitude, who strutted the world's stages in hilarious kit and sang before enthralled audiences of millions.

I'm of course talking of Freddy Mercury, the frontman of Queen who died exactly twenty years ago today. I discovered Queen as a teenager and quickly bought their untitled debut album and Queen II, two jewels that are still among my most beloved CDs. Over the years, I added to the collection, everything from the 70s ("No Synthesisers!") and Innuendo, their farewell.

Curiously, Queen were most popular in the 80s when their greatest music was behind them. They recorded insipid drivel and vapid rock anthems, but one triumphal stadium tour followed another. They rarely played audiences of fewer than 100,000. Freddy Mercury pranced around the stage in tights and absurd jackets, flaunting his open, free and undiscriminating sexuality. Millions watched, gaped and cheered – at the music and the show, but also at a life lived to the fullest.

Twenty years ago today, Freddy died in his house in London of complications from AIDS. On my way home from work tonight, I stopped by to pay my respects and see how he was being remembered. There was a swelling crowd of 60, many of them young but a also few older characters, some of whom behaved as if they had known him, regaling fascinated audiences with stories from way back when. A good 30 bunches of roses and carnations were piled against the door and many letters and cards. Candles lined the forbidding wall that protects the property, burning stubbornly in the November chill.

Later at home, I put Queen II on the stereo and let it rock. With a glass of whiskey in hand, I searched for relevant memories, but there weren't any. I never saw them live. Freddy had died by the time I started buying CDs. Their music and stories I read are all I have. In the Guardian I found this tribute and in the comments a line that transposes Freddy to today: He was "the original Lady Gaga". Keep yourself alive!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


The British government, a government that I did not vote for, that I have not been allowed to vote for to be precise, a government that doesn't exactly claim to represent my will or even take it into account announced earlier this week it would use the taxes I pay to make mortgages available to those who can't afford them.

I have nothing against paying taxes. I see them as a small personal sacrifice for the greater good, a contribution to a civilized society. I also have no issues with taxation without representation and wouldn't get smelly feet throwing tea into the Thames to protest nonexistent injustice. Instead, I make sure that I vote in Germany every time an election comes my way, getting representation without taxation in the process and fast trains to boot. Paying taxes here is merely involuntary reciprocity. I'm ok with that.

I'm not ok with owning property at all cost. If you till the land under your feet or want to diversify your millions, go ahead and buy, but it doesn't make sense for everyone, especially in these globalized, mobile times. Why would you lock a large proportion of your wealth in an illiquid and immobile asset? And yet, the Prime Minister talks about owning a flat as an experience he wants "everyone in this country" to have.

To this end he proposed earlier this week helping people who can't afford the deposit with a state guarantee, as if the subprime lending crisis in the US had never happened. And as if the Spanish meltdown hadn't happened and unemployment weren't at 20% down there, he dreams of using construction and house price inflation to resurrect the ailing economy.

Property prices have outstripped incomes dramatically over the last decade. There is no way this can continue. People can only pay what they have. At the moment it looks as if a plateau has been reached. Now the Prime Minister wants to encourage the less well-off to join the party in the hope to prop up prices and avoid the inevitable. Rewind five years and transpose five thousand miles to the west. It's not going to be pretty.

If people don't buy, in a country as property-crazy as the UK, with estate agents more of a blight to high streets than betting shops, chicken shacks and off-licences, it is because prices are much too high relative to income. And as long as a fall in property prices is not hailed for making property more affordable but deplored for destroying wealth, this is not going to change.

The UK has to wake up to the fact that people will rent more. As the situation is at the moment, renting is not a pleasant experience. (When I leave London, I will quote renting as one of the forces driving my away.) Tenants live without any security. They can be thrown out with two months' notice on a periodic contract or else be served with rent increases every half year. I can see how a family would be reluctant to turn a flat into their home under these conditions.

Tenant protection has to be ramped up sharply. This is clear but only part of the story. New stock has to be added to the housing market, especially at the lower end. Rents in London are apparently up 12% this year, though I can't say by what method the numbers are compiled. My rent is up 4% over two years. Anyway, Londoners, including those in unfashionable boroughs, now pay £1200 a month on average. With an average job, that's almost impossible to afford.

Boris the Clown, when he ran for the office of Mayor of London, an election I was allowed to participate in, promised to flush the city with affordable housing. Not sure this is what got him elected, but the numbers made for good PR. Mind you, they weren't high enough for everyone to afford an adequate flat, but enough for a lucky few. Fifty thousand said the campaign promise, over the course of four years, twelve-and-a-half thousand per year.

Between last April and this March, 12,870 flats were finished, easily meeting the target. In the last six month, in stark contrast, fewer than 3000 were added and work started on another 56. Is this the grim face of the recession or the bite of budget cuts? In either case, fifty-six is nothing in a city of eight million. It's obvious that neither local nor the national government knows how to use my tax pounds wisely.

Monday, November 21, 2011

living legend

I've just popped a CD into the stereo, a young chap blowing his tunes into the wind. His voice sounds accidental, as if he had chosen song only reluctantly as a vehicle for what he had to say. Nearly 50 years after that record was made, after decades of heavy use and frequent abuse, the voice has nearly disintegrated, deteriorated beyond possibility and yet, it still sounds from stages the world over.

This past weekend, Bob Dylan (you must have guessed) was in town, giving three concerts at the Hammersmith Apollo. The venue is just down the road from where I live, but what welled up inside me was hesitation not fervor. I dig his old tracks, the passionate protest songs that were just as passionately disowned by him as soon as the public took them up as weapons in their fight and embraced him as a hero. I love the ambivalence between him and his songs as much as I love his songs. But there's more than his songs. Dylan is an attitude, a time in history. He is a legend, someone who belongs to his era. I have never seen Dylan live.

I've never felt compelled. From what I've heard and read, the Dylan on tour is different from the Dylan in my mind, far removed from the Dylan on my stereo drawling out A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall in all its existential fear. The song's powerful words are half hidden by an incomprehensible mumble, half exposed by catchy rhythm and melody. How could an old man, battered by the decades, deliver similarly?

But maybe I should see Dylan at least once, in the same way that I'd join the Queen for tea if I had the chance? A click on the right button on Dylan's endless tour schedule took me to a ticket seller (that doesn't deserve mentioning) with all options still there. Seventy quid is not cheap but certainly not outrageous. I kept clicking a few more buttons, on the verge of committing, when the final bill cleared my mind. A Ryanair-like list of extra charges appeared, service charges, delivery fees, payment supplements, I don't remember the details. But it was nearly as much as I have paid, over the years, for the eight Dylan CDs that I own. And buying the tickets at face value at the venue box office didn't seem to be an option. To avoid getting screwed I declined that final click.

I don't know what I've missed; I haven't talked to anyone who has been to the concert and there's hardly a review out there on the shows. The same old story has probably been rehashed too many times. Dylan scrambles on stage and mangles his songs. There's little new material and old favorites are frequently unrecognizable, transfigured by his ruined voice and constant reinterpretation. Maybe it's the tedium of repetition, of being asked by adulating fans to play the same songs over and over again, dozens, even hundreds of times, that drives him to experimentation, maybe it's his ostentatious nonconformism that he wears like a uniform. In either case, I don't think I'd like it much.

What does he see in it? That he enjoys it must be the answer because nothing could possibly force him. Books, paintings and continued sales of his back catalog keep him flush and, at least the first two, busy. But while he might get the kicks out of his concerts, few in the audience seem to. In the comments section of this scathing preview, there are a few opinions on Saturday's concert. It doesn't look as if I've missed a thing.

What I did instead of going to the concert was project No Direction Home onto the long sidewall of my living room, five square meters of time warp, from New York to Berkeley to Newport. To me, Bob Dylan will always be the energetic young folk singer, the musical spirit of the 60s, the voice beyond compare, the songs the shaped a generation. This is the memory that I'll always have, and even though it's not my own, it's better than what I could get.

Monday, November 14, 2011


Over the four-and-a-half years that I've lived in London, I haven't much ventured into the land surrounding the city. I've walked in Kent a bit and spent a week in Cornwall. I've done, repeated and three-peated the mandatory fun trip to Brighton and taken day trips to the coast between Seaford and Eastbourne when it was hot. I've been to Bristol several times. I've visited Belfast and explored the north of Ireland, and I've been to the two villages of higher learning that loom just a stone throw away, always threatening to overshadow the ambitions of London's universities.

This list sounds long, but it isn't. Since I moved to London, I've seen more of Spain and Portugal than of England. I know the south of France better than Wales. And what exactly is Scotland? For domestic travel, I think in zones, and I rarely venture beyond the boundaries of the tube map and the limits imposed by the Oyster card. This is related to the fact that I imagine the rest of the United Kingdom as so different from London that it might as well be a different country, and as dull.

On Friday, from a different country, my sister came to visit. An inveterate Beatles fan, she wasn't content with the Abbey Road crossing (near St. John's Wood, zone 2) or 34 Montagu Square, where Ringo Starr lived for a while and then John and Yoko (near Baker Street, zone 1). No, she wanted to see where it all started. On Saturday, we took a train up to Liverpool.

Railroad travel started in England. The steam engine was developed here and quickly put on wheels and rails to increase the efficiency of coal mines. It was only a small step from these early cargo and hauling engines to passenger trains, a business idea that grew phenomenally in the late 19th century but then lost the race against the car. The glory days haven't been recaptured. Trains are slow (but frequent). Ours, averaging 84 miles per hour with hardly a stop, counted as fast. But the ride was comfortable and we got to our destination on time.

A friend in the lab who had done the same journey a few months earlier had warned me: "There isn't much to see in Liverpool. One day is enough." I was left doubtful: What were we gonna do there? I knew about the Tate, and I downloaded a music-themed walking tour in mp3 format. It clocked in at half an hour. I forgot to look up Penny Lane.

Leaving the station took us straight into one of these cheerless pedestrianized shopping streets that house the same stores in all English towns and cities, exchangeable in their drabness. We could have been anywhere. Mathew St., a side street a few blocks down where the Cavern Club hosted the Beatles 292 times, could have been only in Liverpool, but around lunchtime, there wasn't much of an atmosphere, and we missed the John Lennon statue, leaning forlornly against a wall. Out of options, we headed for the waterfront, my eternal hope when everything else fails.

We were saved. The Mersey, a river of inconsequential length but impressive width and tidal might, lapped high against the flood wall. Docks, quays, luffing cranes and passenger terminals used to be here, bustling with activity when Liverpool was the gateway to America. Smoke must have sat heavy in the air and the noise been deafening, but all this was gone. The riverfront is a promenade now.

On our left was the brand new Museum of Liverpool, welcoming visitors though still under construction. A poster on the hoarding surrounding one of the remaining piles of rubble showed a Ford Anglia with the sensual curves of the 60s for which alone I would have wanted to go in, but the sun was shining and we wanted to see what else there was.

A precariously balanced building to our right, its first and second floors jutting out over the murky water of the Mersey, housed an exhibition of previously unreleased Beatles photos available for sale in limited-edition print runs and the ticket agent for the river ferries. We booked the river explorer cruise and sat on a noisily departing ferry fifteen minutes later.

I normally don't do such a thing. I like to explore on my own and detest organized tours. But this one was different. It wasn't a tedious hour-long harbor cruise with too much information and not enough time to look, but essentially a regular ferry service that offered hop-on-hop-off opportunities on the other shore. We had an hour in Seacombe and an hour in Birkenhead with ten-minute ferry rides in between.

The walk along the estuary from Seacombe to the Irish Sea looked nice but was too long for the time we had. We did part of the walk because that was the only thing in town, then caught the next boat to Birkenhead, formerly a hub of shipyards and repair docks and, judging by fine late-Georgian architecture, the prestigious address of factory owners and wealthy merchants. The town had the first urban tram in Europe and the first public-funded park.

The park still exists, but the tram runs only on special occasions to commemorate the past and overall the paint is peeling on a massive scale. Hamilton Square is still elegant, but there are more To Let signs than there are Georgian façades, and there are empty shop fronts galore. There were no people and no business. The town seemed dead, ruined by decades of industrial decline, desperate for the kind of revitalization that has transformed the center of Liverpool but with no real hope for it.

Liverpool waterfront
Return to Liverpool

Our ferry ride back showed the Liverpool waterfront in all its redeveloped glory. Old buildings, tycoon baroque as well as industrial utility, have been restored and put to new uses. New buildings, bold and striking, have been added. The sinking sun added sparkling highlights and painted bricks an acrylic red.

The new energy doesn't stop by the water. A few city blocks have been turned into one of the more spectacular outdoor malls I've seen, three levels high with stairs and bridges at all angles, exposed viewpoints and a plaza with a big ice-rink overlooking it all. People were everywhere, all restaurants were packed. Further out along former warehouses, the bustle continued, clubs readying themselves for the Saturday night crowds, coffee shops, bookstores and other shops. It was lively beyond imagination, an area of a good twenty minutes across in constant motion.

This was not what I had expected. London is where the UK's life pulses, economically, socially, culturally. From a London-centric, deliberately ignorant and willfully arrogant perspective, there isn't much worth wasting quality time that could be spent much better within the confines of the tube network. Liverpool proved this approach wrong, if proof was necessary. There's no way round broadening my British horizon a bit in the months to come.

Sunday, November 06, 2011


Even though it's been going on for weeks and discussed ad nauseam in all news media, it was only this afternoon that I made my way over to St. Paul's to check out the Occupy London camp set up to the feet of the cathedral. Approaching from St. Paul's tube station, the first thing I noticed were fences around Paternoster Square. Like most of the City of London, nominally a local authority but in fact a medieval old-boys' network that serves to promote the interests of the headquartered companies not the residents, the land is privately owned and alleyways and plazas are concessions, revocable at the snap of a finger, by the landowner to the landless masses. The Paternoster Chop House, deprived of footfall, was clearly not amused and advertised its presence loudly, but found few diners willing to breach the barricades.

When the camp had jumped up, church authorities were quick to denounce it. Protesting greed was deemed irreconcilable with Christian values. Or maybe it was that the income from paying visitors was more important than either. The occupiers interfered with that, and the church, citing daily losses of £22,000, threatened legal action to have them evicted. (You can't just call the police to get rid of squatters in the UK.) With the violence looming, these early days must have been tense, but they were great PR for the occupiers. The church felt the pressure from all sides, not the least from within. High-ranking clerics resigned over the painful conflict between the Bible's teachings and the church's posturing, and suddenly the eviction was off. The occupiers stayed.

They have erected about 100 tents, stacked densely along the northern flank of the cathedral and sloping around towards the forecourt. The first impression is of Glastonbury without the mud. Thick-haired hippies sit strumming beat-up guitars and blowing imposing didgeridoos or stand juggling – the usual protest carnival. One tent proudly referred back to Climate Camp 2010 in Edinburgh and a placard kept the memory of Dale Farm. Clearly, the professional againsters were there.

It was all professionally organized as well. There was a first-aid tent, a library and education tent, half a dozen portaloos that were being noisily pumped empty by a sanitation truck, an info tent, a battery of solar panels futilely pointed towards the grey November sky, a tent advertising meditation at 3, and more recycling bins than you could throw exhausted newspapers at.

Kora player in Bristol

A fair bustle surrounded the camp (though it didn't seem to penetrate deep into it). A despondent-looking fellow with bagpipes by his feet wailed into the raised iPad of his video-interviewer. A frail lady in a bright blue khurta with devotional symbols printed all over shuffled around with a tall crucifix in her right hand, exhorting people to follow "Jesus the King of Mercy". Here and there, people were hunched over laptops, but there were vastly more spectators, photographers, journalists and tourists visiting St. Paul's that were caught unawares than there were protesters handing out revolutionary pamphlets or debating exit strategies from the economic crisis.

By the fountain in front of the cathedral was a little stage with a microphone and two big speakers, but while I was there no one took the opportunity to rally or pontificate. The walls of the buildings surrounding the churchyard were plastered with slogans, newspaper clippings, manifestos and calls for further protest. 9th November – Central London, 10th November – Fortnum and Mason. The coffee and sandwich shops resident in these walls were doing good business off the occupation and the attention surrounding it.

In the churchyard, the mood was one or placid routine not energetic protest. There was not much action or perceptible passion, no spirit of fight and no despair from which hope and dreams can rise. There was no sense of high stakes, but it's tough to retain your anger when the owner of the land you're occupying is rather content to let you have it, providing you separate your rubbish and don't compromise the fire engine approach. The bells of St. Paul's, which rang so long and cacophonously that their purpose cannot have been anything but driving the occupiers out or, if that proved elusive, mad, was the only thing I interpreted as official belligerence. The police just stood and watched with the distantly bemused look of British cops.

What was this all about? Occupy Wall Street coined the catchy phrase of the 99% and pointed out the disconnect between the excessively rich and everyone else. This is an issue here as well. The CEOs of the FTSE 100 companies saw their remuneration rise by 49% last years whereas common employees got a raise of 2.5% on average. But other issues feature, often raised by the mad fringe that has come along for the ride. Here are some examples: A picture of Che, mandatory and vacuous in equal parts. Bring the troops back home flyers. The UFO Society of Ireland advertising next to the Liberation of the People movement. Flu is not the problem! The vaccine is. A note, scrawled in raw despair: The System is wrong. Change it.

The problem with all the complaints – and it's easy to mock them – the problem with all the inequities pointed out and all the travesties of contemporary capitalism is that there is no simple and easily implemented solution. There are radical approaches aplenty: Privatize the banks, take money from the rich, turn businesses into worker-owned cooperatives, but none of these slogans could form the basis of a political platform that appeals to the silent majority, which is the only way, in a democratic society, to bring about change.

Maybe the occupiers in their workshops and debates develop visions that will shape the future. I have my doubts, the wackiness-to-sense ratio seems rather high. But at the very least, they've catalyzed discussion on topics that need to be tackled for us to continue living in prosperity. The present system of financial capitalism is quite clearly rotten, but at last this realization has become mainstream. Finding a way forward, even identifying starting points for change that is majority-compatible, will require efforts much beyond camping in a churchyard.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

taking up the pen

Late in September, I announced my likely retirement from blogging. October has been silent and my site left to wither. In the list that counts the posts, down on the right side, October doesn't feature, which is better than a big fat zero next to it but telling nonetheless. A gap has opened, not just between the last post and the present day but also between my desire to write and reality. This gap has now become a chasm too wide to ignore, and the only way to close it is to fill it with words.

It has been clear to me for a while that I would continue with this, though I'm still not one bit closer to figuring out what it is that I want to write about. There has never been a unifying theme in my writing. Maybe that's for the best. My life can't be put in a neatly labeled box and neither can my attitudes, passions, interests and opinions. Life is colorful, especially in London, and if I let one interest grab me for too long, I'd miss out on the rest.

So to restart the blog – and I was wondering what the topic of the first post would be – I dive my fingers into a small glass jar of characteristic shape that once contained the gooey goodness of Bonne Maman. It now serves to store the pens I keep accumulating, most holding emotional value but some fit to write. The fingers push aside lesser objects and imposters and pick, with great care and delighted anticipation, a slick silver fountain pen, its metal body cool to the touch.

I've owned this fountain pen for a good 15 years, must have bought it right after high school when I was sure I would never again be required to write with one. By that count, in all its pointlessness, it was the ultimate vanity item. By another count, in monetary terms, it quite obviously wasn't. The pen is no Cross or Montblanc. I've gone though moments of intense desire for such pieces of high luxury but I've never caved in.

The pen is a no-name from a budget store, the kind of place I used to frequent fresh out of high school, long on wants and short on cash. For its cheapness and namelessness, the pen has lived up fabulously. Whenever I rescue it after prolonged periods of deathlike inactivity – and its life so far has been a seemingly interminable train of periods of inactivity – it is ready to go. I uncap it, wipe it clean, insert a fresh ink cartridge and moisten the nib, and it starts writing just as it did when I had just bought it.

When I was in middle school, in leaner times than now, all of us wrote with fountain pens. Such were the rules, plus there weren't many ballpoint pens around. Our people-owned companies, under the rigors of five-year plans, didn't have room for frivolous activities such as giving away biros. Who would have manufactured them in the first place? China didn't exist back then.

In conditions of scarcity, the oddest objects can acquire prestige and desirability. At some point in school, someone discovered the magic of capitalist ink cartridges. Our home-grown ink, produced in the Barock factory in the next town up the river and purchased by our moms at the local stationer's at the beginning of each school year, came in cartridges plugged with a little plastic bung. Those made on the bright side of the Wall, available only to those whose grandparents could travel West, were capped with a little glass bead that could be recovered after use, liberated from the cartridge and dropped into the hollow interior of the pen where it would roll around during use with a characteristic sound.

This rattle, which could be much amplified by vigorous shaking, set the cool apart from the lame. The cool kids had other defining marks: blue fingertips, blue spots on their lips and possible blue teeth. To extract the glass bead, the empty cartridge had to be opened first, a task that was most easily accomplished by biting off the plastic disk that sealed the other end. The cartridge then had to be washed to get the bead out, spilling blue all over. One might have looked dyspraxic, but with a pen that clattered one could smugly look down on those poor and desperate fellows who wrote in silence.

These days my pen is silent all too often. While I don't need it to make any sounds – I don't recover glass beads anymore – I would like it to make metaphorical noise, liberating the power of ideas and words and turning empty space into sense. The first step, as always, is to get going, and I've done that now. The question of why I blog hasn't been directly addressed but it's contained in this rambling discourse anyway.

Blogging takes time, demands creativity and works my brain. The reward, and the reason why I'll keep doing it, is that I like the results, sometimes right away but more often, as with a fine wine, after a suitable while. In moments of quiet reflection, or when I'm tired, down or empty, I pick a random month and frequently surprise myself with the cool things that have happened and the delightful ways they are described. Some posts are drab and inconsequential, but others are memory and enjoyment rolled into one. That's how I see it, anyway. And if it's good enough for me, it's perfect for this blog.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

hesitant reclaim

Yesterday I said that I have to reclaim the blog or close it for good. This being a product of my vanity, what I expected from my dear readers was an outcry of shocked indignation. "How can you even think about it?" was the only possible response. Instead, what I got was the valid question of whether I was going to write fiction when I stop blogging, as if that were a foregone conclusion. I'm not going to answer that question. I can't – I simply don't know whether I've got fiction in me.

Taking one step back, I'm not sure yet that the blog needs to go. It's certainly of no use to me in its current form. It doesn't help me develop my writing skills and thus defies its purpose. But instead of shutting it down, I think I can claim it back.

When I said yesterday that the blog was a vanity project, I was right in my choice of words but not in my understanding of the situation. There can be no doubt that I write about myself, but I pick my stories with my readership in mind. Sometimes I choose words, phrases, details or mementoes specifically for one reader or another. To some extent, I'm writing for you who are following faithfully.

What I should be doing instead is taking vanity to the next level, by writing for myself as if no audience existed, taking the blog back to its original idea as a vehicle for my learning by doing. The question is whether I should start a new, anonymous blog to avoid the temptation of falling back into the comfort of talking about myself. But maybe, if I write only for myself, the readership will quickly lose interest and dwindle, and there wouldn't be a difference. I might just try that and see where it takes me.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

failure to write

The two types of writing I love most are short stories and travel writing. Travel writing I've done quite a bit of, and I'm rather happy with some of the results. If I had got a lucky break here (when I contacted the Guardian before going to Syria) or there (when I submitted the walk through Hama to a travel writing competition), I might be doing much more of it – and maybe getting something more tangible out of it than the pleasure of remembering good times and sharing them with friends.

On the other hand, my foray into short story writing has been utterly pathetic. When I started attending a semester-long creative writing course last year, I hoped it would open my mind to another world and set me on the path to fictional glory – or at least ability. But I was pretty much lost from the first moment, out of my depth, empty of making up anything. I started two stories whose fragmentary beginnings received a warm response during group critique, but I've been utterly incapable of taking them anywhere.

Tonight, when I should have been sleeping, I pondered the state of the world and a little chess puzzle and suddenly realized with absolute clarity why it is that I suck at fiction writing. My approach is flawed and the blog has to do with it.

This blog was started as a writing exercise. I believe that one's writing can be dramatically improved by dogged persistence. The blog was supposed to be self-inflicted pressure to learn by doing simply by having the feeble nagging of an empty sheet replaced with the reproachful glow of the date of the last post. One week and no activity? How is this a blog when there's nothing happening?

No matter the weak fictionalization – the obscuring of details, the deformation of chronology, the invention of incidents to drive a story, and the avoidance of names – the blog is me. It chronicles, with some artistic license, chosen aspects of my life. It is not entirely autobiographical, but it couldn't be much further from fiction.

What I realized tonight is that the difference between blogging and fiction is in the narrator. In fictionalized blogging, the writer imagines himself as the narrator, even if the story is told in the third person. In proper fiction, the writer imagines himself in the shoes of the narrator, even with a first person narrator. It's what would I do versus what would the character do. It's obvious which approach drives a story forward.

Until tonight, I was fully subscribed to the dictum that all fiction is autobiographical. It is true that there are often strong aspects of the author's biography in fictional writing, probably most of the time. But that doesn't necessarily make the writing autobiographical. A good writer fills the characters of a story with elements of his biography because that's what he knows best, but he is not the character.

In my blog, I'm always in character. I realize that this fictionalization thing has been nothing but a lame excuse. It lets me continue with a blog that does nothing for my fiction writing ambitions, an effort that, if anything, is detrimental to them by sucking my energies into a black hole of pointlessness.

To generate fiction, a writer has to leave the characters he has created. He has to let go of them lest they become a collection of surprisingly dull alter egos. The writer must stop imagining realities alternative to his own and start simply imagining, letting invented but convincing characters drive the story.

This blog's original purpose was to get me started as a writer, to get me comfortable with language, ideas and expression. It has done that, but I have long hit a wall. I'm not making any progress anymore. My blog has degenerated into little more than a vanity project, my fifteen minutes of fame twice a week. Even to myself, is just like any other blog.

Is it time to reclaim the blog – or abandon it for good?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

getting curiouser

I wish I had something else to talk about, and the other day I thought the apartment/landlord drama had come to end, but it keeps escalating, although for me it has long reached a level where I'm not comfortable following.

Yesterday, I found two letters in my mailbox. The first was from my landlord. It was a document I had requested nearly six months ago, though I made my case again on the phone on Wednesday. The letter states, categorically, that "the Landlord, any of the Landlord's employees or any of the landlords [sic] agents will not enter the property without 24 hours' notice". It's pathetic that this would need to be put in writing, but I was happy. The beautifully placed apostrophe on the "24 hours" was an added bonus and made me generously look over the one that was missing on the third "landlord".

I got down to signing the new tenancy agreement that has been lying around and gathering dust ever since it was sent to me three weeks ago. But there was the other letter. I opened the second envelope and retrieved a color photograph of my building, the yellow of the downstairs shop's sign eye-wateringly bright.

Besides the photograph was a detailed description of the building, its tenants and the lease terms (total current rents just a bit more than I earn before taxes and deductions), there was a second sheet that invited me to bid on the property, being the "occupational tenant" and all. My building is coming up for auction.

I was getting sufficiently frazzled at this point, I have to admit. A property auction usually means economic distress. Has the landlord not been paying the mortgage? Is a bank now trying to minimize the damage by extracting from the heap what it can? Is this a repossession and what does it mean for me as a tenant? The letter reassures me that "this should not affect your current tenancy agreements", but how naive do you have to be to believe a real estate agent? And note the strategic placement of "should". Could I be out of the flat the day after the auction?

I will have to call the landlord on Monday but I'm not very optimistic about learning much. After all, Kingstar UK didn't consider it necessary to tell me that the auction was coming up in the first place. They didn't even tell me what the purpose of last Monday's inspection was. And why do I have to sign a new lease? The sales sheet mentions my old rent.

It also mentions that "viewings are by appointment only". With the landlord I had agreed to put the original lock back into the door as soon as they sent me assurances that they wouldn't enter without notice. This has happened, but was it just a ruse? Who will the appointments be with? I don't think I'm gonna change the lock back quite yet.

What the sales sheet doesn't mention is the reserve price of the property. It's not that I'd be interested. I'm happy to rent and, under normal circumstances, let others deal with the aggravations of owning property. Plus, the moment I owned my flat, I would have to take care of it and bring it up to my standards. We're talking new kitchen and new windows at the very least. Not something I want to deal with.

In addition, prices in London have never let up in their Ponzi-like rise, and while I could probably afford my flat with a bit of scrimping added to the usual parsimoniousness, especially if on offer at an auction, there's no way I've got the bucks (or, rather, quid) for an entire building. Still, I wanted to know what the guide price was and surfed over to the property consultancy's website.

I had to scroll down to the second page; there were dozens of lots in the raffle, promising returns on investment of anywhere between 0.4 and 40% per year. One of the few lots that didn't display an expected return was my building. There was no guide price. The lot had been withdrawn. How curious, I was thinking. Why go through all the trouble?

It got even curiouser. When I came back from a 15-mile run this afternoon, more devastated than after the London Marathon (but then I haven't run in two months), I discovered a large plywood sign protruding from between two of my living-room windows. "Auction - Freehold investment", it says. What's going on?

Friday, September 23, 2011


Monday morning, I was kicked out of bed by Levent, the same dude that had already tried to get into my flat the Friday before. On Monday, he was there with a wingman to do an inspection – or so he said. I didn't know and I had no way of finding out. My landlord hadn't notified me.

Stupid as I was, I let Levent's wingman in. Friends, don't do this at home! Don't let anyone in just because that person knows his way around. Crime is up in London, and burglary especially so. Levent and his wingman could have just as well been a couple of burglars on a reconnaissance mission. I wouldn't know – my landlord never told me someone would come by.

Sometimes I think my landlord is willfully aggressive and that he tries to bully me as if I were a clueless immigrant with no recourse besides a tearful letter to his mum. Sometimes I think they're just clueless immigrants themselves. But when I call the office, the person I talk to is invariably kind and helpful, and immediately connects me to whoever I want to talk to, and things are usually sorted out quickly – more or less.

So it happened this Wednesday when I called Kingstar UK and inquired about their attitude towards trespassing and "quiet possession" and concepts like that. I don't want to mince words; the argument was heated. My contact on the other end of the line raised her voice, and so did I. It wasn't in vain. In the end we agreed that I would sign another lease, at the conditions they set but only once they've sent me a letter renouncing in writing further attempts to trespass on the property I'm renting. I'm still waiting.

Friday night we went for drinks. The bosses had got a grant funded and reckoned the lab deserved a cheer. What could be better than a pint of Broadside or a double Black Bush in the campus pub? I was late to get to the gathering but not the last to arrive. A few pints into the socializing, the bosses took off. Some students did so too, but postdocs arrived to fill the gap.

The group had thinned down, but the discussion became lively and potentially essential. How do you secure the next job? I maintained that qualifications didn't matter. At our level, we're all good. What sets the good apart from the rock stars is the motivation. If you convincingly show that you want the job, you will get it.

I've written plenty of cover letters and I've been invited to enough interviews to not have off days for vacations since Easter. Clearly I'm doing something right. But maybe I'm doing something wrong as well. I haven't got a job lined up, after all. Maybe I shouldn't focus all my energies on my flat.

Friday, September 16, 2011

rogue trader

This morning on my way out, I was greeted by a dude by the building's front door. He was inside, obviously had a key, and looked as if he had business to do. I wished him a good morning and proceeded to make my way through the door, but his question held me back. "Are you living in flat 1?" he asked me.

Indeed I do and I knew what was about to unfold – yet another skirmish in the ongoing battle between the landlord and me. I remind you that my landlord, Kingstar UK, thinks not only that trespassing is legal but also that I should leave my doors unlocked for them when I'm out. I don't agree and I'm ready to fight my case, though verbally it feels much like trying to convince the Pope that God doesn't exist. Facts don't cut it, and I'm not good at screaming sense.

With either party failing to make headway, we're engaged in a standoff that I consider futile for them and acceptable for me. After all, since changing the locks I don't care anymore what their attitude towards trespassing is. They, in turn, have learned to send letters advising me of the presence of an electrician or gas man a few days in the future. That's not the same as asking me for permission – which they are legally bound to do – but it's good enough for me.

Is it also good enough for them? I was wondering that when I opened a big envelope ten days ago that contained a new lease, ready for me to sign. The accompanying letter began thus: "As you are probably aware, your tenancy is due for renewal from 19 September 2011."

As it happened, I wasn't aware of this. What I was aware of is that I signed a six-month lease when I moved in. When that expired, it automatically converted into a periodic tenancy agreement, on unchanged terms and conditions. My tenancy agreement doesn't need renewal. It continues until either of the parties bails out.

I can understand that the landlords wants more money – which is the one change I noticed in the lease compared to the old one. The proposed increase is within my means and within the rental value of the flat. In my limited understanding, rent increases in a periodic tenancy agreement need the agreement of both sides. As I do agree - paying a bit more beats finding another flat - I could just go ahead and sign the damn thing. But I'm on my way out of London, off to greener pastures (though details haven't been sorted out yet), and I'd prefer to stay on periodic tenancy.

Should I just sign the thing anyway and take a gamble? Should I call the agency and remind them of the situation - and encounter irremediable delusion? Should I ignore the new lease and risk being evicted, with a notice period of two months? These thoughts were still going around in my head when I started arguing with the gentleman by my door.

He pointed out that, for emergencies, the landlords needs access to the flat but couldn't quite get my point that an electrical inspection is not an emergency and must be scheduled in advance. (Their problems at scheduling were emphasized by the fact that the person actually doing the inspection - my guy was just an agent - had gone AWOL.) We kept arguing about the locks and privacy and got nowhere. The dude insisted my flat should be open to him. "It's in the contract", he said at some point and when I didn't believe him, he showed me. It was there, black on white. Baffled, I went to work.

Tonight, I couldn't wait to check my lease. The one I was asked to sign did indeed state that the tenant shall "Permit the Landlord or the Landlord's employees or agents to enter the Premises at all reasonable times with or without notice [...]" It could be argued that there are no "reasonable times" to enter my flat without notifying me, but that's beside the point. The point is that my current lease doesn't include the "without" part. There's no way I'm gonna sign the new one.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

easy journey

It happened outside Gatwick; I had returned from yet another potentially career-defining trip. The EasyBus to London was almost ready to depart. Three potential customers were standing on the sidewalk next to the orange van, unsure about how to proceed. Wagging the glowing screens of cell phones at each other, the hoped to resolved the situation. In vain. They had flown in on Virgin and booked in expectation of the usual delay but arrived on time. Now they were early, all of a sudden.

The driver, with his raspy laugh and bushy grey hair, jovially told them he was probably too full to take them though only a handful of seats were taken. He offered the hop over to the South Terminal but warned that he might have to leave them there. "Make it easy on yourself", he said, taking his seat behind the wheel. "I have to go. Sorry." And with another laugh he put the foot down.

EasyBus drivers are usually in their early thirties, hail from less fortunate parts of the world, have an air of perpetual bafflement about them, and pilot the orange Mercedes as if it were a cruise missile locked on target, with scant regard for the machine and none at all for speed limits. There are between two and three journeys an hour to Gatwick and four to Stansted, in all weather and traffic conditions, and the vans always arrive safely. That they don't regularly explode in fatal crashes is a total mystery to me.

Tonight's driver was different, an elderly gentleman with a faint American accent. Instead of the regular drivers' high-visibility vests he wore a white shirt with a logo as discreet as an orange logo can be. I almost didn't notice him as a driver. When I sat down it occurred to me that he might be a manager in disguise, so removed was he from the usual ragtag bunch. Maybe he was the CEO doing reconnaissance at the front lines, inspecting the troops to see how the new corporate strategy plays out in the real world. He certainly looked disheveled enough to be in disguise but appeared overall too comfortable with the job for it to be assumed for the night only.

The wild Rastafarian on the way out yesterday morning certainly didn't pretend anything. He took his place behind the wheel and bellowed a stern "No eating or drinking on the bus, please" by way of greeting - more than I normally get but still not exactly welcoming - and proceeded to pound the poor van as if he considered punishing the vehicle one of the perks of the job. We made it to the North Terminal in 58 minutes, a new record for me.

My trip was on Air Berlin, with that airline for the first time in half a dozen years. As before, I regretted that it didn't fly to more destinations on my radar. Air Berlin is a curious hybrid, conceived as a budget airline with the mission to blow Lufthansa out of the comfortable water of a near-monopoly. Maybe the task was too easy, because the newcomer never tried too hard to be budget. The snacks aboard were always free, the seats selectable in advance, and checking luggage never cost. And with everyone cutting costs to survive the recession, they've gone the opposite way. This time, everyone got a chocolate heart upon disembarking and there were more free newspapers than at Lufthansa, stacks piled higher than at your newsagent. There were also magazines. When was the last time you got a free Economist on board?

Why you would want to read an Economist in these volatile times is a different question. The Greek basket case is fraying so badly that no one realizes the 30% discount on stocks are a good deal. (Have you noticed that investors get purchasing urges mostly when things are expensive?) I opened the magazine from the back, avoiding the trauma of economic and current affairs news. A book review caught my eye, David Bellos ruminating on the art of translation and some of the oddities of languages, certainly something I'd like to read.

The review alone made some curious connections, mentioning for example the fact that the French language has two words for the word word, if you get what I'm saying. In my understanding, mot is grammatical while parole is more metaphorical. You can give someone the parole, for example, but not the mot. Hungarian was also mentioned, a language that does one better than German where you have compound words that can stretch to two dozen letters. (Everyone should have a Haftpflichtversicherung, for example.) But German compounds are always words in meaning. Hungarian compounds can be more complex.

I was reminded of a chapter in the book I'm currently reading, On the Road to Babadag, where the Polish author visits a place in Hungary called Sátoraljaújhely, which apparently literally means "a tent pitched in a new place". I wouldn't know, I don't speak any Hungarian, but I do remember the flashy új! on products (not tents but novelties) in Hungarian supermarkets, which is consistent with the translation.

As the EasyBus navigated the airport roads, I fell into a deep reverie about traveling the forgotten east of Europe, a region of obscure languages, cultures and customs, a region to take pictures and collect stories, a region I have yet to see. I've never made it beyond Romania in any direction. Maybe next year will give me the chance at least.

In less than five minutes we got to the South Terminal. More travelers were waiting than were already on the bus and it took a while to check and sell tickets. Luggage needed to be stowed and passengers sorted out, but none of this took much time and soon we were on our way. Four seats remained unoccupied.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

at the races

In some circles, the kind of circles that have scones with tea and a butler to serve them (and if they don't have the butler, they have at least the feeling of entitlement to one), races doesn't need a qualifier. It inevitably involves horses. Races take place at Aintree, Ascot or Epsom Downs and spectators come to see and be seen. There's always a big hat day at Ascot. These are not my circles, and I've never seen horses race.

What I've seen race are dogs. They are lower-key entertainment, with simpler tracks, smaller audiences and no pretentiousness in the stands. That doesn't mean they deserve derision or contempt. Greyhounds are, I learned watching an old but particularly hilarious rerun of Top Gear on the msn video player tonight, the second fastest accelerating animals, zero to 45 mph in not much more than one explosive second.

I had seen dogs race for the first time in the summer of 2008, at Walthamstow Stadium in the northeast of London. It was a memorable night but for a sad reason. That night, the stadium was opening its doors for the last time before being handed over to a developer with plans to tear it down. The partying masses around the track and the lines at the bars longer than the intervals between the races disclaimed dog racing as a dying pastime. But the owners pointed out rather bitterly that if the crowds hadn't just come for closing night but regularly, they would have never had to sell.

walthamstow stadium

Three years ago, the largest and arguably most beautiful greyhound stadium closed for good, and there was nothing to fill the gap. Or so I thought. But when my mom came to visit and spoke with wild excitement about her day at the races many years ago, I fired up my favorite search engine and discovered another dog track not too far from home. Wimbledon stadium sits in an industrial site and, surrounded by car dealerships and workshops, isn't a pretty sight, but it's got dogs running two nights a week.

Last night, we were among those watching. We were late but easily found a good place to watch, near the traps and in plain view of the trackside bookmakers. Betting is essential for the enjoyment of racing because, really, how would you get excited about half a dozen interchangeable mutts completing a sandy loop in half a minute if your money weren't on one of them? The bets make people scream numbers, colors or names as the dogs flash by and then erupt in wild cheers if their dog has won. In the fourteen minutes until the next race starts, new bets are made, fresh beer is bought and chatter fills the air. As the night progresses, the crowd gets louder and the races become jollier, but the dogs couldn't care less.

I didn't care much either, to be honest. It had been a long week and I was exhausted. The intervals between races felt a bit too long. At one point I explored the facilities and made it to the food counter: venue fast food, overpriced and bad. Offering hotdogs was bad taste, I thought. When I got back to the track, the next race was about to begin. The stands were sticky with beer.

It was race 12 out of 13, and people were slowly drifting out. We moved one level up. The grandstand was littered with plastic cups, shreds of paper, random rubbish. In the center of the track, a ceremony was held. Some dog graciously accepted a trophy, but it was far away and hard to see. No one seemed to pay much attention. Night had long fallen. For dog racing, already a niche industry, the future doesn't look bright.

Wow, that was a weird post. So negative towards the end, though the evening was actually quite funny: the racing dogs are hilarious, as are the people watching. And what is it with the first paragraph that's so much like a first paragraph I wrote last year? Lack of creativity, or what?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

eat animals

It's been a while since I philosophized about eating meat in an increasingly crowded and affluent world. My own take at being a facultative vegetarian kept me mostly meat-free through the first half of 2010. Every now and then I had a little treat, a good way of eating meat, I thought – and very tasty. As the months passed, though, I fell a bit from the veggie gospel. During lab meeting I pick the roast beef sandwiches, I buy prosciutto di Parma from time to time and sometimes, if I need a condensed dose of animal flavor, a saucisson sec. I had chicken gizzards in Jordan and Rojões à moda do Minho in Porto (both surprisingly tasty). But my basic position hasn't changed.

Meat tastes good and there is nothing inherently wrong with eating meat. The evolution of the big brain that distinguishes us from animals would have been impossible without a meat-based diet. It is for this reason alone that I refuse to condemn, whatever happens to the state of the world, the practice of eating meat. It has done us good. It has pulled out from the jungle and put us in nice warm flats. That said, evolution provides no compelling reason to continue the uninhibited consumption of meat. In contrast, it should serve as a reminder of literally leaner times. Even at the cusp of becoming humans, our ancestral apes consumed only a fraction of the meat we stuff into our faces today.

My favorite restaurant – aside any that sits adjacent to and in perfect harmony with a well-run farm – would be Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In case you've forgotten your Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, at Milliways the cow comes to your table, introducing itself most friendly: "I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?" Arthur Dent, the somewhat benighted but quite likeable terrestrial, is aghast and goes for a salad. I wouldn't share his compunction and instead go with Zaphod Beeblebrox who orders steak.

Comedy as aside, the question of what animals want is a good one. Peter Singer, the godfather of animal liberation, is very clear. An animal wants to live. But how can he be sure? An animal might have reflexes to live, but a will to live? That's asking too much, in my opinion. I think an animal wants to be our meal. That's its greatest satisfaction. Try to argue me on that! You might complain that I am taking the argument ad absurdum. But I content that Peter Singer's original position is already absurd.

Do animals have moral rights? Absolutely, but they are not inherent in their existence. These rights are drawn up and granted by us humans and they matter to humans only. No animal cares about animal rights (just ask the lion feeding on a gazelle). Humans came up with the concept of animals rights, which hinges on us being human and them animals. This means domestic animals must be sheltered, fed and treated with respect and compassion. But it also means livestock will be slaughtered and eaten – again with respect and compassion. Animals must be treated humanely – but not humanly.

In talks and articles I've been introduced to the speciesism, which argues that members of different species have different inherent values or rights. Animal rights activists frequently vilify speciesism with the help of an analogy: Just as discrimination on the base of race was acceptable fifty years ago, discrimination on the basis of species is acceptable now. And just as racism is being wiped out, speciesism will be wiped out sooner or later. But if you deny speciesism, you deny that there are differences between species. You might say that one should treat a sick house cat as one would treat a sick child. Or, if you're a cold-hearted bastard, you might equate the murder of kids on an island in Norway with the slaughter of chickens and cattle. In either case you'd be wrong because animals are not human.

Here's a thought experiment: At a time when slavery was the norm, you have a pen of fifty slaves. Over the course of the next two months, you proceed to kill one slave every morning. How long do you think it will take until the slaves riot, thus proving to even the most bestial masters that they are human? But do the same with cattle or pigs. Will they even notice that their numbers shrink? Will they care? Will the start an animal farm? I don't think so, and that's why the argument against speciesism is specious.

A dog doesn't dream of being a TV presenter, a frog doesn't want to learn Greek and study the ancient world, and a cow doesn't desire chatting up the cute horse at the other end of the barn. An animal doesn't have plans for the future. And thus, by making the present as comfortable as possible for the animals, we're paying them the ultimate respect. If we kill them tomorrow, today the animals don't care.

An entirely different line of argument against eating meat concerns the carbon footprint of a steak, the health consequences of meat consumption, the waste generated in hog farms, and the suffering of cattle in feedlots. Non of this is much of an issue with responsibly-sourced meat eaten on rare occasions. And so I will continue to be a flexitarian and enjoy every bit of meat that I eat.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


The last few nights I had tea with dinner, and I'm not talking about iced tea. Iced tea is good when it's hot. When the sun burns through the windows and heats up my living room like a greenhouse, it's time to put the kettle on, boil a liter of water and steep a few bags of cheap tea. Then I squeeze half a lemon and pour the juice into a carafe filled to the brim with ice cubes. The hot tea is then poured over the ice. If the ratio is right, only cubelets remain when the liquid has been transferred. I add a bit of sugar, stir vigorously and have the perfect drink for a hot summer night in.

Tonight is not a hot night, though it's still summer, very much so according to the calendar. But if anything can be said about this summer, it's that it's been a stereotypically British experience, and very consistently so. The sun showed for the last time late in June. Since then, it's been gray, wet and cold. I've been trying to keep up appearances and go to work in shorts without fail, but this morning I donned a jacket because it was freezing and didn't look as if it would improve. On Radio 4, the weather forecaster chirpily offered a warm day, 19 degrees. For me, it's not summer until the mercury hits 25, and when I was still cycling I wouldn't abandon long-sleeve jerseys until that mark was reached.

When it was time to leave work I was even happier about the jacket than I had been in the morning. It was pouring as if God had sent another flood. Puddles sat on sidewalks and the sewers overflowed into the Thames. And though I took the bus for all but a brief connecting walk, I arrived home wet and cold. It wasn't anywhere near the optimistic 19 degrees promised this morning. This is when I put the kettle on and made a cup of hot tea.

Tea and dinner are words that go together in the English language but not in ways you would assume. They're not a collocation, and the British don't habitually have tea with dinner. But some British have tea instead of dinner or, to put it less ambiguously, they call dinner tea.

British society, outside the cosmopolitan and linguistically challenged bubble of London, remains surprisingly class-aware, even functionally stratified. An English born-and-bred knows what defines the classes and, at least subconsciously, can assign class to a person by the way of speaking. Tea is such a word; it is distinctly working-class when it means dinner (*).

Coming from an upper-class mouth, it means something entirely different. Tea is taken a bit earlier during the day, served in the Ritz and other upscale hotels or at home by the butler. The occasion is often called afternoon tea, though not by members of the upper class themselves. They see no need for qualifiers. Tea says it all. Curiously though, afternoon tea is not really about the tea. It's a light bridging meal between lunch and super and features tea, but the tea is not always good.

It's a great paradox that while the British are among the world's most insatiable tea drinkers, they frequently consume the worst tea, prepared from heavy bags that instantly turn a cup of boiling water turbid and unpalatable unless cut with milk.

I had good tea, but anything would have done. It was about warming up and coming back to my senses. The tea did its magic on me but couldn't deal with the situation at large. It's cold outside and rainy, the recession has almost healed its wounds and is getting ready to strike once more, the stock market has tanked yet again, and science isn't what it's supposed to be.

Manuscripts carrying the promise of boosting my career are being returned with reviewers' comments that belie a marginal understanding of the subject matter. Our advances are being trivialized and our approaches mocked. The work of many years is rotting in limbo, and I'm wondering if now's the time to jump ship. But the one interview I had outside academia didn't exactly fill me with excitement and anticipation.

If this were less of a blog and more of a collection of stories – it is both, of course – I would have written it in the third person. At this point of a dead-end I could have elegantly tied it up by saying that he took a last, tepid swig and put down his mug. He stared into the distance, piercing the rain clouds, imagining putting it all behind. Thoughts of a bonfire of wasted opportunity making space for new, exciting things to come burned in his mind. But wouldn't that be rather defeatist and, worse, overly impulsive? In the spirit of the English – mustn't grumble – he went to the kitchen to put the kettle on again.

(*) This is something I remember learning from the Kate Fox's brilliant anthropological study of the home team Watching the English. Wikipedia doesn't agree and makes a north-south distinction between the two meals called tea. Either way, the beverage called tea is usually crap.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


I sat in the Korova Milk Bar this afternoon, sipping on a summer special, sweet but refreshing. Horrorschau was blaring from the speakers, Campino at his best. It was a bit surreal. The newspaper in front of me went on about the riots, but outside, droogs weren't roaming the streets anymore, ready to trade the menacing bricks and sticks in their hands for wide-screen TVs and shiny sneakers. The center of Clapham was nearly back to normal. It would be any old afternoon in a popular neighborhood, were it not for the charred shell of the burned-out Party Super Store that fell victim to the rioting mob.

The Waterstone's nearby looked as it did last month. It hasn't changed a bit. It was a bit disconcerting, in fact, to see the shop in all its glory in the middle of the riots, standing impregnable like a fortress though with its doors open, when around it the high street was burning. But the looters, the lice, the rotten scum couldn't care less about books. They knew exactly what they wanted. And so the riots were not primarily about destruction, and they were certainly not about grabbing essentials. What drove the rioters was consumerism. They went out to pick up vanity items, things to impress the neighbors with, or their peers. What we saw was capitalism in action but at the same time a perversion of capitalism. The rioters might have thought they were using the system against itself, but in reality they used it against themselves.

To residents, bystanders, the police and those on TV, it was just plain frightening. Nights of lawlessness, of chaos and anarchy were sustained by the compounded energy of unorganized crowds delirious with power and violence. As darkness fell, any hint of civilization evaporated. Granny didn't dare walk her poodle anymore, cautious people stayed inside, and off-licenses shuttered their windows, even when they all they were facing was perceived danger. But by Monday, fear had grabbed London.

By Tuesday, the wild energy was gone, as suddenly as it had burned up. I doubt that police or televised speeches had anything to do with it. It had simply been enough. The madness had fizzled out. London is not Karachi; even the wildest vandals saw that this couldn't go on. The devastated high streets, destroyed properties and ruined lives of small shopkeepers made that clear. It was their own front yard that the rioters had pissed on. But instead of making them clean up the mess and learn something in the process, society and the judicial system decided to mete out draconian sentences with scant consideration of the circumstances. Authorities seemed intent on emphasizing their victory by coming down hard on the other side. Thousands were detained and hastily brought before judges who almost instantaneous sentenced them – as harshly as possible, by popular will. It was time to set examples, to teach lessons.

When Boris, the circus clown masquerading for mayor of London, reluctantly came back from his vacation in Canada, he suggested that defendants found guilty be put to work in community payback schemes. I was shocked that something as obvious as this wouldn't be self-evident. It should be blatantly obviously that the only effective punishment for rioting kids can be community work, blistering hours of clearing rubbish, painting shop fronts, restocking shelves, trimming hedges, and cleaning parks. The kids might even pick up skills in the process.

What has happened instead are gung-ho courts sentencing a kid with no relevant previous convictions (whatever that means) who pleaded guilty of taking a £3.50 case of water from a Lidl to six months in prison. Another guy who pleaded guilty to having a looted flat-screen television in his car but had no previous convictions for offenses of dishonesty (again, this sounds he had some sort of a record, but the report doesn't elaborate) was jailed for 18 months. To me, this sounds vindictive and vengeful rather than just.

It gets worse. Two kids in Northwich Town and Warrington set up Facebook pages to stoke unrest and incite riots in their sleepy towns. One woke up the next morning, regretted his action and deleted the page. In either case, no one showed for the scheduled rioting. One week later, both kids have been sentenced for four years in prison. Four years for inciting riots that never took place!

One has to wonder where the proportionality is, especially considering that the dude who inflamed, before Parliament, a war that did take place and cost the lives of thousands is not only still free but also gives lectures on his experience for five-figure fees. The cohesion of society is certainly not served by such egregious double standards. Good thing that the rioting kids for the most part are not the kind to contemplate these issues. (They are content to stick their smelly feet into new trainers and collapse comatose in front of big TVs, numbing their brains on the X Factor and Big Brother.) Otherwise they might also wonder how stashing a looted TV in your car deserves the same prison term as fraudulently claiming £20,000 pounds in expenses, as David Chaytor, MP, did.

You might argue that rioting and looting are offenses on a different scale than bending the rules for expense reimbursement. You might say that riots cannot be dealt with harshly enough because their mere possibility threatens society at its core. But then you might also want to consider that mendacious and criminal members of parliament bring democracy into disrepute, something no less evil in a democratic society.

I hope I didn't go too far off track. I'm not excusing or condoning the horrors that happened. The rioters must be dealt with, there is no question. They must be punished, and punishments must be severe. But they must also be constructive, otherwise you're sending the wrong message. Some of the run-down estates probably deserve an injection of unexpected opportunities as much as the iron fist of the law.

In the milk bar, by the window, I slurped up my drink and leaved over to the next page in the Guardian. That was it for politics and national affairs. Culture and Arts was next, but I wasn't in the mood. I was happy listening to the Hosen for a little longer, then wrapped up my stuff and walked back to the train station, side-stepping the odd bit of broken glass and passing a few ply-boarded windows. The sun was out; it was a beautiful day.